How drag became America's new national pastime

Oh, hennnnnny: America loves its drag queens. Moms do, kids do, your local gay bars do. Even McDonald’s does. From the cast of the blockbuster remake of A Star Is Born to the pink carpet at the Met Gala — not to mention the millions around the world who’ve tuned in to RuPaul’s Drag Race for the last decade — what was once a glittery subculture on the edge of gay culture has become one of our global pop preoccupations with its own hierarchy of stars and story lines for the fans to get behind, marketing deals and Billboard chart-toppers. It’s become a very big business with its own star-power machinery attached. It’s become almost unavoidable. Their job is to make sure of it.

Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to make this list of the country’s most powerful drag queens. There were drag queens scraping out a tinseled living all over the country, playing dance clubs and gay-pride events. RuPaul Andre Charles, the self-styled “Supermodel of the World” (as his 1993 debut album named him), had all but created the mainstream-famous drag queen for the modern era, but he was about it. Then came RuPaul’s Drag Race, the reality competition, which yanked drag from the periphery and not only returned RuPaul to stardom but gave contoured, breast-plated birth to some 140 new little novas.

The show, in its star-making efficiency, has become like the Motown of drag, with Ru in the visionary role of Berry Gordy. And he has no problem with taking credit for this revolution in a wig.

Now drag queens walk your high-fashion runways and appear in your Prada campaigns. They perform for Beyoncé. They DM with Rihanna. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gushes and mourns on social media. (She also, in the idiom of the show, instructed Democratic presidential hopeful John Delaney to“sashay away.”) Nancy Pelosi went one better, visiting the Werk Room during an episode last year. You can study Drag Race at college (the New School offered its first course in the show this spring) or wear it to junior high (Hot Topic sells merch featuring several of the Ru girls). Many of its queens, winners, and also-rans alike endorse products or companies on their social-media channels, and now the largest among them star in McDonald’s ads, too.


Nina West in custom Columbus based designer Gerardo Encinas

Mellissa Miller