I was putting together a presentation for a makeup class about drag makeup, how I create my persona and paint my face, etc. and I thought it might be fun to share some of what I was putting together with a wider audience. I wanted to compile some reference images for different styles of drag, compile a list of some of the main products I use and love, tips and tricks, stuff like that. I hope that you enjoy!
The first drag queen that I remember really making an impression on me in terms of understanding drag as a type of performance was Divine as Edna Turnblad in the original Hairspray. Part of what struck me was that drag was used not just as a sight gag, but to create a whole character. We see Edna as frumpy and sort of plain in the beginning, and she transforms with Tracy and becomes more confident; this transformation was also accompanied by her becoming more open and accepting, getting rid of her fears and repression.
I was also in high school when RuPaul’s first major single, “Supermodel,” was big. RuPaul really brought drag aesthetics to mainstream America (even small town North Dakota!) in a big way. It was an interesting look because it was extreme and editorial, and the signature blonde hair was a unique look in the media of the time. When she also started doing ads for MAC’s Viva Glam, I was enamored…and I spent way too much money on MAC makeup!
There were also lots of women who were inspirations for my budding drag persona, women who had a unique look and were powerful, independent people. I always loved Halloween and all kinds of spooky stuff, and I loved the way that Elvira combined glam with horror iconography, and she was sassy and sarcastic. I loved Dolly Parton – her persona was glamorous and even bordering on ridiculous, but her songs were filled with vulnerability and her voice is amazing. Madonna was always pushing buttons and making people uncomfortable, changing up her look, borrowing from other icons and reinterpreting it. Through Madonna, I found Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate sex symbol, but also plagued by vulnerabilities, and she hid her intelligence behind a wonderfully acted dumb blonde persona.
Over the years, individual looks and performances have affected the persona I’ve created: the ridiculousness and surprising heart of The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, the stylized and almost cartoonish looks of the Spice Girls, Kathy Najimy’s boisterous nun in Sister Act – things that played with pushing the boundaries of the real, that brought cartoon elements to performance of a character, or played with interesting juxtapositions like repression and joy.
CREATING MY PERSONA
When I was creating my persona, I started with what sort of look I wanted. I love big glamour and excess: lots of rhinestones, sequins, big hair, big boobs. As a bigger person, I knew that it was important to work with proportion: because I’m a larger person, when I do my hair and boobs, they have to be bigger than they might be otherwise, because then it brings the whole thing into proportion. If I’m a size 26 with a B cup bra, it’s going to make the rest of my body look that much bigger. I have a big head, so when I wear flat hair (which I’ve done a couple of times to fairly disastrous results!) it looks out of proportion. So when I’m putting together my look, I exaggerate the things that are a little smaller to put them into a better, more flattering proportion with the parts of me that are larger.
In terms of outfits, I love comic books and I love very stylized types of looks like the remake of Stepford Wives. Things that are sort of too perfect or too perfectly coordinated to be entirely real.
I love the 50s: socially, it was a time that was just a festering pit of racism, homophobia, fear of nuclear annihilation, class wars, McCarthyism and the Red Scare, but people just didn’t talk about it and made all of their clothes and pre-fab homes as beautiful and plastic as possible. They just slapped a happy face on and hoped that it would go away, and that mentality reminded me a lot of the “North Dakota Nice” that I grew up with, where people could be hateful and petty, but they always said, “Please” and “Thank you” and went to church on Sunday and baked a hotdish if someone died. I was always fascinated by the idea that underneath all of that beauty might be something darker, something inappropriate, something wonderfully queer. I used that sort of juxtaposition in a photo story that I did with photographer Miranda Roen a couple of years ago that I called “Disturbia”:
In some of the photos, we tried to create a sort of suburban dream – I had this great pin-up style dress from Pin Up Girl Clothing and we had all kinds of domestic props and tried to pretty it all up, like the first image in the gallery. The second image in the gallery is where it started to turn. Now the housewife is sitting at the table drinking and smoking. I like to include lots of subtle details for observant viewers: in the second photo, I’m reading The Well of Loneliness, a classic of early lesbian pulp novels and one of the more sincere in tone. Then we did some shots where we really twisted the narrative. In the third photo, I’m sitting back to back with an actor who played my husband in the shoot. He’s reading a gay porn novel and I’m reading Hustler, which is known for being one of the more crass and vulgar adult publications. We were emphasizing disconnection: we’re sitting in our “happy home” (which was the set of the show Dixie Swim Club at the Fire Hall, which I co-directed with Amy Driscoll) but we’re basically back to back and we’re exploring fantasy worlds that don’t really overlap or include each other. There were later photos where I’m clutching his leg as he tries to leave, and two different scenes where I’ve killed him. It was a lot of fun to shoot and it represents the way I like to explore queerness by twisting things that are beautiful with things that are dark or vulgar or just somehow unexpected.
So in creating my persona, I would dress up in the trappings of high glam, but when I spoke I was very sexually explicit, sometimes vulgar; it was like the looks of 80s Dolly Parton with a script written by early John Waters. I made that choice because larger people in our culture aren’t “supposed” to be sexual creatures – society would rather we just hid at home in frumpy clothes and bought billions of dollars worth of junk from the diet industry and shut our collective mouths. I wasn’t going to do that. Part of my queerness is that I wanted to not only be sex positive, but I wanted it to be clear that I was a sexy and sexual being. I wanted my sexuality to be part of my character, and I used humor to help people work through their discomfort. I love to push buttons and boundaries, and I love to make people engage with their discomfort, but I make it work because my comedy is never mean-spirited. I make fun of audience members, but I also make fun of myself, and I do it lovingly. Some people can’t get past their discomfort, and that’s ok, but I don’t rein myself in for them. I let them know that this is my space, it’s a queer space, and anyone is welcome to come in as long as they realize that I’m not going to alter who I am for the sake of their comfort. If they can’t deal with that, thank you for coming and we’ll hopefully see you down the road when you’re more open. It’s important for queer folks to take up space, physically and metaphorically, and if someone is claiming to be an ally but won’t accept you unless you change something about yourself (you’re TOO loud, TOO queer, TOO sexual, etc.) then they really aren’t your ally to begin with. I poke fun at people, but it’s done in a sort of winking, “we’re all in on the joke” kind of way, and I hope it makes people feel like part of something when they come to one of my shows. But if you bring ugliness to my show, or if you think you can mock or attack queerness while you’re in my house, I will not make things comfortable for you and we don’t offer refunds on the way out, thank you very much.
BEATING THIS FACE
When I’m doing drag makeup, I used a lot of theatrical techniques in sculpting my face, especially in terms of highlight and contour. If I want something to be more prominent, I make it lighter. If I want it to recede, I make it darker. But because I’m doing a style of drag that is more exaggerated and over the top, I don’t care as much about realness as I do about overall effect. I paint my neck very dark. If I were just walking down the street, you might be like, “Why is your neck brown?” But when it’s part of an overall look and blended into my chest and I have a big rhinestone necklace on, it’s less obvious, and actually lets me disguise a lot of my jowly chin area. There’s a whole lot of Jabba the Hut realness under there that I’m trying to make disappear!
Here are some of my ride or die products and techniques that I use when creating my face:
Color Correction – I’m a pink beast, so I love a good green color corrector. Wayne Goss recently did a video about “Don’t Color Correct Like A YouTuber” and it was spot on: the point of color correcting isn’t to add that color to your face (in my case green) but rather to add just enough of a tone of color to help cancel out something on your face and make it more neutral. Red and green are opposite each other on the color wheel, so a light, minty green can help cancel out excessive pinkness in your complexion. If it goes on and it looks noticeably green, you’ve used way to much. Unless you’re doing a Wicked number, you probably don’t want a green face, so now you’re going to have to correct that color! I will sometimes use a green primer, but I prefer to put down primer first and then use a color corrector in a concealer form, like Urban Decay’s Naked Skin Fluid in Green. That way I’m not putting green everywhere, but only in the places where I want to color correct.
Foundation – I used to use exclusively theatrical foundations (Graftobian is my favorite brand, but Ben Nye is easier to find in stores), but commercial makeup has gotten better about providing more full coverage, highly pigmented options, and you can get a softer, more blended out finish than you can get with heavy cream foundations. For drag wear, I recommend always looking for something that is advertised as full coverage and either a matte or natural finish – foundations that are advertised as radiant or dewy often have a different sort of dry down, and they are more likely to melt off under stage lights, when sweating, etc. I’m oily, so I tend to stick with matte finish for performances, though for photo shoots I may try a more natural or satin finish. Some favorites that I’ve found for drag use: Urban Decay All Nighter, Kat Von D Lock-It, Huda Beauty #FauxFilter, and BH Cosmetics Naturally Flawless. The Urban Decay is my favorite, but UD, Kat Von D, and Huda are all mid-range Sephora brands so 1 bottle will run you about $35 to $40. The BH Cosmetics foundation is a great option that I like just as much as my UD and maybe even better than KVD or Huda, and it’s only about $9 a bottle. Some people have trouble with commercial foundations not lasting, but I’ve never had a problem, and I think the main reason is because I paint it on thick. I mean THICK. I start with about 10 pumps to do my entire face, and I may need a pump or two more to give my neck a thin coat before the contour. I prime, I paint it on like Dutch Boy, and then I use lots of powder products to help everything stay in place.
Powder – There are a tons of powders out there, and although people have their favorites, I don’t think there is really that much difference between then beyond some translucent powders, if they are too white, will give you flashback in photos. For me, my ride or die is the Coty Airspun Setting Powder in Translucent Extra Coverage. Some people don’t like the Extra Coverage and how it mixes with certain foundations, so the regular Translucent is also good. But I love this powder, it’s been around for ages, and it’s cheap – a huge tub of it is less than $10. I think everyone’s grandmother probably had this in her makeup drawer, and it’s a classic for a reason!
Mascara – Don’t waste your money on super expensive mascara if you’re going to wear lashes…and most queens usually wear lashes. If you don’t, and that’s not your look, that’s cool, and then I would suggest the Too Faced Better Than Sex mascara – that’s the only mascara that I’ve put on and I almost felt comfortable enough to go on stage without falsies….almost. But if you’re wearing lashes, you really only need mascara to pair your lashes black to match and help your lashes meld in with the falsies. I usually paint a coat or two on before I put the lashes on, glue on my lashes with black Hair Bond glue, and then I paint another coat from underneath and press my real lashes into the falsies. Any drugstore mascara will give you the basics. I also love it when Sephora and Ulta give out sample sizes; mascaras are the type of product that can go bad before you have a chance to use it all if you aren’t using it every day, so samples are perfect for occasional show use. The Lash Princess line by Essence is a cheap drugstore brand and the results are amazing for about $5.
Blush – For my stage looks, my weakest area is my cheeks. I’m terrible at a really super sculpted look, so I tend to use a couple of different blush products in any given look. I use a more colorful blush as my actual blush, and then I like to have a “transition” blush that helps create a smooth transition from my contour up into my blush so I don’t get the 80s “cheek streaks.” For the regular blush, I love to use bright, impactful colors, usually a bright pink or peachy coral. Color cosmetics really depend on the type of look you are trying to create and since I tend to create more cool-toned looks I like a blue-based pink, or more peachy coral if I’m going a little warm. I rarely do really warm, fiery kind of looks, but when I do I’m not afraid to rock a full on red blush.
For the transitional blush, I like something that is sort of brownish with a mauve or dusty pink tone to it. My favorite is Too Faced Love Flush Blush in Baby Love. It’s a pink shade, but you can see that it’s more of a neutral slightly brown sort of pink.
Morphe has a couple of blush trios that are less expensive that have similar tones, one tending more pink and one a little more mauve, but basically I put down my cheek contour and then I buff some of this on from the contour up close to the cheekbone, right below where I will put a shimmer highlight. Then I put my more vivid blush on the apples and blend outward onto the cheek.
Eyeshadows – This is going to be largely determined by what you want to do, what style of drag you want to create, how extreme or how understated you want the overall look to come out, etc. What I look for in eyeshadow palettes are generally a good mix of matte and shimmer shades, though I prefer shimmer to matte. I like a lot of bold colors and good pigmentation so that they will have impact when I’m on stage or in photos and will have good lasting power. I have tried a little of everything and I like a lot of different brands for different things, but if I had to dilute it down to the 3 main brands I go to knowing that I’ll get an amazing look, amazing color, and amazing lasting power, these are my top 3:
- Juvia’s Place
- Jeffree Star Cosmetics
- BH Cosmetics
There are some brands, like Too Faced and Kat Von D, that have really amazing individual palettes but the overall quality from the brand is hit or miss. These three brands are the ones that I can pick up a palette and feel confident that I’m going to be able to achieve something fantastic with it. Jeffree Star is the most expensive on the list, but no one does bright, vivid, and pigmented eyeshadows like his brand. Juvia’s is my top pick, and their prices are generally low to mid-range (and they have lots of sales). Their shimmer metallic are some of the best on the market, periodt! I also like that you can get a range of colors from brights to neutrals to golds and warm bronzes to some pastels, and the quality is pretty even no matter what kind of shade you’re working with.
When you’re just getting started, I suggest looking at palettes over singles as you’ll get more to work with and play around with, and the value is better. Morphe makes some fairly decent shadows at lower prices for someone looking to experiment, but don’t expect them to perform quite as well as the three brands listed above. They are good, but they ain’t that good. And if you just want to get one palette to get started and see if you like it, I would recommend getting something that has a matte white and a matte black, as that will give you so much more versatility in terms of what you can create and blend out.
If you’re thinking about trying out drag, I’m going to trot out the old school Nike slogan and say, “Just do it!” Get some makeup and start playing. Start thinking about your character: how do they look, move, talk, act? What’s the story that brought that character to the stage. That sounds like a lot to think about to dance around on a stage for 4 minutes and lip sync to a Billie Eillish song, but that’s the kind of thing that will help you build a solid foundation for performing. I’ve known a lot of drag performers over the years; some have come and gone after a relatively short amount of time, and some have been performing for years. The difference, I’ve found, is that the ones who just perform for a little while and then quit are the ones who just have a vague idea that they want to “do drag” but they don’t have a specific character in mind. The ones who have been around for a long time have a strong sense of who their persona is, what they like and don’t like, what they will and won’t do.
But don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out right away. It’s not like a character in a movie, but more like a character in a soap opera: you can keep building on that character and adding to it as you grow and develop. Dierdre Hall has been playing Marlena Evans on Days of Our Lives since the 70s – to do something like that, you have to let your character change and evolve and discover new levels or you’d go a little crazy! And not just because you’re possessed by the devil…
Sorry, had a brief 90s flashback there…
If you are interested in trying out drag, start looking around at different performance styles and ways of presenting yourself, and see if there is something that interests you. If you don’t see anything that looks like a good fit, just start playing and experimenting and make your own style!
If you’re going to take part in typical drag performance, part of figuring out your persona is figuring out what kind of music you want to use to express that persona. Terms are always a little subjective, but I think it’s useful to make a subtle but important distinction between female impersonation and drag. For female impersonators, they are trying to recreate the looks and performances of famous singers or actors. A great example of this is Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas: the performers in that show impersonate celebrities like Cher, Brittney Spears, Better Midler, Tina Turner, etc. They are trying to create an illusion of the original performer and performance.
Female impersonation is a type of drag (if we think of drag as a gender-based performance), but in a more typical drag show that you might see at a gay club, you have performers who have their own identities and personas who are using songs to express something about themselves and their performance, but aren’t necessarily trying to look like a specific celebrity.
I knew pretty early on that my celebrity impersonation opportunities were pretty limited: Camryn Manheim was popular in the 90s (and not really a glamour choice!), Divine had a few fun and memorable disco numbers, and then there was Anna Nicole Smith…before she found TrimSpa. I wasn’t really interested in trying to look like a celebrity because celebrity culture reinforced the idea that people with bodies like mine didn’t exist or matter. I didn’t want that – I wanted to show that large people could be loud, beautiful, sexy, sexual, and unforgettable! That attitude influenced a lot of the song choices that I made when developing my persona.
First, I love picking songs that play around with gendered expectations already – I think performing them in drag gives them a little extra twist. I’ve done “Just a Girl” by No Doubt and “If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé. It tickles my little queer-theory-loving heart to watch straight people in the crowd stare in confusion when a big drag queen comes out to a song like “If I Were A Boy.” I feel like I can see the gears in their mind working, trying to figure it all out! And from time to time I love to rock a fun genderfuck number – a drag queen performing a song by a male singer (or vice versa). My favorites are “Soccer Practice” by Johnny McGovern, “Feel It Still” by Portugal the Man, and “Cake By The Ocean” by DNCE.
I also like songs that have a strong empowerment vibe to them. My first real “signature song” was Heather Small’s “Proud” and I used to do it at every single Pride show in this long rainbow sequined gown. It’s perfect for those kinds of events, and I love the message – we should be doing things every day that make us feel proud, make us feel like we’re contributing something and that our contributions matter.
If I had to pick a pop diva that I use most often to express my drag persona, it would definitely be Kesha. I love every era of Kesha. Early Kesha was trashy and filthy, like a female John Waters for a new generation. She could be kind of crass, but she used very masculine, aggressive sexuality in ways that I think were very interesting and much deeper than she was given credit for. When the allegations about her abuse from her former manager and producer Dr. Luke became public and the #FreeKesha discussions began, we got to see a different side of the diva and her first album after the scandal became public, Rainbow, was filled with fire and rage as well as some tender and beautiful moments.
Here’s a Top 10 list that represents my performance style pretty well:
- Woman – Kesha
- Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) – Kelly Clarkson
- Put A Ring On It – Sara Bareilles
- This Is Me – Kesha
- C’mon – Kesha
- Juice – Lizzo
- If I Were A Boy – Beyonce
- Raise Your Glass – Pink
- Cake By The Ocean – DNCE
- Proud – Heather Small
Basically, if I can make it colorful and fun, or if it’s got some strength and empowerment (even if it’s vulnerable), I’m all about it for my performances.
I hope you enjoyed this little exploration into the glittery trash heap that is my crazy brain. I’ve had a lot of fun creating and developing this character over the years, and I love that I keep finding new ways to express it and explore new ways of performing sexuality, gender, and queerness!