If you’ve ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race then you’ll be familiar with this phrase. The show featured drag artists competing to be the “ultimate” drag performer.
“In South Africa, until RuPaul’s TV show, we never really got a chance to see what the trends were,” says drag artist Martin van Staden.
“That series gave us great insight.”
Van Staden is one half of Mince – The Art of Drag, a successful drag act that has been running for many years.
“I’ve been making money professionally as a drag artist since I was 19 or 20 years old, but I’ve been stealing clothing from my mother and sister’s wardrobes since I was a child. I had to get my own when my mother started getting angry because I was stretching her shoes,” Van Staden recalls with a laugh.
Wearing women’s clothing doesn’t make you a drag artist, or even a drag queen for that matter. Cross-dressers are men who enjoy wearing ladies’ apparel, and this is usually done in private. Drag queens are men who mimic women, wearing women’s clothing and often exaggerating certain aspects of their looks, gestures and personalities. A drag artist, though, performs as a woman.
“To make it as a drag artist you have to have an extreme amount of dedication and the strength to stand by your craft. You can’t have a weak soul,” says Van Staden.
“There are drag queens that just have the desire to get into a frock. To perform is a lot more complicated. You have to really turn into your craft and zone it, and in turn be respected for it. You have to mind your Ps and Qs. A lot of drag acts fall flat because they don’t care. You have to be consistent. Some people take it to a surgery level. It depends how far you are willing to go. But you have to be happy with how you look as a man. I’ve had some stuff done, but it’s subtle. I still like to celebrate myself as a boy.”
While RuPaul’s Drag Race was filled with cat fights and craziness, it also showed a different side of the drag lifestyle. The participants were, for the most part, all hard-working artists who had struggled to make a living doing what they loved. On the show, they were able to make their own outfits in record time.
Being fashionable is no mean feat. Many artists have to import their clothing, or have it made for them. Van Staden, like many drag acts, takes the latter route. His go-to guy is respected designer Gavin Raja. The two caused a stir a few years back when Van Staden, wearing a Gavin Raja outfit, was part of a pair who won the Best Dressed Couple award at the J&B Met.
“I got amazing publicity out of that,” Van Staden chuckles.
“They changed the rules the following year. The couple that wins now has to be made up of a man and a woman. As a drag artist, you can be fashion forward as an individual. However, there are proportion boundaries. When you’re hiding certain features it’s a bit more difficult to be fashion conscious. Drag allows you to be as out there as you want. That’s the beauty of it. If someone’s stuck in the Fifties or the Eighties, you can enjoy that.”
However, being a drag artist isn’t without its challenges.
“As much as the gay community supports Mince, we are mostly in a space of our own. While drag artists are celebrated, very few men find them attractive. It’s a very strange divide. I will often get invited to a party and I’ll arrive out of drag, only to realise that I was only invited as a party piece,” he says with a laugh.
There are some who believe that drag artists are making fun of women. For acts like Van Staden, this idea is preposterous.
“There are so many different kinds of drag artists. I wanted to represent the beautiful power that women have, especially when it comes to seduction, and how they show or move particular parts of their bodies,” he says.
“When I come out after a show and I get to know the women who watch, they’ll say things like ‘you really inspired me to get out my heels again’ or ‘you’ve motivated me to get out that dress’. In everyday life we sometimes let things like that slip. It’s great to be able to feed that and celebrate it.”