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When I was a little kid, I had no idea what drag was -- but I knew I loved throwing my grandmother's old velvet blanket around my shoulders and strutting up and down the hallway to music. This was how far removed I was from any notion of gay culture: I sashayed away to a tape of Frank Sinatra singing "My Way" on A Prairie Home Companion.
All kids love playing dress-up of some kind, but kids today have greater and easier access to queer culture than any generation before them -- as the profiles of baby drag queens in these pages demonstrate. Thanks to RuPaul's Drag Race, there's no question that drag is having a mainstream moment. Their recent VH1 finale had nearly a million viewers, making it their most watched episode ever. From your local library's reading hour to DragCon to YouTube, there has been a subsequent boom in all-ages spaces where drag is welcome. But as the art form moves out of bars and into living rooms, what does that mean for kids playing dress-up? Or for parents of children entering into what is, at heart, a bar scene built around adult gay men and trans women? And finally, what does it mean for drag itself -- which at its best is often subversive, raunchy, and cutting -- to suddenly have to cater to families?
"My childhood was filled with wigs and gowns and secretly trying on my mother's tap heels because they were the only heels in the entire house," said Sasha Velour, the winner of RPDR season 9, recounting his early days of drag. His point--one repeated by every queen, fan, and parent I spoke to -- is that there have always been, and always will be, boys who like to dress up as girls, and girls who like to dress up as boys. They may be gay, or they may be trans, or they may simply be fabulous. But they are not the product of a TV show, or a sudden new trend. These kids are just more visible, for an array of reasons: greater public acceptance of gender variance, increased access to the means of artistic production (aka Instagram and iPhones), and our cultural obsession with putting precocious children on display -- isn't Toddlers & Tiaras just a drag pageant for cis girls and their (drag) mothers?
But you don't have to be a queen to appreciate drag. Alicia Marie is a 9-year-old girl from a small city in Wisconsin, who's been a RPDR fan since she was 4. Says her mother, Amanda, "She's always been interested in visual and performance-based arts." And the outsize nature of drag isn't that different from other things children enjoy, like fairy-tales and Disney movies. Amanda stresses that like all television, the family watches RPDR together, and makes choices to skip segments or discuss them afterwards with Alicia Marie if they feel it's necessary. To Amanda, worries about the appropriateness of drag for children often seem freighted with homophobic and transphobic assumptions -- as though our overly sexual culture is only a problem when the sexuality being expressed is something other than straight and cis. But she does have some issues with Alicia Marie watching RPDR. "I don't want my 9-year-old emulating the pettiness and the bickering," she says. "But that's just part of reality TV."
She worried more about what it meant to bring Alicia Marie to an all-ages drag benefit at a local college--but not in the way you might expect. "It was important to me to convey that we weren't expecting the show be altered for our sake," she says. As guests on the drag scene, she didn't want to change the nature of the event, disrupt the community, or "demand to be catered to." Drag is art, and like any form of art, it has its own rules and standards. By talking to the organizers beforehand, they were able to decide what was appropriate for Alicia Marie to see, and since then, "she has really been embraced by the local performers. They've even brought her up on stage!"
In fact, for Amanda and her husband, Alicia Marie's love of drag has been a delight. "She's on the autism spectrum, and drag was one of her early deep interests," Amanda says. "Before that it was school buses. This was a welcome shift."
Regardless of why a child is interested in drag, supportive parenting is one of the keys to making it a good experience. "You set it up for a time and place -- everything should be appropriate--but I say let it fly," said Peppermint, the runner-up on RPDR season 9. As a trans woman, she emphasized that drag may be a stepping stone for a child trying to find a way to talk about their gender identity (although most trans people, she hastened to add, are not connected to the drag scene). Peppermint recalled that her grandmother, a seamstress, would sew her costumes when she was little. "I would try to lean them towards the feminine. Like, 'could I be the female Hershey's Kiss?' " That support put her on the road to being the hugely successful queen she is today.
For many young performers, drag is a chance to express a true part of themselves -- whether that's their gender identity or their love of sequins -- that they might otherwise not have a way to show. If there was a list of "Top 10 Drag Queens Ten and Under," Desmond Is Amazing would be on it. Desmond's looks aren't what you'd expect from a child, as they draw from some deep sources of inspiration: club kids, Keith Haring, and the Lower East Side art scene of the 1980s. He has succinct words of wisdom for other youngsters looking to explore drag, whatever that might mean to them: "Don't let anyone tell you that your drag is wrong, because it is not wrong -- it is whatever you want it to be. #MyDragisMyTruth."
Everyone I spoke to repeated the idea that drag, especially at such a young age, should be about exploration. Don't worry about being on RPDR; "have fun and find yourself" was the dominant message. "It's so true to the spirit of drag," Sasha Velour once effused. "If you don't necessarily have a context where you are welcome, you make one for yourself -- and then you make it as fabulous as possible!"
Photography: M. Sharkey
Desmond Napoles(Age: 10)
New York, N.Y.
Inspired by ballroom legends, club kids, and Marsha P. Johnson, this precocious performer is voguing straight past the haters.
I first started doing drag when I was 2 years old. I took my mom's towel and made a headdress out of it. Then I wrapped bubble wrap around me and put on high heels and stomped around the house in them. My mom saw me and didn't mind. When I was 5, I knew I was gay. I started getting crushes on boys, and then when I was 9, I came out to my mom, and she accepted it. Both of my parents were very supportive. I still don't really tell everyone at school about it -- I'd just rather not. If someone stares at me, I just roll my eyes at them, which means they should mind their own beeswax. What if I stared at them? They wouldn't like that.
The makeup started when I was 7. I like drawing puzzle pieces and shapes on my face. Crazy makeup. Outlandish looks. I like to be different than really well-known types of drag, like pageant drag. Some of the Drag Race queens who inspire me are Milk, Jinkx Monsoon, Ongina, and Acid Betty. I like looking like a club kid -- I'm more inspired by them. My outfits are usually related to that, like the pink look I wore to New York Drag Con last year.
I love voguing. I watched the documentary Paris Is Burning when I was 8, and when I saw these people doing these amazing dance moves, I really wanted to learn how. So I taught myself. Eventually I took lessons with Leiomy Maldonado, a legend in the ballroom scene from the House of Mizrahi. During the 2015 Pride Parade, my mom petered out after 10 blocks, but I vogued the whole way. I was wearing a rainbow tutu and a gold beret. In 2016, I rode on the Stonewall float, and at PrideFest that same year, I met Bianca Del Rio, who invited me to go up on stage and do seven death drops. And vogue.
I had a big moment last June, when I vogued at the NYC Legacy Ball, and the House of UltraOmni asked me to be in their house. My voguing father is now Sydney UltraOmni. I didn't win a trophy, but I got plucked. The only other people I know of who've gotten plucked are Venus Xtravaganza and Michelle Visage (but I don't know what house Michelle Visage got into).
At this year's New York Pride, I received the Marsha P. Johnson "Don't be Outraged, Be Outrageous" Award from Heritage of Pride, and I wore a flower headdress inspired by Marsha. I learned so much about her, and I kept wearing headdresses after that. I prefer them -- they're much more comfortable than wigs!
I really don't consider myself a drag queen, though. I consider myself a drag kid. I feel like the term "drag queen" is mostly used for adults. I've started a drag house called Haus of Amazing, and it's for drag kids who are 20 and under. We're going to have trading cards, videos, chat sessions, etc. I believe right now I have 37 members. It's getting there.
Thomas South (Age: 11)
With his sister as accomplice, and some brotherly advice, Cream Soda is learning how to rock a pair of spiky heels.
My drag is outside the box -- different, crazy -- but I can also do pretty: a nice mermaid, a flower in the hair, a nice scarf from France. I love unicorns. My drag persona is Cream Soda -- she's very quirky. You might expect her to come out in a nice dress and a wig, but she'll come out bald, in a crazy corset, and wearing 10-inch heels. The person who first inspired me was my sister, Jael. I was in the kitchen eating a bagel and she was watching RuPaul's Drag Race on TV, and I was like, "Oh, what is that?" And she said, "It's RuPaul's Drag Race," and I said, "Oh, drag is when a man dresses up as a woman?" and she said, "Yeah, do you want to watch it next Friday with me?" I was a little scared to do drag at first, but I faced my fears and got over it and had fun. My mum and dad were cool with it. The first time I tried to put on makeup, it didn't look so good. I had the wrong color eyebrows -- deep black -- and my eyes were way too big. Instead of complimenting me, my brother told me the truth. I did look very bad. Drag takes a lot of effort, pain -- you can't just walk into a room with a lot of makeup, and go, "Boom, boom, boom, I'm perfect."
I first heard about DragCon a few months after I got into drag, and asked my mom if I could go. I didn't have a lot of stuff at the time, so I only wore a nice red T-shirt, some white shorts, and some spiky heels. There was a big poster when you arrive that says, sashay this way, and a ton of drag queens everywhere. I went to Milk's booth -- she was on Season 6, she's very outside of the box, she does the unexpected -- and told her she was my favorite drag queen.
The first day back to school after DragCon, I wore a pair of spiky heels and everyone was supportive of it. I had to change them eventually, because I tripped over them. I'm doing a lot better, but I still need more practice walking in them. I'm going to sign up for Drag Race when I'm 17. I think my look will be latex spiky heels, a corset, and these ripped lace undergarments, nice slicked black hair, perfect black makeup.
Above all, I don't want this to change -- I want to stay in love with drag.
Zach Dishinger (Age: 15)
Once the teenage cosmetics entrepreneur discovered makeup, there was no turning back.
The best thing about a boy wearing makeup is that it promotes a conversation and has the potential to provoke emotion in others. As a society, we've lost the art of conversation. That's what I like to do: make people talk to each other, whether it's about gender identity or expression. It brings us together as a community.
My inspirations are Lady Gaga and David Bowie. I want to get a lightning-bolt tattoo, and my mother isn't too happy about it. I also love that Lady Gaga has a message and a large platform: She dabbles in everything, and she's all about awareness and being yourself. I think just releasing a lipstick is pointless. With my brand, it's not just a lipstick -- we're here to help people.
People have the idea of gender wrong. The majority of society confuses gender with someone's biological sex, and they automatically gravitate toward the typical binary of male and female only. But gender is expressed in so many different ways, and that's why I love it. If anyone ever feels different, I don't want them to give up on who they are and gravitate toward the norm.
I've always been like this, since I was 4. I was always putting paint on myself in arts-and-crafts class in preschool. I would go to my grandparents' house and do my makeup in full drag, putting Elmer's Glue Stick on my brows and perform for them. I think my whole family just knew. People ask, "You're a guy wearing makeup, don't you get criticized?" I don't care who you are -- you will receive criticism no matter what you do. But my family and my friends are so supportive. I'm fortunate. Not everyone has that, so it's my job to help others.
School for a number of gay or nonbinary teens is a really tough place. At one point for me, it was so bad that I actually had to switch schools. I got sent to a more conservative school -- but it offered a makeup class. I found my calling. It gave me so much joy to walk down those halls like they were my runway, in that conservative environment. I went to homecoming in full glam and rhinestone shoes. I honestly think we're moving in a positive direction, and we have the power to keep things moving.