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Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, there were these legendary queens

Meet the drag icons who paved the way for the stars of today.

By Will Stroude

With the recent arrival of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3, drag fever is once again sweeping the nation as the lip-sync-filled reality series continues to become one of the most popular and lucrative shows on TV.

But of course, drag wasn’t always this celebrated, with most confined to the pubs, underground clubs, and dive bars where all queens begin their careers and very few becoming bona fide stars able to take their act to a world stage.

Here’s a look at the drag performers who paved the way for the generation of new stars we take often for granted today… 

Leigh Bowery (Australia) 

One of the most controversial and celebrated performance artists of the 21st century, Leigh Bowery made a name for himself in 1985 with the launch of his now infamous club night Taboo.  

A regular on the London club scene, Bowery was an artist who used drag as a medium for the exploration of gender and social conformity. His work has influenced countless artists including Lady Gaga, Boy George and Alexander McQueen. 

RuPaul Charles (USA) 

There’s no denying the impact this drag superstar has had on the world of pop culture. Since hitting the global scene with his megahit dance anthem ‘Supermodel’ in 1993, RuPaul has subsequently become the world’s most recognisable drag superstar. 

In more recent times, RuPaul is known as the mother of RuPaul’s Drag Race teaching a new generation of tv viewers how to read like a pro and of course ‘Sissy That Walk’. 

Lily Savage (UK) 

Perhaps better known as comedian and tv personality Paul O’Grady, Lily Savage was a pioneering force in the UK drag scene.  

With a series of hit comedy shows, guest appearances, and lucrative tv deals, Savage was one of the first queens to achieve mainstream success in the UK with appearances on Top of the Pops and the popular late-night Channel 4 comedy show Viva Cabaret! 

Heklina (USA) 

Founder of Trannyshack, the first and most successful ‘drag pageant’ in the United States, with stars such as Lady Gaga and Anna Matronic of the Scissor Sisters launching their careers there, Heklina is a pioneer, CEO, and all-around Boss. 

Of Icelandic descent, Heklina is one of the founders of Oasis, one of the most popular and innovative clubs on the San Francisco gay scene. Heklina is a regular at Dragcon, a talented actor, and one of the best MC’s in the game. 

You can see more on Heklina here

Peaches Christ (USA)

Film-maker and Penn State University graduate, Peaches Christ has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) and cult-star Mary Woronov. 

Peaches was the founder of Midnight Mass, a late-night film screening extravaganza in San Francisco that became infamous for pushing the boundaries of performance. Drag roller derbies, urination on stage, and competitions to see ‘who was the filthiest person alive’ were just some of the highlights of the Midnight Mass series. 

Such is the scale of Peaches’ influence on art and performance, the de Young Museum honoured her work in 2007 with a “Decade of Peaches Christ Retrospective” called Cattychism featuring artistic contributions inspired by Peaches. 

You can follow Peaches here

Panti Bliss (Ireland) 

Known to many as the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Ireland’ Panti Bliss is a club owner, performer and gay rights activist who went viral in 2014 when her Nobel Call Speech at the Abbey Theatre amassed millions of hits on YouTube. 

Credited by many as an integral force in securing gay marriage in Ireland, Panti’s work for the Yes Campaign saw Ireland become the first country in the world to pass same sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. 

You can follow Panti here

Conchita Wurst (Austria) 

Igniting a media storm not just for her incredible singing, but also her open and frank drag persona, Conchita Wurst took the 2014 Eurovision by storm, winning for her track ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’. 

Conchita put bearded queens on the map and showed through her integration of the masculine with the feminine, that beauty is merely a construct that is changeable, fluid, and open to interpretation. 

You can follow Conchita here

Marsha P. Johnson (USA) 

Now understood to have been transgender, Marsha P. Johnson was, at least for a time, a self-identified drag queen, and one who helped spark the modern gay rights revolution.

Her death in 1992 is still shrouded in mystery. Reported missing shortly after New York Pride, her body was found six days later in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled the death as suicide, but many close friends believe she was killed in an anti-gay attack and her cause of death was later changed to ‘undetermined’ in 2002.

Marsha also founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. alongside Sylvia Rivera in 1970 and was recently the subject of the popular Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 continues on Wednesdays on VH1 in the US and Saturdays on Comedy Central in the UK.

Words: Tadgh Dolan