11 September 2015

The Changing Face of Drag

The jewel in the Sydney drag scene crown, the lavish production show, is feeling the squeeze. Affected by cultural, political and economic challenges we now have only seven production shows playing over four venues and featuring just 12 showgirls. This once thriving aspect of the industry, often billed as some of the best drag performance in the world, is in flux.

We’ve known for some time that culturally these shows have become less popular within the broader LGBTI community. At the same time drag has burst into the general entertainment landscape where the industry as a whole is broader than ever. Look at the popularity of drag trivia, drag bingo and drag karaoke nights playing throughout the greater Sydney area almost every night of the week. 

 The production show has become more niche, but nevertheless the work currently playing on the Oxford Street strip is as good as it’s ever been. Decoda Secret, a three-time DIVA Entertainer of the Year and one of only a couple of showgirls to produce and perform in these shows said: “Production Shows and their fans will always be around but are not likely to get bigger than the current crop – at least for the near future.”

Politically the current lockout laws have been a major contributing factor to the loss of stages and declining audiences for these kinds of shows. Pre-lockouts, drag fans would start at the pub for a smaller early show and then meander to the nearest nightclub for those early morning spectaculars. That foot traffic is gone – along with the flow-on jobs this industry created.  

These shows are more expensive to produce than ever before and while the current showgirls are geniuses in stretching their small budgets, the days of constantly changing costumes and large casts are gone. The old adage that you ‘never make money from drag’ is certainly no throwaway line these days – it’s harder than ever to make a living out of drag.

Glenn Hansen, Promotions and Marketing Manager at Stonewall Hotel said: “I think the decline is because some businesses don’t see them as an investment and they can be expensive. Lockout laws have also effected businesses and closures have occurred and this has limited the work for performers and DJs. We have been very lucky and Stonewall is super busy on a Friday and Saturday night especially at show times.”

All this highlights the changing nature of the Sydney drag scene, not its death. Like the other great gay cites in the world, our scene will adapt and, in pockets, flourish. The wonderful creativity and the ability of the young performers to innovate, and the understanding of the venues to nurture their loyal and appreciative audiences, will be fundamental to this.

Indeed, it’s a discussion worth having now with the drag community and their supporters soon turning their focus on the 25th anniversary of DIVA. It certainly has the showgirl and drag community speculating on its future.

DIVA, or the Drag Industry Variety Awards as it was known, was established in 1991 to celebrate what was then a fast growing drag scene. DIVA has a vibrant and successful history. It has played an important part in showcasing this creative scene and many a famous performer has helped enshrine DIVA into this town’s gay heritage.

And like all our other community organisations, DIVA has had to adapt over the years. Indeed, no body reaches their 25-year milestone without changing with the times.

But let me put my cards on the table. I’m a former DIVA board member.

Currently DIVA hands out sixteen awards for excellence in various categories. Most of these relate to production shows. The awards ceremony features a host of one-off specially produced shows designed to showcase the current breath of performers on the scene.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the drag scene, perhaps it’s time to review and adjust DIVA for the future.

Current DIVA Chair Greg Steele said the board are planning to launch community consultations after this year’s awards to how DIVA can adapt and change with the times. Some of the current board members will be retiring and it will be a good time to seek new volunteers from the drag community and their friends who love the Sydney scene.

“At the moment my small team and I are focused on planning an event for this special anniversary, and later in the year we’ll begin a conversation about the future,” Steele said.

“We invite the whole showgirl community and their friends to come and join us for this fabulous celebration.”

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