I can’t lie, I like to shoot beautiful things. As well as attractive women, for me that means gorgeous cars, exquisite watches, fabulous buildings and stunning landscapes, but once or twice a year I find myself focusing on subjects less easy on the eye, especially those who are somewhat unusual or eccentric.
Apart from those covered with artful tattoos, one of my favourite subjects are drag queens. I’ve photographed lots of them over the years and when it’s time for Brighton Pride, I always try and shoot a few of the performers in the Legends Cabaret tent.
Right now, drag queens are all the rage. The person most responsible for this is RuPaul who has become a major TV personality with the extraordinary success of RuPaul’s Drag Race shows, now in its tenth season.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Drag queens never were as ubiquitous as they are today. Indeed, it once was a clandestine scene, with performers restricted to a few underground gay clubs.
And if anywhere is the British home of drag queens, it’s Brighton, the self-proclaimed gay capital of the UK. Ever since I’ve been photographing Pride, drag queens have always had a platform, but for most of them it was a small one, away from the main stage. Not today. Now they’re on the main bill, performing alongside established music names.
But first, for the avoidance of any potential confusion, I wanted to try and define just what a drag queen is. The best definition I could find is this:
“Drag is a gender-bending art form in which a person dresses in clothing and makeup meant to exaggerate a specific gender identity, usually of the opposite sex.”
And if you were wondering about the name, the word ‘drag’ is said to have theatrical origins, coming from the dresses men wore to play female characters dragging along the floor.
Today, there are essentially two types of drag queen. The one’s you see on TV tend to be much younger and more glamorous, mainly singing contemporary dance tunes, whilst the classic drag queens, are older, often resemble pantomine dames and usually perform karaoke versions of singalong standards such as Islands in the Stream, Dancing Queen, Sweet Caroline, etc.
This year, at Brighton Pride’s 30th anniversary event, both were represented. The fresh-faced ones being on the main stage, while the older ones were in the Legends tent. And of the two, it’s they who appeal to me the most.
Being the antithesis to the good-looking things I usually focus on, I’m drawn to just how ridiculous they look in their sparkly outfits, with their double chins, portly pouts, terrible wigs and slapped on make up. Indeed, the less feminine they appear, the more appealing I find them.
To me, they are almost like one of those Rowlandson caricatures come to life.
For those unfamiliar with the artist, Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) was an English painter and caricaturist of the Georgian era famous for his grotesque pen and ink drawings mocking various social types including politicians and royalty.
By contrast with most of my subjects where I aim to make them as attractive as I can, like Rowlandson I have no qualms in showing them warts ’n’ all.
But it’s not about trying to catch them looking at their most comical, I’m also seeking to capture the vulnerability hidden behind the layers of mascara and rouge.
Because my main focus at Pride is shooting the performers on the main stage — who are playing at the same time — this year I only managed to catch a handful of queens. They’re tricky to shoot, the Legends stage is small and there’s branding on the backdrop, so getting the ‘clean’ shots I wanted was all about finding the angles.
Apart from the less than brilliant lighting, the biggest issue for me — as it often is when shooting live performers — was the microphone. Ideally, I would’ve liked shots without them, but as with so many singers, most drag queens seem to keep theirs fixed to their lips throughout their performance.
This is a good time to talk about how to address drag queens. I have to say the subject of pronouns is becoming increasingly confusing, especially with individuals who have two distinct personas. The way I see it is if they are a man impersonating a woman, when I’m talking about them in drag I’ll refer to them as he/him and not get drawn into each individual’s personal preference.
This year, there was one queen who I was most keen to shoot: Maisie Trollette. Maisie is the venerable alter ego of David Raven, who at 89 is the oldest performing drag queen still working in the UK. After treading the boards for 50 years, Maisie a fly on the wall film about her life has just been released.
I’ve photographed Maisie before (in 2016) and came away with what I still think is my best ever drag queen portrait. Indeed, Maisie uses it as her main press shot, even though she’s never asked my permission to do so.
Whilst Maisie was listed on the bill, it wasn’t her who took the stage, but David Raven. Clearly in some discomfort and looking especially frail, he managed to say a few words and sing a few songs. It was a poignant moment for the packed tent and the dozen or so other queens watching on who knew they were in the presence of drag queen royalty.
Without Maisie, this year the title of highest profile queen at Pride has to be shared.
Lola Lasagne not only hosted the Legends tent, but was also on the main stage to introduce some of the performers. A regular at Pride, Lola is the alter ego of Stephen Richards.
I first saw saxophonist Snow White Trash perform in the Legends tent on the Saturday and heard her say she’d be playing on the main stage the next day with Jake Shears. I wasn’t sure if she was just tooting her own horn, but true to her word, that’s exactly what she did.
This shot of her is one of my personal favourites from this year’s Pride. It’s all about her bodyshape, the way the light hits her sparkly dress and the look on her face.
Not all drag queens have stage names. One of the grand dames of the scene, Dave Lynn, has no nom de plume.
One who does — and another of the grand dames — is Davina Sparkle the moniker of David Pollikett. Of all the queens, she’s the one that looks most like a pantomime dame.
I think she’s great to shoot, but she told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t like my portraits of her. With a face only a mother could love, I think she should take it on the chin! It may be her image, but it’s my picture. And that’s what she looks like.
Apart from Snow White Trash, I had photographed all of these queens at previous Pride’s. This year, there were a few that were new to me.
Perhaps the oddest is Alfie Ordinary, who for reasons only he knows, bizarrely has a thing for dressing up as Tinkie Winkie from the Teletubbies.
Arguably the best looking queen — the one who looks most convincingly like a woman — is Scotland’s Mary Mac.
2022 was also the year that saw drag queens take their place on the main stage at Pride. Beyond being used as presenters or featuring in guest appearances like Snow White Trash, they were a big part of the two day line-up.
First up was the puntasticly named Tia Kofi. I’m afraid she wasn’t my cup of tea.
Much better was Bimini who made not one but two appearances on Saturday. First, on his own and then as part of Christina Aguilera’s headline set. The alter ego of 28-year-old Thomas Hibbitts from Norfolk, brought a patriotic, red white and blue theme to Pride. After initially appearing in a version of the England football kit, the RuPaul’s Drag Race UK contestant returned in a Union Jack outfit, both designed by Bang London. Bimini got my vote for best dressed queen.
The highest profile drag queen at this year’s Pride was Todrick Hall. The 37-year-old Texan choreographer/singer made his name on American Idol before becoming the choreographer of RuPaul’s Drag Race. For me, he was better to look at than to listen to. And just like Saturday’s headliner, Christina Aguilera, he underwent a bunch of costume changes. Coincidentally, the two also shared rainbow coloured eye makeup.
So that’s the drag queens of this year’s Brighton Pride as seen through my eyes…and with a black and white filter.
Behind the image: All these images were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the 75 1.8 lens using available light only. Despite the fact they are such colourful performers, in order to have a consistent look across all the portraits, I’ve chosen to edit these in black and white as I think it adds a more dramatic mood and a certain timelessness to the images. Shot in Brighton on 6 and 7 August 2022.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in creating out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens, not forgetting an array of automotive exotica.
On the writing side, he has used his research skills to author deep dives into some noteworthy songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople.
He has also written a biography of Robert Palmer and the stories behind Whitesnake’s blatant Led Zep rip-off, ‘Still Of The Night’ and Harry Styles’ anthem to positivity, ‘Treat People With Kindness’.
Most recently, he has also recently penned the fascinating story behind George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians including the likes of Royal Blood, Joe Satriani and Wolf Alice.