Pictured: Priyanka (T,L), Adore Delano (B,L), Courtney Act (R)

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Drag queens are used to being snubbed by the establishment. But ​​will we live to see a drag queen achieve superstar status akin to that of Minogue or Gaga?

In walks a confident six-foot, thirty-something man sporting a pair of enlarged silicone breasts strapped around his flat bare chest. His bleach blonde beehive wig is carefully glued to his ordinarily bald head. People do a double-take, wondering if, perhaps, it’s Dolly Parton. He’s now seated inside a theatre, shoulder to shoulder with the world’s top pop stars. Spotlights swirl around the room to build anticipation. It’s another awards night on Hollywood’s calendar. But Trixie Mattel, real name Brian Firkus, isn’t nominated. 

Drag queens are used to being snubbed by the establishment, it’s par for the course.

Despite building a multi-million-dollar empire spanning makeup to music; despite his multiple appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and as a judge on Queens of the Universe; and despite three studio albums, including a number one single on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart, Trixie Mattel remains a head-scratching example of the genderfuck snobbery that still exists in society — and in the global music industry — to this very day.

It really needn’t bother him though. Trixie Mattel is one of the world’s biggest, most successful drag artists. Firkus is estimated to be twirling on a net worth of some US$10 million. The only drag queen sitting on a greener patch is the mother of all queens, RuPaul Charles, who recently labelled Firkus “so rich” during a volley with Jimmy Kimmel. 

Now in its fourteenth season, Drag Race is the gift that keeps on giving. The Emmy award-winning reality competition sees queens compete for the title of America’s “next drag superstar” and a $150,000 cash prize. It turned Firkus into a pop culture icon following his stint on Season 7, and as the winner of All Stars Season 3.

Right before surgical face masks and clunky check-in apps became mainstream, Firkus released Trixie Mattel’s third studio album. Barbara proved that the indie-folk singer-songwriter had matured into a bonafide musician worthy of the kind of playlist support afforded to his non-gender-bending peers. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, the album even debuted at twenty-one on the Australian Recording Industry Association’s official digital albums chart upon its release in February, 2020. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for drag queens. But, alas, the album still failed to reach the heights that many hoped it would, and some believed it should.

The global success of the Drag Race franchise has spawned a diverse sisterhood of queens who are puncturing pop culture, often one death drop — or song — at a time. Releasing a music video within hours of elimination has become almost mandatory for the contestants, a rite of passage even. Most of these bite-sized bops are trap-infused club bangers with comical hooks that parody the dramatic storylines from their season on the show. It’s a strategy that keeps the queens relevant and connected to ‘Racer’ stans in the wake of their exits. They aren’t Grammy worthy, or even chart worthy, but they do serve a purpose and a community.

So too do the songs created on RuPaul’s Drag Race as part of the format’s many music-based challenges set by the show’s host and cocreator, RuPaul. Often these “maxi challenges” involve the contestants writing and recording a sassy and self-indulgent verse designed to show the judges — Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley and Ross Mathews — why they deserve to survive another week. A guest producer then slices and dices those vocals into a remake of one of RuPaul’s songs with as much autotune as is needed to make it TV-ready. A handful of these tracks become hits in their own right, catapulting queens onto digital charts around the world. 

Pictuted: Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 13 Queen, Liv Lux

The queens vying to win the crown in Season 13 did exactly that after the top seven were challenged by ‘Mama Ru’ to each write and perform an original verse to his new song, “Condragulations”. One of those queens was Fred Carlton, better known as Liv Lux, one of the few from his season who can sing, dance and play an instrument.

“I went to school for musical theatre,” Carlton tells Rolling Stone over a video call from his apartment in Brooklyn — also home to one of the largest drag scenes in the U.S. “Music has always been a part of my life. I think drag is bridging a gap in the arts, essentially the arts in its entirety. 

Drag Race is such a huge platform. I think it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest drag stage in the world – you have so many different iterations now,” he says while adjusting his beanie. Carlton leans into the laptop with a defiant spark in his eye: “I love that there are so many different versions, and so many different languages, to be able to relate to all these people.” 

Carlton isn’t prepared to put drag, or Liv Lux, in a box. “There doesn’t have to be a category for everything all the time. And that’s why we’re here right now. We’re talking about drag and music,” he says, referring to his new single “It’s the Music”, a soulful and jazzy pop doozie featuring Carlton’s familiar soft vocals barely floating above the keys. “Quite frankly, there isn’t a category. We’re here to pave and make that way for no category, point-blank.”

“I think drag is bridging a gap in the arts.” – Liv Lux

Australia’s biggest drag export, Courtney Act, was among the first group of queens to have a musical body of work ready for the world to hear after leaving Drag Race. Courtney Act also had an advantage. She was previously signed to a big label, and remains the only drag queen in Australian history to have inked a deal and released music through a major record company.

“The trend of releasing music after Drag Race started with Sharon Needles releasing her album after she won Season 4, and then probably Adore [Delano] and I, in Season 6,” says Shane Jenek, the one time Australian Idol favourite who continues to wow audiences around the globe as a reality TV regular, theatrical performer and pop star. Even Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga have publicly endorsed Courtney Act’s music.

“I remember always having dreams of pop music and loving pop, wanting to be a Spice Girl, and releasing music over the years. I mean, my first single with BMG was in 2004 and I was twenty-two. 

“I remember people at the record company saying, ‘You don’t know what you want or who you are’. And I think they were probably right,” Jenek admits. He’s at home in Melbourne and is using the break after filming another reality show (Dancing with the Stars: All Stars) to catch up on the latest episode of Euphoria.

“The thing about drag is that we’re already artists,” says Jenek. He’s seated on the couch wearing a crisp white singlet and shorts — a stark contradiction to the glamourous and energetic persona of Courtney Act. “We’re already producing and creating our content. And I think maybe the issue with mainstream music is that drag queens are, by definition, defiant. We already did what we weren’t supposed to do because it was who we are and what we love. And I mean, artists, in general, fit that mould as well. But I think drag queens have this ability to stand alone. 

“Girls who have been on Drag Race, certainly, we get to tour the world and fly business class and get paid lots of money to do great gigs and do all that stuff. I think some queens probably don’t want a label to do a three-sixty deal on them and take a whole chunk of their money, because they’re already getting a lot more than they would get. But it’s interesting, because you don’t have that mainstream crossover. There are these artists who are literally making millions and millions of dollars. I can’t even name them all.”

Jenek would love to be on all the mainstream pop charts, but feels like that bird has flown for most artists: “I mean, I know there’s obviously mainstream pop hits, but I think the cool thing about Drag Race is that all of us who have had music success and any other sort of success, really, we have these cult audiences.”

Performers aren’t just shunned for being drag queens, they are also fighting the stigmas imposed on them by the music industry — and, sadly, even some fans — for being on reality television. But can you think of a better platform from which drag artists should launch their careers? Jenek has made a living out of it. He first appeared on Season 1 of Australian Idol in 2003, then RuPaul’s Drag Race, plus two stints on Dancing with the Stars. He even won Celebrity Big Brother in the UK.

For the handful of queens like Jenek and Carlton that do identify as musicians and recording artists, the fact that Firkus et al aren’t being snapped up by major record labels and ‘livin’ la vida loca’ atop the pop charts, remains utterly “shocking”. Firkus’ alter ego Trixie Mattel is primed for pop stardom, and the queens walking a similar runway in the music industry remain hopeful that his alter ego continues to break barriers and open tightly guarded doors for the next generation of queens.

“Trixie Mattel truly is one of the most famous people on this planet,” says Priyanka, the inaugural winner of Canada’s Drag Race, who thinks the accessibility of media-savvy drag queens might be hindering their chances of success. “How do you get the mystery machine to meet up with this accessible machine, to want to throw Trixie and Priyanka on the charts?”

Toronto-based Priyanka, real name Mark Suknanan, has spent the past few years rebranding from a locally known children’s television host into a fully-developed drag queen. That transition has proven mighty fruitful. After Suknanan won Canada’s Drag Race, he turned to music and last July released his debut EP Taste Test. It won over fans and introduced him to new ones around the world, including in Australia where Priyanka will tour this October. He was even offered a record deal prior to the release of Taste Test, but ultimately turned it down in favour of controlling his own destiny — a growing trend among drag queens that feel flouted by the music business.

“I’m obsessed with Olivia Rodrigo, Tate McRae and Billie Eilish,” he confesses to Rolling Stone. “I’m sitting at home being like, ‘Why am I obsessed with all these little white girls? What’s wrong with me?!’ And then I dug deeper into my Beyoncé obsession and my Normani obsession. The reason why these people are so successful is that pop stars are mysteries, and drag queens are almost too accessible. 

“Like Beyoncé’s famous line, ‘Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator’. If that’s the only time Beyoncé is commenting on it, that’s the gateway to the soul. But if you’re on reality TV and you’re speaking your heart online every day, and your music doesn’t hold a little bit of a diary, do people care? Does a record label care?”

Riding high on his post-Drag Race fame and a viral music video, Suknanan was already reluctant when he met with a major label. His fanbase is already hooked, and it’s growing. If the label couldn’t guarantee success by way of playlists and promotion, then what was the point? They both agreed there was none, and Priyanka got the last laugh.

“Those are the two things I think about as a self-funded artist,” he says. “A label holds the nominations at award shows, a label holds Billboard spots all over the world for your music to be out there. A label can do so many things for you. But for me, I like doing it by myself, but I do want to get to a place where partnering, not signing, with a label is going to just explode me beyond the drag world,” he tells Rolling Stone from his ‘Drag Room’. Amidst the array of wigs and memorabilia scattered behind him, two items stand out. The first is a jaw-dropping gown worn during a Season 2 cameo on Canada’s Drag Race (the outfit pays homage to his heritage). The second is even harder to miss, a theme park carousel on which he performed his single “Country Queen” at the 2021 CCMA Awards in London

Suknanan splashed more than $100,000 on Taste Test, often calling upon sponsors to help fund the “expensive” overheads associated with being one’s own label. The EP included collaborations with Racer alumni, including Drag Race UK fan favourite Cheryl Hole (“Snatch”) and, from his own season, Lemon (“Come Through”). The latter spawned a viral hit after it was shared online – the official music video has over 1.4 million views and the song has surpassed four million streams on Spotify, and climbing. 

It’s evident that Priyanka means business. The thirty-year-old even flicked her drag agent in lieu of a more seasoned music manager to help steer her career in the direction of pop stardom. That’s something that Adore Delano, with multiple albums and tours under her belt, has managed to achieve. Daniel Noriega, like Jenek, had previously won hearts on the Idol franchise in his native America. But it was his Season 6 stint with Jenek on Drag Race that kicked off a successful, sustainable and independent career in the music industry. But will we live to see a drag queen achieve superstar status akin to that of Minogue or Gaga? And will it happen without the type of major label backing that many still believe is required in the world of popular, mainstream music?

“It’s totally a fair assessment,” admits Noriega, who is visiting Australia’s east coast in November with a full band as part of his ‘Party Your World’ tour. “As I said, we’re not there right now. It’s a very picky and choosy industry. We’re not presenting awards at the Grammys. We’re not performing at the Grammys. We’re not nominated for Grammys. We’re just not there yet. It’s still a bit taboo, but we’re killing it, man. We got the fans to back it up.

“We’re not nominated for Grammys. We’re just not there yet. It’s still a bit taboo, but we’re killing it, man.” – Adore Delano

“There’s a lot of girls that actually have the chops now with the writing ability, and are pumping out some really decent music. It was a bit different when I first started just pumping out the videos. It was just like a few of us. We were making the charts, but we weren’t the frontliners. I’ve just noticed a big wave of change over the past five to six years.

“I think we’re at a time right now where Drag Race is just such a huge phenomenon that it’s only just starting to open the mainstream door. I don’t think we’re one million per cent there yet, to be honest. I think we’re on our way, and there’s nothing wrong with a ladder. We can climb.”

This interview features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.

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