MKTG Roundtable – The Evolution of Drag Culture with Ben Scott
5 Minute Read
Drag Culture has catapulted into the mainstream recently, supercharged by pioneer RuPaul
Drag Queens are reaching levels of superstardom, attracting sponsorship dollars
Partnerships with Drag Queens have typically been with makeup brands due to the natural fit with drag, however sponsorships are now expanding far beyond just beauty
Pride month takes place in June, where we celebrate the voices and stories of the LGBTQ+ Queer community, to honour and advance freedom and equality for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
As Sponsorship Marketers it is crucial that we immerse ourselves in the diverse cultures and passion points of consumers to provide informed recommendations to our clients. As conversations are increasingly shifting towards diversity and inclusion in popular culture, many brands have put out efforts to support the Queer community.
While some industries may be hesitant to target their sponsorships within community, such as some in the Sports industry, MKTG’s recent Decoding Canada study informs us that Canadian Sports fans are actually 59% more likely than the rest of Canadians to think that college and professional sports team should fully open their arms to the LGBTQ+ Community. It’s clear that brands should support the Queer community through sponsorship, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes sense from a business perspective.
At MKTG, we’re thankful to have a diverse workforce that helps foster a community of learning and understanding within our organization. For this week’s blog, we sat down with Ben Scott, MKTG’s Creative Director, to learn more about drag, the drag community and its increasingly prominent role in sponsorship today.
What sparked the rise of Drag culture?
Drag Culture has been around forever. Looking back to Shakespearean plays—or even ancient Roman theatre—men would don female costumes and perform female roles because women weren’t allowed to act and didn’t hold jobs, professions or positions. Modern drag has also been around for a long time; but until recently it wasn’t considered mainstream, and instead was considered a subversive culture – poking fun at common/heteronormative culture, but also a space for Queer expression.
Drag culture kind of emerged from underground club culture and evolved from Ball culture. Balls were where Queer people of color who didn’t feel they fit into “normal” societal culture or even in typical gay culture at the time (which often only recognized white, cis-gendered gay men) would create their own space where they could safely belong with each other. They’d get together hosting themed runway shows (“categories”) with a judging panel, making it a competition, full with trophies and bragging rights.
We now see nuggets of this culture come to life in RuPaul’s Drag Race, where he and his panel of judges will dissect the queens as they walk down the runway.
Was RuPaul the first to bring Drag Culture to TV?
He was a pioneer in bringing it to the mainstream and making it digestible for a larger market.
Can you tell us a bit more about RuPaul?
He came up in the club kid culture in the 80s and his approach wasn’t necessarily to become a drag queen, it was more about an androgynous gender bend, that was more focused on creativity and creative expression as a performing artist, actor and musician. Ru is a brilliant marketer and he started to lean into drag more when he saw a window, or a moment, recognizing drag could have a larger impact. In 1993 he released the song Supermodel (You Better Work) and that catapulted him into the mainstream.
MAC Cosmetics brought RuPaul on as their first spokesperson for the Viva Glam campaign focused on the AIDS community where all proceeds from Viva Glam lipstick sales goes toward helping women, men and children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. The campaign presses on to this day, but Ru was the first celebrity to lend his likeness and voice to the cause.
From there he had a talk show and several different TV and film appearances, and 10 years ago he launched RuPaul’s Drag Race which immediately had a cult following within the Queer community. Following the first few seasons the show started to become popular in mainstream culture as well - expanding beyond the gay community into the entertainment industry - and is now an award-winning television staple and simply part of the zeitgeist.
It’s become a great influence beyond being solely a “gay thing”, opening doors for kids that just want to be creative, regardless of sexual identity or expression.
You mentioned Ru Paul’s partnership with MAC, and how he was the first to really partner with a brand. How has sponsorship evolved in this category?
Contestants from Drag Race have gained celebrity status and brands have definitely jumped on board - but it’s clear to see when a partnership is just a money grab versus those who have authentic ties.
What Makes for Good Partnerships with Drag Queens?
Based on positioning, personality and if it feels natural, and if it’s a product they use in a day-to-day. Easy wins for drag queens have been sponsorships in the cosmetic category given the natural tie that make up has to Drag. But it not just the product, it’s the consistency in the brands message. If the brand consistently shows that it is an ally to the community – both through its outward messaging and its internal culture and practices – then a partnership with a Drag Queen serves as a tangible expression of its values, rather than just the exploitation of a Queen’s popularity.
What are some tips you would give to brand when it comes to supporting the Drag and Pride community authentically?
As with any ambassador (straight, queer, athlete, or drag queen) it comes down to fit and authenticity.
For any brand looking to step into the space, when working with any marginalized community, these communities have had to fight and carve out their own space for decades to have their voices heard. So it means being respectful of that space, especially when it comes to putting your branding somewhere, and it’s important to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy. Be aware of the struggles of those individual communities and make sure you’re not showing up for the sake of branding.
Especially when it’s timely.
Yes – totally. The term most commonly used is Rainbow Washing so we see a lot of that in June, given that it’s Pride Month.
How would you define Rainbow Washing?
It means that everyone shows up June 1st, and the city is painted in rainbows. I personally love it because it visually sends such a strong message, but at the same time where are those rainbows the other 11 months of the year? It’s important to be aware of the space you’re in and working authentically. Where possible, activate and start those conversations throughout the year, not just during Pride month. If a brand covers themselves in rainbows during pride festivals, especially for companies that benefit from the queer community year-round, they can often get criticized for it. So it’s important to be present year-round if you want to be the most authentic – whether that’s in your influencer seeding, your sponsorships and community partnerships, or waving your rainbow flag, it resonates really highly with the Queer community when they see brands making an effort to support them year round, as their struggles against inequality exist 365 days of the year.
What is often perceived negatively by those within the Queer community, is when brands put a rainbow on their products to push sales, but don’t actually contribute to the Queer community – so if you are going to put rainbows on your products for the month of June, try to incorporate some give-back or donation component to local organizations – it just appears more authentic, because as I mentioned earlier, if a brand doesn’t actively do anything to push Pride’s agendas forward, it can appear like an exploitation of the Queer community, rather than a genuine care for pushing equality.
It’s also important to have diversity in your hiring practices, so the same work brands do for pride externally, they should also do so internally.
Exactly – brands need to be vocal about their policies on equality that they implement and practice, and make sure that their employees, both current and prospective, are comfortable to be themselves. The whole organization needs to represent it. Do those people feel safe within their own work environment? It’s most effective where it’s an inside out approach.
Have you seen any formidable examples recently of a brand’s work with the Pride community?
Axe Body Spray - historically known for its outward misogyny – has recently made effort into acknowledging this and altering their messaging. They did a print campaign a few years ago with Tynomi Banks, a local Toronto Drag Queen, showing Tynomi at rehearsal both in and out of drag and the messaging was about “no matter who you are or what you do”. It demonstrated a strong voice showing diversity is acceptable, and questioned “what does masculinity (conventional or not) have to do with deodorant? I thought this was a good departure for Axe.
Crest has also done some great work and stands out for being authentic because they have showed different prerogatives and the spectrum of what “queer” means. Pride has typically been about gay rights, and they are vocal in introducing trans rights, women’s rights, and everyone that falls within the rainbow and spectrum. They also had a campaign where they partnered with local Toronto personalities and made a donation to the local community centre every time a hashtag was used, so it was a great example of putting your money where your mouth is.