They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re at a precipice of a new frontier in both entertainment and performance. We’re Here is the new Neon show that takes drag out of the city and into small town America, writes Dejan Jotanovic.
Drag, as an artform, isn’t by any means new. It was common practice in Elizabethan theatre of the 1600s, dominated by Shakespearean plays where men played women’s roles in full makeup and costume. Similar “gender flipping” theatrics were employed in romantic operas, in which male soprano and alto roles were performed by women – so-called travesti, or “trouser” roles.
In the 20th century, cinema introduced us to “genderfucking” characters in cult queer classics such as Hairspray and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert immortalised the trials and tribulations of the “drag queen” on a far more global scale. Locally, the 90s also introduced Aotearoa to Ken and Ken, typical Kiwi blokes played in drag by our greatest Dames, Lydia and Jools Topp.
But in 2020 the explosive success of drag sees its final mainstreaming. No longer obscenely fringe or tucked into 2am slots at gay bars, the spectacle has garnered fans and followers from all demographics even in the most unlikely places. All of this can largely be attributed to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that just finished its 12th season (plus five All Stars instalments and a British cousin) and which has spawned worldwide live tours, a Christmas special, a dance competition, a scripted comedy-drama, and a camp crescendo in DragCon, an annual expo of drag culture held in LA and NYC that cartwheels in crowds of 100,000.
The latest glorious arm of Mother Ru’s sprawling empire, We’re Here follows three of the genre’s biggest stars – Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, two-time competitor Eureka O’Hara, and the first drag queen to walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards, Shangela Laquifa Wadley – as they make their merry way across small-town USA.
In much the same way that Drag Race comprised a sort of tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway and America’s Got Talent, We’re Here is stitched with thread from other reality staples. Its most immediately noticeable reference is rebooted makeover hit Queer Eye, as our three queens travel to small-town America and seek to bring out the legends within the locals.
Each queen is given a handful of days to make their “drag child” from the local community stage-ready before the town’s own (very first) drag show. Wigs, fabric, confidence boosts, lipstick-ready lip syncs and a sickening dance routine are all part and parcel – including, of course, a crash course in drag’s own vernacular: “gag is good!” But the show finds most of its footing in its heart. Our queens are matched with folk whose experiences seem to resonate with their own.
“We all grew up in small towns,” says Eureka, who in the series opener is paired with Erica, a woman whose past prejudice and intolerance pushed her daughter into leaving home. Erica’s journey is about reconciling her past and attempting to remedy her future. As the bond strengthens between the two, we learn that Eureka’s own mum – who passed away two months prior to filming – faced similar struggles of acceptance. Eureka’s relationship to their gender identity provided a rich understanding of how both Erica and her daughter would be feeling. For Erica, getting into drag in front of her neighbours, friends and family would be a symbol of forgiveness; love towards a community she always shunned.
“Bringing drag to small towns is personal to me… a powerful validation of what I was feeling on the inside,” says Shangela. “You can express yourself without holding back, and receive love in return.”
The show becomes a deep dive into small town America, places largely associated with Republican Red and a suspicious eye towards any bend away from the mainstream. Where Drag Race is its own self-contained queer utopia of sorts – a bouncy and camp production aimed at inventing a safe space for the queer community – We’re Here offers an abrasive reality check when the queens are tucked into the “real world”. This is best displayed in a frivolous shopping montage within the opening episode: as the queens dance out of the store the camera lingers on a silhouette of a nearby local, “You can tell the nice lady I’m done. I’ll never buy anything in here again. All these freakin’ freaks.”
Their first visit – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with a soaring population of 7,633 – is steeped in homogeneity, whiteness and straightness; qualities that queens of colour like Shangela and Bob meet with unwavering confidence. Against the current backdrop of racial injustice, the show offers a welcome reminder that drag is more than just satire and performance, glitz, glam and a garish exploration of gender. Drag becomes both a mechanism to explore identity, and to challenge it. The goal is to disrupt; to leave something behind other than a false pair of lashes.
For Bob, Shangela and Eureka, the show is more than just a makeover challenge: it’s catharsis, it’s a venture in reclaiming their past. As the six episodes progress, we learn more about the individual struggles of their childhoods and adolescences. We hear their motivation in changing hearts and minds in places that weren’t all too friendly or welcoming. We see their love for community, their commitment to large impacts in small spaces.
Bob speaks candidly about his experiences growing up in Georgia: “I was depressed, sad, desperate, lonely.” He delves into his substance abuse, his attempts to pray his perceived faults away, doing anything he could to fit into the mainstream. But finding a community within his queerness changed him. “Playing with gender pulled me in… it was the creativity, the fun, the power, audacity, bravery, strength, it was everything I wanted to do and everything I wanted to be.”
Drag – for Bob, Shangela, Eureka – was liberation. And they believe it can be for many more. They’re here, they’re queer and they will continue to persevere.
We’re Here is now streaming on Neon.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.