YouTube at 15 is our package of stories celebrating the streaming site’s anniversary. It’s hard to imagine, but there really was a time before makeup tutorials, conspiracy explainers, on-demand music videos — really, viral videos at large. Since it’s become such a ubiquitous part of culture, we set out to look at how it’s changed our world. First, read Rob Sheffield’s investigation into its surprising origins. Here, we look at how drag performers were affected by the platform.
You could hypothesize the internet killed drag or upended drag or mainstreamed drag or reinvented the form altogether, and you’d be right. Before the advent of YouTube, drag belonged to nightlife, an art form/subculture with roots dating back to the 19th century, but whose modern iteration we now recognize took shape in the gay clubs of New York over the past 50 years and produced stars such as Lady Bunny, Flotilla Debarge, Linda Simpson, and Kevin Aviance. “East Village drag, Pyramid Club, and Wigstock left a huge imprint on our culture through the work of a group of cultural pioneers that came out of that moment,” says director Chris Moukarbel, whose 2019 HBO documentary, Wig, chronicles the history of Wigstock, an annual drag festival that began in 1984.
By 1993, drag had found its way onto the pages of The Washington Post with RuPaul being named “America’s favorite drag queen.” (Mind, you, the competition for such a title wasn’t stiff.) In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race began its slow infiltration of the zeitgeist. “Finally! A sport for us gay people!” The Guardian’s Amelia Abraham wrote of the phenomenon that became watching drag queens compete for the arbitrary title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. And by 2020, the counterculture became the culture, with drag queens running for public office, sitting front-row at Dior shows in Paris, and starring in Pepsi ads opposite Cardi B (not to mention RuPaul in full glitter drag on the cover of Vanity Fair).
“It will never be mainstream because it is completely opposed to fitting in, RuPaul told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung in 2016. But, girl, look around. Though it’s undeniable that Drag Race kicked open the door, it’s social media platforms like YouTube that have kept that door firmly wide open, and with it spawned a new kind of queen, often referred to as a “bedroom queen,” one born without the thrill of the crowd.
“YouTube is a way to get your stuff seen by bypassing traditional gatekeepers who would probably keep you off of mainstream TV shows, keep you from getting cast because you’re too heavy, too crazy, too outspoken, too far on the right, too far on the left,” explains Lady Bunny. “It’s a way to have you upload your own content, which can then start to reach a lot of people if there’s a buzz generated from it. So, in that sense, it has traditionally been a very democratic way to be like, ‘Here’s the artist; here’s the art.’ ”
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, founders of production company World of Wonder and Drag Race EPs, agree, saying that before YouTube, queens like RuPaul, DeAundra Peek, and Sister Paula were relegated to cable public access channels. “There was an audience out there dying of thirst, dying to hear from people like themselves who were their authentic selves, but who didn’t identify themselves as the traditional demographic stereotypes of television programming,” Bailey tells Rolling Stone. These days, thanks to platforms like YouTube, that audience’s thirst has begun to be satiated.
Willam Belli, a popular drag performer, first joined YouTube in 2007, a time before nomenclature like a “YouTube queen” even existed. “I thought it was a great way to waste time and maybe get attention,” he says. “I had been waiting for people to give me opportunities and I figured I could just do it myself, and maybe someone would see it and discover me. My signature scent is naiveté.”
Belli credits YouTube with helping ignite his entire career, which last year saw him co-star in Bradley Cooper’s Academy Award-winning film A Star Is Born alongside fellow Drag Race alumni Shangela. His most popular video, “Boy Is a Bottom” — a parody of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” that features fellow drag artists Detox and Vicky Vox — has received more than 24 million views since it was released in 2013. “The videos I put on YouTube have expanded my audience beyond what I could have done at just a Hamburger Mary’s. People saw the videos, started booking me, and literally 40-plus countries and thousands of gigs later I can basically say that YouTube has bought me a house.”
Jasmine Masters, a queen best known for viral videos that won the title of “#1 GIF of 2019,” doesn’t take YouTube too seriously. “I didn’t have a goal, it was just for fun,” Masters, real name Martell Robinson, says of joining the platform in 2014, just months before his debut on Drag Race. His first video was titled simply “peeing in drag,” and featured him doing just that. Asked if he, like Belli, would credit the platform with any of his success, he laughs. “YouTube has done nothing for my drag. Nothing big.”
Drag performer Soju might be considered among the second wave of YouTubers, first joining the platform in 2016 with the launch of YouTube chat show Shot With Soju. “I started my channel because I was tired of waiting around for press to cover my favorite Drag Race queens,” Soju, real name Antonio Hyunsoo Ha, explains. “I didn’t really care if other people enjoyed my content or not. That’s why I made the queens play Korean drinking games or eat Korean food. I wanted to see them react to my culture and step out of their comfort zone and give me some genuine reactions. Why would I have them sit through another question about their drag name and why they got on Drag Race? To me, it was way more interesting to see what they are like as a real person.” Three years later, thanks in no small part to his popularity on YouTube, Ha made his debut on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2019.
Soju credits YouTube with helping to foster a community for drag, taking it out of the confines of the clubs and allowing for people in small cities and outside the United States to become a part of a global conversation.
But as Lady Gaga once sang, even “roses have thorns they say.” “YouTube started demonetizing my content and flagging every video a few years ago,” Belli says. “Like, why would my wig videos be flagged as ‘adult?’ ” He’s far from alone. In August 2019, a group of LGBTQ+ YouTubers sued the platform, alleging that it uses “unlawful content regulation, distribution, and monetization practices that stigmatize, restrict, block, demonetize, and financially harm the LGBT plaintiffs and the greater LGBT community.” (YouTube denied all claims.)
Still, even Belli cannot deny the power of the platform, despite its alleged discrimination against creators such as himself. “Deadass at every single meet-and-greet, at least one or two people say they found me on YouTube then followed my snail trail to Drag Race. Most discovered me through Shane Dawson or Todrick. The children are our future … and also hopefully a subscriber.”