It’s no secret that underground drag scenes worldwide are full of hyper-talented women. It’s also no secret that misogyny is prevalent within gay culture; as a result, plenty of these women are consistently erased or told that they can’t do drag. Lacey Lou, a Birmingham, UK-based drag queen has come face-to-face with this misogyny in the past, but she recently went viral for a series of tweets in which she claimed to have been dropped from a Virgin Atlantic ad campaign because of her gender identity.
Virgin has disputed the claim and issued a statement to INTO, in which they outline that the advert was designed to “challenge and subvert stereotypes,” and that “the accusations leveled against us by Lacey Lou are entirely incorrect and not supported by any evidence – we did issue a brief to a production company to cast five drag artists in a promotional video, but we never specified gender.”
None of this dispels the fact that mainstream representation of drag still has a lot of catching up to do before it matches the brilliance of street scenes, and that women – whether trans or cisgender – have always played an important part in drag history, and they’re still killing it today. Lou is just one of many artists worldwide speaking out against the treatment of women in drag, and in this specific case the issue is also linked to pinkwashing and corporate interests. So, to delve in deeper, we reached out to hear Lou’s side of the story.
Can you tell me in your own words what happened with Virgin Atlantic?
I was contacted through Instagram, which I use solely as my online work portfolio. [An agency] asked if I was free and wanted the job, so I agreed and booked time off work. We began emailing – I sent measurements for my costume, and they told me about the company, about what we would be doing and about the fee. I noticed in the e-mails that other people had been incorrectly copied in, so I could see which other performers had been picked; there were three or four, so I realized that they had been chosen alongside me.
We were then asked to send pictures out of drag makeup, which nobody has ever asked before. After I sent mine we received an email saying I was being let go from the role as the client had decided to go in another direction. I knew what they were doing, and I was in shock. How do you proceed from that? I emailed asking for feedback, and to find out whether I had been dropped because I was a woman. [The agency] called me to apologize, and stated multiple times that the client wanted male drag queens.
Were you surprised by the incident, or is this discrimination something you’ve encountered in the past?
I was so surprised – they have a three-year plan to be the friendliest LGBTQ company. I’m part of the community, as are trans and non-binary people: where’s our representation? If you know our community well enough you’ll know it contains a mixture of wonderful, different people – not just cis white men. The truth is that they wanted the pink pound, but they need to educate themselves if they want to be real allies. That’s all I wanted with this media attention actually: to make companies realize that we see what they’re doing, and that we aren’t happy about it.
It’s ironic that companies seem to want to book queens – often without pay – solely during Pride season. Do you see an increase in work during Pride? If so, what message do you think this sends to queer people?
There’s definitely an increase, but if it comes from within the community then that’s great! It’s when it comes from large companies that it’s a problem, and I’ve seen that happen a lot this Pride season. Pride is year-long; it’s daily! Where is the support once the rainbow flags are taken down from shop windows? What are these companies actually doing to help communities? I want to see less “Look at us, we support you,” talk, and more questioning what companies can do to help us and to address the problems we have in the community. I don’t need to see it in your advertising, I need to see it in your actions.
It seems there’s a real disconnect between the mainstream perception of drag and the actual drag being seen in local clubs. Why do you think this is?
I think it comes from mainstream representation of drag history, from [UK drag veteran] Lily Savage to the narrative of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They’re legends in their own right, but they’re not representative of what’s happening in the community. I think drag became more popular through the media, and it became more accessible; that’s why there’s an increase in drag performed by diverse groups of people. But drag history has always included transgender, non-binary and cis female artists – there are just fewer in comparison to the number of cis gay men.
You’ve been doing drag for a few years and continuously evolving your aesthetic; right now, how would you describe your drag?
When I started I was very Club Kid-inspired and genderless. Now, as I’ve grown as a woman in my late twenties, I’m enjoying exploring femininity and being proud to be a woman in this world, which thinks femininity is an embarrassing characteristic. I love taking ownership of female stereotypes and play on them; making them strong, making hem leaders. I’m so inspired by Mother Nature, and that transfers into my aesthetic and my performances.
Tell me a little more about how much goes into your drag; how long does it usually take to plan and put together a full look?
I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating my aesthetic and getting it to where it is now. It’s like any other artist’s process, although I think a lot of people don’t see it that way; I’ll be inspired by something for a while and then make everything about that. It takes a lot of time, but it’s enjoyable. And I’m an artist! I make my wigs and headpieces, and all of those take time to collect and make. As for outfits, I either pull from what I have or search through websites to find the cheapest version of a look.
Finally, so much of what you do is about community-building. [Lacey founded a club night in Birmingham, Glitter Shit, which aims to promote inclusivity and raise money for grassroots charities.] How do you use drag to bring people together, and why did you set out to do that?
When I first started doing drag there wasn’t the community that there is now for young people. I knew that there were people out there, they just didn’t feel like they could evolve in somewhere like Birmingham, so they would move to bigger cities like London. There were also people who just weren’t confident enough to explore themselves yet, and that was because they couldn’t see representation of that drag happening already. There were people really crying out for representation and a place to explore – I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t try to address that.