In a city bursting with incredible drag performers – but one where queer venues are often limited by low budgets – competitions have the potential to create a unique and affirming space. A space where creatives can showcase themselves as emerging artists, broaden their perspective, and build networks – with the added incentive of a cash prize.
But the reality is much more harsh. As LGBTQ+ culture has become more accepted in society and shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race have entered even the heteronormative zeitgeist, consumption of live drag has also increased. Unfortunately, more money at the top doesn’t equal better working conditions for all, and many local performers continue to experience unsafe environments at inaccessible venues. And creatives with lower incomes often can’t access mainstream drag competitions due to tight turnarounds for the weekly challenges.
“It’s very hard to start out performing and getting gigs at venues”, says Die Lemma. “You gain access to them either through connections or competitions which are then unpaid and can put you in very stressful and emotionally taxing situations.”
Drag has long been a space for the queer community to express ourselves, to heal from collective trauma, and to engage in politics and joy.
Exposure can be tempting – and there’s no shame in creatives wanting to showcase their work to new audiences, to network, and to gain a social media following. But exposure doesn’t pay the rent. And hours upon hours of unpaid labour is exploitative. As a society, and as a creative community, we’re increasingly aware of exploitation via “exposure” – with digital creatives sharing such experiences with brands and corporate agencies. But it’s still not spoken about as much on the drag scene. Where success is still based on contacts and networking, performers find themselves unable to speak out about unpaid work at risk of losing future opportunities.
Drag has long been a space for the queer community to express ourselves, to heal from collective trauma, and to engage in politics and joy. And it’s crucial that the commercialisation of drag doesn’t take that away from those for whom this space is so precious.
Entering its final week – and about to crown a winner – Top of the Slops has been a breath of fresh air this summer. Started by two friends collaborating under the name Milli Vanilli Drag, this competition emerged in response to some of these challenging experiences in drag competition culture – the need for something new.
When audiences are paying ticket prices each week to watch drag, there’s an assumption that the performers will be supported. As consumers – as audience members and as a wider community – it’s important for us to not rely on assumptions, to challenge the commercialisation of drag, and to reflect on whom this platforms and whom it harms. Amongst a multitude collectives diversifying the scene – such as The Cocoa Butter Club, Bitten Peach, Queefy Cabaret, Lès Majesté, and Sexquisite – Top of the Slops aims to continue this work within the competition space in particular. And instead of pulling creatives down with unnecessary social politics , it provides a platform for emerging and diverse talent that is built upon a foundation of positive and supportive feedback.
I love the emotional support and mentoring that is offered, the fact that it’s non-judgemental; it’s not bitchy, it’s just beautiful.
Cat Phisher (they/them)
What sets this competition apart from its counterparts is that it’s the UK’s first paid drag competition. There’s a weekly paid fee for all contestants, guaranteed paid gigs offered as weekly prizes, make-up to use each week gifted by gender-free make-up brand Jecca Blac, and a cash prize for the overall winner. This not only avoids exploitation of artists, but also challenges the power dynamics that often exist between judges and hosts, and the contestants.
“The judging panel and the contestants are made of a really diverse cross-section of the drag community, everyone has their own individual style”, Cat Phisher shares. “I love the emotional support and mentoring that is offered, the fact that it’s non-judgemental; it’s not bitchy, it’s just beautiful.”
In Top of the Slops, no one is sent home. The competition provides a platform for them to grow and develop, rather than facing elimination and, thus, losing any opportunity to improve or to prove themselves. It also operates via a democratic model, allowing contestants to influence the challenges and creating an empowering space for collaboration and community.
“With the additional element of no eliminations, it means that me and my fellow competitors have the space to take risks that may or may not pay off to see if we can elevate our drag. Watch each other blossom and evolve as performers and enjoy the time we spend with each other without the high school nastiness and competitive hostility which usually goes hand in hand with competition culture” says Cabbage the Clown.
I sometimes yearn to see even more gender fluidity or social boxes pushed throughout the UK drag scene.
Pre-T Boy (they/them)
Far too many drag venues across the UK’s big cities – such as Manchester, Brighton, and London – still only showcase the most privileged in the queer community. Saturated with white male able-bodied slim artists, these spaces replicate the power dynamics present within wider society. Those who are seen as more attractive, palatable, and “relatable” gain popularity rapidly. And with significant weighting around clout and social status, these performers are consistently booked across venues, thus leaving fewer opportunities for newer – and often more diverse – talent.
This lack of representation of a broader range of perspectives not only hoards opportunities for an often more privileged few, but also enables misogynistic tones on stage, through the sexualisation of women’s bodies, harmful jokes, and adisrespect of trans, non-binary, and afab performers.
“It can feel like drag kings/things are taken less seriously (or are seen as less entertaining) in comparison to drag queens”, Pre-T Boy says. “Which means it’s harder to get booked. I sometimes yearn to see even more gender fluidity or social boxes pushed throughout the UK drag scene.”
With years of footage from Drag Race revealing transphobia, racism and fatphobia through jokes, characters and off-stage bullying – and little to no platforming of AFAB performers or drag kings – it’s unsurprising that such behaviour has been normalised within the wider scene.
But the East London drag scene is beginning to challenge these societal standards from the ground up. It allows performers to express themselves politically, and to show their weird and wonderful – to revel in the beauty and artistry of “ugly” drag, and of gender fluidity and fuckery. While lack of racial diversity in the drag world cannot change overnight, spaces are being created for Black queers and non-Black queers of colour to see themselves represented, to attend free and accessible workshops, and to be booked for paid gigs. For example, the Cocoa Butter Club, founded by Sadie Sinner, platforms and empowers Black, Asian and racially othered performers with showcases, classes and cabarets, and The Bitten Peach are a Queer Asian cabaret collective.
Interesting drag weaves storytelling, humour, and politics, and having a line-up with experiences and drag styles that represent the broad spectrum of the queer community creates a diverse experience for viewers.
Spaces like Top of the Slops are also fostering this ethos, as they challenge reductive structures through platforming and promoting a diversity of performance styles and experiences. The team feel passionately about prioritising talented but historically marginalised performers in a positive, and supportive environment. Most importantly, it’s platforming performance for which there is a palpable hunger within the queer audience. Interesting drag weaves storytelling, humour, and politics, and having a line-up with experiences and drag styles that represent the broad spectrum of the queer community creates a diverse experience for viewers, making the competition varied each week.
Mild Peril says: “Top of the Slops feels really supportive, more a showcase of different types of drag than an effort to mould competitors into a preconceived notion of what drag should be. Everyone has different aesthetics and a point of view and most, if not all, of us defy the standard ‘drag race drag queen’ version of drag. The standard of performance is super high and it’s always impressive seeing what everyone else brings.”
It’s exciting and magical to think about the evolution and future of queer drag performance. We’re already seeing a reclaiming of what drag is and who it is for, and we need to see more of this showcased through spaces like the one being created by Top of the Slops.
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