WITH two hours to go until the start of the annual drag queen ball, Thom Glow, a rangy 23-year-old with a passing resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, sits on a towel on the floor of a friend’s bedroom in Springburn, wearing nothing but Calvin Klein trunks and Celine Dion’s signature scent. He is trying to apply eyeliner, but a headstrong chihuahua, Doris, keeps coming into the room and distracting him from his preparations. On the bed lies a leather corset. Midnight will be drawing near before he puts it on.
When in drag, Thom goes by the name Vanity von Glow. Originally from Dunfermline, he now lives in England, but has come to Glasgow to perform at the ball. “I really want to look thin tonight,” he says. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, she went to London and she put the pounds on.’ But me and Lady Munter went for a KFC today, so...” He sighs and sips his vodka and Irn-Bru, casts a critical eye at his psoriasis. “It makes my legs look corned-beefy, which is kind of annoying when you want them to look like Nicole Scherzinger’s.”
Tonight is the third annual drag ball, sometimes known as the Vogue or All-Stars ball, hosted by bimonthly gay club night Menergy. The drag queen who can most impress the judges with their look, moves and attitude on the catwalk will be crowned the scene’s best. “People really bring it,” says Thom. “You see young people, maybe 18, who have worked hard on their image and make-up. But you can’t just look good on the runway. You’ve somehow got to go up there and project personality. It’s all very camp.”
There are no curtains in the flat. Across the road, an old granny smoking out a tenement window gets a right eyeful. Another drag queen, Candi Latte, keeps popping in from the living room with updates from the X-Factor. The chihuahua, by this time, is covered in glitter. Thom calls himself Scotland’s top female impersonator and is certainly convincing in a showgirlish sequined mini-dress, imperial blue cape and crown of golden stars. If he wasn’t about seven feet tall in heels, one might be taken in. His style icons are Kate Middleton, Liz Hurley and Sarah Palin. He has never heard of Stanley Baxter. “Right,” he says, fluttering his lashes (£25 a pair) in the mirror. “Let’s go.”
Down the stairs and out to the car. We drive into town, Vanity in front, Candi in the back. Candi’s real name is Ross. He’s in his twenties. Quite often, he says, straight guys will try to pick up drag queens, mistaking them for very glamorous, sexy women. “I was walking down the strip in Zante once,” Ross recalls. “I didn’t even have my tits in, and this British guy asked me back to his hotel. Then he clocked my hairy chest.”
The ball is at Forbidden, a lapdancing club on Maxwell Street by the Clyde. Working the door is James Faulkner, the milliner, wearing a golden robe and a gigantic head-dress of pheasant feathers. “C’mere, sweetheart,” he says to Lady Munter, who runs Menergy. “I need to do a mum on you.” Gently, he wipes smuts of bright pink lipstick from the corners of his friend’s mouth.
Downstairs in the show bar, Lana Del Rey’s Video Games is playing at high volume. Drag queens sip cocktails, pout into camera phones and sniff each other’s scent. “What do you smell of? Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather? Oh, you rich bitch!” The scene is extraordinary, a great mish-mash of looks – glossy glamazons and hommes fatales, some channelling Nicki Minaj, others Morticia Addams. A brace of buff waiters in bow-ties and briefs. A hipster in fishnets and a Frank Zappa beard.
John Maclean, an 18-year-old make-up artist from Stornoway, has a face white as paper and long hair black as ink; his lips are red as a royal seal. “I’m not a drag artist,” he says. “I’m like this every day of my life. I do not recognise gender identity or sexual identity. I am a couture work of art.”
Drag culture is, as one of the queens puts it, “a rabbit warren” of complexity and nuance. For some, wearing make-up and women’s clothing is a key part of their identity. For others it is simply a laugh at the weekend. Some try to pass as female, arranging foam padding beneath their clothes to affect an hourglass figure. Others say that looking and acting like a drag queen – vampish, trampish, vicious, delicious – is an end in itself. The whole thing is a great perfumed pageant of drama, glamour, high camp and low comedy. Vanity stands astride the catwalk, head tilted back, one arm aloft, singing Divine’s You Think You’re A Man. Next month she plays the Mecca Bingo in Aberdeen.
“It’s people like this who make the world go round,” says Tina Warren, who runs the burlesque Club Noir and is one of tonight’s judges. “They are putting Glasgow on the drag map. I just love their bravery and passion.”
Scotland has dozens of drag queens. Even their names are a treat. Bella Houston, Barbra La Bush, Cybil Partnership, Harmony LeBeau. Often, the drag queens invent interconnecting back stories; Candi Latte was supposedly the mistress of Vanity von Glow’s late husband. This is a subculture which, in its glam way, is every bit as geeky as Dungeons and Dragons. Cosmetics brands, for instance, are fetishised, none more so than Illamasqua, adored for its ability to cover stubble. “A girl wouldn’t wear this,” one queen says of her Illamasqua foundation. “This stuff is heavy duty. It’s make-up for the alter ego.”
Upstairs, in the foyer, as lapdancers totter to and fro, Jacquieline Demure is a vision in burgundy. Away from the nightclubs, he is a mid-forties Glaswegian man called Jack who owns a beauty salon. Tonight, she is somewhere between Aphrodite and Beyoncé; she made her dress herself and customised her size nine stilettos with pink crystals. “I was in a ten-year relationship and together we ran a gay guesthouse in Italy,” Jacquieline says. “But it was an abusive relationship, so I walked out and came back to Glasgow with nothing. One day I got asked to help my friend out doing the drag show at Delmonica’s, and it all snowballed from there. It’s given me my confidence back again. I’m enjoying life and have stopped making excuses for who I am.”
Ryanaaa Chanice looks like Louise Brooks. Flapper headband and sleek black bob. “When I’m a boy, I can be shy,” Ryanaaa says. “But when I do drag, each layer of make-up paints over more insecurities. If I walked out into the street the now and someone said, ‘That’s disgusting,’ I’d be like, ‘F*** you. You’re disgusting because you’re so narrow-minded.’ When you go out in drag, you get noticed because you’re fabulous. It’s fun to walk into a club and get that shocked reaction of ‘Is that a guy or is that a girl?’ But I don’t feel like I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body. I feel like I’m me.”
Barbara Fritzl, during the day a 25-year-old barman called Bobby, is wearing a scarlet and black bodycon dress, a leather dog collar with a diamanté padlock, a red wig bought on Amazon, and her flatmate’s strappy shoes. “I grind the heel away on all of mine, so I keep stealing his.” TK Maxx is favoured by drag queens as it stocks plenty of discount heels in sizes larger than those usually bought by women. Barbara says it takes about an hour to get ready, most of which is spent shaving. “It’s about being bigger than the ordinary, and apart from anything else, boys’ clothes are rubbish. You get to throw a little glitter on and have huge mad hair. So why wouldn’t you?”
On stage, Lady Munter is inviting all the “fierce ruling divas” to come forward and be judged. The walk is about to begin. This is the part of the ball in which the drag queens vamp and vogue along the catwalk, towards the stripper pole at the end, hoping to impress the judges with their style and strut.
The inspiration is the New York ball scene of the 1980s, as recorded for posterity in the documentary Paris Is Burning. To the music of Peaches, Scissor Sisters and RuPaul, the drag queens give it laldy. One, in a silk kimono, black veil and bobbed red wig, throws herself on to the flashing catwalk and grinds along with such vigour that the plastic pelvic bone she is wearing as a choker falls to the floor. In the end, though, it’s Jacquieline Demure who wins. “I was bricking it,” she says, demurely. Outside, at about 2am, drag queens are smoking in the smirr, smirking through the smoke. “Danke schön! Danke schön!” says Lady Munter, cadging a fag and light. Munter, otherwise known as David, is an extraordinary creation. A towering inferno of red hair, matching sequined dress, and silicone breasts of Rabelaisian proportions. “Do you like them?” she asks. “J-cups from boobsforqueens.com. They cost six, seven hundred quid. It’s about dedication to your art, girls.”
Munter pauses to cram someone else’s chips into her mouth, smudging her lippy, then decides to abandon the interview altogether.
“Sorry,” she says, stoating off in silver ankle boots, heading for the ladies. “I really need to pee.” «