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Ten New York Drag Artists That Shaped Pop Culture

The New York drag scene has inspired not only drag worldwide but pop culture as a whole. Iconic artists in the scene, such as Crystal LaBeija and RuPaul, have proven influential for decades. Here are the ten most influential drag artists from New York.

Crystal LaBeija: Crystal LaBeija was a trans drag queen that created ballroom culture. During the 1960s, Crystal made a name for herself in drag pageants in New York. After winning prestigious titles such as “Miss Manhattan”, she competed in the “Miss All-America Camp” contest and was announced fourth place. As she was called, she made an iconic speech calling out the contest and the entire drag pageant scene as a whole for its racism. Many of these contests awarded white queens because they were viewed as the beauty standard. The speech became the standout part of the documentary “The Queen” in 1968. In 1972, Crystal and a friend, Lottie LaBeija, created the “House of LaBeija Ball”, making the first ballroom house and pageant. The two started the pageant as a way to include the communities that were excluded from the pageant circuit. During the 1990s, Crystal LaBeija died of organ failure. Though she left before seeing the extent of ballroom culture on pop culture, ballroom has created iconic moments such as the documentary “Paris is Burning”, Madonna’s song “Vogue”, the show “Pose”, and the ballroom competition show “Legendary”.

Lady Bunny: In Lady Bunny’s extensive career, she has created one of the first and most successful queer festivals. Her Wigstock festival, held every Labor Day, is a staple in the New York gay community and signifies the end of the summer. The festival has helped launch the careers of queer performers while also highlighting pioneers in the industry. Lady Bunny started her career in Atlanta when her close friend RuPaul put her in drag for the first time. In 1983, both moved to New York City to join the emerging drag scene. As the drag scene evolved with the rise of countercultures like Club Kids, Lady Bunny’s drag evolved into her signature campy and exaggerated 60s look. In 1984, Lady Bunny and a few drag friends spontaneously put on a show in Tompkins Square Park after performing at the iconic Pyramid Club. This performance began the Wigstock, a festival parodying the Woodstock festival. The festival has been subject to three documentaries in 1987, 1995, and 2018. The first two documentaries followed Lady Bunny as she prepared for the festival, while the last one followed the festival’s revival after its 17-year hiatus. Lady Bunny has inspired many queens' drag styles, like Trixie Mattel and Bianca Del Rio.

Coco Peru: Coco Peru is one of TV and film’s most recognizable drag queens. Her signature red hairdo and wicked comedy have made her a favorite for drag fans. Since the 90s, she has starred in “Girls Will Be Girls” and made cameos in “Will and Grace”, “Arrested Development”, and “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar”. Coco Peru has hosted a live show called “Conversations with Coco” since 2005, in which she interviewed icons of the LGBTQ+ community, such as Liza Minelli and Jane Fonda. The interviews have garnered thousands of dollars for charities like the LA Gay and Lesbian Center.

Joey Arias: Joey Arias has been a fixture in the New York cabaret scene for the past 30 years. Arias started their career as a lead singer of the rock band Purlie in the 1970s. In 1978, they moved to New York and worked at Fiorucci, a designer store. There, they connected with alternative performer Klaus Nomi, who became a long-time friend and collaborator. Because of these connections, Arias and Nomi were backup singers during David Bowie’s 1979 SNL performance. As the drag scene expanded during the 1980s, they became a staple in the cabaret scene, where she regularly performed as Billie Holiday. Throughout her career, she made cameos in “Wigstock: The Movie”, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark”, and “To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”.

RuPaul: RuPaul is the most successful and recognizable drag queen of our time. Throughout her 40-year career, she has proven to be the ‘Queen of Drag’ due to her success in music and her TV shows, primarily “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. RuPaul started her career in Atlanta before moving to New York City during the 1980s. Between the 1980s and 1990s, she became a big name in the New York drag scene. In 1993, RuPaul released her album “Supermodel of the World,” which included one of her most well-known and successful songs, “Supermodel (You Better Work)”. Later in the decade, she became the face of MAC Cosmetics’ “Viva Glam” campaign for HIV/AIDS awareness and hosted her talk show, "The RuPaul Show”. RuPaul’s most significant success is through the drag reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Through its fourteen years on air, there have been 15 seasons of the main show and 15 spinoffs in total. The show has won 11 Emmys and 24 Primetime Emmys throughout its run. Drag Race has inspired many young queer people to explore their art and has become a platform in which drag queens from across the world can show their talents.

Shequida Hall: Shequida Hall is one of the most unique performers in the New York drag scene. Her opera singing and acting have garnered her success worldwide. Shequida was born in Jamaica and moved to New York to study at Julliard. In 1997, she made history as the first drag queen in a recurring role when she starred as Wendi Mercury in “One Life to Live”. In 2008, she reached the top 20 of “America’s Got Talent” because of her five-octave vocal range. Her off-Broadway shows have been performed internationally in cities such as Berlin. Now, she regularly hosts “Drag Wars”, a drag competition show hosted at Pieces Bar and her own show at Hardware Bar.

Sherry Vine: Sherry Vine is an icon of New York’s drag and theatre, seen since the early 90s. She founded her own theater company with Joe Gross and Douglass Sanders. Vine has starred in many of the company’s shows with Jackie Beat. Vine is most known for her parodies of performers such as Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Peppermint: Peppermint is one of the best performers that have been on Drag Race. Throughout her decades-long career, she has released two albums and five EPs, starred in the Broadway show “Head Over Heels”, and is a judge on the drag competition show “Call Me Mother”. Peppermint first moved to New York to study musical theater at AMDA in 2005 and during this time, she found the queer nightclub scene. As she started her drag career, she recorded music for Jonny McGovern and starred in Sherry Vine’s parody of “Telephone”. In 2012, she came out as a trans woman and started her transition. In 2017, she was cast in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season nine, where she won runner-up. Her lipsyncs on the show have become favorites of Drag Race fans and earned her the ‘lipsync assassin’ nickname.

Bianca Del Rio: Bianca Del Rio is one of the most well-loved Drag Race winners and comedians. Before winning Drag Race, she made a name for herself as one of the most well-known working drag queens from New York. Bianca started her career in New Orleans, where she won the title of “New Orleans Gay Entertainer of the Year” for three years in a row. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bianca moved to New York to continue her career. For the next few years, she created a name for herself in comedy by working with queens like Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, and Sherry Vine. In 2014, she was cast in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season six and later won the season. Bianca has seen success with her movie “Hurricane Bianca” and her stand-up comedy. She was the first drag queen to headline a sold-out show in Wembley Arena with her “It’s a Jester Joke” tour.

Bob the Drag Queen: Bob the Drag Queen started drag after watching the first season of Drag Race and became one of the “ultimate winners” of the show. In 2009, she moved to New York to start drag by competing in drag competitions. By the time she was cast in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season eight, she was a fixture in the New York drag scene. After winning her season, she found success through her music and comedy specials. In 2020, her show “We’re Here” with Eureka O’Hara and Shangela aired on HBO. The show has been nominated for multiple Emmys throughout its three seasons. As of now, Bob the Drag Queen is slated to open for Madonna for her upcoming tour.

Written by Carla Paz

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