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From ‘A Star Is Born’ to ‘Dumplin’: How Hollywood has Embraced the Art of Drag

When “RuPaul’s Drag Race” launched on Logo a decade ago, it was watched by so few people that the inaugural run was later lovingly dubbed “The Lost Season.” But as the years and seasons of that reality competition series went on, its popularity grew exponentially and its influence subsequently spread over other parts of the entertainment industry — from a sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” to seeing the queens who had come through the competition guest star on scripted television shows including “Playing House” and “Room 104,” to having drag performers become integral talent on the big screen.

“It’s this whole new economy and business that has come out of this show — and an economy and a business that are shining a light on artists that are heroes,” “Drag Race” executive producer Randy Barbato told Variety last year. “It’s not an easy gig, being a drag queen.”

Recent films such as “A Star Is Born” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” showcased the artistry with scene-stealing moments set in drag clubs, while projects such as Netflix’s “Dumplin,’ ” Fox’s version of “Rent” and Snap’s docuseries “Growing Up Is a Drag” celebrated both the performance aspect of drag, as well as some of those deeper aspects — the heart and soul of the people behind the personas.

“Part of what’s awesome about drag is it’s just one part of their lives — and it’s a magical part of their lives,” says Patty Ivins, executive producer of “Growing Up Is a Drag,” of her teenage subjects. “It’s an amazing coming-of-age story with a fresh way to look at it. They’re just reinventing what it is to be a 16-year-old boy and they created the freedom to do that — they created their own rules.”

The idea of drag being a valuable part of storytelling is hardly new, but hiring real drag queens to tell their own stories or to take on layered scripted characters is a modern advancement. The 1994 Australian pic “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” — a global hit — introduced drag performing to many in the audience, while Universal Pictures’ 1995 film “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” thrust drag queens into the spotlight with a story about three who get stranded in a small town in the middle of a road trip. But its main stars (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo) — as with the stars of “Priscilla” — were actors without prior drag experience, let alone genuine drag personas. Recent films and television tend to come down on the side of authenticity, though.

“In my experience in past television shows or films, drag .. .a lot of times is a punchline — it’s a man running around in a wig,” says D.J. “Shangela” Pierce, who appeared on multiple seasons of “Drag Race” and played the drag bar emcee and owner in “A Star Is Born.”

But Pierce says Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in “A Star Is Born,” wanted to bring as much truth of the real-life drag world into the pivotal setting in which his character Jack first met Ally (Lady Gaga) in the film. While that allowed for collaboration in areas including the wardrobe, it also allowed Pierce to take on a role above and beyond his usual on-stage persona of Shangela.

For “A Star Is Born,” Pierce was looking to create someone who equally knew how to put on a show, hosting open mics at the bar as a “cabaret-type girl,” but who was also “mature” and “established.”

“The way it was written and the way they allowed us to add little pieces of sugar and spice to it made it feel very authentic, and it was just a slice of life,” Pierce says. “Jackson Maine [Bradley Cooper] just happens to pop into a drag bar, and there are people who would not be weirded-out by that, and he was one of those people. And that made [it] a very inclusive message.”

“A Star Is Born” also featured “Drag Race” alumna Willam, while Fox’s live version of “Rent” cast Valentina in the role of Angel Dumott Schunard, and “Dumplin’” featured Joshua Allan Eads, aka Ginger Minj, among others.

“I’m bringing a lot of my expertise … and working really closely with the makeup team and the wardrobe team in making this Angel a little more glam with textiles and making the elements of drag sparkle,” Valentina says.

But, by having Valentina, who identifies as gender non-binary, in the role, the conversation is also being forwarded in ways that would not have been possible a few years ago, let alone when “Rent” was first performed in the mid-1990s.

“It really reflects the time about how not everybody is cisgendered and we all need to be supportive of people who are different and support them through their journey on this earth, because we’re all here to live an authentic life,” Valentina says.

When adapting “Dumplin’” from Julie Murphy’s 2015 novel of the same name, writer and producer Kristin Hahn wanted to expand the impact the encounter with the drag world had on protagonist Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald). In the novel, drag queen Lee offers Willowdean a boost of confidence from an unexpected place after the teenage enters a beauty pageant. In the film, Hahn wanted Lee to also have a personal connection to Willowdean to deepen the emotions of the relationship, but she also wanted to show there is more than one type of drag queen.

In order to achieve this, the film put out a casting call for real-life drag queens in Atlanta, where the project was being shot, and found a lot of talent to populate the special Dolly Parton night at the drag bar that Willowdean attends — “One of the backup singers was a real Dolly Parton impersonator,” she says. Eads was cast as Candee Disch, a comedic partner to Lee, who was played by Harold Perrineau.

“We wanted an actor who had solid comedic and dramatic chops,” Hahn says of the role of Lee. “Harold was in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and we knew he already could walk in heels, which is not easy, as women know. But he really drafted off Ginger Minj, and it provided a more fleshed-out world.”

Being able to offer a fuller look at the diversity in drag and inspire acceptance of all was key for Hahn. “The message of the movie is really about loving and embracing all kinds of beauty — there is not just one standard,” she says. “And I think that’s something that drag really teaches us because it celebrates what it is to be female.”

While “Drag Race” executive producer Fenton Bailey has been excited to see how drag, an art form that is “unapologetically coming from the gay community” is “being enjoyed by people at large,” he admits he is reluctant to say this surge in content means it has gone “mainstream” because he believes such a concept is just an illusion.

“The mainstream is not an unidentified mass; the mainstream is made up of individual people,” he says. “So the mainstream is a world of difference, not a world of sameness, and because it’s made up of individuals, this is what drag speaks to.”

Malina Saval contributed to this report.

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