Read My Lips

Today, almost all drag artists have to lip-sync for their livelihoods. But that wasn’t always the case.

Close-up photos of two drag queen lips, one from the early '90s and another from 2016.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Carlos Cazalis/AFP/Getty Images, Santiago Felipe/Getty Images.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

When Luster Singleton was a kid in Zanesville, Ohio, during the 1960s, the family always lip-synced to music in the kitchen while doing dishes or making dinner. Everyone would act out the songs, usually R&B or black country and gospel. “I was the best lip syncer, so it was OK if I took the male lead, because I always had it down,” says Luster, who has since come out as trans masculine and now lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Prancing around the kitchen with a wooden spoon as a microphone, Luster was acting out the personae and identities of men in the adult world. But, as Luster became a gender-nonconforming adolescent and teenager, the options for self-expression and experimentation shrank. “I like to act, but I couldn’t get the parts I wanted—the male parts—in school plays.” Lip-sync was a way to explore their fantasies and desires and get attention for it, first at home and, during the 1990s and early 2000s, onstage at lesbian bars across the country. “The bar allows you to play the part you want to play,” says Luster. “I want to titillate the crowd, I want to make them wiggle their toes.”

Luster would spend hours in front of the mirror learning not just the lyrics to a song but the inflections, pauses, and subtleties of a vocal performance in order to perfect their two drag personas. The first was Luster Dela Virigion, a king who has eclectic taste and an affection for the “macho femininity” of artists like Prince, Teddy Pendergrass, and Snoop Dogg. (“Snoop’s got long braids. He’s always in these furs and jewelry—I’m sorry, it’s not just about being a pimp.”) Soon after, Luster debuted Lustivious, a brash yet elegant drag queen who would appear when her brother Luster was traveling.

For as long as Luster’s been camping it up, lip-sync has been the primary mode of drag performance. It’s so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to wonder when this strange, seemingly amateurish activity gained such prominence in the drag world. There’s a history here, and while it’s easier for many to mouth words than sing tolerably into an actual microphone, great lip-syncing still requires serious artistry. Whether it’s for the last three people in the local bar at 4 a.m. or hundreds of thousands watching two queens lip-sync for their lives on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a good lip-sync number brings choreography, stunts, costume reveals, and emotion to a stage. It tells a story.

Though lip-sync is de rigueur in drag today, no one knows exactly how or why it became such an integral part of the culture. The emergence of recorded music in bars, a thriving gay identity, and camp as a sensibility all seem to have played a role in the middle of the 20th century. Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian who teaches theater studies at NYU and the New School, thinks that the practice of young gays performing the songs of beloved divas and ingénues began at home, in the privacy of a bedroom or basement. It was only natural that these queens would continue camping it up at parties and gatherings once they found community. “They got together, dropped a needle on a phonograph, and someone did ‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,’ and then someone else said, ‘Oh, girl, you’re a camp, you gotta do that down at the bar,’ ” says Jeffreys.

Drag had already been around for decades at this point. Depending whom you ask and how you define “theater,” the art of men performing as women is somewhere between 150 and 2,000 years old. People started calling this drag in the 1800s, and that meant acting, live singing, comedy, or some sort of movement. But back then, drag was often part of vaudeville theater, and it was not necessarily for or by gay men.

In the early 1900s, female impersonation emerged as a touchstone of gay life. Balls, pageants, and parties where people dressed up and gender-bended were all outlets for drag. These were also places where those too gay or gender-nonconforming to work and move freely in the wider world could earn some money. However, until after World War II, if a performer wanted to do more than preen and parade, they’d likely have had to sing live or tell jokes.

Affordable, portable record players and jukeboxes changed all that. One night, in a Chicago gay bar, a popular song came on and “somebody sitting on a bar stool put on a feather boa and started showing off, being very campy and trying to be the object of attention,” recalls anthropologist Esther Newton, author of Mother Camp, a seminal book on 1960s drag culture, and the recently published memoir My Butch Career. The boy had pulled his knees up, inside his sweater, so it would look like he had boobs, and he moved them around suggestively, keeping time with the music, while miming the song’s lyrics.

During the 1960s, Newton noticed queens bringing in their own records to play on a bar’s sound system. Lip-sync emerged as a sort of queer folk art. At black and Puerto Rican bars, parties, and picnics in New York City, “people had to provide their own entertainment. All the queens lip-synced and vogued—though I don’t think we had a word for voguing,” says Martin Boyce, a Stonewall regular who was at the 1969 riots. Boyce says that the Supremes, with their choreography and matching outfits, inspired a generation of drag queens who watched the Motown stars lip sync performances on TV variety shows. Not everyone embraced lip sync as art, however. “Older white people didn’t like the idea that someone would do that and not sing,” says Boyce. “People that wanted authenticity didn’t get that the creative choreography and movement were really the whole point.”

At the Chicago and Kansas City bars where Newton did her research, lip-sync shows were known as “record acts.” Lip sync paid less than live singing or comedy, was lower-tech and more accessible. Most of the people doing record acts were known as “street faeries,” and according to Newton, these typically younger, less-professional, and lower-status performers were “never offstage,” meaning they could not or would not pass for straight in their day-to-day lives. Higher-status queens who mostly sang live disdained and distanced themselves from street performers. In what Newton calls a “very shaky, sleazy business,” lip-syncing became a way for people living furthest from respectable (i.e., straight) society to make money and feel glamorous. This accessibility is surely part of the reason lip-sync became so popular.

In the 50 or so years since lip-sync emerged from this cloud of scarcity and oppression, it has stomped out of the closet and onto a global stage. There are legendary artists like Lypsinka, the drag persona of John Epperson, who, with inimitable acting chops, lip-syncs frenzied mixes comprised of classic old Hollywood references. One of Lypsinka’s most famous acts has the queen darting back-and-forth across the stage to pantomime picking up a ringing phone and answering with iconic snippets of movie dialogue from starlets like Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Crawford. The facial expressions are perfectly timed, the mix is melodramatic and nostalgic, and the overall effect is pitch-perfect camp.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, the most visible and lucrative drag platform in the world, ends every episode with a lip-sync battle between that week’s worst-performing contestants. On the most recent season of the show, Yvie Oddly, a spooky queen with a tissue disorder that makes her extremely flexible, and Brooke Lynn Heights, a professional ballet dancer, executed a series of backbends, splits, and cartwheels while lip-syncing Demi Lovato’s “Sorry, Not Sorry.” In the song’s final moments, breathless and exulted, they exchanged a quick—almost imperceptible—glance, and Yvie jumped into the splits at the exact moment Brooke Lynn launched a flawless cartwheel across the stage. RuPaul dubbed them “lip-sync assassins,” and they both ended up in the season finale.

The growing number of drag queens who build their reputations turning looks on Instagram, rather than giving shows in clubs, has some people questioning the necessity of lip-syncing. There are some performers who never lip-sync, arguing that it’s boring and lazy. They’re not always wrong. When done poorly or without enthusiasm, it certainly can be. However, as drag reaches unprecedented levels of popularity and young queers flock to local scenes to hone their craft, lip-sync is alive and well across the country. “I get really bad stage fright,” says West Dakota, a Brooklyn-based drag queen. “Having something that keeps me moving, it’s very motivating. If you mess up, it just keeps going.” Last January, at a newish gay bar in Brooklyn, West and 11 other performers competed in “Read My Lips,” a lip-sync elimination battle. Some were well known in the local scene; others were relative newcomers; all were young and eager to impress.

The theme was Lady Gaga and the winner—decided by audience applause—would receive a hefty $1,000 prize. There were fierce performances and sublime homages to the singer, like drag queen Stella Artoit (pronounced “r-twat”) who shed a nondescript black wrap to reveal her interpretation of Gaga’s meat dress and later climbed the stage’s scaffolding. Vinny Gaga, whose references were, no surprise, unparalleled, began her lip sync to “G.U.Y.” in a reproduction of the “haute papier” cardboard teddy bear seen briefly in the song’s video.

The shows weren’t limited to mimicry, however. During a lip-sync to the song “Perfect Illusion,” West Dakota stalked across the stage in a cape and top hat, looking like a high-fashion magician. West says she knows “so much of drag performance is about connecting with musical icons that we put on a pedestal and being able to insert ourselves into that narrative.” Though she loves that about drag, for this performance, she chose not to emulate Gaga. Instead, West used the lip-sync to tell a more literal story about heartbreak and magic.

As the song began, she held out a red, heart-shaped balloon that read, “Be Mine,” her face severe and her cape billowing. The chorus—”it wasn’t love, it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion”—and then West popped the balloon, releasing a perfectly timed cloud of red glitter onto the stage.

The song was now about a twisted, glamorous magician, shattering the delusion of romance and replacing it with a darker fantasy. The audience gasped. The lip-sync was flawless. Out of the deeply familiar and sacrosanct—Lady Gaga—West had given them something surprising and new. On a night of perfectly orchestrated impersonation, artful interpretation snatched the crown.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.