Life

How to Get Gay Famous

In queer communities, celebrity is awarded by a different set of rules.

A drag queen performs in a bar.
Borgia Bloom performs at the Boulevard in Pasadena, California, in June 2021. Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This piece is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“Ooooh, there she is,” “Ah, hey, girl,” “I love it,” “Did you see her?” “Gorgeous.”

Praise floats through the air above the clusters of fans, attributable to no one in particular but palpable all the same. The diva’s response is always measured—a kind smile, nod, some air kisses to those they recognize or casually know, possibly a generic “hey, how are ya?”—a general largesse and beneficence directed more toward the space than any particular admirer. Or maybe, if they’re in a mood, they’ll stomp across the room, shoulders-up-head-down, to the safety of their inner circle, who will shield them from interlopers or hangers-on. Later on, there will be a stage and a performance. The crowd will sing along, applaud, and cheer wildly, offering up a geyser of enthusiastic approval. The diva serves them fantasy and glamor—and they lap it up.

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This scene may sound like an award show red carpet, Broadway premiere, or star-studded gala. But it takes place at your local drag shows most Friday and Saturday nights and often, if you live in a bigger city, on weeknights, too. In mainstream culture, celebrity requires scale: the star of a big-budget studio film; a platinum-selling singer; the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but only if they have a TED Talk and a few million Twitter followers. While the queer community recognizes and venerates plenty of widely known and beloved figures of this sort, we have another category of celebrity that is hyperlocal but no less meaningful. People who are not famous, in any broad sense of the word, but who are gay famous.

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I wrote the book How You Get Famous: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn in an attempt to understand why drag captivates performers and audiences alike and why, after being confined largely to gay bars and nightclubs for decades, it has become so widely popular over the past decade. (RuPaul, one of the rare gay-famous people who’s also famous-famous had a lot, but not everything, to do with the latter question.) To the uninitiated, the hardest thing about drag would seem to be putting up with the social stigma of gender nonconformity. But delivering a fantasy to a room full of pop culture aficionados, some of whom are definitely trying to outshine you, requires a lot more than that. There’s skill—can you paint a cut crease on your eyes in 15 minutes?; stamina—can you lip sync while dancing to a seven-minute Beyoncé megamix?; and grit—can you wheedle tips out of a group of drunk bachelorettes? Drag rewards charisma and makes glamor accessible. The point is to make yourself a star in a specific and highly discerning milieu, and that, more than any particular talent or technique, is the pinnacle of the art form.

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As I discovered in my five years reporting How You Get Famous and my nearly 15 years reporting on queer culture generally, while minting stars in this way can be a joyous fuck-you from a minority community to the wider world, turning our homegrown heroes into stars isn’t exactly a choice. For most of history—and arguably still today despite all the Pose and Heartstopper and Lil Nas X—queers have had to scour the nooks and crannies of popular culture for the slightest hint of camp or gay themes with which to connect. When no one represents us, anyone can—or else we elevate our own among ourselves.

While gay fame is not limited to drag, drag is a powerful example of this phenomenon. Ask a queer barfly or nightlife connoisseur about the first time they saw an amazing drag performance. Their eyes will grow misty as they recall a night 15, 20, or even 40 years ago when a queen named Tangerine DuPree or king named Rusty Nutz climbed a tree outside the bar during a barnstormer of a lip synch, or swung from the rafters before landing in a split on a rickety stage, or made the entire room cry with their rendition of “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going).” The antics and triumphs of these icons become the stuff of local legend.

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Importantly, though, these are icons you can actually touch. Queers will flock to the bars week after week, and while their idols may never learn their names, they will double kiss them at the bar and graciously accept their dollar bills during a number. Something that would never be possible with Britney Spears, Rihanna, or Celine Dion, but that is an essential quality of gay fame.

What have we learned from turning performers, artists, and activists from nobodies into queer celebrities? There is power in bestowing adulation, attention, and cash on our neighbors, our lovers, and the friends of our friends. Also, it is ridiculous to believe that—in a world of 8 billion—star quality is limited to the few people mainstream culture deems worthy of fame. Only the truly unimaginative require that their idols be vetted and approved by network television or corporate America. While mainstream fame is often bestowed on people who represent or uphold norms or ideals, the gay famous are almost exclusively cultural vanguards and trailblazers. They frequently receive no wider fortune or recognition for their contributions. Artists like Cathie Opie, Tim Miller, and Vaginal Davis who use their bodies to tell uncomfortable, powerful truths about queer life. Ballroom legends like Willi Ninja or Dorian Corey. Writers like Sarah Schulman and Ann Northrop, who chronicle queer lives and hold institutions accountable. They walk the streets unnoticed but are greeted by gasps and stares of admiration in queer spaces.

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Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s new book From Gay to Z: A Queer Compendium understands this dynamic intuitively. Sayre calls the book “a who’s who of LGBTQ+” and organizes hundreds of entries on contemporary and historical figures, as well as some inanimate touchstones of queer culture (poppers, leather, piano bars), alphabetically. Sayre’s canonization of their own “opinions” on which queers hold historical importance is exactly the kind of grassroots, chaotic fan fervor that energizes gay fame in the first place.

Rather than strive for some comprehensive or objective list of queer importance, Sayre has given us their own take on gay history. Gay to Z is a mashup of cultures and context. People you could meet at a party are included next to some of the biggest stars in the world as well as hugely influential creative types who weren’t necessarily seen as gay heroes in their time. On a single page, Brooklyn drag doyennes Merrie Cherry and Charlene sit alongside contemporary writer Alexander Chee, record executive and disco empresario Mel Cheren, and pop diva Cher, one of the many nonqueer “Icons” included. In this last move, Sayre shows they understand that projecting elaborate queer fantasy onto huge stars is the flip side of turning locals into celebrities.

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While fame in the wider world usually requires wealth, power, or conventional beauty, in Sayre’s reimagining, success is measured by one’s ability to influence and support queer culture, evoke an emotional response, or present a novel version of gayness. It’s a reminder that our local stars are often much more fun and interesting than the ones on Times Square billboards. Merrie Cherry smashes beer cans with her boobs. Charlene lugs a Lasko fan to her gigs and places it at the edge of the stage to allow for maximum hairography. Orville Peck, not a drag queen but a beautiful crooner who is teetering on the precipice of fame-fame, wears a fringed Lone Ranger mask that obscures his face. (Always. In every photograph and public appearance.) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are drag queen nuns who wear habits and paint their faces white to protest the Catholic Church and raise money for charity. Queers love to venerate the absurd and irrational. We bask in the implausible, because years of feeling wrong, odd, and excluded have taught us that joy and self-actualization are rarely found in practical or familiar places.

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However, as queer people become more visible and accepted, gay fame is changing. It used to be a rare few who could start as gay famous and then become famous-famous (Divine, RuPaul, John Waters). Most gay stars (Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, even Elton John) had to be capable of passing—at least for a time. They were often incidentally gay, and rarely trafficked in queer representation, community, or any sort of controversy until they were safely accepted by the straight world. Now, thanks to social media and shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, gay fame can feel like regular old celebrity—but often without the perks and real financial reward that comes with mainstream popularity.

The intimacy of gay celebrity is its greatest virtue, but that same requirement can keep people trapped in subcultural limbo. Aja, a young performer from Brooklyn who appeared on two seasons of Drag Race, has found a wider and more demanding audience for her art since being on the show. She’s made some money, gained followers, and commanded a spot on bigger stages; but she also frequently has fans demand photos at inopportune times and has struggled with harassment from strangers online. “You can’t just go down a block from your house and see your local Ben Stiller,” Aja explained when I interviewed her for my book. “But you can go down the block from your house and see your local drag queen. People know you, but they forget you don’t know them.”

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And so, gay fame is not always, or totally, liberatory. The ability to touch your heroes can make things awkward. Being rewarded for charisma in spite of the callous hierarchies of the wider world is fun, though the cost is never really being able to escape judgment and discrimination. But while loud, flamboyant, never-passing queers are slowly gaining bigger platforms and audiences, we will always want the freedom to choose our idols—because nothing beats that thrill of stumbling into a dimly lit gay bar only to find ourselves gazing up at the stars.

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