NOEL KING, HOST:
June is LGBTQ pride month, and some of the loudest and proudest people in that community are drag queens. Now, drag queens don't have to be gay, but a lot of them are. NPR's Sam Sanders dug into the past, present and especially future of drag.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The first thing you have to know about drag is that it's been around forever.
FRANK DECARO: In the Kabuki tradition in Japan, in minstrel shows, they had a drag queen, in Vaudeville, in burlesque. There's always been someone cross-dressing for work.
SANDERS: That's Frank DeCaro. He is the author of "Drag: Combing Through The Big Wigs Of Show Business." Drag queens were a hit in the early days of TV as well, but DeCaro says in the last decade or so, we began to see drag on TV not just as comedy. Queens became three-dimensional human beings with and without the makeup, in large part, due to one reality show...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM "DRAG RACE"")
RUPAUL: (Singing) Show me what you got. Are you a winner?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
RUPAUL: If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you going to love somebody else?
SANDERS: ..."RuPaul's Drag Race." Every season, the show creates an entire crop of queens who enter the mainstream - Netflix specials, movies, endorsement deals. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey are the executive producers of Drag Race. They say what's happening to drag now, it happened before.
RANDY BARBATO: It's like when hip-hop transitioned into the mainstream. I feel like drag has arrived at the big kids table and that people are finally acknowledging it as an art form to be reckoned with.
SANDERS: Do you worry about what's happened to hip-hop, in some regards, happening to drag - the overmainstreaming (ph)?
FENTON BAILEY: Yeah, yeah. The license of drag is to not take anything seriously and to make fun of everything. And given that, it's never really going to become commodified. I don't think it can be completely Disney-fied (ph), if you will.
SANDERS: Shangela is one of the biggest success stories from "RuPaul's Drag Race." She recently was in "A Star Is Born" with Lady Gaga. She's got a McDonald's commercial. And Shangela says, drag going mainstream is good, especially for the uninitiated.
SHANGELA: It forces them to realize that either they're just as fascinated by something that they may have turned off in their head or just said, no, never, not me, I would never look at a drag queen. It makes them uncomfortable at times. And I think that's what happens when drag starts to go mainstream. All of a sudden, you're watching "The View," and there are three drag queens on there. And it's not a joke. Yes, we're here, we're queer. And you better deal with it because we ain't going nowhere.
SANDERS: But what if the drag we're being asked to deal with isn't representative of all drag? For instance, have you ever seen on TV a drag king? Maya Durham (ph) performs as a drag king named Malcolm Xtasy. And she thinks there's a reason you don't see drag like hers on screen.
MAYA DURHAM: It's not funny to be a man. There's no trope of a woman dressing as a man for comedy. A - people are only interested in seeing male performers, B - people are only interested in femininity as a performance.
SANDERS: To change that will take a lot. But in this big drag moment, those questions are being asked, and maybe that's a good start.
Sam Sanders, NPR News.
KING: If you want to hear more, check out the latest episode of Sam's NPR podcast It's Been A Minute. It includes the story of Shangela's first time in drag.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
SHANGELA: I choreographed a number for these three guys that were doing Beyonce's "Single Ladies."
SHANGELA: And then one of the guys backed out, and the other two were like, no, we don't have a Beyonce. And I'm like, well, OK. I'll be the Beyonce.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")
BEYONCE: (Singing) If you like it... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.