8 Ways RuPaul’s DragCon Is Like Any Other Big Fan Convention (With a Twist)

Liz Ohanesian
Latrice Royal poses with a fan at RuPaul’s DragCon.

Last weekend, RuPaul led an army of drag queens and drag fans to Los Angeles Convention Center for the first DragCon. The two-day event was, in many ways, similar to what we see many other pop culture conventions. Folks paid and stood in line for photo ops with the star of RuPaul’s Drag Race as well as contestants from numerous seasons of the long-running competition show. They attended panels to learn drag history, gain insight into their favorite Drag Race competitors and get some how-to tips. They hit up booths for everything from merch to fan art and paused to snap photos of the queens who walked the aisles.

Even if DragCon was designed to be like so many other conventions, the end result was unique. It was a convention not just for fans of the show, but for anyone who has ever nerded out over John Waters movies, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling or Earth Girls Are Easy. If there’s such a thing as alternative pop culture, DragCon was a celebration of it. Here’s why.

1. Nerding out on the Club Culture Aspect.

Liz Ohanesian
Peaches Christ, Frankie Sharp, moderator Gabriel Rotello and Paul V. talk about “Party Queens” at DragCon.

Sunday afternoon closed out with a panel called “Party Queens: Why Drag Owns Clubland.” Featuring nightlife pros Peaches Christ (Midnight Mass, San Francisco), Frankie Sharp (Westgay, New York) and Paul V. (Dragstrip 66, Los Angeles), the panel discussed drag’s nightlife past, present and future. It’s not the sort of panel one might expect at a convention about a television show, but it’s one that’s necessary.

My own background is in nightclubs. I started going out in Los Angeles at the height of the 1990s club kid era and quickly found work as a DJ. The best part about both the parties I worked and the ones I attended was the camaraderie I found with other misfit kids who came together inside these events. We bonded over music, movies and common experiences. It wasn’t that different from how people socialize at a convention; we just did it in really loud venues, several nights a week. While listening to this panel, I thought it was wonderful that – finally – there’s a big media event that includes clubs as part of the full, pop culture spectrum. That spilled out into the rest of the convention, where even the people who weren’t in drag were dressed as though they were going to hit the best party of the year.

2. The “Cult Classics” Are Just Classics at DragCon.

Luke Thompson
Sharon Needles at the DragCon screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show

Peaches Christ is well-known for her series of movie screenings in San Francisco called Midnight Mass. At the “Party Queens” panel, she discussed her own interest in film. “Rocky Horror was my ‘It Gets Better’ video,” she told the crowd. Earlier that weekend, The Rocky Horror Picture Show screened at the convention.

On the same panel, Peaches Christ mentioned that her introduction to drag was through John Waters’ muse Divine. Later on, she mentioned how interesting it was to see references to Pink Flamingos, the Waters’ film, on a recent episode of Drag Race. “That’s transgressive!” she exclaimed. In the regular world, name-dropping Waters or the people who starred in his films, like Divine and Mink Stole, might get some blank stares. Here, it seems like everybody in the room gets it. The same goes for the documentaries Grey Gardens and Paris Is Burning, the later of which screened on Saturday at the convention. It is a very similar experience to the moment at an anime convention when you realize that people understand that crack you made about Fullmetal Alchemist. The only difference is the media that’s referenced.

3. Wrestling’s Campier Aspects Are Appreciated, but It’s All About the Ladies.

Liz Ohanesian
Sunny the California Girl and Roxy Astor at DragCon

In the late 1980s, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) hit TV screens with over-the-top characters, lots of comedy and an incredible amount of action in the wrestling ring. For some of us, the battles between Mt. Fiji and Matilda the Hun are legendary. The show may have only aired for four seasons, but its impact was immense.

A couple years ago, the team reunited for a documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and some have continued to reappear at screenings, fan gatherings and other events. On Saturday, Matilda the Hun, Hollywood, Americana and more spoke on a panel at DragCon. Hollywood demonstrated moves on third season Drag Race contestant Mimi Imfurst. They spilled some secrets on when the fights turned real and how their parents reacted to appearances in Playboy. But, the highlight of the panel was when several women thanked the GLOW team for the inspiration the show gave them and others. The following day, I met Roxy Astor and Sunny the California Girl. When we spoke, Astor mentioned that they are looking forward to meeting more fans across the country, and Astor stressed that they want to hear on Facebook from the girls who grew up watching GLOW.

4. Make-Up Becomes Art Supplies.

Liz Ohanesian
Kryolan make-up at DragCon.

At DragCon, the exhibit hall aisles are packed with make-up and the offerings here go far beyond the day-to-day shades you’ll find at the local department store. There are fake eyelashes in various lengths and all sorts of crazy-cute nail decals. Lipsticks and eyeshadows come in nearly every color one could imagine. If you were in the market for a new look, it would be very easy to blow a whole paycheck in the exhibit hall.

Amongst the variety of brands on display, Kryolan stood out as an old favorite of drag queens and club kids. The brand has been around for decades and is beloved for a lot of reasons. Jake Ramos, a Kryolan make-up artist, explained that their make-up is heavily pigmented, so it stays on even if you’re dancing and sweating. Plus, they have an amazing array of colors. They even have “black light reactive” make-up, which sounds like it would be perfect for a rave or haunted house.

It may seem weird to be talking about make-up on a pop culture blog (or on the Topless Robot podcast), but there were the tools here to turn yourself into whoever you want be. Whether you want to serve Harley Quinn or Twilight Sparkle realness, you could find what you want at DragCon.

5. People Understand Your Fascinations (Like Mine With With Julie Brown).

Liz Ohanesian
Some people go record shopping at conventions.

One of my purchases at DragCon was a 7″ single of Julie Brown’s ’80s pop song “Girl Fight Tonight.” I didn’t get to meet the comedian, which was a bit of a bummer, but the record will suffice.

In the 1980s, Brown gained popularity for her MTV show Just Say Julie as well as for her comedy-pop songs, like “Cause I’m Blonde” and “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun.” In the early 1990s, she had a short-lived sketch show on Fox, called The Edge. (It was recently released on DVD.) She also co-wrote the sci-fi comedy movie Earth Girls Are Easy. Brown’s L.A.-centric, pop culture-fueled humor is sorely underrated, but she has a following amongst DragCon attendees. After all, she has guested on the show. More importantly, though, she has long had a following amongst drag queens. Her assistant told me that “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” is still a popular drag performance number, which seems to be supported by YouTube videos.

This is all aside from the point, though. In any other situation, if I were to walk around holding a small Julie Brown record, no one would care. Here, people react to the record because they know the song. They like the song. They think Julie Brown is pretty darn funny too.

6. There Is Fan Art. The Subjects Are Different.

Liz Ohanesian
Art by Harvey del Rey.

There was a pretty good amount of fan art at DragCon. As one might expect, many of the pieces depicted Drag Race contestants and, of course RuPaul. Not everyone went the drag queen route, though. Harvey Del Rey, who took his name from singer Lana Del Rey, showed off paintings of pop stars at his booth: Amy Winehouse, Madonna and Selena were amongst the icons on display. Del Rey talked to me about how he was intrigued not just by the voice or look of these singers, but by their stories.

Whether it’s the fiction inside a comic book or the real life-turned-to-myth by celebrities, people like a story that can stir emotions. It’s something that goes beyond entertainment. We relate to each other through these stories, sharing bits of information that we’ve acquired and interpreting the stories into different artistic ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s DragonCon or DragCon – the stories bring fans together.

7. There’s a Strong Music Fan Element.

Liz Ohanesian
Seth Bogart at the Wacky Wacko booth.

Seth Bogart is an L.A.-based multi-media artist, who is also fairly well known for playing in the bands Gravy Train!!! and Hunx and His Punx. He also has a clothing line called Wacky Wacko, which set up shop at DragCon and won the award for “Best Booth.” He is also responsible for my own nerd moment at the convention.

At some point on Saturday, I saw someone show off a new T-shirt with a bunch of singers drawn all over it. One was Marc Almond, known as half of ’80s synthpop group Soft Cell and a personal favorite of mine. Other faces on the shirt included Riot Grrrl icon Kathleen Hannah, late disco star Sylvester, the amazing Grace Jones, Divine and so many more. It was covered in cool people. The T-shirt sparked a brief conversation with a group of young strangers. Then I darted off to get one by myself. It’s the sort of interaction that happens at conventions a lot.

The following day, Bogart told me that the T-shirts are “a way to talk to people.” It may be obvious, but it’s also interesting to think about how much of our own interactions can be sparked by something as simple as a T-shirt. Sometimes, I feel like we wear them to subtly ask, “Hey, do you like this too? Can we have a conversation?”

8. People Get Creative at DragCon, but the Outcome Is Not What You May Be Used to.

Liz Ohanesian
Weaven Steven with models Stacy, wearing the Birds of Paradise outfit, and Kelli, dressed in Disco Inferno.

One of the big draws of a convention, at least for me, is seeing the imaginative projects that people create. At DragCon, the projects mostly revolved around fashion and Steven Noss, better known as Weaven Steven, had some of the most unusual pieces at his booth.

Weaven Steven is a hair stylist who is renowned for his work in “fantasy hair” pieces, which have appeared on shows like Soul Train, Ricki Lake and America’s Next Top Model. He’s also the wig vendor for the current season of Drag Race and has released a book of his work called Weaven’s World: A Journey with Fantasy Hair. On Saturday, his models, Stacy and Kelli, showed of two fantastic outfits made of hair. The Bird of Paradise revolves around a large, bird-like hair piece and includes an asymmetrical top, a skirt and an armband. The Disco Inferno gown, which previously appeared on America’s Next Top Model, features a brooch made out of a ponytail and is topped by a disco ball that spins. Each outfit took about two weeks to make. It can be complicated, Noss says, and projects can take much longer to complete than one would expect. The results, though, are outstanding.

Previously by Liz Ohanesian

“9 Lessons Learned at Adult Swim’s Potentially Touring Drive-In Event”

“10 Creepy Awesome Things We Saw at ‘Son of Monsterpalooza'”

“8 Things We Learned at L.A.’s Anime-Centric EigaFest”

“8 Things I Learned at Power Morphicon 2014”

“The 18 Coolest Exclusives to Snag at San Diego Comic-Con 2014”

“20 Best Cosplays We Saw at Anime Expo 2014”

“14 Episodes of Highlander You Need to Watch”

“7 Lessons Learned From Watching Star Wars with Someone Who Never Saw It”

“9 Awesome Things You Might Not Know About Cartoon Network Studios”

“7 Reasons Why Marvel Superhero Movies Are Really Boring”

“10 Surprising Facts About Titmouse Animation Studio”

“The 8 Goth-Rockingest Episodes of The Venture Bros.”