Documenting the drag explosion

Armed with her camera, Linda Simpson found herself at the heart of New York’s burgeoning drag scene in the 80s. Her new book gives an insight into the hedonistic heights and melancholic lows that came to define the era

Drag has existed in one form or another since as early as the 17th century, when theatre’s links to the church dictated that only men were allowed to take the stage, meaning that they often doubled up as female characters. By the 1800s, pantomime dames were a common feature of theatres in Europe and vaudeville shows were becoming increasingly popular in the US.

It is only over the last couple of decades, however, that drag has truly cemented its place in mainstream culture, with documentaries such as Paris is Burning helping to break down taboos surrounding the art form and TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race now a beloved part of the entertainment landscape. The seeds of drag’s success today arguably have their roots in 1980s New York, where a young RuPaul’s music career was just beginning to flourish and the wider scene was set to explode.

Top: Liz, Pyramid Club, 1992. Above: RuPaul at Union Square park, where Wigstock was held in 1991

Originally from Minnesota, Linda Simpson quickly found herself at the centre of the scene when she moved to New York in the 80s. As well as emceeing and promoting her weekly night Channel 69 at the Pyramid Club, which was graced by many of the defining queens of downtown Manhattan’s queer scene, her cult magazine My Comrade would also feature the performers, go-go dancers and politics of the time. “I was very lucky in that my formative years as a drag queen dovetailed with this really incredible boom in drag, and I was really in the midst of it,” she says.