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Manchester's drag scene Violet Blonde
Violet BlondeCourtesy of Violet Blonde

Is Manchester the drag scene’s new New York?

Taking cues from groundbreaking 90s film Paris is Burning, meet one ‘family’ pushing the city’s drag scene past Canal Street

Drag culture in the UK, and internationally, has witnessed a cultural explosion of shade, lip-syncing and fierce queens in recent years, largely at the hands of RuPaul and his successors. New York is most often cited as the pioneering epicentre for drag performers because of the city’s roots in black drag ball culture, documented in the 1990 film Paris is Burning, but in recent years, Manchester has given birth to a generation of artists and performers currently championing creativity in the north – with drag queens carving out their own place on that cultural landscape.

A once-niche tradition in the city has gained not only acceptance from its residents, but is being celebrated more fiercely than ever before. Events such as the Manchester International Festival and the opening of Arts centre HOME both used Manchester-based drag performers to promote a collaboration of queer performance with publicly funded art projects. A growing awareness of drag culture has pushed this community out of the back rooms of cabaret bars and onto a public platform, and these queens are here to stay.

While traditional femme queens were once contained to the clubs of Canal Street, reigning supreme with their impersonations of Hollywood starlets and conventional female archetypes, a resurgence of drag in a post-RuPaul era has uprooted this long-standing tradition. An influx of queens to Manchester’s queer Mecca began to reshape the parameters of drag performance, and with it came Tranimal, GenderFuck and all that is in between. This variation and style of drag is now seen on Canal Street, and across the city, and has given Manchester Queens the international notoriety they deserve, with the hashtag #manchesterqueens even garnering attention from Mama Ru herself when Lill Queen, Grace Oni Smith and Anna Phylactic made the final 21 of Ru’s search for a UK ambassador. Looking to New York as a cultural trendsetter, drag balls, voguing and shade are now all part of Manchester’s gender bending sisterhood.

Groups of performing drag queens are nothing new in the UK, but the Drag Family model frequently seen in New York is quite rare. Family Gorgeous, of Manchester, is adopting the Americanised idea of ‘family’ and bringing it across the pond. Drag families, detailed in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, historically provided familial support for young US men in gay ghettos during the 80s and 90s. Homeless youth migrated to gay centres like New York and San Francisco to escape discrimination, and from this longing for protection a new concept of family was born.

Formerly ‘Sisters Gorgeous’, Cheddar Gorgeous, Anna Phylactic and Grace Oni Smith reached out to younger drag performers Liquorice Black and Violet Blonde to form the now-established family, with Lill Queen floating somewhere between generations. As a collective, Sisters Gorgeous shied away from ‘traditional’ femme drag and emerged as the new kids on the block, redefining what drag itself could be. “There has been an explosion of people getting into drag but Manchester kicked off at about the same time as RuPaul,” Phylactic explained. “We get called the alternative drags quite a lot, whereas other drag queens in Manchester call themselves the more traditional drags.” As a self-confessed ‘recycle queen,’ Phylactic describes her style as ‘artistic’ and ‘making something fabulous out of nothing.’

‘Alternative drag’ is a label that distinguishes Family Gorgeous from their surrounding artists, but it is also a label its members wish to get away from. Cheddar says: “I would argue that there is no such thing as tradition. The drag you see a lot is the drag that conforms to binaries of society. I want to explore new ways of living gender.” Gorgeous, a tall, striking and polished queen, plays with masculine archetypes as much as feminine, traversing the line between butch-femme and femme-butch. Gorgeous and Phylactic host a monthly night named Cha Cha Boudoir in Manchester’s Canal Street, which plays host to the finest of drag talent in the city. Each event gives its performers a theme which they must interpret and give new life to through the art of drag, often using the tranimal art movement for inspiration. Previous themes include Jurassic World, Joystick – A Celebration of Gaming and A Murder Most Cha Cha.

“I would argue that there is no such thing as tradition. The drag you see a lot is the drag that conforms to binaries of society. I want to explore new ways of living gender” – Cheddar Gorgeous, of Family Gorgeous

Grace Oni Smith, who has been doing drag for nine years, is a trans woman who uses the ‘trans body as a canvas’ for self expression. A previous member of Sisters Gorgeous, and now mother to younger queens as part of Family Gorgeous, Smith uses a ‘punky-genderfuck’ style which owes its roots to her childhood days listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees while smoking weed in her room. “I am a woman who was born a man, who performs as a man dressed as a woman,” Smith says. “I think that’s called gender fuck, isn’t it?” Arriving in Manchester after years of living in east London, Smith describes drag culture in the city as attempting to ascribe to the dominant culture. “Six years ago it was embarrassing to be a drag queen,” she notes. “There was an emphasis on queer culture trying to be heteronormative. The people in the community who wore their campness or queerness like a badge of honour questioned that.” As such, queens like Phylactic, Gorgeous and Smith set about diversifying drag experience in Manchester.

Family Gorgeous emerged over the past few years and is often booked for performances and events, with the most recent being a string of show across the Manchester International Festival. After networking and gaining prominence on the drag scene, the three founding queens approached Black and Blonde to join forces as a drag powerhouse. “My drag child is totally equal to me, it’s not a superiority thing,” says Smith. “We are all drawn together because we have a similar story, a similar way of thinking and we help each other creatively.” The drag mothers choose their babies after seeing them perform, and offer guidance as they develop as performers. Cheddar explained the family has been a very deliberate process for her and the other members. “It is a self conscious mentoring thing,” she says. “With my drag children, I have certain expectations of them and them of me. If I am going to call someone my child, I am going to give some weight to that.”

Younger queens Black and Blonde prescribe to the mishmash of gender and sexual identity exhibited by their drag ancestors, and as Black explains, “drag should always be about asking questions, not answering them.” While admittedly not the ‘be all and end all’ for her, Black is gaining more notoriety on the Manchester scene after working with more established queens. Debates about drag have long centred around the transgressive power of gender performativity, with academics and critics alike praising the culture for separating gender from the body. However, Violet describes that, for her, it is simply a form of catharsis. “I use my drag in a very emotional way,” says Blonde. “If I feel upset, I dress ugly because I feel ugly.”

Family Gorgeous, and their fellow sisters, continue to define a generation of Mancunian artists against a backdrop of London centrism. “The Manchester Queens have now become a brand, in the same way Manchester has always been so good at branding itself. It is the blend of what drag can be and what being Mancunian can be,” says Cheddar. “The ‘fuck you, we are going to do it our way’ that has given Manchester its global prominence.” The drag scene in the Northern capital is giving the Big Apple a run for its money, as Manchester is fast becoming a magnet for this particular style of performing art.