Contrary to popular belief, America's drag scene predates RuPaul's Drag Race. This is just one of the misconceptions that Frank DeCaro clears up in his new book, Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business. The New York native has been an avid follower of the U.S. drag scene since the 1980s. After graduating from Northwestern University with a journalism degree in 1984, he wanted to pursue a career involving entertainment and writing, so DeCaro began hosting his own national satellite radio program, The Frank DeCaro Show. He has also been a columnist for Spy magazine and still contributes to The New York Times Style section.
The bookmarks the author and journalist’s fifth published novel, but it’s hardly the first time DeCaro tackles a subject like the American drag scene. He knows just what it takes to write a great piece on America’s subcultural underground and even acted on the web series Spooners in 2015.
DeCaro coupled his admiration of show business with a thorough amount of research to provide a glamorous, in-depth look into the lives of some key figures in America's drag history. In preparation for writing the book, he reached out to several industry figures, collecting personal photographs and anecdotes to show the full scope of the scene.
With drag quickly entering mainstream pop culture, we couldn’t resist tracking DeCaro down to talk all things drag.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing the book? The most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect of writing Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business was getting the opportunity to shine a spotlight on all the drag artists who’ve entertained and inspired me – and so many others – for so many years. Some are female impersonators, some are drag queens, some are just men in dresses, but I put into the book every one that had some impact on my life.
I call myself a “drag hag” because I’ve been tickled by men in dresses since I was a toddler and I saw Herman Munster get hit with a bolt of electricity and turn into a drag Frankenstein in sausage curls and a Victorian dress on The Munsters. I was 3-years-old, but I thought that he was adorable and hilarious. I still do! There’s a photo of Fred Gwynne as “Aunt Herman” in the book!
The most challenging aspect of writing Drag was fitting so many talented people into two-hundred-fifty-some pages. The book could have been 500 pages! But I did my best to get as many drag moments, as I like to call them, into the book as I could, and give them the respect they deserve.
You received a lot of personal photographs and contributions from drag legends – how did that help shape the direction of the book?
I am so blessed to know a lot of the stars of the drag world, particularly those who’ve been at it for a while. I’d followed their careers for decades and have written about many of them many times before. I was never a part of the drag scene, really – I didn’t do a drag role as an actor until only a few years ago in a web series called Spooners – but I’ve been following drag in New York, Chicago, and LA since the eighties. When it came time to write the book, I was able to get even the biggest names on the phone for interviews fairly easily.
Most of the time. I’d even interviewed departed legends like Divine and Charles Pierce, too, and I’d seen Jim Bailey perform. I can’t believe I spent personal time with them – however brief. They were so larger than life.
I’m also lucky enough to know a lot of very talented artists who donated their drawings, their original Polaroids, and their photographs for inclusion in the book. One photographer, Dusti Cunningham, here in LA, actually did shoots specifically for the book! I owe a lot to all the artists – drag and drag-adjacent – who contributed to the book. I certainly couldn’t have made such a glittery volume without them!
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about collaborating with legendary members of the drag scene?
I like to brag that I first met RuPaul when she was a brunette—which is true—but if I’m really going to toot my own horn, it’s this: When I was doing radio, I asked Charles Busch to adapt Vampire Lesbians of Sodom into a radio play and he did! Not only did I get to feature it on my show for all of North America to hear, but I also got to play a small role in the play. I was Oatsey Carew, and it was a thrill to rub elbows with some of the original cast of the play, let me tell you. When I was a twenty-something going to see that classic play in the Village, never in a million years did I think I’d ever get to play a part in it.
Who is your favorite drag queen? Is there one drag queen that inspires you?
I hate to pick one. I love Bianca Del Rio. If she didn’t win Drag Race, I would have hung myself with a statement necklace. I was really invested in that season. I also adore Miss Coco Peru. She is so wise and so talented and so funny, and she has so much important stuff to say!
I don’t think anyone who has ever stood behind a microphone is any funnier than Lady Bunny and Jackie Beat. They’re so quick-witted and fearless. And Varla Jean Merman eating spray cheese from a can while singing opera is one of the greatest feats I’ve ever witnessed in person—and I saw Leigh Bowery do his “enema show” in London.
But my favorite drag queen – yes, I do have one – is Dina Martina. She goes to places no one else would ever think to go. She makes me laugh until I ache. You can’t explain her to anyone, either, because it doesn’t make sense when you try. She is a litmus test for me – if you don’t think Dina Martina is a scream, we can’t be friends.
What is one of the most interesting things you learned while researching for this book?
The most interesting thing to discover, for me, was that drag has been a part of show business forever, and audiences have always been drawn to it. I like to say that Medea had a lot more in common with Tyler Perry’s Madea than they ever taught us in school. The tidbit I like best is this: Julian Eltinge, who really is the mother of modern drag, had his own Broadway theater named after him in 1912! His own Broadway theater! That blows my mind! It’s a multiplex on 42nd Street now. If you look behind the marquee, she’s still giving good face!
What is one takeaway that you hope readers will have after reading this book?
I hope that readers of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business will realize that drag didn’t begin with season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There is so much drag to learn about and, thanks to YouTube, experience. Honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jim Bailey dressed as A Star is Born-era Barbra Streisand singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on a primetime TV special saluting the Super Bowl. No, I’m not making that up. It’s out there.
You and your partner are bi-coastal, what is the best drag show in L.A.? What about New York?
My husband, Jim Colucci, is the author of the New York Times bestselling book – I love being able to say that! – Golden Girls Forever. So, in LA, we are particularly fond of the sitcom spoof The Golden Girlz at the Cavern Club Celebrity Theater in Silver Lake. It stars the drag legends Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine, and the brilliant comic actors Sam Pancake and Drew Droege. All of them are featured in my book, by the way. The show is always a scream, particularly the time that Alaska 5000 joined them as the evil neighbor Frieda Claxton.
In New York, I’m always dazzled when I get to see a Charles Busch play, particularly now that he’s back doing them in the East Village, where he began. He’s featured in my book, too! In the last few years, I saw his Cleopatra and then his latest play, The Confession of Lily Dare, and both times the audience was filled with the gay glitterati – it was just like the old Vampire Lesbian days! What a privilege to see his work.
I would kill to be in one! Spoken like a true vampire lesbian, I guess.
You were a columnist for The New York Times and Spy magazine – how has your creative process for writing a book differed from writing columns or contributing articles?
Being a newspaperman for many years, and having daily deadlines, helped me as a writer a lot. It was great training. It was one of the careers I chose for myself as early as high school – that and performing. I’m lucky enough that I get to do both now. I do comedy, more and more lately, and still, contribute regularly to the Styles section of The Times. I have to say that seeing my byline in those pages remains a thrill, even after all these years!
When I write a book, and Drag is my fifth, I always break it down into smaller assignments – a chapter, an essay within a chapter, a little breakout box of some sort. Doing that makes writing an entire book a lot less daunting.
It’s like losing weight. It’s much easier to lose five pounds and then another five pounds and then another until you reach your goal. If you set out to lose a hundred pounds, you can lose momentum because, some days, it just seems too difficult a task. But if you approach it little by little, you can chip away at it, and one day, you reach your goal.
Writing books, for me, is the same mental process as dieting – and about as fun. But when you’ve reached your goal weight, so to speak, and that book is in your hot little manicured hands, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world.