The PR Genius of Drag Queens
I draw a lot of inspiration from drag queens—and I don’t just mean the abundance of leopard print in my closet. Drag performers are savvy communicators, haunting storytellers, detail-oriented obsessives, and improv geniuses. They’re daring, passionate, smart, and above all, memorable. Frankly, as a PR pro, that’s everything I hope to be.
The closest I’ve personally ever come to doing drag was my wedding day – but I can still admire and learn from it. Here’s what the titans of drag have taught me about great communications.
Subvert the familiar.
Tropes are useful tools. Audiences have limited attention spans, and starting with a familiar story or idea quickly establishes common ground and sets expectations. That said, you can’t just sing the hits. The key to creating content that other people will reshare, emulate, and talk about is to start with the familiar, and add a fresh twist.
No one does this better than drag queens. Take Alaska 5000’s legendary turn as Mae West on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 2 (If you’ve never seen it before, watch it. Probably not at work, though). Alaska repeatedly starts a famous Mae West quote, and then takes a sudden turn for the modern. By the end, RuPaul’s laughing so hard he can’t stand up. The performance is unforgettable – and it’s been watched and shared millions of times.
So, how do you write like a drag queen? Use the familiar as a springboard into new territory. Alaska knows her source material backwards and forwards, which gives her the confidence to riff and innovate. This is useful framing for media training as well. Alaska clearly has several jokes planned and ready to deploy given the right opportunity. No matter what an interviewer throws at a subject, if they’ve internalized their talking points to the same extent that Alaska embodies Mae West, they’ll be able to respond in quick sound bites, without breaking character.
When trend hijacking, look for the untrodden snow.
Sometimes, a single story takes up so much cultural space, we can’t help but talk about it. For two years, the pandemic has loomed over everything. Now, the metaverse is seeping into every tech story. Drag performers teach us: when forced to adhere to a theme, look for a way to interpret it that is both undeniably accurate and wholly original.
Drag Race is, again, rich with examples. In the season 8 “Night of 1000 Madonnas” episode, fully half of the contestants wore kimonos. Sure, Kim Chi’s look was absolute perfection, but it didn’t matter: When you repeat what everyone else is doing, it’s impossible to stand out. On the other hand, during Drag Race UK’s series two “PreHERstoric” runway, Bimini Bon-Boulash broke free from a pack of animal print and bone jewelry with an ethereal amoeba presentation. In one fell stroke, they established themselves as an insightful queen who brings a unique point of view to any subject. When we do the same for clients, we turn them into trusted sources for journalists, eagerly sought-after editorial contributors, and consistently rebooked speakers.
Claim your space.
Pride began as a protest, and drag performers were in the vanguard. Self-identified drag queen and co-founder of the very first Pride parade Marsha P. Johnson dedicated a life’s worth of art and activism to claiming the rights of queer people to exist in public spaces. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R), as well as a prominent AIDS activist. As a performer, she was also political, often blending her activism and her act.
Marsha’s work is a model for any vital public message. The organizations she founded demonstrate: When the community you need to amplify your message doesn’t exist yet, you can build it yourself. The many campaigns she worked on throughout her life show us: No single victory ever concludes your mission. The interplay between her work and performance is a reminder: even the most serious message needs a human face. Her legacy teaches us to be consistent, build a network, and deliver our messages with ferocity and joy in equal measure.
Drag is more than entertainment: it’s an education. Whether or not you’re part of the community, take the opportunity this June to lift up the queer artists and activists who have been your teachers. I’d love to hear about the LBGTQIA+ leaders who inspire you: connect with me on LinkedIn or @Tempurity on Twitter and Instagram.