The history of drag in South Africa still plays out at modern pageants

The wearing of clothing of the opposite sex, or drag, is very popular in the South African context. A Google search for the term ‘South African drag queens’ yields approximately half-a-million results. These range from upcoming drag performances, drag artists for hire and drag queen accessories to drag queen support groups. Despite the popular cultural manifestations of drag in the media, online and in pageants and performances in gay and lesbian clubs, bars and shebeens, the same academic interest in theorising drag in South Africa is limited.

In a recent article I address this scarcity by attempting to ignite academic interest in theorising about drag in the South African context. Drag is worthy of academic study in that it is a performance of the feminine gender which shows that gender does not belong to women or men, it can be easily imitated either in a theatrical way (dragging) or in a mundane way (women who wear pants).

By far the oldest and most popular drag queen contest in South Africa is the annual Miss Gay Western Cape, which became official in 1996 but which has been held clandestinely since the 1950s as homosexuality was only legalised in 1998.

In 2018 teacher Wendy La Rosa lifted the title of Miss Gay Western Cape in front of a packed house at the Joseph Stone auditorium in Athlone, a coloured working class suburb on the Cape Flats. Her victory was lauded by the oldest and most popular newspaper in the Western Cape, The Cape Argus.

However during its secretive, hidden era, reporting on the Miss Gay Western Cape pageant didn’t feature in mainstream newspapers. Instead, it was found in the tabloid magazines Drum and the Golden City Post, which specifically targeted black urban readers. However, Drum in the 1950s was not a ‘typical’ tabloid as it had deeply political undertones and also included realistic expositions of black urban experiences during apartheid.

So insatiable was the appetite for stories about drag queens that Drum and the Golden City Post started sponsoring a Moffie Queen Competition. “Moffie” was a derogatory name for a homosexual but one that the gay community has re-appropriated with pride. This allowed the publication to generate its own news about drag queens.

Its reportage was far from benign. Reporters highlighted the “grotesqueness” of homosexual men dressed up as women and used tabloid rhetoric and scoop style photographs to portray the subculture as amusing but ultimately depraved. One such description, from a chapter by Dhianaraj Chetty in Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, was found in the January 1956 issue of the Golden City Post:

They lead a lonely and bitter life. Their only constant companions, their own kind – their only solace, what they find at the bottom of a bottle. Too often they face the danger of becoming drink sodden wrecks who burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

But there were also spaces during this time where drag queens took control of their own images. I have explored this hidden but robust moffie scene in my own research. And it was from spaces like this that modern South African drag pageants, particularly Miss Gay Western Cape, have been able to blossom and grow.

Intimate moments

In 1958 Drum magazine gave British photojournalist Ian Berry a chance to show a different, less sensational side of drag culture. Berry published a photo essay in the magazine titled A Drag at Madame Costello’s.

Madame Costello, also called Joey, was a well-known older queen who often allowed her house to be used for moffies and their boyfriends to meet up, have a few drinks and dance. These “home drags” were quite the opposite of the Moffie Queen competitions of the day that were portrayed in melodramatic and pitying ways by Drum and the Golden City Post.

These photographs have been made public only once, in the book Defiant Desire, which was published in 1994. They are strictly copyrighted by Bailey’s African Photo Archives.

In the 13 photographs that made up his essay, Berry introduced readers to the doyennes of drag at Madame Costello. Madame Joey Costello herself is in a black velvet one-shouldered ball gown with empire-style brooches cascading from her left shoulder down to her derriere, and matching dainty watch, rings and earrings. She is pictured opening a bottle of gin on a tray laid out with fine glassware in ascending order from sherry glasses to champagne flutes.

Pictured alongside her is Linda Darnell (in a swing dress with a back bow) delicately forking a piece of cake on a fine china plate. There’s also Kay Kendall (wearing a posh evening gown with sheer fabric covering the upper chest and arms, fingerless long gloves, pearls and a tiny fascinator hat) and Piper Laurie (diamante halter neck ball gown, cascading ponytail with bangs affixed with a marcasite headband).

Berry showed remarkable empathy for these drag queens at a time when most media portrayed them as oddities. Some are shown in the photos dancing cheek to cheek with their straight-looking boyfriends, posing powerfully for the camera or just having a chat and a cup of tea. There’s also a glimpse of the relationships between married Muslim men and drag queens, which was tacitly accepted by some parts of the Muslim community. Some of these relationships persisted for more than ten years and often existed side by side with traditional marriages.

Berry offered a poignant look at everyday lives that could be elegant and sophisticated, and operating with their own codes of intimacy. Home drags, then, were a space for drag queens to be themselves – not to perform or compete.

Homegrown stories

Looking at these photographs today is a reminder of everyday lived moffie life in the 1950s; a far cry from the pageants that were staged once a year, sponsored by the tabloid press and whose images were used to titillate a homophobic audience. Once this pageant went independent from the dictating and belittling hold of tabloid magazines in 1996 it grew from strength to strength.

In 2010 the robustness, endurance and popularity of the Miss Gay Western Cape pageant was captured by author Lauren Beukes in her documentary Glitterboys and Ganglands, which follows the preparations for the pageant by three drag queens from the Cape Flats a predominantly working class coloured suburb in Cape Town.

But this was a rare moment in the popular culture spotlight for South African drag culture. While viewers in the country are enchanted by programmes from the US like POSE or Ru Paul’s Drag Race, there seems to be little interest in the enduring drag scene in South Africa’s own back yard.

Perhaps one day soon there’ll be a homegrown TV drama that tells the story of how Miss Gay Western Cape pageant’s contestants have carved out a defiant space within their often violent and homophobic communities.

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