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Sweet Streams: Wigs and Tiaras Fly in ‘The Queen’

Youtube

RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show I’m avidly a fan of (which is no surprise if you know me and the type of content I review for this infernal rag), just premiered the first episode of its 11th (!!!) season, and just thinking about it randomly called to mind a previous Drag Race episode where contestant Aja portrayed legendary queen Crystal LaBeija [1] in the Snatch Game competition; she nailed that performance so hard I hope Crystal was crying tears of laughter into her feathered boa.

Aja’s Crystal performance stems from an old documentary from 1968 [2] called The Queen. Predating Jennie Livingston’s iconic Paris is Burning documentary by over twenty years, The Queen is a bit of a more fly-on-the-wall style doc that observes the New York drag queen pageant circuit of the era. It’s essential viewing for any drag fan, as its inclusion in the RPDR Snatch Game episode goes to show how wholly embedded it is in the culture. In fact, the particular scene Aja pulls her imitation from is perhaps the most memorable of the whole film, even Frank Ocean sampled it in his song, “Endless.”

Directed by Frank Simon, The Queen offers a glimpse of a particularly old school style of drag competition that is still carried on as tradition by a certain subset of queens around the world. There’s no interviews or deeper dives of the world the queens revel in, but there are plenty of voice over narrations to get to know each subject a little better. In its hour-plus run-time, it may not be as compelling as Livingston’s Paris, but The Queen is still amazing and groundbreaking for giving viewers a window into pre-Stonewall gay culture in New York and to see where the early beginnings of drag queen pageants. Simon had amazing access to each queen as they dress and prepare to compete in the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, and the drama intensifies after the winner Rachel Harlow is announced, prompting Crystal’s barbed, bitchy outburst. And if you’re looking for more history on Crystal (whose drag daughter Pepper LaBeija appears in Paris is Burning), them has a wonderful article about her [3].

The Queen is available to stream in full on Youtube (for now!), and its a definite recommendation when you’re anxiously awaiting the next RPDR episode.