“We’re all born naked, the rest is drag.” — RuPaul
Drag performances have existed for millennia, but the modern version we know today emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during vaudeville shows. Vaudeville was a wildly popular form of entertainment in America, featuring comedians, musicians, acrobats, dancers, and, of course, drag artists.
The King of the Female Impersonators
Julian Eltinge (rhymes with “belting”) quickly gained a reputation for his talent as a female impersonator. He performed in elegant gowns and jewelry and was known for his impeccable mimicry of female mannerisms and voices. Eltinge’s female characters were so convincing that many audience members believed he was an elegant Victorian woman. At the end of his act, he would often take off his wig, stunning audience members with his impeccable female illusion. Eltinge’s popularity led to a lucrative career, making him a household name and one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.
The Queen of Vaudeville
By 16, Eva Tanguay performed solo in vaudeville shows across the United States. She quickly gained a reputation as an energetic and entertaining performer. Unlike Eltinge, she broke the mold of what a Victorian woman should be—her raunchy humor and “I Don’t Care” attitude were a hit with audiences. Tanguay’s success continued to grow throughout the early 1900s. In pace with Eltinge, she, too, became one of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville, earning up to $3,500 per week at the height of her career. She was known for her wild costumes, independent spirit, and unapologetic attitude, which set her apart from other era performers.
Sashaying the way
Victorian drag set the stage for other forms of entertainment throughout the 20th century. On stage, soldiers in World War II performed popular, all-male soldier musicals. Comedy legends Dame Edna, Suzy Eddie Izzard, and Monty Python tread the boards in heels. And Broadway itself has long-embraced cross-dressing in roles like Peter Pan, Mary Sunshine in Chicago, and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
On the silver screen, films like Some Like it Hot, Rocky Horror, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, and the Madea franchise claimed award accolades, cult fame, and classic-movie status.
Drag continues to be an essential part of popular culture, with a growing mainstream presence thanks to television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, and We’re Here. The performances of Eva Tanguay and Julian Eltinge helped to create a vibrant and diverse drag culture that continues to thrive today.