Drag performer Erika Klash is at the center of a changing art world. She moved her artistic efforts from New York City to San Francisco, citing the city's edgier, more "punk rock" understanding of drag. She competed on the Boulets' web series Dragula, but her art is perhaps too experimental for RuPaul's Drag Race. It's not just her characteristic fangs, either. She regularly incorporates classic Godzilla films, Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and other geeky ephemera into her wild performances — all properties that haven't found a home on Drag Race or in the larger, mainstream drag world.
For many drag queens, dabbling in cosplay veers too far into commercial art for comfort. On RuPaul's Drag Race Season 4, the conversation about costuming came to a head when Phi Phi O'Hara snarled at Sharon Needles, "Go back to Party City where you belong!" Needles had debuted a new kind of drag on the reality competition program, an aesthetic that celebrated all things creepy, macabre, and disturbing, and O'Hara was obviously threatened. After all, she had been working to master a classic showgirl routine; the kind of drag that still exists in the forefront of most fans' minds.
Mainstream drag is still modeled after RuPaul himself, valuing the illusion of a feminine body over everything else. The most ironic part of the exchange, of course, is that O'Hara left the show to dabble publicly in cosplay-drag of her own.
Klash, this week's guest on The Fandom Files, is the creator of a regular live drag show called "Pastel Gore" which showcases horror drag, anime, cartoons, and subversive takes on commercial art at The Stud in San Francisco. The gist is this: drag queens act out an immersive series of performances set in a haunted video game arcade for Pokemon Masters and "Pokemon Subs" alike. It's not the first show of its kind, but it's certainly poking fun at an art form that many drag queens take very seriously.
Other drag queens have made public attempts at stretching the definition of drag and throwing a more diverse collection of toys into the sandbox. Drag Race Season 9 winner Sasha Velour, aka the Bald Queen, plays with androgyny instead of exaggerated femininity. Season 8's Kim Chi, who tours with RuPaul's Werq the World, stages an entire number based on the Sailor Scouts, and Season 9's Aja made waves after her TV debut, announcing her genderqueer identity and incorporating video games like Mortal Kombat into her new persona. When Shangela made Game of Thrones references throughout Drag Race All-Stars Season 3, it seemed the gauntlet had been thrown.
Where previously drag queens were assumed to listen to only Top 40, adhere solely to RuPaul's definition of "herstory," and re-watch his favorite movies — Grey Gardens, Pink Flamingos, Moonstruck — it seems with each passing season of Drag Race that the younger generation wants to reference the stuff that lights them up instead. For Season 6's Adore Delano, that's '90s riot grrrl and grunge. For Erika Klash, it's the video games and animated shows from her childhood.
Klash tells The Fandom Files that she's most inspired when trying to superimpose a non-human shape onto her human body. In that way, her drag is less about appearing to be a woman, and more about becoming a humanoid version of Haunter or Gastly. She says she's found a home in subversive, punk-focused drag spaces, but feels slightly less accepted in geek spaces, unless she’s performing at a specific event like Flamecon, which caters both to queer people and geeks.
Klash is where any artist wants to be; at the forefront of a new movement with endless possibilities ahead, though she maintains a tight hold on nostalgic pieces that continue to inspire her.
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