'I took my kids to a gay bar in Peckham': welcome to the strange world of the drag dad

For countless British teenagers, drag artists are the new pop stars – and Matthew Sweet's daughter is no exception

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Matthew Sweet's daughter, Grace, with drag queen Crystal at RuPaul's DragCon
Matthew Sweet's daughter, Grace, with drag queen Crystal at RuPaul's DragCon UK

A booth, bright with metallic glitter. A queue of visitors, waiting in quiet anticipation. Some not so quiet: my 15-year-old, Grace, is so excited that she has to sit on the floor to catch her breath.

Think of it as a trip to Santa’s grotto, except the grotto in this case is the Olympia exhibition centre in west London, and Father Christmas is Crystal, a vertiginous East London drag queen with a mane of green hair and chest-hair visible above the scalloped summit of her blue vinyl bustier. 

Grace has already seen Crystal’s live act – in which she uses a chainsaw to make sparks fly from a steel corset. In the booth at DragCon UK, a celebration of drag culture over 17,000 sq yd, the mood is gentler. We exchange air-kisses, then I back off to allow queen and teen to sit down together for a cosy chat.

I am one of the drag dads. We loiter outside the Troxy music venue in London’s Limehouse, and Wembley Arena, waiting for our kids to emerge from shows in which statuesque beings in six-inch heels lip-synch to Cher records and execute backflips and a dance move known as the death-drop. Sometimes we exchange sympathetic glances. We know what it means to “spill tea” (exchange gossip) and “throw shade” (criticise).

We know our Gothy Kendoll from our Asia O’Hara. We know – vaguely, anyway – how queens use duck tape to achieve plausible femininity. And we are all quite surprised to find ourselves here. I think, among my peer group, I am the only father to have booked a babysitter to take my kids to a gay bar in Peckham to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK on the big screen.

RuPaul Charles – the multiple Emmy award-winning drag superstar, model, television presenter and pop singer – is the power behind DragCon. His reality show is a television phenomenon in the States and the UK version was unveiled last year on BBC Three.

DragCon’s visitors (who have paid £40 for a one-day ticket or £70 for Saturday and Sunday) know all its twists and catchphrases. They are here to see sets by its stars, to dance as RuPaul himself operates the DJ’s decks, and to browse dozens of stalls staffed by traders in the booming drag economy. They are selling corsetry and make-up, £30 official T-shirts and £40 doses of tooth-whitening ultraviolet light.

RuPaul at DragCon at Olympia London Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty 

The economic model comes from science fiction conventions, at which the alumni of Star Trek exchange some of their cultural capital for a little of their fans’ hard cash. But drag’s leap is greater. It was born in upstairs cabarets and sticky backstreet pubs. In June 1969, as the last series of Star Trek was airing, New York’s drag queens were fighting the cops at the Stonewall Inn.

The DragCon crowd shows how much the constituency has expanded. Everyone is here. Gay couples of all ages, sash-wearing brides-to-be, teenage boys with a tentative smear of lipstick, out for a day with mum. Young families occupy the kids’ zone, where queens supervise the construction of paper crowns. And there are lots and lots of teenage girls, for whom the alumni of RuPaul’s reality shows are as compelling as any movie star or musician – more so, perhaps, because they are not figures of distant and impossible perfection. 

“Drag Race,” says one member of my daughter’s WhatsApp group dedicated to the show, “means a lot to me because it encompasses everything it means to express your individuality to others.”

In the DragCon press room, a gang of photographers is struggling to match the queens in their pictures with the faces on the official handouts. Grace, the real expert present, is quickly appointed fact-checker. The photographers are stupidly grateful. I need her help, too, as the PRs offer subjects for interview. I ask Jujubee, a Bostonian performer in a custard-coloured fake-fur twin-set, why she thinks drag appeals so strongly to girls and young women.

RuPaul's Drag Race Live! in Las Vegas Credit: Ethan Miller /Getty 

“As queens we live out loud and allow ourselves to just be,” she says. “Some of us didn’t have the ability to hide, so we had to choose confidence.”

Downstairs, RuPaul attends the counter of his own merch stand, like some benign mantis in a pink cravat. A woman in her 20s has brought a portrait of her idol. 

“I’m an art teacher,” she tells him. “And I get all my pupils to use drag for inspiration.” RuPaul takes the picture with the graciousness of our own dear Queen accepting a bunch of flowers at a hospital walkaround. “We need teachers like you!” he whoops. Everybody applauds. Except me. Not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because I’m buying Grace a T-shirt and tapping my card on the reader. I know my place.

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