Look up “cut crease tutorial” and you’ll see a million faces of beauty vloggers that are different, but the same. A uniform, airbrushed makeup look has become the new normal: Thick, ombré block eyebrows, heavily contoured cheeks, blinding highlighter, fluttering false eyelashes. Picture a Bratz doll—or Kylie Jenner. Some call it “Instagram makeup.” Some call it a “beat” face. What it really is is decades of quiet, but powerful, influence from the drag community.
“I don’t think that the drag community gets the credit they deserve for the trends that are happening with makeup—so many trends started within the drag community. I would love to see drag get more recognition for it,” Renny Vasquez, a celebrity makeup artist who works with Gabrielle Union, Jennifer Lopez, and Serena Williams says. “I think that we’re moving into a moment where people are digging in a little bit deeper and they’re like, ‘Where does it come from?’ [Drag queens] are starting to get some of the recognition. But, I do feel like it’s long overdue.”
Before YouTube, before Instagram, before “influencers,” now-common knowledge makeup techniques like contouring and baking were used by drag queens in the dressing rooms of clubs. They were passed on by word of mouth, taught by either peers or older performers (called drag mothers) who’d take newcomers under their wings. The objective was to use makeup to transform the face into a character. Borrowing from theater tradition, makeup was about exaggerating features so the performer wouldn’t be washed out under powerful stage lights, and their expression could be seen by someone sitting in the back of the room.
Like creating costumes, dancing, and lip syncing, knowing how to do makeup was just one of the many technical skills it took to be a successful drag queen. But, makeup is more than just a means to an end. It’s a tool of transformation, and for many queens, liberation.
Drag performer Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson, whose stage name is Alyssa Edwards, says the first time he stepped out of his house in full makeup and hair was an “electrifying” feeling. “It was the first time that I truly felt celebrated, accepted, admired, and it gave me the confidence and the courage that I felt like I’d always lacked,” he recalls, “Because of drag, now I feel like [confidence] even oozed on out into my personal life.”
For decades, drag was a subculture only found when sought. New York City was an incubator for the scene: Uptown, Harlem ballroom culture (which dates back as early as the 1920s) thrived, providing a space for more Black and Latino performers; downtown, queens were booking hot spots like Pyramid, Limelight, and Tunnel. While ‘90s media briefly embraced drag queens in movies (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Paris Is Burning), talk shows (Arsenio Hall, Sally, Geraldo Rivera), and beyond (RuPaul’s cameo in The B-52’s “Love Shack” music video, RuPaul and M.A.C’s Viva Glam campaign), the community was still largely in its own bubble. Then came RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The once-niche reality competition show, which premiered in 2009, combined the best elements of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway and gave an unprecedented platform for the drag community. Ten seasons and nine Emmy Awards later, it’s catapulted many of its 126 contestants’ careers to immense heights.
Drag queens are now a part of mainstream culture, with rabid fan bases equivalent to pop stars—just look at DragCon, also a RuPaul initiative, which launched in 2015 and now happens twice a year in Los Angeles and New York City. In 2018 alone, 85,000 people attended.
Meanwhile, Drag Race alums Shangela and Willam are featured a box office hit like A Star Is Born. Contestants Peppermint and Jiggly Caliente got an entire SNL skit with Steve Carrell. Way back in 2011, Rihanna cast queens Willam, Detox, and Morgan in her “S&M” music video. Drag queens’ influence on the entertainment industry is unquestionable. Their influence on the beauty industry is fuzzier, with hardly any acknowledgement tracing back to the community.
Where do you think contouring, baking, and highlighting came from? Many have linked the “trend” to Kim Kardashian, who in 2012 posted a viral photo of her face mid-contouring (the trick became such a signature of hers that she launched KKW Beauty in 2017 with a contouring kit). Her trademark look inspired thousands of Kardashian-inspired tutorials and a chain reaction started among top beauty bloggers competing for views and likes.
See: Makeup artist Wayne Goss’s How to Contour like Kim K tutorial from 2012. One of Jaclyn Hill’s first videos was a Kim Kardashian holiday makeup tutorial in 2011. Nikkie de Jager of NikkieTutorials’ also did a Kim Kardashian-inspired makeup tutorial in 2011 (later, she would go viral for her 2015 video The Power of Makeup, which involves keeping only one half of the face done—an idea she says came from an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She recreated the concept with Kardashian herself in 2017 to the tune of 12 million views).
Kim’s sister, Kylie Jenner, also capitalized on her family’s beauty influence when she launched her Kylie Cosmetics lip kits in 2015. The look she was selling—an overlined, plumped up lip—is a hallmark of drag makeup (Jenner has also gotten significant backlash for appropriating black women’s features). But here’s the thing: Kardashian makeup is Instagram makeup is drag makeup. Even former Kardashian makeup artist Joyce Bonelli, who worked with the Kardashians for more than a decade, has said that her “transformational makeup” technique is inspired by “drag anything and everything.” Kim’s current makeup artist, Mario Dedivanovic, has also claimed his techniques originate from drag.
Yet, the acknowledgement isn’t fully there. “Do I feel the drag community has been given the credit it deserves for highlight, contour[ing], cut creases? No I don’t,” says Osmond Vacious a.k.a. Vivacious, a New York-based drag queen since the ’90s club kid era mentored by the likes of Hector Xtravaganza (grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza). “Why do I say that? When was the last time you saw a drag queen in a commercial for L’Oreal, CoverGirl, anyone? We’re not there.”
“It’s not that the world isn’t ready for it,” Vacious continues, “Those companies aren’t ready to embrace change because they’re more worried that their core audiences might run away from it. But, guess what? There is another world out there that likes all that ‘extra.’ Embrace us and work with us. And we’ll work with you.”
As the popularity of drag queens has risen in media, they have become beauty influencers in their own right: Touted as experts in makeup, tutorials, and collaborating with fashion magazines (including ELLE’s own video series About Face). They mesmerize millions of audiences with their skills and dramatic transformations. These queens have even influenced a new subgenre of YouTubers known as “beauty boys”—male-identifying bloggers who create makeup looks on themselves, but aren’t drag performers.
Patrick Starrr, who has over four million subscribers on YouTube and multiple M.A.C collaborations under his belt, got his start making drag tutorials. Manny Gutierrez, Maybelline’s first male face, and James Charles, CoverGirl’s first male face, have both become so influential they’ve launched makeup collaborations as well. Gutierrez’s Lunar Beauty palette was called “Life’s a Drag” to pay homage to his drag influences. Meanwhile, Charles—who has called himself a “HUGE” fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race—recently launched his “Sister Collection” eyeshadow palette with Morphe. It includes shades with names like “Wig” and “Tea,” words plucked from the drag vernacular.
This shift signals a more symbiotic relationship between the drag world and the beauty world—and it’s evident in the way more queens are landing beauty deals and launching their own makeup projects. Miss Fame, a Drag Race contestant from season seven, just launched a namesake beauty line in September. Drag Race season 9 winner Sasha Velour took the reigns at Opening Ceremony’s Spring 2019 show, which collaborated with Maybelline on drag-inspired makeup looks paying homage to icons like Lady Bunny and Divine. Sugarpill, a vendor at DragCon and popular brand among queens, has collaborated with other Drag Race alums like Trixie Mattel and Kim Chi. Kat Von D created an eyeshadow palette inspired by Divine, 30 years after the queen passed away.
Perhaps the biggest signifier that drag is making its stamp on the beauty industry is that RuPaul is launching a makeup collaboration with Mally Roncal of Mally Beauty. Dropping in January 2019, the capsule collection will include 10-12 makeup products. In the announcement, Roncal said, “Ru has always stayed true to who he is and unapologetically puts himself out there. He exemplifies self-acceptance and has inspired and taught millions of people to love themselves.”
Ultimately, mainstream culture’s co-opting of drag makeup could be a good thing, Velour argues. “Beauty is so often tied to what’s perceived of as normal, and drag has allowed queer people to be normal in mainstream society. That’s really powerful because we are,” Velour says of drag’s over-the-top makeup looks now being embraced, “It may seem outlandish but it’s normal and healthy and it’s a good thing. So as that gets to be recognized as beautiful in its own way, I think we’re going to see a big increase in people’s safety and happiness.”