Author Frank DeCaro Unravels Drag's Origins in New Book

Erica Berger; Courtesy of Rizzoli
Frank DeCaro

"Young people think drag began with 'RuPaul’s Drag Race,' and I wanted to show that it has existed for a much longer time than that," says DeCaro, author of 'Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business.'

Frank DeCaro is more than a writer and comedian (who has spent the last three years as the opening act for Lisa Lampanelli), he is also a radio and TV personality (Sirius XM, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart). Now, he has focused his gimlet eye and come out with the encyclopedic tome Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business (with a forward by fellow funnyman Bruce Vilanch), which he chatted about with The Hollywood Reporter.

You say in the book that drag’s been a part of show business since man first got on the stage. Can you expand on that? 

It turns out that Medea is a lot more Tyler Perry's Madea than what they ever taught us in school. A lot of young people think drag began with the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, And I wanted to show that it has existed for a much longer time than that. The guy who is considered the mother of modern drag, or the grandmother, Julian Eltinge, was given his own theater on Broadway on 42nd Street in 1912, like 107 years ago! This queen — he might have said he was straight to the end — but my God, he was fearless and he had a theater. It’s a multiplex now, but that bitch is still giving good façade.

Why do you think drag strikes such a chord with audiences?

It can be funny, it can be terrifying, it can be everything in between. And it's exciting now that we get to see people who are performing drag as fully dimensional human beings and they can have sexuality. And they can have hopes and dreams just like everybody. That’s the big change. We’re seeing whole people now instead of just the guy who has to whip off that wig at the end of the number so, if you got titillated, you knew you were looking at a man and you could have that saltpeter moment where you calmed down, and not be so worked up and go back to your regular life.

It’s really a part of American life.

I think it's interesting that "the smart set" (a phrase I like to use that no one uses anymore) always used to seek out drag performances, even at times when guys could get arrested for performing in drag. And it wasn't just on the coasts. I would find things in my research like “The Turnabout Review,” and it would go to Fort Worth for 28 days in the '50s and '60s. For any kind of performance, that’s a big deal. And, like, in Fort Worth in the '50s!

The audience has never been bigger.

I'm blown away that RuPaul’s Drag Race beat The Voice and other high-rated reality shows for best reality competition [at the 2018 Emmys]. As one of RuPaul’s producers told me, "When Ru wins, we all do" — and by that I mean the LGBT community and entertainment lovers besides.

And drag is still evolving. I'm fascinated by the drag kids who are, like, 11 years old and fierce as could be and are performing in drag because their parents are, like, “Oh, let the kid do what he wants.” I think that’s great and I wish our politicians agreed with them. And I love that cisgender women perform now as drag queens, Knock yourself out. You know, it's, it's not about your “junk.”

It’s interesting that this is all happening when the political landscape is so bleak out there.

When times are tough, and politics are as conservative as they are now, a void opens up for glamour and glitter and relief. And what better to provide that than drag? I don't think it's a coincidence at all, that the drag high points and our political low point are happening at exactly the same time. We all heard the clarion call a couple of years ago on Nov. 9 and thought, "Oh, my God, I have to be ever gayer tomorrow."

On May 26, DeCaro will appear at RuPaul’s Drag Con panel and book signing with Leslie Jordan, Miss Coco Peru, Drew Droege, and James St. James, at the L.A. Convention Center.