11 of the Most Famous Drag Queens of All Time
Drag culture used to exist strictly in the underground. Today, it’s not uncommon to see people of all stripes getting their lives at the local drag brunch.
The queens that came before us have always left their mark on popular culture, even if they didn’t get the proper credit. Words like “shade” and “vogue” would have never entered the mainstream without them. So in honor of all those brave enough to be themselves even when it meant jail time, we’ve rounded up a list of famous drag queens who’ve left their beauty mark on the world.
What is a drag queen, anyway?
Before we get into how the most famous drag queens achieved their queenly status, let’s explore the history of this supreme art form and the theories explaining why we call it what we do.
The first known appearance of the word “drag” to describe people dressing in clothing typical of the opposite sex came in a 19th-century party invitation discussed in Reynolds’s Newspaper, a Sunday paper in the U.K. “We shall come in drag,” read the invitation, which the newspaper explained meant “men wearing women’s costumes.” The term likely came from the theatre world, where male actors playing female parts wore petticoats that dragged on the floor.
While we can’t say for sure when dressing in drag leaked from the theatre into the queer community (and we won’t try to argue that the theatre world isn’t still jam-packed with queer folk to this day), there’s one solid theory we can get behind. Before England and Wales legalized homosexuality, gay men spoke to one another in Polari, a made-up language that pulled a lot of words from people who lived their lives on the stage.
A man dressing as a woman to play a role in a play? Copacetic. A man dressing as a woman just because he thinks it’s fun? That was a crime. So people in the know called the former an actor and the latter — you guessed it — a drag queen.
These days, drag queens are more or less free to do as they please in LGBTQ-friendly countries. And thanks to iconic gay films like Paris is Burning and hit reality TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, today’s drag show audiences include people from every sexuality and every walk of life. But we owe drag culture’s slow but steady entry into the mainstream to the fiercely fearless big-wigged, beat-faced queens who paved the way with a strut and a smile.
Are all drag queens gay?
The short answer is no, dressing in drag doesn’t mean you’re gay. If you love fucking your AFAB wife and don’t get the least bit turned on by a beautiful dick, no amount of stilettos and lipstick will change the fact that you’re probably not gay.
But of all the genders and sexual orientations that make up the drag community, gay cis-gender men are the most predominant. And it makes sense, given that the trend got its start in America at early 19th-century masquerade balls that gave the queer men of New York City a safe space to court members of the same sex without being policed by the cops and citizens who had a bad habit of persecuting them in the outside world.
The Who’s Who of drag
No matter where you live, we guarantee there’s a drag queen worth celebrating nearby, even if she hasn’t yet found a safe space to strut her stuff. Here are 11 of our absolute faves.
1. The Queen of Drag
We’ll start with a semi-famous drag queen who should be far more well-known than he is. William Dorsey Swann was the first drag queen in America, so it’s only fitting that his drag queen name was the Queen of Drag. A former slave, Swann threw fabulous balls at the House of Swann in Washington D.C. He even spent 10 months in jail for running what the judge called a “hell of iniquity.” But for the queer, formerly enslaved men who attended Swann’s balls, the House of Swann was the first place they could truly be themselves.
2. Mother Flawless Sabrina
For a more in-depth look at the history of drag culture in America, watch The Queen, a documentary following the queens who ran and participated in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest in New York City. During filming, Flawless Sabrina called herself Mother to show contestants she was there to support them, not to win. The name stuck, and many within the community began using a name for Sabrina that was as big as her personality: Mother Flawless Sabrina. The cops tried to take down Sabrina many times, but her legacy prevailed. Many still consider her an influential figure in the transgender community. Her most famous line? “Normal is just a setting on a dryer.” Preach, queen.
Heroes like the Queen of Drag and Mother Flawless Sabrina sashayed so RuPaul could sashay faster. RuPaul Andre Charles got his start dressing up in his sister’s clothes to emulate the stars he loved, like gay icon Diana Ross. After moving to New York in the 1980s, RuPaul dabbled in underground cinema, creating his first movie, RuPaul is: Star Booty. But his career really took off in 1989, the year he was crowned the Queen of Manhattan and performed in the music video for The B-52’s “Love Shack.” Throughout his rise to stardom, RuPaul has released musical hits like “Supermodel (You Better Work).” But it was RuPaul’s Drag Race that made RuPaul a household name outside the drag and gay communities, giving him the platform to propel a long line of deserving queens to fame.
4. Bianca Del Rio
After being crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar on Drag Race, New York magazine ranked Del Rio first on the list of “the most powerful drag queens in America.” And thanks to her success as not only a queen but an actor and comedian, we can see why this star and her “I said what I said!” attitude has such phenomenal staying power.
5. Trixie Mattel
The name “Mattel'' gives off Barbie vibes, perfect for doll-like drag queen Trixie Mattel. Mattel didn’t win the first Drag Race season she competed in, but she took the crown in the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. This multitalented queen turns whatever she touches to gold, from music to comedy to her very own cosmetics line, Trixie Cosmetics. And thanks to Mattel’s endlessly entertaining collabs with fellow All Stars alum Katya Zamolodchikova, you can get double the laughs listening to the duo’s hilarious podcast, The Bald and the Beautiful, and watching their web series, UHNhhh.
6. Jinkx Monsoon
Self-proclaimed “internationally tolerated cabaret icon” and “Seattle’s premier Jewish narcoleptic drag queen,” Jinkx Monsoon is another star who got their big break from RuPaul, winning season five of Drag Race and season seven of All Stars. Monsoon’s big personality and hilarious celebrity impressions have had a huge hand in their fame. But they’ve been a force as both a drag performer and gay rights advocate since age 15, when they made their drag debut at Portland’s underground nightclub, “Escape.”
7. Bob the Drag Queen
Winner of Drag Race season eight, Bob the Drag Queen was the first Black contestant to win a million Instagram followers. And his popularity is well-deserved — after being crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar, Bob turned to podcasting, co-hosting Sibling Rivalry with Monét X Change, and acting, with roles in popular TV shows like Tales of the City and A Black Lady Sketch Show. But the show that’s had the greatest impact on the LGBTQ community is We’re Here, an HBO docu-series that follows Bob and fellow Drag Racers Shangela and Eureka as they travel small-town America helping locals create drag shows — and find their voice.
Valentina may have only won seventh place on both Drag Race and All Stars. But the nonbinary Mexican-American did take the title of Miss Congeniality, and her likability made her a shoo-in to headline Drag Race México, which Valentina co-hosts alongside former Drag Race France contestant Lolita Banana. Named after a hot sauce out of Guadalajara, Valentina never fails to deliver the spice, using her drag career as a platform to represent Latin America. And with nearly 1.5 million followers on Instagram, it’s clear social media has taken a liking to Valentina’s flavor.
9. Sasha Colby
More than a decade before becoming the first Native Hawaiian to appear on Drag Race and one of the first transgender contestants to win, the beauty queen status of Sasha Colby was already well underway. She won the Miss Continental drag queen pageant in 2012, and Drag Race season nine winner Sasha Velour cast Colby in her drag showcase, NightGowns, in 2018. But the pageant legend is much more than just looks. She’s also an outspoken trans model and activist, taking pride in the fact that her Drag Race win came during a year when transgender rights were under exceptionally vicious attack.
A contestant on Drag Race, All Stars, Queen of the Universe, and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World and a professor on RuPaul’s Drag U, fan favorite Jujubee holds the title for most appearances across RuPaul’s fierce franchise, and she’s the only contestant to reach the competition’s finale four times. Born into a Laotian Buddhist family in California, Jujubee lost both parents at age 15. But Boston performer Karisma Geneva-Jackson Tae stepped in as her drag mother, helping to develop Jujubee into the C.U.N.T. we all know and love.
Whether you call her Alaska Thunderfuck, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, Alaska Thunderfun, Alaska 5000, or just plain old Alaska, there’s one word at the heart of who this Drag Race queen is: winner. One of this season two champion’s winning assets is her voice — not just on the popular Race Chaser podcast, but with her musical talent. A Drag Race superfan, Alaska often makes music videos about the show’s most scandalous scenes, including a 2017 “Despacito” parody that pokes fun at Valentina’s famous refusal to take off her mask while lip-syncing in season nine.
If history’s greatest drag queens have taught us anything, it’s the importance of finding a community where you can be true to who you are. Grindr is home to the queer and the kinky, the bearish and the beautiful. Get the Grindr app now!