Drag Queens Are Dazzling The Internet. These Photographers Are Helping Them Do It
Drag is art.
It's an outlet for artistic expression — and not just for the queens and kings who perform. It's also a way for the designers, makeup artists, hair stylists and photographers working with them behind the scenes to share their artistry, too.
Three queer photographers — Marko Monroe, Adam Ouahmane and Liam James Doyle — are behind the lens of some of the most popular drag looks shared on social media today. They photographed Symone, Denali and Utica, three queens competing on the current season of VH1's hit reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, which airs on Friday nights.
Each week, the contestants walk the runway, showcasing a different theme. And with the popularity of drag and increased expectations to deliver elaborate looks, a queen's Instagram photos can be just as important as her runway looks.
In interviews with NPR, the photographers describe their relationships with these queens, their inspirations and their work processes.
Marko Monroe works with the House of Avalon, an LA-based collective that started in Arkansas, where he's from. (Monroe is also Lizzo's stylist.)
Another member of the House of Avalon is Symone, who's competing in this season's Drag Race. Monroe designed and photographed Symone's look for the train-themed runway.
"Symone was really hellbent on not just giving you, like, a train from the waist," Monroe says, because she knew "that's what a lot of girls would do."
Symone and Monroe were inspired by Rihanna's Fenty clothing line, which highlighted durags in a recent collection, and also wanted to play with the negative connotation of durags in mainstream culture.
"It was this whole urban-meets-royal mixture, and it was kind of a commentary on the absence of Black people and those sort of materials," he says.
Monroe says creating the look was a struggle. He would add to it, dislike the change and then take things away. It took time to strike the balance they were hoping for.
"In the end it came out exactly as it should," he says.
Adam Ouahmane started his career as a fashion photographer. But when he moved to Chicago from Michigan in 2013 he started working on the drag scene.
"I've always been obsessed with high fashion, editorials, more theatrical hair and makeup," Ouahmane says. "That's what I saw in drag queens."
"It's a lot more fun to collaborate with them and it's a lot more fun to retouch [their photos], as well. A lot goes into it obviously, but that's my favorite part of all of this," he says, describing the retouching process "very therapeutic."
Ouahmane photographed two queens featured on this season of Drag Race, Denali and Kahmora Hall. He says he struggled with work early in the pandemic because venues were closed. But the queens kept him busy when they returned from filming.
"Drag Race seasons are usually my busiest," he says. "Now I think I'm doing OK, thankfully."
For Ouahmane, capturing the right image requires learning about a drag queen's "thing."
"I always ask any new girl I work with at their first day of the shoot: 'What's your style? What's your drag aesthetic?'" he says.
Denali's "thing," for example, is ice skating. So for her photo shoots, Ouahmane says he always pushes her to incorporate dance moves.
"A team is very important," he says. "A lot goes on behind the scenes."
Photojournalist Liam James Doyle met drag queen Utica years ago when they were both starting out in their fields, and Utica was doing amateur night at Lush, a LGBTQ+ nightclub in Minneapolis.
After learning that Utica — who's named after the small Minnesota town where she's from — was cast for season 13 of Drag Race, Doyle reached out to her.
"We have this meet-cute friendship from before, and I love the show, and I'm such a fan of drag ... and [of] her," he recalls thinking at the time. "I should offer my services." he says.
For Doyle and Utica, all of the photo shoots — from start to finish — have been deeply collaborative.
"I'm the one with the photography skills and these editing skills, and she has a vision for maybe the light and the location," Doyle says. He says he feels it's on him to "make the composition happen."
Utica, he says, is "someone who really cares about that. It's so clear that she has such a specific vision for what this photo should look like and how this garment should be presented visually."
Much of Utica's drag is story-driven, Doyle says. Take, for instance, her lamé outfit. The two chose to photograph her "in an autumnal wonderland."
"The color story of her lamé garment is beautiful metallic reds and golds and browns," he says. And the first thing Utica said was that the garment needed "to live in peak fall colors."
Doyle agreed, and the pair did some location scouting in Minneapolis, tracking the color of leaves as they changed color.
Doyle loves the way the photos turned out. But he adds that the process was far from professional.
"It was literally us talking and being like: 'I shot a wedding at this park years ago, and I remember these oak trees. Let's go there,'" he recalls. "And that's where we ended up shooting it."
Jaden Amos is an NPR audience engagement intern.
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