Drag: The Motivation behind the Make-Up

Reasons to Put On a Face


Michael Riddle, aka

Imperial Crown Marquesa 34, Laid E. Bitch DeCarlo Cartier St. Joan

Owl Empire of Stanislaus County, Inc., Modesto, CA

Presentation and Paper both received an “A”

Class grade: A-


PSYU 319: Motivation and Emotion


Instructor: David P. Sweeney, M.A.


January 10, 2008


The objective of this paper was to distinguish if the prominent motivation of a drag performer was to be part of an organization that raises funds to give back to the community or if it was a different motivation.  The term “drag queen” usually refers to people who dress in drag for the purpose of performing, whether singing or lip-synching, dancing, participating in events such as gay pride parades, drag pageants, or at venues such as cabarets (wikipedia.org, 2007).  Although this is true for the most part it is still a stereotyping of why drag queens are up there performing.  Conventionally, the overall stereotype of drag performers is that they just like to dress in women’s clothing.  Franken stated that stereotypes typically arise in the absence of relevant knowledge (Franken, 2007, p. 46).  In so conducting my research, I found that of 32 participants, all had more than one response as to what motivates them to perform in drag, and in conclusion of my findings, less than one third of the responses were motivated by giving back to the community.



To conduct this research, 32 participants responded to a questionnaire that I formulated with questions regarding age, amount of time performing in drag, sexual orientation, gender and the motivations that push each performer to put on their “face.”  You will find this survey attached at the end of my paper as Appendix A, along with the calculation of responses in Appendixes B through H.  The participants were either members of the International Court System or paid female impersonators.  Each participant volunteered to give their information for this research with six of the interviews being conducted over the phone or in person while the remaining 26 responds came in via e-mail. 


My interest was to find out what motivates a person to perform in drag, therefore, I contacted several friends and sent an e-mail out on the International Court System’s (ICS) chat service. I also asked a few professional drag performers if they would answer a short survey.  In contacting these individuals, my goal was to find out if their motivation was to raise funds for charity or if it was something else that was behind their motivation for being “in face.”  “In face” is a term used in the drag community that lets another drag performer understand that one is talking about being in drag.

To understand the term drag and what a drag queen is, we need to look at where the terminology originated and how it is used in culture.  The term “Drag queen” appeared in print in 1941 (wikipedia.org, 2007).  This term uses the slang noun drag in the sense of “female attire worn by a man” (a usage dating from about 1870) (Drag Queen: Words, 2007). A subset of English slang and originating in Polari (old British gay slang), drag was used as an offensive term in the 1940’s.  The word Drag meant “clothes”, and was also theatre slang for a woman’s costume worn by a male actor (dressed as girl). Queen refers to the trait of affected royalty found in many drag characters (wikipedia.org, 2007).  This explains why drag queens actually choose to wear large, gaudy jewelry and crowns that typically are 12 inches or taller.

Drag actually is a culture in itself, being that only a small percentage of gay males and lesbians perform in drag.  We define culture as learned patterns of perception, values and behaviors, shared by a group of people (Martin & Nakayama, 2001, p. 23).  Unfortunately, people have the misconception that all drag performers want to have the sex change operation and that they want to live life as the opposite sexual identity as from their birth; this is actually defined as transsexual (wikipedia.org, 2007.  This is a typical stereotyping of drag performers and is not the case for most of them.  Stereotypes are a way of categorizing and processing information, but they are particularly detrimental when they are negative and held rigidly (Martin & Nakayama, 2001, p. 188).

While conducting the research, each participant that responded gave more than one motivation that keeps them performing in drag.  Along with the excessive responses received, many were not true motivations but conditions and causes that many felt were actual motivations.  Conditions, however, whether positive or negative, are no sooner called into existence than they become causes in their turn and produce further conditions, and so on ad infinitum, thus giving rise to the whole train of secondary causes (Troward, 1904/1989, p. 56).  Looking at these responses, I was able to determine that my original calculation was mistaken and that the majority of those who do perform in drag were not necessarily focused on the charity aspect of the art, but on various other motivations as well.

While reviewing the various responses received, there were seven different motivations that came out of being “in face.”  These motivations were 1) Using drag as a paid position; 2) Enjoying making others happy; 3) Started in drag as a dare or contest; 4) The creativity in performing, wearing the make-up or clothing design; 5) Becoming a different person (persona) or creating a different atmosphere; 6) Love the limelight, acting, or entertaining; and 7) Making a difference in the community.  The calculation of responses can be found in Appendix C with the percentages on the Motivations pie chart in Appendix H.   With these responses, we will take a closer look at a few of the participants and their responses with each of the motivations listed.

The first participant, Miss Coco Peru, has been performing drag between 15 and 25 years and is in the age category of over 40.  She has been acting since the 1990’s and has been in television and film with credits including, Will & Grace (Kohan & Mutchnick, 2001); Too Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (Beane, 1995); and Trick (Schafer, 1999).  She responded that her motivation is her job.

“I always wanted to be a performer, but at the time I decided to do drag, I also wanted to be sort of a performer/ activist.  I have always found the best way to effect people is to tell your story, so I became a storytelling drag queen/ monologist!  My hope was that people would forget that they were watching a gay man dressed in drag, as different as I might appear, and instead begin to hear another person’s story.  Hopefully, people would relate to my story and possibly think, ‘Hey. That’s my story!'” (Miss Coco Peru, personal communication, November 27, 2007)

Miss Coco’s physical and her mental psychosocial stages appear to both be on the same level.  It is my opinion that she is one of the few participants that mentally match up to her physical age in Erikson’s psychosocial stages.  During adulthood, we continue to build our lives, focusing on career and family (Van Wagner, 2008).  This was proof that not only can a person perform as a drag queen for work but also can help others in how they do their job.

The next participant is 37 year old named Helen Heels, who has been performing in drag for approximately 22 years.  In talking with Miss Heels, I found that she has been able to grow through the years by being in drag.   Being a drag performer has helped her overcome social obstacles as well as personal ones. 

“I love to put a smile on peoples’ faces.  It is a joy to me to be able to get up on a stage and entertain while just being me and becoming something that no one could ever imagine I could do or be.  It is a way for me to meet people that are my age who share similar interests.  This gives me that opportunity to create that social life that I never felt I had when I was a young man.  Drag has opened me up to be able to better handle occurrences in life and also how I react to them.  While some might say that I am hiding or ‘pretending to be someone that I am not,’ I can honestly say that this is not the case.  I have been living life in drag longer than I have been a boy.” (Helen Heels, personal communication, November 21, 2007)

While Miss Helen is physically in Erikson’s psychosocial stage of Intimacy vs. Isolation, I believe that her mental stages range from Intimacy vs. Isolation through Integrity vs. Despair.  Not only has she developed the close, committed personal relationships, she also has that sense of integrity in being proud of her accomplishments while reflecting all of life (Van Wagner, 2008).  In speaking with her on the subject of the social aspect of performing, I decided to search more on the aspect of the gay and lesbian community and social support.  Martin & Nakayama said of this subject, “Gay people often suffer discrimination and hostility from the straight world.  In addition, they often have strained relationships with their families.  For these reasons, the social support they receive from friends in the gay community can play a special role,” (Martin & Nakayama, 2001, pp. 195-196).  In speaking with her, she gave her life philosophy, “Over the years drag has helped me understand that ‘If you don’t love yourself, no one is going to love you and you will not be able to love anybody else.'”  This is the same concept that Jack Addington said in his book, Psychogenesis: Everything Begins in Mind, “When one rejects himself, he is rejecting life,” (Addington, 1971/1994, p. 32).  This is a concept that many in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, inter-sex (GLBTQI) community have a problem with this concept.  Most of the GLBTQI believe that ‘I can’t accept myself without the love or approval of those I want it from (Maultsby, M.D., & Hendricks, 1974, p. 86),” however, Miss Helen’s belief is “I can accept myself without the love or approval of anyone (Maultsby, M.D., & Hendricks, p. 87).  In Learning to Love Yourself: Finding Your Self-Worth, author Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse begins her book with her definition of self-worth.

“Webster’s Dictionary does not list a word such as self-worth, so let’s take it apart and understand each part. 

Self – Personal; having its own identity; Personality

Worth – Deserving of value; Useful

The definition I would give to self-worth would be:


Although the small percentage of drag performers started on a dare, many of them have grown in their psychosocial stages to become more advanced in their understanding of what it means to be a drag queen or drag king.  This is the case with the lovely Miss Gonorrhea Martini; a drag queen in her 30’s who has been performing less than five years.  She says:

“For me, drag actually started on a dare about five years ago.  I did it and enjoyed it.  There was something about being on that stage in front of all the people that was just fun for me.  Then I got involved with several charity organizations and found out that I could perform as a drag queen and help out the community at the same time.  My main purpose I perform now is for charity functions.  When there is a show and I don’t feel like performing, I think of all the people living with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) that were presented with trip vouchers one year to go home to be with their families from an organization I help out called Home for the Holidays.  That memory gives me all the drive I need to be able to put on a face and hit that stage to raise money for charity,” (Miss Gonorrhea Martini, personal communication, November 25, 2007). 

While the motivation was to follow someone else’s lead to become a drag queen, Miss Martini realized that there are more important things than allowing someone else to lead you around.  This not only demonstrates that her Initiative vs. Guilt may have either had a relapse or may not have been completely developed in her psychosocial stages, however she has grown to mature to the Generativity vs. Stagnation stage by becoming productive and involved in her community, but also that satisfaction is a deep underlying sense of fulfillment, a sense of doing a good job with life (Barker, Unknown/1991, p. 65). 

In the fourth motivation of creativity, Amanda Reckenwith, who was Empress of a Washington state empire, says that she has been performing for 18 years and is in the over 40 category.  Creativity is a wonderful aspect for all of life and in drag it has become part of the culture.  One can be creative not only in their song or dance but also in their make-up, attitude, name and outfit.  Amanda says, “My motivation for performing is that I enjoy the creative aspect of it all.  I like creating a look that is all my own for the evening,” (Amanda Reckenwith, personal communication, November 21, 2007).  Although her second motivation is helping out with a good charitable cause, it seems that creativity is a good factor in how someone can be motivated.  When you are inspired to do things for good, creativity abounds.  This is the basic thought of Raymond Charles Barker when he wrote, “An inspired mind is a creative mind,” (Barker, Unknown/1991, p. 126).  This coincides with Piaget’s Formal operational cognitive development.  Piaget noticed that there were significant advances and that the cognitive process changes significantly.  He noted that in this stage, thinking is no longer restricted to personal experiences, (Berger, 1980/2006, p. 472).  It is therefore my belief that Miss Reckenwith is very sound in her cognitive development.

My next participant, 21 to 25 year old Lady Glaucoma Needs-Glasses, has been performing between five and ten years.  She feels that her motivation comes from the change she sees herself create in the atmosphere around her.

“My motivation to perform as either male or female, I perform both, is that it creates a different atmosphere for me at the bar or wherever the show is being held.  There is no stereotyping of a person for how they are dressed or who they want to be.  They are just free to be themselves in whatever way is most comfortable.  You can simply be there, shake what your mother gave ya’, and enjoy yourself, which should be every persons goal,” (Lady Glaucoma Needs-Glasses, personal communication, November 19, 2007).

In looking at Lady Glaucoma’s response and the remaining participants that perform in drag with change as their motivation, it is apparent that “activation, or arousal theory, attempts to correlate variations in level of psychological activity with changes in behavior.  It, activation, has been related to emotion and is important in understanding stress and stress-related symptoms and disorders,” (Feurstein, 1986, p. 84).  It appears to me that this is why 16 percent of the participants like to see a change, rather it be in who they are or in the atmosphere around them.  These are the people who do not necessarily want to go out because they feel that they can’t be themselves, and many times it puts a lot of stress on them when they go out for entertainment in public places, in my opinion due to lack of self-confidence.  These individuals seem to have a hard time growing out of the Autonomy vs. Shame and Guilt through Industry vs. Inferiority psychosocial stages.  Robert Franken said that, “Individuals move from tolerating their homosexual self-image to fully accepting it,” (Franken, 2007, p. 110). Once a person is able to grow out of these stages and develop into their current psychosocial stage in life they will see that “contentment, cheerfulness and self-confidence need not be dependent upon externals at all.  If we are to be cause, and not effect, we have to take our stand in consciousness,” (Davis, 1961/1976, p. 35).

One fourth of the participants felt that the limelight, acting or entertaining was their motivation.  This is not to be misinterpreted with performing drag as a paid position.  One of our recent Empresses who stepped down this last year, Rita Goodbook, is a 44 year old drag queen who has loved the limelight for 19 years.  She said that she loves the time that she devotes to performing, because she always wanted to be on television or in film when she grew up. “YES! I wanted to be a MOVIE STAR!” (Empress Rita Goodbook, personal communication, November 19, 2007)  Through the years she has realized that this was not her only motivation to keep her going;

“Currently, the motivation comes from inside my heart more than ever before.  So many people in our community need assistance.  I believe that we all need to be entertained to have fun and raise money for charities, but I also believe that without drag queens, we wouldn’t have the platforms to stand for what we believe in.”

Although, Miss Rita has held onto a small glimmer of hope from her preoperational stage, it is my personal opinion that she is living perfectly in her formal operational stage.

We come to our next participant who is between the age of 25 and 30 and has been performing for five to ten years, Lady Dementia Prilosex.  She responded as I thought many of my participants would have responded when the survey was first sent out.

“When I initially started performing in Drag, it was a means for me to express myself without having to concern myself of the consequences of the real world. I’ve always been a bit for the drama scene and the idea of creating a character and acting out a totally off the wall personality always seemed to be the best form of releasing ones inner pressures. As time has passed, it is now becoming more of a portal for me to reach a wider aspect of people. It helps me to get my point across, that many people would not typically listen to if I were merely standing on a soap box. It allows me to be creative in the way I present the information I am trying to push out in the public (HIV and Aids awareness). After finding out at an early age I was HIV+ it became very pressing that I help others like myself whom might be living destructive or harmful lifestyles and not only in the gay scene,” (Lady Dementia Prilosex, personal communication, Nov 21, 2007).

In the textbook, Human Motivation, Robert Franken states that “…individuals often become politically active in an attempt to change attitudes and laws that have a negative impact on gays and lesbians,” (Franken, 2007, p. 110).  With many of the drag performers out there from 70 kingdoms in three nations (Founder of the, 1998/2002) and having a participant response of 25 percent responding that “making a difference in their community” is what motivates them to perform drag, it seems that Lady Dementia Prilosex is not alone in wanting to help others. I believe that Lady Prilosex, although she physically is in the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage that Erikson describes in his psychosocial theory, she has the attitude and mind set of Industry vs. Inferiority through Integrity vs. Despair.  By performing as a drag queen or a drag king many GLBTQI members of the International Court System (ICS) are coming to the belief that “in awakening, our whole sense of identity shifts,” (Kornfield, 2000, p. 92).  This makes me consider that every participant who responded, most of their motivations were to make a difference in their community, and all have a very wide range of psychosocial skills.

In conclusion, it is my belief that even though the GLBTQI community may not all be part of an organization such as the ICS, I believe those that are, are trying to make a difference.  It may be as simple as getting on a stage where one gets paid as Miss Coco Peru does or it might be as extensive as becoming an Empress and raising nearly $10,000 for charity in one year as Patty O’Furniture has.  We may wish to use our creative power of mind for helping someone else, for self-help, or for some other purpose,” (Holmes, 1926/1966, p. 193).  Or, one can actually choose to focus on the limelight, atmosphere or just the title that they can receive.  Whatever the motivation, each has chosen to perform drag for that reason.


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