Panti to Marsha P: 7 Drag Queens who Shaped the World!

Divine (Polaroids). New York, 1978.

So the past few weeks have seen Dublin’s own First Lady of Drag, Panti Bliss become an international gay rights activist with #PantiGate, the issue of homophobia in Ireland has quickly become the nation’s cause celebré. Panti is definitely Ireland’s most fabulous Queen and a new icon for many. She is just the latest in a long line of Drag Queens who have pierced the public consciousness with their stiletto heels. Here are 7 more legendary Queens who have impacted the worlds of music, film, art and civil rights. Models, actors, musicians, muses, philanthropists and social activists, these Queens break boundaries and brilliantly showcase Drag as an art form!

Marsha P. Johnson

Image of Marsha by Andy Warhol

The Mother herself, Marsh P Johnson, is credited with helping kick-off the Stonewall Riots; a serious of demonstrations by New York’s gay community that lead to the gay liberation movement in the US.

A fixture in the New York art world, she was even photographed by Andy Warhol. Marsha helped found the S.T.A.R. House which provided food, shelter and clothing to young drag queens and transgendered individuals on New York’s Lower East Side.

Tragically, Marsha’s body was  found in the Hudson River shortly after the 1992 Pride March. Police at the time refused to investigate her death, ruling it as suicide. However the case was re-opened in 2012. Baroque pop group Antony and the Johnsons were named in her honour.



Divine (Polaroids). New York, 1978.
Divine (Polaroids). New York, 1978.

Described as “the most beautiful woman in the world… almost”, Divine paved the way for many of the other queens to break into the mainstream. Christened ‘Divine’ by filmmaker John Waters, the duo embarked on a mission to create the “trashiest motion pictures in cinema history”. Their most infamous film, Pink Flamingos features a scene where Divine eats dog excrement and has gone on to be seen as a watermark moment in American cinema history.

In the 1980s Divine teamed up with Stock Aiken and Waterman to record singles such as ‘You Think You’re a Man‘ which reached the UK Top 20 and performed on Top of the Pops. She starred as Edna Turnblad in the film Hairspray (later played by the definitely-not-gay John Travolta) but shortly after the film’s release, Divine died of an enlarged heart. She served as the inspiration behind Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.



image of RuPaul
RuPaul by David Shankbone

The legendary RuPaul (yes, that is her real name) grew up a po’ black child in the Brewster projects of Atlanta, Georgia and hustled her way to become supermodel of the world! An NYC nightlife sensation in the late 80s, RuPaul exploded in to the public consciousness with her smash hit, ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’, which hit no.2 on the US Billboard Dance Charts. Soon she signed a contract with MAC cosmetics, becoming the first face of their Viva Glam AIDS fund. Ru also hosted her own talk show, becoming one of the first major openly gay stars on US television.

RuPaul now regally presides over a global Drag Renaissance, thanks to her show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. A mix between Top Model and Project Runway (with a glutinous helping of glamour and diva attitude), the show has thrust drag queens back in to the public consciousness. Drag Race has helped transform the general public’s view of Drag Queens from tragic clichés to actual rounded humans. Oh, season 6 premieres next week, hunty!

Flawless Sabrina

image of Flawless Sabrina
courtesy of

Flawless Sabrina burst in to international attention as the star and subject of the film, The Queen, which showed at Cannes in 1968. Sabrina is a famed drag pageant organizer and has been holding pageants since 1959. Local-laws at the time often outlawed drag, so Sabrina would meet with officials beforehand and propose a charitable donation in exchange for allowing the paegents to go ahead.

A national final in 1967 in New York was held in benefit of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It drew the attention of Lady Bird Johnson (the first lady at the time) and Robert Kennedy, who were announced as co-sponsors, but both dropped out when they realized it was a drag show! (A real shame as ‘Lady Bird Johnson’ is a GREAT drag name) The show was filmed and released as The Queen and Sabrina was asked to be a consultant for films such as Midnight Cowboy and Myra Breckinridge. ***Flawless!


Leigh Bowery

image of Leigh Bowery
Leigh strikes a pose. Image courtesy of Regine Debatty

Enough with American Queens, let’s enjoy Leigh Bowery’s London look! Born in Australia, Leigh was not a drag queen in the conventional sense but rather the most fabulous of club kids. Leigh established the Taboo nightclub, London’s answer to Studio 54. The club was known for its defiance of sexual convention and it’s embrace of “polysexual identities”. Leigh became a fashion week staple and showed collections in London, New York and Tokyo.

Bowery was an enfant terriblé of the art world, performing a controversial live show ‘Minty’ (which was shut down by Westminster council) and becoming a muse and model for artist Lucien Freud. Portraits of Bowery are now in the collection of London’s Tate Gallery, while his style has influenced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Lady Gaga.
(Leigh was also one of my first introductions to drag when he frightened the living shit out of me on British TV)


Akihiro Miwa

Akihiro Miwa may not be well known in the West, but she is a venerable icon in Japan. Miwa has been working consistently since the 1950s when she began singing songs by French chanteuses such as Edith Piaf and Yvette Guilbert, which she translated into Japanese.

She became a household name in Japan with smash-hits ‘Me Que Me Que‘ and ‘Yoitomake no Uta‘ which featured profanities never heard in Japanese media of the time. Her effeminate beauty made he a media darling and one of the first openly gay stars in Japan. In recent years, Miwa has voiced characters in Hayo Miyazaki’s anime films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.

Miwa is a social activist and has written over twenty books. She is firmly anti-war and was actually IN Nagasaki when it was destroyed by an atomic bomb, proving it takes more than nuclear warfare to keep a good drag queen down.



image of Willam Belli
Willam by David Shankbone

You may know her from a starring role on Nip/Tuck, from a show-stopping turn on RuPaul’s Drag Race, from one-off parts on just about every cop show on TV or from her hit parody songs… but the most important thing to Willam is simply that you know her. Probably the most prolific international drag queen today, Willam shows no signs of slowing-down anytime soon!

Since her season-stealing turn on RuPaul’s Drag Race (where she was sensationally booted off for breaking the rules), Willam has formed an all-drag queen band with Detox and Vicki Vox. Their single ‘Boy is a Bottom’ has racked up almost 13 million views on YouTube and Willam has just been announced as a host for a spin-off of MTV’s The Real World.

Who is your favourite legendary Drag diva?

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