Oxford, like much of the UK, has experienced the phenomenon of drag over the last few years. The unprecedented success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has allowed a generation of young people to have grown up watching drag, and consequently, many want to try it for themselves. The drag scene in Oxford is a relative unknown for much of the student population here – and this article aims to change that. There is a thriving Drag Scene with performers from both the city and universities alike. Drag and Disorderly at Plush sees a plethora of Drag acts perform, as does Haute Mess at the Bullingdon.
Getting into drag has never been easier in the safe space created by the Oxford LGBTQ+ Society, which hosted a drag cuppers competition last Michaelmas. The two winners of the competition have since performed professionally. And in an exclusive announcement, we can confirm a Drag Ball is actively being organised by the Society. It promises to be a large but relatively low-cost event, tentatively planned to happen at Freud, and will be a fun and stunning celebration of Ballroom culture. There are plans to feature pole dancing, drag queens, dancers, and special talent that will be invited from out of town.
Drag is the queer community’s most visible expression, and its significance cannot be understated. Therefore, it is not without its controversy, even in Oxford. Last August, the County Library in Westgate hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour. The library was closed to the public over security concerns, and police had to separate supporters of the event from those against by fences as the crowds were so large. Leaflets described the drag queen attending the event as “a mentally unwell man”.
So how has this affected Oxford’s drag scene? What is Drag in Oxford really like? Who are the big names? Read on to find out.
Miss Take (she/her), also known as Alfred Dry (he/him) out of drag, tells me she is “the sultry, irreverent teacher of your dreams”. A humorous queen, she “first got into drag as an attempt to bring queer expression and joy into a small little corner of Suffolk. My Catholic school held a talent show in which straight boys often threw on a dress and had a laugh, so I wanted to finally bring some true, informed, celebratory drag to the stage. On the day of the show, I was told that drag is a ‘disrespectful’ art form, and I was not allowed to do it. So now I get into drag to represent a respectable, glorious, and glamorous art form. I also do it because I think I look very pretty. And it’s fun. Really fun.”
“The Oxford Scene has been very welcoming.” Miss Take says. “I have been given some amazing opportunities: I am the first and only drag queen to perform at the Oxford Union, I have been able to write and perform shows in multiple colleges, as well as the den of sin commonly known as Plush, and Miss Take even got the chance to play Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. I am beyond grateful for the love and support I have received from the community in Oxford, both queer and straight, and I am particularly grateful for the other drag artists in the city who make every show we do together so enjoyable.”
I ask Miss Take what makes Oxford drag unique: “We are lucky in Oxford to have artists who come from different backgrounds and approach drag from different perspectives. Thus it is difficult to define Oxford Drag as a whole – it is each individual performer that makes Oxford Drag the unique scene it is”.
Miss Take introduces me to some other queens: “We have the wonderful Shroom (@shroomdraguk) who can dance, sew, and perform comedy with ease. She is talented beyond belief and for that I despise her”. Rusty Kate (@rustykatedrag) is an Oxford staple who can sing, smoke and drink all at the same time! I have performed the most with her and I’m still trying to get the smell out of my wig. Londyn (@theellondyn) is the most stunning person on the planet and she could stand there and do nothing yet still be the most mesmerising performer of the night. Izzy Single (@izzysingle.drag) is one of our sexiest drag kings and listening to him sing makes me want to change my name from Miss Take to Mrs Single. Eura Freak (@eurafreakdrag) is another divine drag king who owns any space lucky enough to have him. Then, of course, you have the most beautiful, talented one of all: Miss Take, who has just been awarded Ofsted’s ‘Sexiest Teacher in the Universe’ for the fifth year running (@misstakeofficial). Each of these entertainers brings something different, and I hope the community continues to grow and diversify.”
Bad B (she/her), one of the winners of Drag Cuppers, is next. She told me her experience was very rushed: “I made the last-minute decision only an hour before the event actually started to take part.” But after the support of her ‘super encouraging friends and the other competitors, her performance “went down super well with the judges and the crowd”.
Bad B opens up to share her motives for getting into Drag. “I’m a pansexual woman and I never truly felt at peace with my sexuality and my identity as a queer woman. I felt biphobia, like I was a “fake” or that I didn’t belong in queer spaces”. Getting in drag and performing for the first time was “a life changer” for her. “I finally felt valid in my expression as a queer artist and felt the acceptance and love of everyone in the room”.
Drag has always been an interest of Bad B’s. “I started watching Drag Race when Season 5 was airing and I had a family friend that did drag when I was younger. I even performed for her at a local drag competition in my home town. I was really into makeup growing up as a teen with acne and even started doing prom makeup on the side during secondary school to earn a bit of extra cash.
“I’ve been a dancer all my life and sadly had to take a step back when I was diagnosed with my chronic health condition. When I started university I gradually began dancing again and discovered I could take up space as a disabled dancer. Dancing and Expressing myself through the art form has massively helped my mental health and been a release for me. I performed for the first time in heels in Hilary 2022 and that really helped me transition into drag.
“Oxford drag is unique to me in the sense that all of the artists I’ve met have been really authentic to themselves and their drag personas”.
She tells me her advice for someone wanting to get into drag is “Don’t be scared!”. “ Watch some makeup videos of queens you admire, buy a glue stick and practise! Ask your friends or reach out to any local queens if you need any advice or to borrow anything. The queer community at Oxford is so welcoming so it’s the perfect place to start. Drag cuppers are a fantastic place to start without feeling too overwhelmed. I’m really grateful to the OULGBTQ+ Society for organising and continuing to run such inclusive and exciting events.”
Bad B adds that “All of my experiences in oxford have been super positive and everyone has been really respectful.” However “as an afab [assigned female at birth] queen I’ve been asked personal questions about my genitalia and I’ve been told that what I do ‘isn’t real drag’”. Furthermore, “Consent is also a bit of an issue in the drag community. Some audience members think that it is ok to touch performers, especially in ‘sexual’ areas.”
Danny Issues (he/him), known out of drag as Ruby Firth (she/they) is the first drag king on our list. He tells me “I’m very lucky in that my experience growing up queer has been generally a positive one. I can remember watching my first episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race with my mum, and I didn’t have to have a terrifying ‘coming out’ moment with the people that mattered – they just gradually realised what was up!”
“However,” Danny is keen to emphasise, “I’m very much not a performer by nature, so getting into drag was a scary concept to me. I entered into Drag Cuppers on a whim. But as your classic high-strung Oxford student, I couldn’t just do things halfway: I had to put in FULL effort. This involved at least half a bottle of hair gel and at least an hour spent working out how to do my makeup and bind my chest! (And also I somehow came out with a fully conceptualised character. I think it’s my law student brain crying out for some creativity…)”
Danny tells me that his “overarching thought about drag in Oxford is one of immense gratitude. As a person with a generally anxious disposition, I have been pretty intimidated from the start. But everyone has made me feel so welcome, and I am learning so much! Drag in Oxford is genuinely open to everyone – if you want to get involved, it really can be as easy as just getting in touch with a performer you like!”
Rusty Kate (she/her) is perhaps one of the most well-known Queens in the student scene having been a columnist for Cherwell, and an avid performer. In a bout of quick wit she tells me “Rusty started as a cure for a very serious chronic condition I had as a slowly ageing twink in Oxford: I wanted more attention. There’s something about a crowd screaming for you that fills me with more serotonin than a father’s love could ever provide. What once was a busted princess lip syncing to Toxic by Britney Spears is now Rusty Kate: a busted grandma singing Toxic by Britney Spears”. Rusty’s success is unquestionable: “In the last two years, I’ve rusticated and have now gone into drag as a full-time business. I travel all around the country doing shows wherever will take me, from club nights to prides, one-woman comedy shows to campy bingo calling. I love what I do, and I’m so lucky to have made a viable career for myself in the arts.”
Rusty loves the Oxford scene as it “has quite a bit of variety for such a small scene”. “I’d say what makes Oxford drag unique for me is the types of jokes I can make. I can toe the line on sensitive topics and make niche political commentary that just wouldn’t land if I was around a load of middle-aged Tories in a small town in the Midlands. It’s the student crowd that are so supportive of the art that really inspires the next generation of Oxford Kings and Queens to don their wigs.”
Shroom (she/they) has a very bubbly personality. They described themselves as an “aggressively passionate vegan” who studies Maths and Philosophy. “It was inevitable for me to get into drag” she said, “when I was younger I made people sit down and watch me lip sync to songs.” Shroom told me in a “juicy scoop” that she realised she was gay at age 10 “sat on the toilet wiping my ass. But I thought I can’t be gay – I’m not Ellen De Generes – I don’t have a pixie cut – how can I be a dyke?”.
After getting into [RuPaul’s] Drag Race at age 12 Shroom said “I always knew I wanted to do it. I had to wait till I came to uni. And then it was just a matter of time before Shroom was born. I started in the bedroom, just like practising face makeup and making my partner at the time watch an extortionist amount on lipsyncs.” Shroom reached out to the “girlies” at Drag and Disorderly who she “plugs all the way” and they agreed to add her on to their Plush nights. “And then from there, it just spiralled into the insanity that it is so cool.”
“In terms of performance, my drag is high energy, fun, and also silly. I love it. I love doing a comedy number. I love a fierce lipsync. I’m currently working on a number at the moment to turn the friggin frogs gay.” Shroom says her aim is to “try and be very like inclusive, warm, friendly. Little bit sexy. And funny.”
Shroom talks openly about her experiences being female-presenting in the typically male-dominated drag scene. “I was very aware of it at the beginning. I thought I had to wear nails to every gig. Part of the reason why my makeup is so exaggerated is because I was like, ‘Well, I can’t just look like me and makeup’ – I have to clearly be in drag. I wore heavy padding and stuff like that.” But Shroom goes on to say that “as time has gone on, like, now I literally don’t think about it that much. It’s just like another part of it. I do face some bullshit – people will tell me I’m not a drag queen – And I’ll be stood there in full wig with fake eyelashes glued to my face looking like a very intense sexy clown or strange alien stripper. Tell me what I am then, if it’s not drag?”.
Shroom has experienced some “gross” things said to her by non-Oxford queens too, mainly because of her gender identity. However, Shroom says Oxford Drag “feels very much like a family.” “Everyone’s super supportive, we always gossip.” The biggest challenge Shroom says is that “You have to be funny to survive. Because we all just make such fun of each other. Like, the reading is really knee deep, and intense. So sometimes I’m like, oh my god I’m really draining my last bit of wit to try and keep up but it’s the best.”
Salmonella, AKA Acid Sally (they/them) is a drag performer, host, DJ, and founder of Haute Mess, “Oxford’s longest running and premier drag pigsty disco dance party”. Salmonella tells me “When I started going out and dressing up in Oxford there weren’t many people doing drag or dressing up to clubs, and my clubbing experience started to feel homogenised and judgemental”. Therefore, “Haute Mess started because we wanted to give ourselves and others a space to express themselves without judgement, experiment with dressing up and gender performance, to be messy, and to be vulnerable without any judgement. Through Haute Mess we’ve given dozens of performers from all around the country, as well as many Oxford students and locals a stage to express themselves.”
Contrary to many other performers, Salmonella believes “there has always been an unnecessary divide between local and student performers, potentially due to the lack of support from students for non-student events and performers, and many student events being hosted on weekdays making it harder for non-students to attend or perform. Especially since returning to in-person studying after the COVID lockdowns it seems like there are far fewer people wanting to experiment with drag and seek performance opportunities, and this may be largely in part due to the saturation and RuPaulification of drag”. They added that “in my opinion, a lot of the charm of drag comes from the rough around the edges, messy, sweaty imperfections. The unrealistic standard of drag to aspire to a homogenised depiction of drag as synonymous with female impersonation, and the lack of transgressive and politically engaged drag all around has made drag much more sanitised, which is damaging to the performer community, and especially POC performers, AFAB performers, drag kings, and those seeking to explore less crowd-pleasing themes through their performance.”
Donna Marcus Duke (they/them) jovially tells me that “I’m going to show my age here, but I started doing drag in about 2014/2015 before I came to Oxford. I’d been hosting fancy dress parties since I was 15 and they were forever an excuse to experiment with my presentation. I kept it up when I came to Oxford, with bops, in particular, offering a fortnightly opportunity to create new looks — albeit low-budget and DIY, but that’s where the fun and creativity lay.”
“At the end of my first year, I met Salmonella, one of the only other students doing drag at the time. We bemoaned the lack of intentionally queer spaces in the city — for as amazing as Plush was, their nights weren’t exactly havens for queer, trans and gender non-conforming folk.” Donna tells me that “A few student groups were experimenting in university theatre spaces, and Ginger Tarte began Oxphwoard — a queer/drag cabaret event at The Bullingdon”. But that “Salmonella and I wanted something more nightlife orientated…So, we started Haute Mess in 2016 as a way to develop an alternative nightlife scene in the city (but mainly also to be able to give ourselves gigs lol). Somehow, it’s kept on going and here we are in 2023 still slogging away.”
After coming up on the scene as a student Donna tells me they found that “the student body in Oxford is fabulously political, and it was a generative (if not brutal) place to come up as a drag queen.” Recalling a Wadham roundtable in 2017 where “the compatibility of drag and trans issues was discussed. Though it was a tricky conversation for all involved, it was a testament to the nuanced politics the scene held at the time and was incredibly beneficial in helping us hone our own politics and code of conduct in drag.”
Donna tells me that “In Oxford, we [drag performers] are very lucky.” What makes Oxford stand out for them is the crowd: “Since graduating I’ve been touring around the UK and Europe, and honestly no crowd is more generous, more excitable and more grateful than the Oxford crowd.” This reputation is being noticed amongst outside performers “as one of the most enjoyable to perform to”. For Donna this is important as “Drag is such a community-orientated creative practice” and a performer is “only as good as the scene that supports them.” In Oxford “there is a bit of a DIY element as the core of Oxford drag — but that also just might be me”. In Iconic words, Donna says “In the face of the city’s grandeur, it’s so tempting to run around looking like shit.”
Scarlett Von Kok (she/her) has been “gracing the scene of the south for 6 years now from burlesque shows to theatre shows and club gigs”. She tells me “she does it all!” Starting in musical theatre, she chose a career in drag as a way to use the skills she learned. “So, after some soul searching and an online name generator the iconic “Scarlett Von Kok” or “SVK” was born.”
In Oxford, Scarlett is helping lead ‘The Oxfordshire Drag Collective’ – an Oxfordshire-based drag group that produces shows for both established and upcoming artists. Scarlett herself joined the collective to collaborate with local artists and work in a queer team to bring drag to Oxford, an area she described as with “potential but not many gaping opportunities”.
Scarlett tells me, “I love how the scene is gradually growing as it is full of a wide variety of electric performers and is very welcoming, meaning audiences love to participate and so always leave having a good time.” Looking to the future Scarlett hopes that “the future of the Oxford scene is as colourful as it is now and that it becomes a staple of queer life in Oxford”.
Londyn (she/her) is the last Queen on our list. She tells me “I am definitely a part of generation Ru, so drag has always been an interest of mine,” adding, “so I started about a year ago in February at the wonderful club, Plush. They very much welcomed me into their circle, and I did my first number at their Drag and Disorderly show, Where I’ve just been booked since.” For Londyn this has been a personal journey as “Starting drag also helped me realise I am a trans woman.
For Londyn “The drag scene in Oxford is definitely nowhere near as big as somewhere like London or Brighton but it’s definitely blossoming with all the new shows coming out, and loads of new drag artists starting out – it’s lovely seeing Oxford’s drag scene grow into something amazing!”
Although not a Drag performer himself, Jake Hall (he/him) is an important figure on the drag scene. He is an ex-Brookes student who started doing Oxford uni events in 2016 working with various clubs in Oxford. “Pre-pandemic, I used to run a Drag Karaoke night at the nightclub Cirkus on Sundays [now closed].” Jake told me. “I started running Drag & Disorderly at Plush in Oxford with Drag Queen Felicity Suxwell, hosting table service after pandemic restrictions were [partially] lifted. We found there were a lot of students and locals wanting to start drag, but not knowing where to begin.” When asked about Oxford’s scene, Jake says “The biggest difference between drag in Oxford and elsewhere is inclusivity. This is shown in the attitude of each of the established performers by helping to introduce new performers into the world of drag. From what I’ve seen in other towns and cities, there is a more extreme scene where acts are fighting each other for gigs and stealing them from one another. Here in Oxford, especially with the Drag & Disorderly queens, there’s more support within the industry, making it more welcoming.”
I asked all the drag artists about their perception of the drag scene in general. Firstly to attain whether there was a divide between university and resident performers. Miss Take said “There has never been a divide between us, and I am proud to be a part of such an uplifting family of performers”. Adding that “A hierarchy exists only because some of us wear higher heels than others”.Bad B says “There is a real sense of sisterhood and I always felt respected, even when competing for the first time in drag.” Jake Hall says the supportive atmosphere of the Oxford scene “ has led to there being no division between the local and student acts. The only major difference between the two is availability as students have coursework as a priority and many of them go home over the breaks. Despite this, we have managed to even book them gigs when they return to their hometowns!” Shroom says “Regarding Town people its mostly just felicity really – she was doing drag before an Oxford drag scene – and I consider her a veteran even though she is 23 – literally our age – we all have a level of respect for her.”
I asked all the drag artists about the perception that Oxford’s drag scene has a smaller profile than other university cities.
Bad B said that “Compared to larger cities like London and Manchester the drag scene is smaller in Oxford but it is larger than other cities like my home town. The oxford drag scene is only getting bigger, especially thanks to the work done by Rusty Kate, Blues Events and the Drag and Disorderly brand. I think there’s a really exciting future for the oxford drag scene so watch this space.” She adds “it seems like a really organic scene which has developed with the expression of oxford’s gay population.” Miss Take imparts some wisdom with her response: “Drag takes time. Time to learn how to do your makeup, time to build a persona, and time to construct and perfect a show. Oxford holds two universities and many of the student population simply do not have the time to devote to drag. I am lucky to have the most incredible, supportive family at home, and I really honed my craft over lockdown… If you are thinking of getting in drag for the first time at university, it is more difficult to find the time to do so. But I encourage you to try! It’s fun. Who needs a degree when your visage is this snatched?” Danny Issues is positive “Oxford is a small city, and let’s be honest it’s not the number one destination for nightlife – so I’d say its drag scene is pretty impressive in the circumstances! There is some real talent based in Oxford – performers who travel across the country. Let’s give Oxford the credit it deserves!” Rusty tells me to “look at the state of the Oxford drag scene five years ago – where was it? There was next to nothing going on, and now there are so many different drag events all competing for attention in a tiny city.” Rusty understands the complexities of a student drag scene with limited term-time and that “All too often, being a student doesn’t provide the luxuries of time and money to get started. (Unless you fob off your degree and wear charity shop dresses like me).”
Following the Westgate protest I wondered if there were any ramifications on the scene in Oxford. “Not even remotely” said Donna. Jake Hall told me “a number of acts and I were in attendance [at Westgate] counter-protesting in support of the story time. This hasn’t necessarily negatively impacted what we do. If anything, we had more venues contact us in support and want to start working with our drag performers.” However, Miss Take says “These kinds of protests influence every drag artist’s work. It is easy to get comfortable performing in queer spaces and forget there is still a world out there which does not understand, accept or tolerate diversity.” Adding “It’s important for children to be informed about drag; expressing who you are, however, you are, is not something to be ashamed of. Drag is not to be hidden away, but instead made accessible and enjoyed as a diverse community. On that note, I am a teacher, and I will leave you with my most important lesson: love who you are, but love me more!” Danny Issues disclosed that “The only negative experience I’ve had is… confusion? I think particularly drag kings (rather than queens) have not been given much of a platform in the past – so people don’t always quite know how to react to Danny!” Rusty Kate is candid: ”Honestly, at the time we were terrified. We want to do what we do and feel safe but had a constant worry. I thought about toning down some of the things I do. I thought about how I justified the raunchier parts of the show. Then I thought, why on earth am I doing this? The political landscape in this country is down the shitter, granted. The last thing we should do is hide – we should be more visible than ever. Just not in daylight. Drag Queens don’t look good in daylight.”
The overarching theme of this article and throughout my encounters with Oxford’s drag artists is that this community is very special because of its supportive and kind members. As Shroom told me “The selling point of Oxford Drag is that it is so tightknit which allows for the family vibes.” It exists in an “In-between space” very different from. London drag where “weird acts are reserved for weird clubs.” In Oxford “I can go from fierce lipsync to then licking cream off myself”. Her description of the scene as a vibrant “Mixing pot” is spot on. As Miss Take said, “It is wonderful to meet other entertainers and learn from how they express themselves”. Bad B is grateful for the warm welcome commenting “I really owe my great experience so far to all of the drag artists who have shown me kindness.” Danny Issues says “I think with Oxford, the special breed of students we have here makes both audiences and performers understand each other a little more. And whilst Oxford is a small city, it also means the community is pretty tight-knit and safe!” He adds “Audiences in queer spaces have been nothing but lovely whilst I’m very much learning on the job!”
Drag performers rely on people “turning up to support their girlies” as Shroom put it. She encouraged the girls and the gays to turn out in force to support their shows, buy the performers drinks, and give a generous tip – a process which is sure to be fun based on Shroom’s description of it to me. According to Bad B “There are a bunch of exciting drag events coming up this term and in the future. If you want to find out more follow queens on Instagram when you watch our shows.” The Drag and Disorderly Facebook page has information about upcoming performances, the next being on 19th February at Plush. You can catch Jake Hall’s “fabulous drag performers” every Tuesday at the City Arms for a drag quiz. And keep a look out for any extra events – including the famed Drag Brunch – coming up in the future. Oxford Drag Collective at The Old Fire Station also run events. Haute Mess at The Bullingdon “holds stinky sweaty club nights throughout the year” (Donna’s words not mine). They tell me “The next one on 2nd March will be our annual competition, Oxford’s Next Top Mess, where we’ll be crown the city’s messiest newbie. You can find tickets on our [email protected] ” Outside nightlife, Shroom is launching a podcast of 20-minute soundbites of chatting – found through her LinkTree. Judging by our conversation it will be a lot of fun. Rusty also has a radio show on Oxide Radio called ‘Wine Drunk’.
Many thanks to all the Drag performers for their time and comments. Shroom @shroomdraguk Bad B @_brodiebrain Danny Issues @itsdannyissues Rusty Kate @rustykatedrag Miss Take @misstakeofficial Salmonella @salmonella.zip Donna Marcus Duke @donna.the.first Scarlett Von Kok @scarlettvonkokofficial Londyn @theellondyn