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Drag queen spokesmodels can help slay the competition




An ad campaign for the makeup company Sugarpill that features drag queen Kim Chi. The company collaborated with her to create a turquoise blue eyeshadow.
An ad campaign for the makeup company Sugarpill that features drag queen Kim Chi. The company collaborated with her to create a turquoise blue eyeshadow.
Adam Ouahmane/Sugarpill

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Drag queens aren't just entertainers. They can be great for business, too. A lot of the credit goes to television shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race," now in its tenth year.

"Drag queens are the new pop stars," says co-creator Randy Barbato, who gave them a nationwide platform outside of gay bars. "Drag queens haven’t changed, but the audience has. The only reason they haven’t been accessible in the past is because people haven’t been able to see them."

A record-breaking 50,000 of their fans were able to see them up close last weekend during RuPaul's DragCon at the L.A. Convention Center.

Drag queen Kim Chi, in yellow, poses with her fans during RuPaul's DragCon LA 2018. Parents Lorena Garcia-Marquez (L) and Roberto Marquez (R) brought their 8-yo Sophie Marquez to the event.
Drag queen Kim Chi, in yellow, poses with her fans during RuPaul's DragCon LA 2018. Parents Lorena Garcia-Marquez (L) and Roberto Marquez (R) brought their 8-yo Sophie Marquez to the event.
Leo Duran/KPCC

Attendees spanned the gamut, from bright-eyed toddlers running past elderly couples, to gaggles of teens crowded next to colorfully costumed hipsters. Some lined up for hours to meet their favorite queens from the show.

"The audience today is female as much as it is male. It’s straight as much as it’s gay," Barbato says.

They bought over $8 million in merchandise during last year's convention, and organizers expect this year's sales to be no different.

That kind of business and marketability might've been completely unheard of not too long ago. If an ad agency featured a drag queen, they were usually the butt of the joke. 

"The drag queen would characterize a person deceiving other people," says LGBT marketing expert Bob Witeck, "and that’s the way marketers often had seen it. They never took the drag queen seriously as a person who had an identity in their own right."

In this 1995 ad, male model Zaldy is dressed in drag as a stunt in this UK commercial for Levi's jeans

But the cultural shift is partly driven by Millennials and younger.

"They’re certainly hungry for new ideas and new ways of talking about identity, new ways of looking at it," he says.

Witeck argues that younger people are less likely to be bothered by people breaking the rules of what men and women are supposed to do and wear.

That’s exactly why Marissa Lara was excited to meet her favorite queens at DragCon last weekend.

"They honestly start the trends," says the 22-year-old. "Big makeup is not a thing that a lot of girls do, but I think it’s very inspiring to just go all out and not care what people think."

Marissa Lara, 22 (R), browses the eyeshadow options at Sugarpill's vendor booth during RuPaul's DragCon LA 2018. Sugarpill is an LA-based company specializing in make-up with vibrant hues.
Marissa Lara, 22 (R), browses the eyeshadow options at Sugarpill's vendor booth during RuPaul's DragCon LA 2018. Sugarpill is an LA-based company specializing in make-up with vibrant hues.
Leo Duran/KPCC

Her love of drag queens' looks brought her to the vendor booth for Sugarpill, a make-up company that specializes in color-saturated products with playful names like Kitten Parade and Heart Shaped Cookie.

One of the brand's best-sellers is a vibrant turquoise blue named after Instagram star and past Drag Race contestant Kim Chi.

"I grew up in drag bars, and I developed my beauty standards by going to drag bars," says Sugarpill founder Amy Doan, who frequently collaborates with drag queens in promotional campaigns.

Amy Doan, founder of the makeup brand Sugarpill, poses in front of a backsplash that features different pictures of drag queen Laila McQueen.
Amy Doan, founder of the makeup brand Sugarpill, poses in front of a backsplash that features different pictures of drag queen Laila McQueen.
Leo Duran/KPCC

It's a strategy that's paid off. Her sales get a bump anytime a drag queen posts one of their spectacular looks online and credits Sugarpill. And the company’s most watched YouTube videos are ones that feature Kim Chi and others.

"I feel like a lot more people are experimental because they see everyone doing it on Instagram and they can experiment at home," she says.

It's more than makeup. Companies that create products like wigs, t-shirts, dresses and more all notice that a wide customer base comes to them when drag queens promote their products.

"We all make choices in the way we package ourselves," says "Drag Race" co-creator Randy Barbato. "Drag queens make extraordinary choices, and I think that’s inspirational to people."