Actress, writer, and comedian Mae West pushed the limits of the American stage and screen, climbing the “ladder of success wrong by wrong.” She was a subversive camp icon who grappled with complex social issues, imbuing her plot lines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions, and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy.
The combination of her extravagant look, outrageous wit, sense of humor, and supreme self confidence made her someone that decades of drag queens have wanted to imitate. “Her wigs are draggy. The rings on every finger, she is a total look, conceived of from picture hat to platform shoe,” says drag legend Lady Bunny in the American Masters film Mae West: Dirty Blonde.
Mae West even wrote a play with a 20-minute drag ball in it called “The Drag.” Historian George Chancey says in the film that “she actually went into a bunch of Greenwich Village speakeasies where the queer set hung out and recruited 40 or 50 queens to come be a part of her show. There’s a great line in ‘The Drag’ where a queen talks about walking up 10th Avenue and all the meat that’s sizzling.”
Here are four ways in which camp legend Mae West is and continues to be an inspiration to drag queen culture:
1) RuPaul’s Drag Race
Drag performer Alaska 5000 paid homage to Mae West when she portrayed the actress on RuPaul’s Drag Race’s All Stars 2. Mae West’s influence on Alaska 5000 doesn’t stop there, in an interview with Advocate she says, “I don’t want to quit drag at all. I want to be 90 years old and I want them to prop me up in the doorway and have hot dudes dance around me like Mae West. I really do!”
Drag Race judge Michelle Visage has also said that she models her look and style after Mae West. In an interview with Guardian Michelle said, “When I was young, I was looking through an encyclopedia for a school report and came across Mae West. Her style was amazing to me: she was a drag queen. I remember writing in my diary: “When will I get breasts?” – I was obsessed with having a body like hers, hence my implants being the size they were.”
2) Drag Legend Charles Pierce
Charles Pierce was a drag queen (though he preferred the description “male actress”) who famously impersonated Mae West. Pierce would often perform as Mae in his one-man nightclub act called, “Fasten Your Seatbelts”. He also impersonated her in the 1988 comedy “Torch Song Trilogy.”
3) She Inspired Drag Across the Atlantic Ocean!
Polish actor Eugeniusz Bodo portrayed Mae West in the Polish comedy-of-errors Piętro Wyżej (Upstairs) in 1937.
4) Mae West Impersonator Craig Russell
Canadian actor Craig Russell was one of the most famous drag performers who impersonated Mae West. He also briefly worked as West’s secretary in Los Angeles.