Would Carlotta, Australia’s most celebrated drag queen, have made it on RuPaul’s Drag Race?Joanna McIntyre, Swinburne University of Technology and Damien O’Meara, Swinburne University of Technology
After the first season last year wobbled on its heels, the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under began last weekend.
In becoming the global beacon of drag, Drag Race has set new ideals for what it means to do drag. But while Drag Race may have brought drag into the global media centre, in Australia drag has long been celebrated in the mainstream.
Australia’s most enduring and adored drag celebrity has been a stalwart of Australian show business for almost 60 years: Carlotta.
Long before Drag Race, Carlotta (the stage name of Carol Byron) was foundational in establishing a specifically Aussie mode of drag that both queer and straight Australians embrace – one that is outlandish, flamboyant, irreverent and “ocker”.
Disappointment down under
Earlier this year, RuPaul made headlines describing Australian drag queens as “more ratchet” – meaning Australian drag is cruder and bawdier than US or UK drag.
Perhaps accidentally, RuPaul astutely identified a point of tension between Drag Race expectations and the localised relationship Australia has with drag culture.
Australia has its own drag aesthetics, histories and celebrities, often associated with a certain Aussie sense of humour.
In many ways, Carlotta epitomises typical characteristics of Aussie drag. She is glamorous, extravagant and charming – but also forthright and down to earth.
As Carlotta has told us of Australian drag’s mainstream popularity:
I think if [Australian] drag queens weren’t so ‘ocker-ish’ then it never would have worked, actually, in this country […] It’s a kind of sense of humour. They understand that sense of humour, straight Australians do. And if they don’t then they have a plum in their mouth!
An Australian drag icon, over many decades Carlotta helped foster middle Australia’s longstanding affection for drag, while always maintaining her connection to queer communities.
The queen of Kings Cross
Queer drag began its sashay into mainstream Australian culture in the 1960s via the widespread fame of the queer cabaret troupe Les Girls.
Based in Sydney’s then-notorious red light district, Kings Cross, Les Girls was a glamorous cabaret with sequins and feather boas abounding. The alluring “twist” was that all the beautiful, bedazzled showgirls onstage were “actually” queer men.
Les Girls garnered an international following and became a trendy Sydney attraction popular with straight Australians. This queer spectacle gave Carlotta the platform that would see her become one of Australia’s most treasured national celebrities.
Carlotta also became Australia’s first transgender celebrity. In the early 1970s, her gender confirmation surgery became fodder for the Australian press.
With her striking looks and engaging manner, she soon found her way onscreen.
She made history in 1973 as the first “out” trans person in the world to play a trans character on television, causing a stir when she appeared in six episodes of the risqué Australian serial Number 96.
By the 1990s, Carlotta was a household name in Australia.
Although initial media interest may have treated her as a curiosity because of her gender, Carlotta as a cultural presence became something much more than that.
Priscilla, queen of Aussie drag
When the three drag queens of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert flounced onto screens and into the hearts of Australians in 1994, Carlotta’s place in Australian drag history was solidified. She was the direct inspiration for the beloved character Bernadette, a showgirl drag performer and trans woman.
Coming full circle, Carlotta has paid homage to Priscilla with her own outback touring cabaret shows.
As her drag legacy matured, Carlotta became a mainstream media darling.
In the 1990s and 2000s, she was a panellist on the daytime chat show Beauty and the Beast. From 2013, she was a regular guest panellist on Studio 10. She has been a special guest on A Current Affair, This is Your Life, Come Dine with Me and One Plus One.
The biopic Carlotta was released by the ABC in 2014, tracing her life from childhood in Balmain and mapping how Carlotta the showgirl rose to fame. The project extended Carlotta’s cultural impact, supported by extensive marketing and airing in a family-friendly timeslot on a Sunday night.
Carlotta’s acceptance as a mainstream celebrity in line with her unwavering alliance with queer culture was exemplified in 2020 when she was named a Member of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List for significant service to the performing arts and the LGBTIQ+ community.
Diversifying the future of Australian drag
Carlotta’s influence on queer drag representations in the Australian mainstream is clear – from the sequined showgirls who are a mainstay of the Sydney Mardi Gras, to the warm reception genderqueer reality star Courtney Act has received.
It is impossible to say how Carlotta would have fared on Drag Race, as she was such a singular sensation in her youth.
Despite the powerful impacts Carlotta’s influence has had on promoting inclusivity, this now default mode of Aussie drag remains limited. Australian drag is more dynamic and diverse than we see in mainstream representations. Absent from much mainstream drag imagery are the many drag kings and gender diverse drag performers.
Drag Race Down Under faces a challenge of marrying the ideals of the governing reality television franchise with those of Australia’s own drag culture.
Perhaps in the same way Carlotta has influenced Australian culture, it is time for Drag Race to think about its role in expanding how Australians understand drag beyond our mainstream exposure.