Connect with us


The History of Drag in South Africa Still Plays Out at Modern Pageants



The history of drag in South Africa still plays out at modern pageants

by TL McCormick for The Conversation

Participants strut their stuff at Miss Gay Western Cape. The wearing of clothing of the opposite sex, or drag, is very popular in the South African context. A Google search for the term ‘South African drag queens’ yields approximately half-a-million results.

These range from upcoming drag performances, drag artists for hire and drag queen accessories to drag queen support groups.

Despite the popular cultural manifestations of drag in the media, online and in pageants and performances in gay and lesbian clubs, bars and shebeens, the same academic interest in theorizing drag in South Africa is limited.

In a recent article I address this scarcity by attempting to ignite academic interest in theorizing about drag in the South African context. Drag is worthy of academic study in that it is a performance of the feminine gender which shows that gender does not belong to women or men, it can be easily imitated either in a theatrical way (dragging) or in a mundane way (women who wear pants).

By far the oldest and most popular drag queen contest in South Africa is the annual Miss Gay Western Cape, which became official in 1996 but which has been held clandestinely since the 1950s as homosexuality was only legalised in 1998.

In 2018 teacher Wendy La Rosa lifted the title of Miss Gay Western Cape in front of a packed house at the Joseph Stone auditorium in Athlone, a coloured working class suburb on the Cape Flats. Her victory was lauded by the oldest and most popular newspaper in the Western Cape, The Cape Argus.

However during its secretive, hidden era, reporting on the Miss Gay Western Cape pageant didn’t feature in mainstream newspapers. Instead, it was found in the tabloid magazines Drum and the Golden City Post, which specifically targeted black urban readers. However, Drum in the 1950s was not a ‘typical’ tabloid as it had deeply political undertones and also included realistic expositions of black urban experiences during apartheid.

So insatiable was the appetite for stories about drag queens that Drum and the Golden City Post started sponsoring a Moffie Queen Competition. “Moffie” was a derogatory name for a homosexual but one that the gay community has re-appropriated with pride. This allowed the publication to generate its own news about drag queens.

Its reportage was far from benign. Reporters highlighted the “grotesqueness” of homosexual men dressed up as women and used tabloid rhetoric and scoop style photographs to portray the subculture as amusing but ultimately depraved. One such description, from a chapter by Dhianaraj Chetty in Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, was found in the January 1956 issue of the Golden City Post:

They lead a lonely and bitter life. Their only constant companions, their own kind – their only solace, what they find at the bottom of a bottle. Too often they face the danger of becoming drink sodden wrecks who burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

But there were also spaces during this time where drag queens took control of their own images. I have explored this hidden but robust moffie scene in my own research. And it was from spaces like this that modern South African drag pageants, particularly Miss Gay Western Cape, have been able to blossom and grow.

Intimate moments

In 1958 Drum magazine gave British photojournalist Ian Berry a chance to show a different, less sensational side of drag culture. Berry published a photo essay in the magazine titled A Drag at Madame Costello’s.

Madame Costello, also called Joey, was a well-known older queen who often allowed her house to be used for moffies and their boyfriends to meet up, have a few drinks and dance. These “home drags” were quite the opposite of the Moffie Queen competitions of the day that were portrayed in melodramatic and pitying ways by Drum and the Golden City Post.

These photographs have been made public only once, in the book Defiant Desire, which was published in 1994. They are strictly copyrighted by Bailey’s African Photo Archives.

In the 13 photographs that made up his essay, Berry introduced readers to the doyennes of drag at Madame Costello. Madame Joey Costello herself is in a black velvet one-shouldered ball gown with empire-style brooches cascading from her left shoulder down to her derriere, and matching dainty watch, rings and earrings. She is pictured opening a bottle of gin on a tray laid out with fine glassware in ascending order from sherry glasses to champagne flutes.

Pictured alongside her is Linda Darnell (in a swing dress with a back bow) delicately forking a piece of cake on a fine china plate. There’s also Kay Kendall (wearing a posh evening gown with sheer fabric covering the upper chest and arms, fingerless long gloves, pearls and a tiny fascinator hat) and Piper Laurie (diamante halter neck ball gown, cascading ponytail with bangs affixed with a marcasite headband).

Berry showed remarkable empathy for these drag queens at a time when most media portrayed them as oddities. Some are shown in the photos dancing cheek to cheek with their straight-looking boyfriends, posing powerfully for the camera or just having a chat and a cup of tea.

There’s also a glimpse of the relationships between married Muslim men and drag queens, which was tacitly accepted by some parts of the Muslim community. Some of these relationships persisted for more than ten years and often existed side by side with traditional marriages.

Berry offered a poignant look at everyday lives that could be elegant and sophisticated, and operating with their own codes of intimacy. Home drags, then, were a space for drag queens to be themselves – not to perform or compete.

Homegrown stories

Looking at these photographs today is a reminder of everyday lived moffie life in the 1950s; a far cry from the pageants that were staged once a year, sponsored by the tabloid press and whose images were used to titillate a homophobic audience. Once this pageant went independent from the dictating and belittling hold of tabloid magazines in 1996 it grew from strength to strength.

In 2010 the robustness, endurance and popularity of the Miss Gay Western Cape pageant was captured by author Lauren Beukes in her documentary Glitterboys and Ganglands, which follows the preparations for the pageant by three drag queens from the Cape Flats a predominantly working class coloured suburb in Cape Town.

But this was a rare moment in the popular culture spotlight for South African drag culture. While viewers in the country are enchanted by programmes from the US like POSE or Ru Paul’s Drag Race, there seems to be little interest in the enduring drag scene in South Africa’s own back yard.

Perhaps one day soon there’ll be a homegrown TV drama that tells the story of how Miss Gay Western Cape pageant’s contestants have carved out a defiant space within their often violent and homophobic communities.

TL McCormick is a Lecturer of Applied Linguistics at the University of Johannesburg .

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Census 2020 Launches Campaign: ‘Be Counted West Hollywood’



WEST HOLLYWOOD — The City of West Hollywood, at its regular City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 21 officially launched its “Be Counted West Hollywood” countdown campaign to Census 2020, which will take place on April 1.

The City’s efforts aim to mobilize community members to take part in the upcoming census and to educate residents and stakeholders about the importance of participating in the census and returning the questionnaire. The United States Constitution mandates that a complete national population count be conducted every 10 years.

“The census provides critical information,” said West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico. “A complete count will help to ensure that West Hollywood receives a fair share of federal funding and investments and, on a state level, the count will determine California’s apportionment in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s so important that people in our community take part and be counted.”

To ensure that every resident of the City of West Hollywood is counted during the Census 2020, the City is inviting community members to become part of the City-Census initiative as Ambassadors. Ambassadors are an essential part of the City-Census 2020 engagement campaign to ensure a complete count.

Ambassadors will volunteer their time by disseminating a wealth of information across the community to ensure everyone is engaged and knowledgeable about the Census 2020.

Ambassadors are encouraged to engage and inform their respective constituents and social media audiences in a way they feel most comfortable. Ambassadors must either live, do business, or have strong affiliation with the City of West Hollywood; be willing to receive information from the Census or the City and share this information with the public.

Interested stakeholders are encouraged to send an email to Hernan Molina at with your name, address, phone number, and preferred email address to be used by the City-Census initiative.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) in California has estimated that during the 1990 Census, California’s population was undercounted by 2.7 percent; this undercount likely resulted in California receiving at least $2 billion less in federal funds.

There are, however, other impacts beyond reduced financial resources: according to the LAO, the 1990 Census undercount was severe enough that the State of California was shortchanged one Congressional seat. Census staff has projected, based on data from the 2010 Census and from regular surveys, that certain West Hollywood census tracts may have a moderately low response rate.

As a community of just 1.9 square miles, the City of West Hollywood will work diligently to achieve a complete census count in Census 2020.

Here is a brief operational timeline of Census 2020:

  • January 21: The U.S. Census Bureau starts counting the population in remote Alaska. The count officially begins in the rural Alaskan village of Toksook Bay.
  • January 28 at 5:30 p.m. City of West Hollywood Census Ambassador Orientation online via GoToMeeting. Contact Hernan Molina at for more information.
  • March 12 to 20: Households will begin receivingofficial Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail.  
  • March 30 to April 1: The Census Bureau will count people who are experiencing homelessness over these three days. As part of this process, the Census Bureau counts people in shelters, at soup kitchens and mobile food vans, on the streets, and at non-sheltered, outdoor locations such as tent encampments.
  • April 1: Census Day is observed nationwide. By this date, every home will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Once the invitation arrives, you should respond for your home in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by mail. When you respond to the census, you’ll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020.
  • April: Census takers will begin visiting college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers, and others who live among large groups of people. Census takers also begin conducting quality check interviews to help ensure an accurate count.
  • May through July: Census takers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to the 2020 Census to help make sure everyone is counted.
  • December: The Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts to the President and Congress as required by law.
  • March 31, 2021: By this date, the Census Bureau will send redistricting counts to states. This information is used to redraw legislative districts based on population changes.

The City of West Hollywood has consistently supported legislation that requires the Census Bureau to count every person living in the United States, independent of their immigration or citizenship status and the City has strongly advocated for the importance of including questions about sexual orientation in order to help identify LGBTQ people and families and safeguard their rights and responsibilities.

Continue Reading

History & Preservation

WeHo’s Circus of Books Returns to Life As Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus



WEST HOLLYWOOD (Los Angeles Magazine) –Sex toys and porn are joined by art, books, and more at the adult movie director and drag diva’s new Santa Monica Boulevard space.

Before the internet democratized, destigmatized, and decentralized the porn industry, it was largely a back-alley business. The same was true in the realm of gay porn, except it faced more scrutiny, stricter obscenity laws, and a much more profound level of ostracism.

Take the storied history of Circus of Books, the West Hollywood gay porn emporium on the southwest corner of Santa Monica and Sweetzer.

Unlikely as it may sound, Circus was owned by husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Karen and Barry Mason, who traded in their respective careers in investigative journalism and special effects to distribute Hustler for Larry Flint in the […]

Continue reading at

Continue Reading


WeHo Dodgeball Team to Compete at Vegas LGBTQ + Sports Festival



WEST HOLLYWOOD (The Pride LA) — Hosted annually by The Greater Los Angeles Softball Association (GLASA), Sin City Classic brings together the United State’s finest athletes for a weekend of fun, competition and camaraderie.

This weekend, our own local WeHo Dodgeball will be in Las Vegas competing. The Pride LA spoke with USA Dodgeball President Jake Mason to get the inside scoop. Check it out:

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Jake Mason and I am the president of USA Dodgeball.

In one sentence, what is Sin City Classic?

Sin city Classic is the most amazing gathering of LGBTQ+ athletes in the world! Can you elaborate more? This is one of, if not the, biggest LGBTQ+ sports festival and […]

Continue reading at

Continue Reading

This Just In…