Mary, Queen of Drag?

In today’s blog, Queer Artist and Academic, Daniel Fountain, explores the significance of drag in celebrating identity and Scottish heritage, as well as the enduring iconography associated with Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Two Queens stand before me. Ladies, this is your last chance to impress me and save yourself from elimination.’

– RuPaul Charles, RuPaul’s Drag Race
Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1 of England. Photo: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/queens-war-elizabeth-mary-queen-scots-scotland-rivalry-tracy-borman/

Queen-on-Queen rivalry? Check. Skilled seamstress? Check. Penchant for campy jewellery? Check. If she hadn’t been eliminated in a 16th century smack-down-for-the-crown, Mary, Queen of Scots would have had all the makings of Scotland’s next 21st century drag superstar.  

Today, Mary is a popular historical figure and source of inspiration for drag queens of Scottish identity and heritage. Drag is an art-form in which people dress up and perform (often in highly stylised ways) in order to exaggerate gender identity. People of any gender engage in drag but the term ‘drag queen’ is often used by artists who perform and dress in an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ way, whereas the term ‘drag king’ is often used by artists who perform and dress in an exaggeratedly ‘masculine’ way. As part of their performance, many drag queens and kings have a separate drag persona in addition to the self they live as every day – often including a different look, a different name, and requesting to be referred to with different gender pronouns. Drag is ultimately a form of creative and artistic expression, and – as artists in other media have done throughout the ages – drag queens often look to contemporary and historical figures for inspiration.

Rosé as Mary, Queen of Scots. Imagery by @rpo_ny,
assisted by @nickhovsepian; hair by @doubledwigs; dress customized by @costumes_by_palu with pearl detail by @janjanjan; styling by Rosé. Photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMDzhi0hwuQ/

Mary, Queen of Scots was no stranger to the pageantry or defiance of gender conventions that characterises drag as a performance art-form. Her court was ‘exceptionally devoted to performance and display’ – the use of excessive costuming, performance, and cross-dressing or ‘masking’ would often be used to show gratitude or to obtain courtly allegiances [1]. It is claimed that Mary herself enjoyed wearing men’s clothing on occasion. She adopted the daring habit of wearing men’s breeches under her skirts when riding and hunting (a fashion introduced by Catherine de Medici) and her father-in-law (the Earl of Lennox) claimed that she loved to wear ‘man’s apparel…secretly with the King her husband’ and would often wear ‘masks by night through the streets’ [2]. On the 11th February 1565, Mary and her ladies maids were recorded to be wearing ‘men’s apperell’ during a visit to court from the French ambassador [3]. The Queen even reportedly wished she were a man: ‘to know what life it was to lie all night in the fields, or to walk upon the causeway with a jack [an armoured outer garment] and knapscall [helmet]’ [4]. Although we can only speculate about Mary’s defiance of expected gender norms, her competitive spirit, rebelliousness, and love of pageantry certainly lives on today. 

Drag has multiple and diverse histories, and exists across the globe, but the popular reality competition television series, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and the wider Drag Race franchise, has recently brought drag – and its performers’ representations of Mary, Queen of Scots – to the mainstream. Through its global reach and spin off shows such as BBC Three’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, more audiences than ever have been introduced to the wonderful world of drag. Each episode sees contestants do challenges in front of judges in order to progress throughout the tournament to compete for the title of ‘next drag superstar’. The most recent series of Drag Race UK saw not one but two Scottish queens take to the stage – Dundee’s Ellie Diamond and Glasgow’s Lawrence Chaney. Chaney, who was recently crowned the winner of Season Two, even introduced themselves in the promotional video as ‘kind of like Mary, Queen of Scots, only I hope one of these English drag queens doesn’t chop off my head’.  

Lawrence Chaney and Ellie Diamond. Photo: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/03/18/lawrence-chaney-ellie-diamond-drag-race-uk-final/
Meet Lawrence Chaney, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Series 2

Rivalries between drag queens are subtly played up for dramatic effect in the show, but taking to Reddit, many fans unearthed a video of Lawrence and another Scottish drag queen, Paris Ettamol, parodying the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots live on stage while lip syncing to lines by Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie from the 2018 film. Although performing to songs such as Lady Gaga’s ‘The Queen’ and reinventing portrayals for their own means, Paris Ettamol wears a signature black dress and large crucifix that became part of Mary’s iconography after her death .  

Lawrence Chaney & Paris Ettamol – Mary vs. Elizabeth @TRIGGER 30/05/19

But Ellie Diamond and Lawrence Chaney were not the first Scottish drag queens to celebrate their Scottish heritage on the main stage of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The first to appear on the U.S. version of Drag Race was Morgan McMichaels, the drag name of Thomas White. White was born in Scotland to an American-Scottish family and even went on to study Biochemistry and Immunology at Paisley University (now the University of the West of Scotland) before taking the decision to move to California and pursue a drag career and eventually competing on Season Two of the U.S. show. Recently named one of the ‘most powerful drag queens in America’ by New York Magazine, McMichaels appeared on the front cover in a glittering Saltire dress and signature flame-red hair. Talking about their gender expression, McMichaels said: “I never asked for people to accept me, I just told them they were going to, it’s the Scottish mentality of ‘Get it right up you’” [5]. Clearly, a sentiment that Mary would have approved of. 

Morgan McMichaels on the cover of New York Magazine for “The Most Powerful Drag Queens in America”. Photo: https://nymag.com/press/2019/06/on-the-cover-the-most-powerful-drag-queens-in-america.html

More recently, Rosé, a queen competing on Season Thirteen of the U.S. show revealed on stage that they were from a ‘wee town near Glasgow’ – Greenock. Rosé is the drag name of Ross McCorkell who was born in Greenock but moved to the U.S. when he was around 10-years-old. Rosé strutted down the catwalk in a short tartan dress, complete with bagpipe pipes jutting from her shoulders and arms. It was even topped off with a traditional sporran bearing the McCorkell clan crest. Rosé even appeared as Mary, Queen of Scots in the ‘Snatch Game’ – a particular challenge that sees the drag queens impersonate celebrity figures in an attempt to make RuPaul laugh. 

Rosé as Mary, Queen of Scots.
Photo: https://twitter.com/omgheyrose/status/1368036257838858241
Rosé as Mary Queen of Scots. Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 13 Episode 9

Donning an auburn wig, regal red gown, ruffled collar, and chalk-white foundation, Rosé certainly looked the part. The portrayal had a distinctive resemblance to portraits painted of Mary much later in her life, such as the portrait by François Clouet (c.1558). While Clouet’s portrait includes symbolism of marriage and empowerment, through the subtle touching of the ring on her fourth finger, and her ‘stiff’ collar, Rosé took to social media with a range of different props including a leopard print hip flask, a candelabra to light a cigarette, and a phone to take selfies on. Performance, pageantry, and pomp are evident in both portraits, despite the hundreds of years’ time difference. Unlike Morgan McMichaels’ very glamorous celebration of Scottish identity and heritage, Rosé was not afraid to be comedic with her representation of Mary. 

François Clouet, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1558-60. Royal Collection Trust. Photo: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/mary-queen-of-scots-1542-87/YQExprz3sIBJ8A?hl=en-GB
Rosé as Mary, Queen of Scots. Imagery by @rpo_ny,
assisted by @nickhovsepian; hair by @doubledwigs; dress customized by @costumes_by_palu with pearl detail by @janjanjan; styling by Rosé. Photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMIpnBrBeJl/
Rosé as Mary, Queen of Scots. Imagery by @rpo_ny,
assisted by @nickhovsepian; hair by @doubledwigs; dress customized by @costumes_by_palu with pearl detail by @janjanjan; styling by Rosé. Photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMIpnBrBeJl/

Rosé’s interpretation of Mary, Queen of Scots was such a hit on Snatch Game that she also created a video portrait of the impersonation (content warning: Mary has a serious potty mouth in this portrayal).  

Rosé in Mary, Queen of Scots. The Video Portrait (directed by Austin Nunes). Video link: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CMNdrSZB-w1/ (Content warning: Strong language and sex)

Directed by Austin Nunes, it chronicles Mary’s adventure through present-day New York City. She’s there with one mission in mind – to become a star. ‘I think the biggest difference between now and before I was dead is that now I’ve got a head. When I died, my head was choppedoff, she explains. Following the video portrait’s premiere, Rosé took to her Instagram Story to speak out against those who claimed that her interpretation wasn’t historically accurate. She said, ‘I did soo much research on MQoS! I am well aware she spoke with a French accent. I’m also aware that being miserable is a choice!’. Similar criticisms of historical inaccuracy were levelled against the 2018 film in which Mary and Elizabeth meet, forgetting that there is a long history of artists, playwrights and poets taking creative license with Mary’s story, and reimagining it for their own narrative and creative purposes.  

Rosé clearly used artistic license to embody the spirit of Mary but we are so glad that she did. It prompted a range of discussion around Mary, Queen of Scots and alerted many American audiences to her very existence. 21st century digital and social media have enabled representations of Mary through drag to spread around the globe, just as cheap black and white printed engravings reproduced Mary’s image for people in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since her death, Mary’s story has been told and re-told through engravings, poetry, drama, fancy dress, film, tv, and comic art. This cultural afterlife continues today in the art form of drag and brings important discussions about gender identity to new audiences. We are excited to see future representations of Mary channelled through the art form of drag. 

For devout Drag Race fans out there, I’ll leave you with a familiar phrase. Mary – how’s your head? 

Daniel Fountain is Queer Artist and PhD researcher at Loughborough University. You can follow Daniel on Twitter at @Daniel_Fountain or visit: https://www.danielfountain.com/ 

References 

[1] Sarah Carpenter, ‘Performing Diplomacies: The 1560s Court Entertainments of Mary Queen of Scots’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 82, No. 214, 2003, pp.194-225 (p.194). 

[2] R. H. Mahon, Mary Queen of Scots: A Study of the Lennox Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924), p.130. 

[3] A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents That Have Passed Within The Country of Scotland Since The Death of King James The Fourth Till The Year M.D.LXXV., (Bannatyne Club, 1833), p.87. 

[4] Calendar of State Papers, I, p.651. 

[5] Colan Lamont, ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race Scot Morgan McMichaels reveals cruel gay jibes inspired cross-dressing diva’, The Scottish Sun, 2018 < https://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/news/2116453/rupauls-drag-race-morgan-mcmichaels-queen-thomas-white-allstars3/>  

For more on the multiple and diverse histories of drag that exist across the world see Drag Histories, Herstories and Hairstories: Drag in a Changing Scene, Volume 2. Edited by Mark Edward and Stephen Farrier (Bloomsbury, 2018) 

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