RuPaul’s DragCon made a splashy return to Los Angeles this weekend, bringing high camp, glamor and gag-worthy experiences to the thousands who attended the three-day convention.
Welcoming an all-ages crowd, the in-person event was the first DragCon in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic. Cited as “the world’s largest family-friendly celebration of drag,” the event began in 2015 as an opportunity for fans of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to come together and bond over their mutual love of the popular VH1 competition show and honor the art form that the series helped propel from a queer subculture to a pop culture phenomenon.
Produced by drag icon RuPaul and production company World of Wonder, the live event added a New York edition in 2017, followed by a United Kingdom outpost in 2020. Later that same year, both U.S. conventions were canceled because of the pandemic.
“The sense of coming back is really great,” World of Wonder Co-Founder Fenton Bailey told NBC News. “Everyone was just really excited to come back and be able to do it in person again. So the energy has mainly been excitement and anticipation. And then of course, it’s always the variant dance, because you don’t quite know where it’s going to be at. But that aside, I think people were just ready to get back together in person.”
World of Wonder estimated 50,000 attendees and 150 drag queens walked through the Los Angeles Convention Center's front doors throughout the weekend. Proof of vaccination was required to attend.
“The family is back together again, and we’re looking good,” RuPaul told the crowd when cutting a pink ribbon to ceremonially open the convention floor on Friday. “This is really a labor of love for us, and we’ve been gone for a few years now, but we are back, back, back, again.”
Since the last U.S. DragCon events in 2019, five seasons of the American “RuPaul's Drag Race” series have been filmed, ushering in a bevy of new “Ru Girls” — the nickname for the queens who have appeared on the award-winning competition show.
“I’ve done multiple DragCons before being on the show,” Kandy Muse, who appeared on season 13 of "DragRace," said at the event. “But being on the other side now — having people come to my booth telling me stories on how I have inspired them and just seeing all my fans — really is incredible and rewarding.”
The convention floor is typically full of vendors and exhibitors that represent a large swath of the LGBTQ community, from illustrators to herbal tea purveyors. But the majority of the floor is made up of former contestants from “Drag Race” meeting and greeting their fans at elaborate booths they create and construct with a team of assistants. Queens require fans to make a merchandise purchase in order to snap a photo with them, and some eager attendees will wait hours in line to meet their favorite performer.
“It’s hard to tell how many people you’re meeting,” said Scarlet Envy, who appeared on “Drag Race” in 2019 and exhibited at the convention that same year. “But a lot of the people have come back. There’s a lot of new faces, but also a lot of return clientele, people who have pictures with me through the years, which is really sweet.”
It wasn't just U.S.-based queens who showed up at this weekend's DragCon event. Many of the queens who appeared on international "Drag Race" shows were also in attendance, including Baga Chipz, who appeared on “Drag Race U.K.” season one in 2019 and “U.K. vs. the World” last year.
“It’s so weird being in a different country and people knowing who you are,” she said. “In England, it’s like Baga, Baga, Baga! But here, it’s like, 'Oh wow, I’m international now!' But yeah, it’s been incredible. Everyone’s so lovely, inviting and welcoming. It’s been a ball.”
When asked about the difference between British and American “Drag Race” fans, Baga Chipz said, with a laugh, that British fans are “drunker” and “have worse teeth."
While drag has historically been relegated to gay bars and queer nightclubs, at DragCon, people of all ages can come and celebrate the art form. And do they ever.
With a dedicated "Kids Zone" featuring activities and games geared toward drag's youngest fans, the event was full of children lip-syncing along to their favorite pop song or voguing to the beat of the music. George Gomez took his 6-year-old son, Eli, to the event for the first time.
“He was always in love with ‘Drag Race,’" said Gomez, who drove from San Diego to be at the convention on Saturday. “While watching the series, he saw a commercial for DragCon, and all he wanted to do was come, and so we were supportive. We love our little boy, so whatever makes him happy, makes us happy.”
Eli was an audience favorite on the main stage, doing a variety of vogue dancing moves, including "death drops," as other attendees gathered to cheer him on. From his place atop the DJ booth, RuPaul was cheering him on, too. At one point, Eli made a heart with his hands, giving back the love the audience was showing him with its applause. His hard work paid off: Audience members began tipping him dollar bills to recognize his efforts.
“I was so surprised at how welcoming, caring and how inclusive this community is,” Gomez said. "All the drag queens were so nice to him, asking him questions about school and more. I was really surprised. It feels like home.”