Philadelphia’s drag scene arguably dates back centuries—and thrives to this day. In contemporary Philly, drag queens most often perform in the bars and clubs of the Gayborhood, part of Center City’s Washington Square West neighborhood. There’s a growing trend of restaurants beyond the Gayborhood hosting fabulous drag brunches. Every January 1, the city proudly hosts a historic, only-in-Philadelphia parade that brought drag into the mainstream long ago.
Philadelphia men have dressed up in ruffles and feathers since 1600s, when the Swedish immigrants began a raucous New Year’s tradition that, in 1901, officially became the Mummers Parade. Modern Mummers’ costumes are bold, bright, sequined—and blue collar. Women were permitted to join their ranks in the 1980s. In 2012, the Philly Drag Mafia became the first official queens to strut in the parade.
The city’s drag nightlife dates back to at least to the 1950s, when the Forrest Lounge—now The Bike Stop, in the Gayborhood—required reservations to see drag shows such as The Fabulous Fake. Other drag hotspots Miss P’s at 18th and Lombard Streets and 90s dance club Shampoo helped broadened the audience for local drag culture, while Bob & Barbara’s emerged as a once-a-week base for performers.
Today, a sea of drag personalities, replete with tongue-in-cheek names and spectacular style, make their marks at Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar and Voyeur Nightclub, known for its weekly frequent performances from stars of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and cabaret-inspired artists such as Martha Graham Cracker. Even so-called straight scenes have gotten into the act. Northern Liberties’ Bourbon and Branch and Center City’s Skygarten drag during daytime hours, with special brunches.
- Bob & Barbara’s – The South Street dive is as loved for its shot-and-a-beer special as it is for Miss Lisa Lisa, the teasing, raucous host of the bar’s Thursday night drag show.
1509 South Street, (215) 545-4511, bobandbarbaras.com
- Franky Bradley’s – The Gayborhood’s self-described “house of weird,” presents Farrah Thorne’s Get Hype showcase every third Wednesday of the month. The show takes place upstairs, complete with a corner stage and modern sound system, all bolstered by a funky ’70s-hippie vibe. 1320 Chancellor Street, (215) 735-0735, frankybradleys.com
- FringeArts – This performing arts venue (attached to brasserie La Peg) presents queer cabaret performers The Bearded Ladies as part of its “Get Pegged” series, curated by John Jarobe, and is known for hosting performances by Martha Graham Cracker. Fringe holds special events aplenty, with a performance from the socio-politically charged Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and a major variety of drag shows lined up under its Fringe Festival umbrella each fall. 140 N. Christopher Columbus Boulevard, (215) 413-9006, fringearts.com
- GayBINGO! at the Ghershman Y – The Avenue of the Arts’ Jewish community center has long hosted diverse events, and for 20 years, GayBINGO!, a fundraiser for Aids Fund, has been one of the best. Every month, gaggle of queens dresses according to a theme, interacts with audiences performs numbers and calls winners. 401 S. Broad Street, (215) 731-9255, aidsfundphilly.org
- The Raven – New Hope, Bucks County has long been an LGBT destination, and every visit must include a stop at this sprawling piano bar, restaurant, motel and pool, whose legacy stems backto the 1970s. The Raven has played host to notables such as local legend Tinsel Garland and drag big-timers Paige Turner and Sherry Vine; the current roster includes Lipstick Mondays, when Cyannie Lopez hosts trans and queen performers on the first and third Monday of every month. 385 W. Bridge Street, New Hope, (215) 862-2081, theravennewhope.com
- RUBA – This best-kept secret among Northern Liberties regulars began in 1914 as a social club. The century-old atmosphere continues today at the bi-level spot, where the ballroom’s vaudeville-style stage hosts all manner of event and performers, including burlesque, comedy, magic and touring and local drag shows. 416 Green Street, rubaclub.org
- Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar – Home to a wide-ranging ecosystem of queer performance art, Tabu is perhaps best known for its drag variety shows, constantly being reshaped to fit with the goings-on in pop culture and cravings of local audiences. The lounge hosts competitions, cabarets, the longest-running Gayborhood show, Sinful Sundays, with Goddess Isis and occasional standup comedy act from Brittany Lynn or award-winning “Christian” comedy queen, Bev. 200 S. 12th Street, (215) 964-9675, tabuphilly.com
- Voyeur Nightclub – Wednesday nights, the Gayborhood’s fiercest drag fans head to the after-hours club for the latest episode of Philly Drag Wars, hosted by local “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Mimi Imfurst. The competition follows a similar format to the popular show, right down to its lip-sync-for-your-life setup and rotating cast of judges. 1221 St. James Street, (215) 735-5772, voyeurnightclub.com
- Bourbon and Branch – The last Sunday of each month, this Southern restaurant hosts Brittany Lynn, who, in turn, hosts Drag Your Ass to Brunch, one of few surefire spots to get your drag with a side of cheddar grits. 705 N. 2nd Street, (215) 238-0660, bourbonandbranchphilly.com
- Punch Line Philly – Each Saturday, this comedy club and restaurant charges a flat fee for brunch and an all-ages drag show—with a dash of raunchiness, to be sure—hosted by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finalist Mimi Imfurst. The weekly performance also features evergreen Philly queens like Cleo Phatra, Brooklyn Ford and Sutton Fearce. 33 E. Laurel Street, (215) 606-6555, dragdivabrunch.com
Drag Queens To Follow:
- Aurora Whorealis – An Alaska transplant and Gayborhood staple, Aurora is primarily a comedy queen who performs at a slew of clubs and hosts “Trivi-YASSS” on Monday nights at Tabu. She was crowned “Best Lip-Sync Artist” at the 2017 Philly Drag Awards, an annual competition at Voyeur Nightclub. instagram.com/aurorawh0realis
- Bev – Philadelphia’s self-described “premier Christian drag queen” is, intentionally ironically, known for her “Bitchfest” drag showcase at Tabu, when she presents other queens while tossing out quip after quip. Bev was crowned “Miss Gulf Coast Comedy Queen” in 2017 and “Miss Northeast Comedy Queen” in 2016. facebook.com/theoneandonlyBev
- Brittany Lynn – Conceived at former gay club 12th Air Command in 1996, Brittany Lynn is a cornerstone of the city’s drag scene, constantly reinventing herself with new events: a talk show, standup acts, live singing, weekly showcases and story time at the Free Library, for example. In 2013, she ushered in a new era of drag-queen involvement in the Mummers Parade by establishing the Miss Fancy Brigade, an achievement Philadelphia City Council recognized by honoring her with her own, official holiday: March 15 is Brittany Lynn Day. phillydragmafia.com
- Martha Graham Cracker – Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder by day, Dito van Reigersberg may be better known by his nighttime persona, Martha Graham Cracker, a hairy drag queen who skips the lip-syncing in favor of glass-shattering live vocals. Martha has been a regular on the drag performance circuit since 2005. facebook.com/MarthaGrahamCracker
- Mimi Imfurst – Notorious for competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars, Philadelphia-based drag performer and event producer Mimi Imfurst hosts an all-ages Drag Diva Brunch at the Punch Line featuring a boisterous cast of local drag queens. She also produces many theatrical events and national drag tours. mimiimfurst.com
- Miss Lisa Lisa – All-out with her charm offensive, Miss Lisa Lisa—“so nice, she was named twice”—is a local icon, strutting her stuff and touting her strong-as-steel personality weekly at Bob & Barbara’s on South Street. She’s also been known to introduce new queens, and performers at-large, to the scene with her freestyle slots during her shows. phillydragmafia.com/project/underboss-miss-lisa-lisa
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