entertainment

Drag queens transform into female pop icons from Britney to Rihanna

Queens mark National Album Day's 'Celebrating Women in Music' theme with stunning looks inspired by their favourite divas.

2021-10-15

Words: Cliff Joannou; Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid

This year, the British Phonographic Industry is marking National Album Day on 16 October with the theme Celebrating Women in Music.

Attitude asked five performers from the queer scene to pay homage to their favourite iconic diva.

Jonbenet Blonde on Britney Spears

The first time I saw Britney it was breathtaking — seeing your idol really go for it is like getting to the end of a rainbow: magical. But if you really love them, you stick with them through the tough times; I mean, Britney Jean was a rough record!

Her music is the ultimate 2000s sound; it really changed the face of pop. ‘Slave 4 U’ is probably the greatest VMAs performance ever — apart from Madonna’s ‘Vogue’. It was an iconic outfit and dance routine. Sink The Pink once got me a real snake and I recreated [Britney’s VMA show] and people literally passed out in the front row. It was so major.

People say Blackout was her best album, but I think In the Zone has the biggest tunes. My favourite unreleased track is ‘Don’t Go Knocking On My Door’. If you haven’t heard it, then I implore you
to. It’s pop perfection with a strong empowerment message — a great ‘fuck you, ex’ song.

I hope one day we get to see Britney be Britney on stage again. I mean, what hasn’t this woman been through and yet she is standing strong and proud; taken advantage of by her own family and still giving love to the world.

For years, women were suppressed by old white men at the top of the table in the music industry saying, “This isn’t sexy enough” or “This is too sexy.” Now these artists are able to come out and tell their stories, own and release their own music, cutting out the middlemen. (Marilyn Monroe was the first female to set up her own production company so she would own the rights to her films and that was in the ’50s.)

As a queer person, I was always drawn to people being empowered, especially growing up in the middle of fields in Northern Ireland. I looked for strong people and I was drawn towards the women I saw on TV and in magazines, and that look they give when they’re on stage. It’s honestly why I love performing so much — so, thank you to the women of the world!

Sharon Le Grand as Cyndi Lauper

I admire any camp, outrageous woman in the media, but Cyndi is definitely one of the more courageous. She’s unedited and raw, and her image is emblazoned onto our minds — a true pop-rock chick!

My all-time greatest hit of hers is ‘Time After Time’, mostly because it reminds me of that fabulous scene in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, where they do the interpretive dance, but also because it’s a belter! But it’s hard to pick just one of her records… I mean, who doesn’t love flinging their handbag around to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’? Or tossing their hair to ‘I Drove All Night’? Or sobbing into your pillow to ‘True Colours’? We’ve all been there!

Her best album is Merry Christmas… Have A Nice Life!. I love a camp Christmas album and this one doesn’t disappoint. But my favourite B-side classic is ‘Right Track Wrong Train’, from her first album, it’s so good. I think any busy drag queen can relate to it, whether it be about missed opportunities, being late or just quite literally missing the train. The way she belts it out as well — get it, girl! Hope she gets that train at some point…

The reason I wanted to pay homage to Cyndi is because we both have a maximalist take on fashion. Put on more as you walk out the door! Her style is so unique, it’s just her; it’s not trendy, it’s not fashion, it’s a woman wearing whatever she wants to.

There isn’t a greater power in this world than an unshakable woman. Music would be nothing without women.

Rileasa Slaves on Rihanna

As a creative from the Caribbean, seeing Rihanna’s journey and growth is so admirable. My favourite song has to be the OG ‘Pon De Replay’. I was in secondary school in the Caribbean at the time and it was such a vibe. I also have a soft spot for ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, it has such a boss energy and it’s one of my faves of hers to perform to — there’s a power that comes with it.

My favourite album would be Loud, as it was my jam when I first fell in love, so it has sentimental value. Plus, we all love the red-hair era of Rihanna. ‘Sexuality’ is an unreleased track I recently discovered that I’m very keen on adding to my set — it’s all in the name…

She is also a business powerhouse of a woman who stepped out of the box of music to shake up the beauty industry with a strong message of inclusivity with her 50 foundation shades. All you need to do is just watch a Savage x Fenty show and it is dripping in the power of representation: a Black woman who went out and made a space for other women of all shapes, shades and sizes.

There is a shift happening: men have always been able to sing about all sorts without criticism; men were the record-label managers who objectified women in their music. Women have had a harder fight to claim their space in the music industry, to gain power over their bodies, their sexuality, their expression, their voices. At the forefront of powerful movements have been women’s voices — 90 per cent of the music in my playlists is by women.

Cara Melle as Beyoncé

Beyoncé carries herself with power, elegance, strength and eternal beauty. She knows she’s the baddest bitch when she enters a room, and so do I. She and many other Black women of today and yesterday inspire me to be a goddess.

Queen B is a consistent hitmaker but, for me, her best song is a tie between ‘Diva’ and ‘Partition’. Those two are defining moments where she grabbed me and made me feel like I could conquer the world. And can we just talk about how sick the beats to both of those tunes are? Any time she goes into one of these tracks while performing, you know it’s gonna go OFF.

Her best album is the self-titled Beyoncé, when she truly turned the dial up on the legendometer and surpassed everyone as a musical goddess and artist. I couldn’t stop playing it; I connected with every single song. The visual album she put out for it raised the bar.

‘Schoolin’ Life’ is a very underrated, unreleased song of hers. It’s more of a peppy track, but it’s one of those songs where if I blast it out, I’m immediately bopping around and dancing wild in my room, praying no one can see me.

Beyoncé resonates with me because we come from similar backgrounds — we’re both from southern cities in America with loads of culture and history, so naturally we’re very proud of our hometowns. She reminds me every day of the power that we, as Black people, hold in our hands, and shows us exactly what we can do with that power.

Female artists break boundaries and challenge those unrealistic and chauvinistic ideals on the daily. Women are the true backbone in music and leaders of change in many ways. And Beyoncé sang it
right: “Who run the world? GIRLS”

Tete Bang on Dusty Springfield

Dusty is a British music legend, I see her as one of the first true pop stars. From the distinctive hair, makeup and personal style to her neverending catalogue of iconic tunes and distinctive movements, she was a truly well-rounded entertainer, performer and the embodiment of high camp.

As a child, I remember listening to my mum belting out several Dusty tracks in the car, including ‘You Don't Own Me’, ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. She has so many classics. Everybody loves ‘Piece of My Heart’, it’s a perfect karaoke banger, great for screaming while drunk.

There is a lot of girl power in her music — although so much of it is romantic and about love, there’s still a sense of power. I remember watching the intro of My Best Friend's Wedding over and over again on VHS when I was eight years old for the choreographed number to ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’; it is so camp and fabulous. It made me fall in love with that song.

Album-wise, A Little Piece of My Heart: The Essential Dusty Springfield features all the best bits. I have a soft spot for that old-school smooth heartbreak sound, so I also absolutely love Dusty... Definitely — the songs have such emotion.

Unknown to many, Dusty was actually queer, and she did apparently come out as bisexual in the ’70s, but her love for women and the fact she was perhaps a lesbian was an open secret within the industry, if not ever really revealed to the public. As a high-camp queer woman, I really have women like Dusty to thank.

In a time where being LGBTQ+ was still very much a big no-no, I feel Dusty probably didn’t have an easy ride, but was able to make a mark for herself and pour her identity into her work as a musician
and performer. Female artists are able to embody and act how many of us wish we could. They allow us an escapism, a way to gain power through femininity and feel seen.