Listen here, Hunty. RuPaul’s Drag Race is undeniably one of the highest rated reality TV shows in the world — for darn good reason. The tongue-in-cheek competition series has raised the art form to a glittered and gorgeous global platform, and viewers just can’t get enough.
While RuPaul may have brought dressing in drag to the forefront of our consciousness, the practice isn’t new, even in Hollywood. Countless stars have dressed in drag in various movies and TV shows — some long before the show’s debut. From Tyler Perry to the legendary Julie Andrews, many celebs have slipped into new gender roles to help folks understand that it’s a beautiful thing to express yourself in so many ways.
Tyler Perry is known for playing tough, gun-toting Mabel “Madea” Simmons in many of his stage plays and movies. Perry has often lamented that the Madea costume and wigs are too hot, but the character is so popular that he has kept her around for decades — and fans love him for it.
The writer and director officially retired the character with his stage play, Madea’s Farewell, which finished touring in February 2020. “She’s also run out of things to say. Maybe one day she’ll return, but for right now, no, I think I’m done,” he shared in an interview with CNN. It’s hard to imagine that any comical drag character could ever be missed more.
In her 2010 film Salt, Angelina Jolie implemented a series of disguises as she attempted to clear her name after being accused of espionage. One of the most amazing options included dressing up as a male navy officer.
Jolie’s son, Maddox, visited the set while she was in this particular outfit, and he didn’t even recognize her. “He hung out with me for a while, and when he realized it was me, he was just freaking out,” the actress told The Daily Mail. She also admitted that her look was so believable that her then-husband, Brad Pitt, hesitated to kiss her in costume.
Tim Curry rose to prominence with his iconic character Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The actor took to the stage with confidence in full makeup, thigh-high stockings and heels, launching one of the most enduring cult movie classics of all time. He also reprised the role when the play became a feature film.
When the original play first premiered, Curry admitted to the Los Angeles Times that he had some reservations about playing the part at first. However, he ultimately shrugged those fears aside and was forever grateful that he did. “I just thought it was such a good part,” the actor shared.
Cate Blanchett was one of six stars who appeared in the 2007 flick I’m Not There, which was inspired by the life and music of the legendary Bob Dylan. Blanchett acted alongside Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw, with each one of them playing a different public persona of Dylan at different stages of his life.
Blanchett’s persona, Jude Quinn, represented Dylan’s expansion of his music as he began to experiment with rock sounds. His new tastes drew criticism from those who loved his folk music. The role required the actor to dress up as Dylan, covering up her famous blonde locks — and she’s almost totally unrecognizable.
The 2000 television film Holiday Heart showed actor Ving Rhames in a completely different light than what you see in the majority of his films. His deep voice and muscular body have earned him “tough guy” roles since he started acting, so this movie role was a big step out of his comfort zone.
In this film, Rhames played a gay drag queen who takes in a drug addict and her daughter in an attempt to save them from the dangerous, crime-filled streets of the city. The film also starred Alfre Woodard, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her role. Unfortunately, the Globes snubbed Rhames, who did not receive a nomination for his work.
In 1996’s The Birdcage, Nathan Lane starred as the fantastically dressed Albert Goldman, the life partner of drag nightclub owner Armand Goldman (played by Robin Williams). In the film, their two characters try to hide their relationship for the sake of Armand’s biological son, who’s meeting the ultraconservative parents of his girlfriend for the first time.
Lane’s hilarious dramatics shined in the movie, and he was also praised for showcasing issues that the LGBTQ+ community faces regarding public perception. The film was nominated for a number of awards, including Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 1997 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
The 2011 drama Albert Nobbs featured Glenn Close as the titular character, a butler at a hotel in late 19th-century Dublin. The role transformed Close into a character who spent 30 years living as a man “to combat rampant gender and class inequality in 19th-century Dublin.”
Close first played the character in a 1982 stage production and tried for almost three decades to have it made into a film. Although the movie received mixed reviews from critics, Close was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 84th Academy Awards in 2012 for the role.
When you stack up all of Robin Williams’ numerous roles over the span of his career, one of the most memorable and most beloved is in the hilarious flick Mrs. Doubtfire. In the film, Williams dresses up as a British nanny to spend extra time with his three kids while he’s in the middle of a messy divorce.
Before his tragic death in 2014, Williams revealed on a Reddit discussion board that he used to walk through San Francisco in character and even visited a sex shop on one occasion. The film, which co-starred Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan, ultimately became the second-highest-grossing film of 1993 worldwide.
Martin Lawrence stepped into drag with some attitude for his 2000 comedy Big Momma’s House. He starred as an FBI agent who goes undercover as an African-American grandma in order to get more intel to capture an escaped criminal. Although the film wasn’t well received by critics, audiences loved it, which led to the production of two sequels.
Even more interesting is that Lawrence’s role as Big Momma wasn’t his first time acting in drag. He had previously dressed in drag play the iconic and feisty salon owner Sheneneh Jenkins on his sitcom Martin in the 1990s.
Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari
In the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari starred as two single men struggling in the creative advertising field. The men lose their apartment to a demolition order, and the only place they can afford is in a women-only complex. To get away with living there, the two dress in drag and try their best to convince residents they’re women.
The series was conceived by TV production company Miller and Boyett as a male counterpart to the hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley. The show only lasted for two seasons, but it was a memorable buddy comedy with an interesting twist that launched the careers of Hanks and Scolari.
Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans
Brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans are known for their comedic acting careers and have played some wild characters in the past. However, their roles in the 2004 comedy White Chicks may just take the cake when it comes to a hilarious critique of early 2000s pop culture. The two played undercover Black FBI agents who dress up like white women in order to solve a kidnapping plot.
Marlon has admitted that he wants a sequel to the film, but nothing has been confirmed yet. “That’s a movie that will make half a billion dollars or more — no joke — because that’s how badly people want it,” the comedian shared with Buzzfeed News.
Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo
The 1995 comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar showcased Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in a completely new light as the world had never seen them before. The trio set the big screen on fire as three New York City drag queens.
Although they were all excited to play their individual roles, they quickly grew tired of all the makeup and costuming involved in becoming these characters. “Wesley absolutely hated it. When we wrapped Wong Foo, he held a ceremonial funeral for his gender bender wig and clothes,” Swayze wrote in his memoir, The Time of My Life.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris proudly performed in drag for the 2014 Broadway Production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He even went on to earn a Tony Award for his performance in the titular role.
The play centers on the story of fictional rock and roll band the Angry Inch, which is led by transgender singer Hedwig. It was a tough role for Harris to take on, but he was dedicated to the process. “In a role like this, you have to commit. You can’t tiptoe, you have to bulldoze,” he shared with The Hollywood Reporter.
Confusion and comedy ensued in the 2006 flick She’s the Man, which served as a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. The movie starred Amanda Bynes as Viola, who pretends to be a boy in order to play soccer after her own team is disbanded.
Although the movie was purely meant to be funny, it had some real repercussions for Bynes, who struggled with seeing herself as the character after filming wrapped. “I went into a deep depression for four to six months because I didn’t like how I looked when I was a boy,” Bynes told Paper magazine. “[It was] a super strange and out-of-body experience.”
Matt LeBlanc will always be known for his famous role as Joey on Friends. However, he stepped out of his comfort zone to perform in drag for a film as well. In the 2001 film All the Queen’s Men, the actor played an undercover soldier in the British army who dresses up as a woman to retrieve an Enigma machine from Germany.
The movie didn’t do well at the box office, but it was fun for viewers to see the beloved Joey appearing in drag for a film.
In 2009’s Rage, Jude Law starred as mysterious Russian supermodel Minx, complete with a black bustier, short wig and a full face of makeup. In the movie, a student filmmaker aspires to make a documentary about the important people in Manhattan using only his phone. However, the movie takes a twist and turns into a murder investigation.
Other co-stars include Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Dianne Wiest, John Leguizamo and Lily Cole. Although it was widely panned by critics, Rage made history as the world’s first feature film to debut on mobile phones (split into seven different “episodes”).
Barbra Streisand showed her range as an actress, singer, director and writer in the 1983 film Yentl. She starred as the title character, an Ashkenazi Jewish girl living in Poland who decides to dress and live like a man to receive an education in Talmudic Law after her father dies.
The film tackled a variety of themes, including gender roles, education rights and social expectations. In addition to other nominations for the film, Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director.
Eddie Murphy has gone through his share of transformations for films, but none of the others are quite like his work in the 1996 comedy The Nutty Professor. In the film, he played a total of seven characters — seven! — including two women (Anna Pearl Klump and Ida Mae Jensen). Obviously, making this film meant spending hours in makeup for Murphy.
Still, he went on to reprise these roles in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, which also starred Janet Jackson. The actor also dressed in drag for his 2007 film Norbit, playing the overweight and abrasive character Rasputia.
The entertaining and witty 1982 film Victor/Victoria showcased Julie Andrews’ famous acting and singing. However, she took things a step further by playing a gay Polish woman impersonator in the film, a daring and bold move for the times.
The film has been heralded as “progressive in its views of gender roles.” It was nominated for several awards and won the Oscar for Best Original Score. Andrews also went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.
After his appearances in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was praised for his dancing abilities. He brought those skills to the forefront again in his unconventional role as Edna Turnblad in the 2007 film Hairspray.
Although he donned a plump bodysuit and a ’60s-style wig and clothing, the actor took his role very seriously. “Playing a woman attracted me,” Travolta told The New York Times regarding the role. “Playing a drag queen did not. I didn’t want any winking or camping. I didn’t want it to be ‘John Travolta plays Edna.'”
Dustin Hoffman shined in his role as Dorothy Michaels, a made-up woman his character, Michael Dorsey, desperately becomes to revive his acting career in 1982’s Tootsie. The concept was practically unheard of at the time, but it was a hit, and the film became the second-highest-grossing movie of 1982 after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Hoffman later revealed that he became emotional as he transformed into the character. “I know that if I met myself [as Dorothy] at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have,” he revealed in an interview with the American Film Institute.
Like the other actors on this list, Adam Sandler has played a variety of different characters over the course of his career. However, the 2011 film Jack and Jill saw him decked out in drag, playing both a reserved ad executive and his annoying, boisterous twin sister.
Jack and Jill was called “unfunny” and heavily panned by critics, even though stars like Katie Holmes, Al Pacino, Tim Meadows and David Spade appeared among the cast. It became the first film to sweep the Razzies by “winning” in each category, including Worst Picture, Worst Actor and Worst Actress.
The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love starred Joseph Fiennes as famed playwright William Shakespeare alongside Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps. As Shakespeare develops Romeo and Juliet, Paltrow’s character impersonates a man in order to play the lead in the production.
The film was a massive success, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Paltrow called the film, which also earned her an Oscar for Best Actress, a life-changing role. “It’s so clever in the way it tackles Shakespeare and all the inside jokes of show business,” she shared with Variety.
Jamie Foxx has played many comedic roles over the years, but none were quite like his character Wanda Wayne on the sketch comedy show In Living Color. Foxx dressed in drag to play the character, who was described by many viewers and critics as the ugliest woman on the planet.
Although the character was all about humor, Foxx took the role seriously. “You know what [show creator] Keenen Wayans taught me?” he said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Take this time to work on your acting skills. Even in those little 30- or 40-second Ugly Wanda sketches, there’s acting.”
Kurt Russell starred alongside Sylvester Stallone in the 1989 film Tango & Cash. The movie followed their characters, two rival LAPD narcotics detectives, who have to work together to clear their names after bogus murder charges are filed against them.
Although he played a tough detective in the movie, Russell had a fun moment when he dressed up as woman exotic dancer in a strip club to escape the cops. It was undeniably a favorite moment for viewers during the film.
For the 2009 film Taking Woodstock, Liev Schreiber dressed in drag to play cross-dressing ex-Marine Vilma. The movie focuses on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, who wrote about his Woodstock experience and his life experiences as a gay person in New York in the 1960s.
Schreiber did his best to portray the shift in gay culture at the time. “It was exhilaratingly humiliating,” he told Cleveland Scene during filming. “It’s different for actors because they’re a little more sophisticated when it comes to dress-up. But for some strange reason, there’s a tremendous energy in putting on women’s clothing.”