RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality TV show contest that can be described as a cross between America’s Next Top Model, a documentary about LGBTQ+ lifestyles, Project Runway, a YouTube makeup tutorial, and an explosion in a sequin factory- what’s not to love!
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts (pun very much intended!): RuPaul’s Drag Race was born in 2009 as a reality TV drag queen contest. Each week the contestants compete in challenges, such as acting, singing, dancing, or stand-up comedy, and then walk a runway displaying their best looks on specific themes to a panel of judges. The two queens judged to be at the bottom of the pack in each episode compete in a lip sync battle and the loser is eliminated. All are hungry to make it to the final and take the coveted title of: “America’s next drag superstar”.
my favourite moments include the contestants starring in a WWE style wrestling match…
The show has millions of fans worldwide, and I’m definitely one of those! I’ve (nerdily) watched all episodes, and some of my favourite moments include the contestants starring in a WWE-style wrestling match; making puppets to parody each other; writing and performing their own rap songs; and when season 9 contestant, Sasha Velour, toyed with the idea of doing an impersonation of post-structuralist feminist scholar, Judith Butler, in one of the comedy challenges (she settled on Marlene Dietrich in the end though, probably to better comic effect!).
I find Drag Race super uplifting. A sense of family bond and sisterhood between the queens shines through in the show, despite the competitive bitchiness which of course is present (and pretty entertaining!). This is enhanced by the show’s host, RuPaul, who has picked up two Primetime Emmy Awards and is the first drag queen to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is an inspiration, promoting a mantra of self-love and empowerment, urging contestants and viewers to support themselves and each other. He closes each and every show with the line: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else? Can I get an Amen up in here?” Amen, indeed!
The show is colourful and extremely funny, but also contains moments of pathos…
I particularly love this program because I’ve learned so much about LGBTQ+ and drag lifestyles. The show allows a glimpse of the challenges and joys of this sequin gown and false eyelashes-filled world that is different from my own. The show is colourful and extremely funny, but also contains moments of pathos where I find myself in tears hearing about the tough experiences of many of the competitors. I have so much respect- despite hardships the queens are so funny and talented in producing creative presentations in every challenge.
Here I share some of the key things the show has taught me and inspired me to learn more about: from drag histories and struggles, the efforts required to be a drag performer, and the complex gender issues this art form forces us to confront.
Drag herstories and struggles
The show has inspired me to learn more about the history (or herstory as they say on the show) of drag and where many of the ideas for Drag Race came from. I started by watching Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston, a documentary from 1991 about the drag ball scene in New York City. This takes you inside the ballrooms to follow African American, Latino, and transgender queens participating in fashion show competitions on different themes (termed categories), much like the format of Drag Race.
Livingstone also interviews the queens about their culture, their unique language, and the support and rivalry between different drag “Houses”- a group of drag queens centring around a more experienced queen, who acts as mentor. The head of the House is called “Mother” and often acts as a surrogate parent figure for many who were have difficult relationships with their biological families. As RuPaul points out several times on Drag Race, the drag community is a place to find love from a chosen family, a love that may be lacking in many queens’ upbringing in heterosexual, often religious, and even homophobic families.
Some key drag terminology:
Tucking– to conceal male genitalia to create a “female” appearance at the crotch (this involves regressing the testicles to a pre-pubescent state and lashings of duct tape- look it up on YouTube!)
To “beat” the face– to apply makeup (referring to tapping a makeup brush or sponge on the skin)
Fishy– referring to a queen presenting a particularly “feminine” appearance
Spill the T– tell a truth/fact (don’t panic, fellow Brits- the tea is safe!)
Throwing shade– to insult or criticise in a blunt way
Sadly, the documentary also reveals the dangers faced by drag queens in this scene, especially back in the late 1980s when there was widespread prejudice and discrimination towards LGBTQ+ communities in wider society. Drag Race itself certainly makes you laugh and cry- these queens have gone through many hardships from family estrangement for coming out as gay, to being abandoned as children, living with HIV/AIDS, growing up in poverty, as well as electing to have plastic surgery, and “tucking” every night for their craft.
For me, this is what makes RuPaul’s show even more important- showing these “different” lifestyles and experiences to a new generation, so this becomes part of the norm, and prejudice and discrimination unthinkable.
There are many types of drag
Drag Race showcases many different varieties of drag performance: there are comedy queens like Bianca del Rio, Bob the Drag Queen, and Ginger Minge who specialise in stand-up comedy performances, pageant queens who create a “female illusion” and compete in beauty contests (e.g. Alyssa Edwards, Alexis Mateo), and horror queens creating monstrous and dramatic presentations, like Sharon Needles and her Marilyn Manson-inspired image.
Jinkx Monsoon and other legendary Broadway queens specialise in acting and singing live, while artistic/political queens like Sasha Velour seek to shock, provoke and educate with the politically charged messages behind their presentations. Gender f**k queens blur gender boundaries by choosing not to present as a feminine extreme (e.g. no body padding or breasts, plus beards, as sported by Max and Milk), and celebrity impersonators like Derek Barry, the spitting image of Britney Spears, and Chad Michaels, a professional Cher impersonator, work in big Las Vegas shows.
These are just some of the many flavours of drag, and plenty of performers cross these definitions and create their own unique niche!
Drag is a lot of hard work and requires serious talent
Drag queens, and particularly those on the show, have to be seriously talented to put together those looks and performances. One of my favourite parts as a fashion and makeup enthusiast, is watching the looks come together. Contouring is used to transform facial features, softening the jaw, enhancing check bones, and slimming noses. Glue (like, literally Pritt Stick!) is used to flatten eyebrows, which are then drawn on higher up the forehead to create more space for elaborate and dramatic eyeshadow designs. Then there’s the massive wigs to be styled and secured to the head!
To understand what’s involved in part of the drag lifestyle, I decided to experiment with styling my own drag-inspired wig. I researched “lace front wigs” (wigs constructed with a “realistic” hairline section, with individual hairs stitched into a mesh base), bought a quality wig from a popular drag supplier (Webster Wigs), and took to YouTube to learn how it’s done.
It took a LOT of time, especially putting in the rollers to get the settling pattern right, and the brush out to create waves. I also still struggle with keeping my edges glued down while wearing it, but it was a lot of fun! Not sure I’ll be doing another one anytime soon though- I’ll leave it to the pros!
It’s much more than just appearance however- the queens must perform the house down. As RuPaul reminds contestants, they must show their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent to win the contest *ahem…*
On the show, they design, sew and/or hot glue costumes, act in challenges, do celebrity impersonations, write stand-up comedy scripts, dance, interview celebrities, even put on a cheerleading show, and of course lip sync along to songs (not knowing the lyrics is a cardinal sin!). Many don’t have English as a first language, including the several famous Puerto Rican queens through the seasons, and all contestants will no doubt be out of their comfort zones on many challenges.
I’ve been to a few live drag shows now, and have been blown away by the singing talent of Alaska 5000, laughed out loud with Shangela, and been amazed that Violet Chachki can lip sync while performing aerial hoop, while wearing a corset, while fully tucked- respect to drag queens!
Drag raises complex issues around gender
Drag Race has raised some interesting and important debates around gender, particularly related to the representation of women and the place of transgender people within drag.
Drag can be defined traditionally as an art form that expresses extremes or stereotypes of femininity, with an emphasis (for many although definitely not all) on large breasts, padding to create voluptuous hips and bums, the generous application of makeup and multiple pairs of false eyelashes to transform facial structures. From interviews with RuPaul and other queens, we know that many have strong relationships with their biological mothers and other female role models, but some acknowledge that the presentation of extremes can be controversial or even border on misogyny.
There are some challenges with unique scene language: when a queen looks particularly feminine for example, some describe this as “fishy” – this refers to the apparent scent of female genitalia, a metaphor which may not be considered respectful. Sometimes the extremely sexual language can be a little jarring, especially when talking about carrying out aggressive acts with “their” vaginas, and some queens frequently refer to their looks and even their entire drag personas as inspired by “hookers” or “whores”. While much of drag performance is understood as tongue in cheek, a way to call out ridiculous stereotypes, or even highlight problems in society to resolve, I can see how some feel uncomfortable with this element without this contextual understanding.
some queens choose not to pad their bodies, don’t wear wigs, and some even sport “masculine” facial hair…
Importantly, there is increasing diversity being presented on Drag Race, with broader ideas of femininity being expressed- some queens choose not to pad their bodies, don’t wear wigs, and some even sport “masculine” facial hair. RuPaul himself started his career in a “gender f**k” performance art band called the WeeWeePoles, so there is a foundation of questioning binary norms even for this glamorous icon.
The place of transgender women as drag queens is also highlighted on the show. There have been several trans. queens competing: perhaps most notably, Peppermint, openly identifying as a transgender woman, who reached the final two in season 9. As RuPaul says: the only criteria for participation in the show is that you want to become “America’s next drag superstar” and nothing else.
gender is something that is performed, created, and fluid…
From my perspective, I fully buy into the view that gender is something that is performed, created, and fluid, rather than an inherent, fixed quality of a person. I see the damage and exclusion that forcing people into one of two categories can have; categories based on averages that male people have penises and females have vaginas, which is not the reality for many. For me, gender is not a binary choice between male or female, and I really hope we’ll see a Drag King, a drag queen with a vagina, and even more trans. and “gender f**k” contestants represented going forward- let’s keep messing with perceived gender boundaries and exploring what’s possible!
I thank you, Mother Ru, for inspiring me, allowing me to appreciate and become passionate about combatting the struggles faced by my LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters and everyone in between, and for showing me that beauty can come from struggle. I hope to see you and the other Glamazon queens werq the runways of the world for many years to come!
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To enjoy more drag goodness, here are some resources:
- Paris is Burning documentary is available on Netflix
- WoW Presents YouTube channel – hosts many shows from Drag Race queens. My favourites are “UNHhhh” from the hilarious, Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, and “Fashion Photo Ruview” with Raven and Raja, who ruthlessly assess the looks from each new episode.
- Drag movies: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a classic, but my favourite is: To Wong Foo Thanks for everything, Julie Newmar (featuring Patrick Swayze and a guest appearance by RuPaul at the beginning!).
- Ask Google for drag show venues in your town- it’s such a fun night out!!