It’s a strange and lovely thing to hear a man say he feels beautiful.
It’s stranger still to watch him conceal his eyebrows with a glue stick and give himself a duct tape facelift. But the unglamorous means of transformation only make the end results more stunning.
For eight seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race has treated audiences to these offbeat, yet inspired moments.
Although Drag Race tests competitors’ ability to adopt and subvert the feminine aesthetic, it’s much more than a beauty pageant. The Logo reality show is part America’s Next Top Model, part Project Runway, and part talent show — with a dash of John Waters-style smut for flavor. Each week, the drag queens take on acting, singing, and comedy challenges and present their work on the runway to host RuPaul Charles and judges including Michelle Visage and Carson Kressley.
The bottom two contestants are then called upon to lip sync for their lives and one performer is sent home. At the end of each season, RuPaul crowns America’s Next Drag Superstar.
With season nine confirmed, a slew of spinoffs, and two Emmy nominations this year, the show has turned a niche art form into a cultural phenomenon.
Long Live the Queen
RuPaul’s unquestioned supremacy is a condition of the Drag Race universe. Although the show boasts an epic roster of guest judges such as Margaret Cho, Latoya Jackson, David Sedaris, Pamela Anderson, The Pointer Sisters, Adam Lambert, and Olivia Newton-John, every elimination is under RuPaul’s control. Even in the finale, she reminds us “I have consulted with the judges and the fans, but in the end the decision is mine to make.”
By all means, tweet about the show and comment online, but this is not a democracy — it’s a dragocracy.
As much as the Western world celebrates popular rule, we also love a benevolent dictator. As with Beyoncé or God, there’s a comfort in simply laying your faith at the alter and deciding to enjoy the ride.
In the Werkroom
“Love yourself. Live your truth. You’re never too old to dream!”-Tempest DuJour
“I’ll trip a bitch. I’ll cut a bitch. I’ll poison a bitch.” — … also Tempest DuJour
The winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race goes home with a $100,000 check, a huge sum for artists who often work six nights a week in bars and clubs. As in most reality shows, though, you don’t have to win your season to win at life. With tours, spinoffs, and appearances in subsequent seasons, even the first queen to go home gains fans and a chance at a prosperous future.
Contestants spend most of their time in the werkroom, a cotton candy wonder cave supplied with fabric, sequins, and lighted mirrors. For many queens, these resources alone are a luxury. Drag Race does not sugarcoat the reality of working artists: if you want to create, if you want to be free, you better work.
Serving as design studio and dressing room, the werkroom also hosts many of the competition’s mini-challenges. The Reading mini-challenge and the Puppets Bitchfest are two of Drag Race’s most beloved traditions. A read, as explained in the celebrated documentary Paris is Burning, is a form of insult that picks apart a queen’s shortcomings and extrapolates them for comic effect. Kind of like a “yo’ momma” joke, but more direct and lacking any oedipal hang-ups. When RuPaul declares “the library is open!” Drag Race competitors take turns reading each other and the funniest, most creative queen wins.
The Puppets Bitchfest adds a little arts and crafts to the roasting. Usually reserved for the top five, each queen is tasked with decorating a puppet to represent one of their competitors and staging a shade-filled conversation with it.
Throwing shade, a passive-aggressive offshoot of reading, is now part of the mainstream lexicon, but for the Drag Race queens, it’s a way of life. But as RuPaul says, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.”
The producers know a good cat fight when they see one (refer to the infamous clash in which Phi Phi O’Hara yells at Sharon Needles “Go back to Party City where you belong!”), but when queens break down it’s usually a scene of commiseration, not confrontation. This is when the show peels back the contestants’ resilience and ambition to show the rocky paths they’ve walked (in heels, no less). As the queens paint on their dazzling faces, talk inevitably turns to stories of “reparative” therapy, family rejection, bullying, and abuse.
Although drag queens are seen as some of the most outspoken and proud members of the LGBTQ community, in the werkroom we see them face the same vulnerabilities and dangers as anyone daring to do the uncommon. In season eight, the fierce makeup maven Kim Chi reveals that her mother doesn’t know she does drag. This is comparable to Bryce Harper telling SportsCenter, “My mom doesn’t know I play baseball.”
“Growing up, I always felt like I could never be the model child that all Asian mothers want,” said Kim Chi. “She could even stop talking to me.” Even some of the most skilled and seasoned queens fear what their passion could cost them.
When the pressure of the competition overwhelms one queen though, there is usually another willing to step up for her sister. In season seven, Katya Zamolodchikova, the show’s premier Russian barbie MILF, pulled aside Miss Fame for support in staying sober.
Miss Fame, a couture queen obsessed with chickens, knew exactly what to say. “You are loved,” she said. “You’re in it, but you’re not alone. I’m here with you having those same fears and feelings.” They returned to their work feeling stronger and trying not to ugly cry.
While certainly not immune to controversy, Drag Race does engage with serious issues in the LGBTQ community, such as homelessness and HIV/AIDS. Past challenges have highlighted the injustice of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the legacy of the Stonewall uprising. Although Drag Race includes many traditional reality competition tropes, part of what sets the show apart is the cast’s shared experience as outsiders.
But sometimes the bubble of an dragtastic world is popped and the queens’ sisterhood is tested. In season four, for example, the top five competitors were tasked with giving drag makeovers to macho fathers. With only two eliminations left before the finale, stakes were higher than ever and the werkroom was tense. Sharon Needles’ dad picked a fight with polished Cher-lover, Chad Michaels. As the dad crossed his tribal-tattooed arms over his Ed Hardy T-shirt, he barked at Sharon, “You gonna let this bitch talk to me like that?”
Even with the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar tantalizingly close, Sharon looked at the interloper and said, “Do not call my sister a bitch.”
Realness on the Runway
“I want people to realize that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to fall down. Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it!” -Latrice Royale
Each episode ends with a runway show for RuPaul and the judges. Whatever the week’s theme, the queens deliver their looks with confidence and charisma. They strut in ballgowns, bikinis, and every type of accessory known to womankind. The audience is treated to red-carpet realness and old Hollywood eleganza, but is just a likely to see “killer jellyfish realness” or “leprechaun realness.” If you can make “Helen Keller drowning realness” look good, you truly are a queen.
Watching the contestants work the stage is like playing Where’s Waldo in the uncanny valley. Your eyes search these statuesque creatures for the shadow of facial hair or bare muscle, but they are blanketed in cues of womanhood: enticing curves, sculpted yet soft features, and colors too vibrant to be real.
It’s not about trickery, or even illusion. The audience is a witness to the queens’ becoming. We see them claim not to be man or woman or even in between — they’re simply more.
That’s why the deep, rumbling voice of season four’s Latrice Royale is so delightful when paired with her mile-long lashes and sequined ball gown. She hides nothing. Rather than subduing their masculinity or femininity, the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race glorify both.
When a queen walks the runway, it’s a declaration of self-determination, an audacity most of us only ever dream of.