It’s smartly written, hilariously weird and gloriously LGBT-positive. Sam Brooks explains why Ru-Paul’s Drag Race is the most uplifting reality show on television.
“Gentlemen, start your engines! And may the best woman win!”
How do you cover a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show about to go into its eighth season with its own intricate storied history, myriad in-jokes, catchphrases and fans who are almost literally willing to die for their chosen queen. A show that succeeds most at having its cake and not only eating it too, but swallowing it whole and then throwing it up for art’s sake?
If you’re not aware of what RuPaul’s Drag Race is, and for that I congratulate you on your internet filters, it is most concisely summed up as America’s Next Top Model meets Project Runway meets American Idol but with drag queens.
To be less concise, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a show where America’s (and sometimes Puerto Rico’s) best drag queens compete for the title of “America’s next drag superstar” as decided by RuPaul, most famous for the 1994 single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” or this photo where she is holding Frances Bean Cobain.
It is also described by me as a show you should watch drunk, but never, ever hungover.
It is the most tightly edited and high-concept reality show out there. A tremendous amount of care is given to developing contestants’ storylines over the course of a season, through challenges, team-building and judges’ critiques. The production values are not high, especially in the early seasons which look like they were shot in a meat factory after hours, but the show does its best with whatever it has. Add to that a compelling, charismatic host; a knowledgeable judging panel with interesting and varied guests; and contestants who are almost guaranteed to form both friendships and rivalries over the season, and you have one of the best examples of the reality-show form out there.
Because of course it is. It’s drag, an artform that exists to take the piss out of gender, performativity and anything else you can think of. Drag Race isn’t only an excellent reality show, it’s a self-referential take on the whole genre. RuPaul literally looks at the camera and winks at every product placement drop, and more often than not it’s her own products she’s placing (you can buy all of her albums on iTunes, you know). There is more wordplay in this show than there are hairpins. This season a queen was eliminated almost solely because she repeatedly missed the punchline when Ru asked, “How’s your head?”. Drag Race is aware of how silly reality shows are, and plays up to that, just like the queens are playing up to how silly gender constructs are.
The best way to introduce someone to Drag Race is to go full immersion. So I picked my favourite, most bizarre, episode from the seventh season to give the uninitiated an idea of what the show is all about.
The episode in question is called “Hello, Kitty Girls!” which is either exactly what you think it is – or you are an adorable naïve straight person.
The episode begins with Ginger Minj (pictured above, not her birth name) wiping Trixie Mattel’s (also not her birth name – you should probably assume that all names on this show are not birth names) lipstick off the mirror after they both ended up in the bottom two at the end of the last episode. The queens throw shade at each other. “Queens throw shade” could be an accurate recap of at least 60 percent of any given Drag Race episode.
RuPaul appears on a screen, in full drag, with the announcement “She done already had herses!” (even as a watcher of Drag Race since the beginning, I have no idea what this could possibly mean). The previous announcement “girl, you’ve got shemale” resulted in A Lot Of Controversy and was delicately removed in the sixth season.
RuPaul then comes out in man drag – that is to say dressed as a man – but dressed better than any man you have ever come into contact with.
The competition starts proper with RuPaul giving the queens a mini challenge. In this week’s mini challenge, the queens have to mimic each other with puppets (which they pick out of a gloryhole). Queens throw shade. Other mini challenges throughout the series have included the “Reading Challenge”, where the queens insult other queens with as much vim and venom as possible, and one called “Whatcha Packin” where the queens get to ask a bunch of men one-by-one to pull down their pants. If they get a match on underwear colours, they win a prize, in what is basically the best/worst game of memory ever.
The winners of these challenges are generally arbitrary, often seeming like they’ve been picked to create the most tension. Above all else, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a show that is edited with more precision and attention to detail than most scripted television. The reaction shots on this show are prize-worthy.
The mini challenge in the “Hello, Kitty Girls!” episode is a sneaky reading challenge. “Reading” means the queens pick out each other’s flaws and exaggerate them for comic effect, and all in good fun. The special thing about this show is that the queens are just as willing to laugh at themselves as they are to cut each other down. Because I guess you can’t give yourself a name like Ginger Minj and not be able to take a joke.
The main challenge in this episode involves the queens partnering with a global marketing phenomenon worth over eight billion dollars: Hello Kitty. Someone dressed in a Hello Kitty mascot uniform comes out. The queens have to make their own runway ‘eleganza’ solely from Hello Kitty items.
This is where the talents of each drag queen comes into pretty sharp relief. There are queens who come to the competition without basic sewing skills (even though you’d think after seven seasons they would be at least a little aware that they’ll have to make their own costumes at some point). In this episode, a few of the queens are worried. During the preparation for the main challenge, RuPaul comes in to check on their progress like an even camper version of Tim Gunn, eroding any confidence they have in order to build tension for the runway.
About halfway through the episode, RuPaul throws a curveball at the contestants – because having to make your own costume, model it, and do so while also having to make up and dress yourself as a woman isn’t enough. The curveball in this instance is that the drag queens have to make a SECOND costume, a costume for their version of Hello Kitty’s new best friend. (I don’t know who managed to hook up a basic cable show about drag queens with the brand giant that is Hello Kitty, but they are doing The Lord’s work.)
Between the work in progress and the runway is one of the most special parts of the show. We get to see the queens getting into costume and makeup, and having frank (if obviously prompted) discussions about why they got into drag and what difficulties they’ve faced. Up until this point in the episode we’ve only seen the queens out of drag; to see them in the transition state, midway through makeup and wig and everything, is disarming. It reminds the audience of the sheer work and craft that goes into being a drag queen. It’s as if Drag Race is the Ginger Rogers to every other reality show’s Fred Astaire: the contestants have to do everything that every other reality-show contestant has to do, but backwards and in heels.
In this episode, we find out that Pearl first painted “Pearl” when he was a ten year old, as a means to escape the “horrible things [he] felt were going on around [him]”; later he started painting “Pearl” on himself. It’s a surprisingly vulnerable moment for a reality television show – no matter how prompted or coached it is from a production standpoint, it’s still an honest expression of the kind of struggle that LGBT youth (and it’s probably correct to assume most of the audience is LGBT) goes through. Where other reality shows force their contestants into sob stories for the camera in a way that feels inorganic or calculated, these moments are frank and honest.
It’s a reminder that Drag Race is maybe the only TV reality show where almost everybody onscreen is a LGBT person. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this, especially when you look at season six runner-up Adore DeLano, who is perhaps better known to straight audiences as the quickly eliminated Danny Noriega on the Daughtry season of American Idol a few years ago. On that show, his flamboyance and sass was noted derisively by judges but on Drag Race he’s one of many people with that same flamboyance, sass and unabashed sexuality. You might see gay people on TV often these days, but how often do you get to see them interact with each other, fight with each other, make friends with each other and comfort each other?
So when Pearl, or any of the queens, talk about how she got into drag to escape her bad childhood, a depressingly common story on this show, it feels like something real and something personal. When the judges urge a contestant to take their feedback because they really care about them and what they’re doing with their lives and careers, it’s with delicacy and intelligence (season 4 Tyra could definitely take notes). When RuPaul says a queen is special and creative, and she tears up, you actually believe that this means that much to her.
Next is the runway. RuPaul is always front and centre for this, a reminder of why this is RuPaul’s Drag Race and not Some Other Drag Queen’s Drag Race. The queens strut down the runway in their Hello Kitty BFF characters. Screencaps because these things are indescribable:
Then the queens come out in their other costumes. Once more, a screencap because words just won’t do when there are this many Hello Kitty heads stitched onto people.
After the runway, the queens wait to be judged. Shade is, of course, thrown. Example: “I just didn’t want to throw a bunch of Hello Kitty trinkets on me.” The unimaginatively named Pearl throws side-eye at every other queen on the stage. Offence is, of course, taken. Editing creates false tension. You’ve all seen a reality show, you know how this goes.
The queens are banished to the lounge and the judges really let loose. The critiques are generally well-meaning, thoughtful and honest. Hello Kitty is on hand to provide silent critique, because why wouldn’t she.
The winner of the challenge this week is Violet Chachki, because that is also a name, and the bottom two are Kennedy Davenport and Katya.
And HERE is where RuPaul’s Drag Race lifts itself from being just a very good reality show to an all-timer. The bottom two queens have to lip-sync for their lives. As RuPaul says, “The time has come for you to lip sync… FOR YOUR LIFE. Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.”
The song the queens lip-sync to this week is Katy Perry’s “Roar”, which is not a very good song, but these experienced queens give it their all. The lip-sync is the usually the episode’s highlight because – unlike other shows where the loser is already obvious before the bottom two is announced – a queen gets the chance to really fight to stay in, while sharing the stage with another queen doing the exact same thing. There may be queens who can’t sew, queens who can’t act, queens who aren’t funny, but there isn’t a damn queen on seven seasons of this show who doesn’t know how to bring it in a lip-sync.
You can’t do an episode where a drag queen comes out onstage as Hello Kitty’s new BFF from a gulag in Communist Russia, and take yourself entirely seriously. But the queens manage to take the show incredibly seriously without taking themselves seriously. Every queen on this show is there to be America’s next drag superstar, and whoever wins the seventh season is as important as who won the sixth, fifth and so on and so forth. This is real for these queens, and you feel that in every challenge and every lip-sync.
Exhibit A through Z:
“Kennedy Davenport, shantay you stay.”
“Katya, sashay away.”
And that is your standard episode of Drag Race.
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