New Zealand has its own drag reality show now, House of Drag – but how does it fare under the mighty shadow of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Sam Brooks tunes in.
Once in a generation, a piece of work comes along that is so much of landmark, so much of a game-changer, that everything that comes along after it in that genre exists in conversation with it – willingly or not. Think of The Lord of the Rings, as a piece of literature and a piece of cinema. Everything that is remotely fantasy-adjacent is compared to it, in equal parts because of its popularity, its accessibility and its overall impact. You can barely look at any fantasy, whether it’s a film or a video game or a book, and not feel the impact of The Lord of the Rings. Everything made is working, in some shape or form, in conversation with it.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is The Lord of the Rings, but for the art of drag (also in this analogy, this means that RuPaul is JRR Tolkien). The success of the show, going into its 11th season next year and launching its fourth All Star season next month, has been unprecedented. It’s insane to think that as niche a form as drag has become successful on a mainstream level, but also how it has dominated and shifted the art form. Audiences now understand drag through a lens of Drag Race, lip-syncing for your life and throwing shade. Is it a good thing? Probably not! Is it true? Undoubtedly.
Enter House of Drag, a New Zealand competitive reality show featuring drag queens (and one drag king) that is emphatically (and presumably for legal purposes) not the New Zealand version of Drag Race. But, as it is a competitive drag reality show, it’s hard not to view it through the lens of Drag Race, and more crucially, in the Mordor-like shadow of that behemoth. Frankly, nobody is coming into this show not having watched Drag Race, and this is a double-edged stiletto heel for the local show.
For those of you not familiar with Drag Race, welcome to the internet! It’s a terrifying place, and I wish we could go back to a simpler time. The show is one part Project Runway, one part America’s Next Top Model, and one part American Idol – if the singing was lip-syncing. Thirteen drag queens compete to be America’s Next Drag Superstar. Drama, and a metric shit-tonne of memes, ensue.
House of Drag takes all of that and condenses it into under 30 minutes – which is the first crucial stumbling block for the show. In the first episode alone, we’re introduced to the nine contestants (the dragsters), pushed through a challenge, and then straight on to the elimination. It’s a lot to fit in, and it’s hard to feel like the audience isn’t being shortchanged of some breathing room here and there.
For the first two episodes at least, the show has an issue finding the balance of showcasing the contestants and showcasing the two hosts, Kita and Anita. Both are clear professionals and charismatic performers – there’s an ease with both the camera and each other which is a real pleasure to see, and shows a camaraderie among drag queens that you rarely see even on Drag Race.
The art of hosting a reality show is a very specific one. A host has to be able to give the exact right amount of personality while leaving room for the contestants – the true stars of the show – as well as pushing things along so there’s an actual show to host. An example of this being done well can be currently seen on The Great Kiwi Bakeoff, where Hayley Sproull and Madeleine Sami act like wacky shepherds through the good land of baking. At no point do they feel like the focus of the show, merely the drivers to get everybody to their destination.
Kita and Anita are not just drivers, to put it kindly. The first challenge, where the dragsters have to do a photoshoot, is less us getting to know the contestants and more a showcase for Kita and Anita to read them savagely. It feels unbalanced – right at the moment where we should be drawing party lines and picking our favourites, we’re told to look somewhere else. It’s like watching Statler and Waldorf, when you paid to go see the Muppets.
Which brings us to the contestants. After two episodes, due to the aforementioned brevity and lack of balance, it’s hard to get a read of some of the contestants who get less coverage, but the ones who seem to be rising to the top are Medulla Oblongata and Hugo Grrrl. There’s a chill to both of them that is refreshing in the reality show genre, and an even more refreshing resistance to easy drama. After 10 seasons, the relentless shade-throwing of some Drag Race contestants can be exhausting to watch, so it’s nice to see an adjacent show with contestants who have no interest in that side of drag culture.
In saying that, it’s hard to say that many of the contestants are ready for the level of performance that this kind of show requires. Every reality show engages in some level of performance, and this is especially true of any drag reality show. Put simply, drag is a commentary on performance – performed gender, performed sexuality, performed norms – and this amplifies when it’s put on a reality show, which is literally performed reality.
Drag Race is both a parody of a reality show and the most deeply serious reality show out there, and House of Drag follows that model to a tee. The difference is that many of the contestants lack the kind of honed performance – performance of both self and character – that makes Drag Race so successful. The armour that many of the contestants lack is externalised, and quite often manifests not by throwing shade, but by being actually, genuinely mean to each other. When shade is said with love, it’s beautiful and funny. When shade is said with the intent to demean and hurt, it’s just flat-out unpleasant.
This is also true of not being ready for the literal challenges set for them in each episode. In the second episode alone, which has the contestants attempt a stand-up comedy routine each, one contestant can’t even finish their set while another is put off entirely by a stone-faced audience member and has to leave the stage. We’ve all seen contestants crash and burn, but to see it happen locally, on a smaller scale, is a lot harder to watch.
These are quibbles, and ones that come after watching Drag Race for over a decade. Drag Race is one of the best edited, produced, cast and constructed reality shows out there. It’s a masterclass of the form, and its reach across the internet is incredible, and frankly unprecedented. House of Drag is just starting out, and it has to make its own mark while being labelled as, “Drag Race, but in New Zealand”.
What the show can do best, and give us more of, is an insight into drag culture in New Zealand, and local artists performing drag. We’ve heard these stories from American queens for ten years, if not longer, and I’m excited to learn about what our local queer talent (drag queens, drag kings, and non-binary alike) are doing, the scenes they inhabit and how those scenes intersect with each other. I’m excited for House of Drag to continue past this first outing – lord knows, not even Drag Race‘s first vaseline-soaked season was perfect – and define itself more clearly as its own thing.
But until then, it’s drag, you guys. It’s the right dose of silly and serious, and while it might not be the most well-honed piece of entertainment, drag mixes with reality TV better than anybody.
Still, as Aretha Franklin would shade, “Lovely gowns. Beautiful gowns.”
You can watch the first two episodes of House of Drag on TVNZ on Demand. Episodes drop weekly on Thursdays.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.