How RuPaul brought drag to the masses

No T, no shade, no pink lemonade – RuPaul is slaying it right now! If you’re not familiar with this fernacular, it basically means Ru is killing it, no joke. RuPaul’s Drag Race has always had a cult following, but now it has entered the main stream. The irreverent show is in its ninth season, and recently won the MTV Movie & TV Award for Best Reality Show. 8 years after it was first launched by the eponymous RuPaul, the Queen of Drag Queens, the show is still growing it’s following and viewing figures are on the up.

The tv show, is essentially America’s Next Top Model meets Project Runway with a hint of The X Factor, exculsively for drag queens. The contestants compete is various challenges: photoshoots, acting, sewing their own outfits, and each episode culminates in all the Queens putting on their faces and frocks and sissying that walk down the runway in front of a panel of judges who assess their looks and how they did in the challenge before the bottom two lip sync for their life to a gay anthem.

RuPaul is looking for the queen with the most charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (a cheeky acrostic) to be America’s next drag superstar. The show is fun, silly, not afraid to poke fun at itself, which is perhaps why it’s more popular now than ever. In a time of hate, uncertainty and sometimes misery, drag is all about having fun, laughing, creativity and most importantly, celebrating yourself.

  

The show had humble beginnings on Logo TV – the gay network in he US – with RuPaul as he tried to bring drag to the mainstream. He was a pop star in the 90s and the epitome of kooky cool, hanging out with everyone from the B52s (he starred in their Love Shack music video) to Nirvana to Naomi Campbell. Much of the show is built around Ru Paul’s music and style, with the catwalk parade segment of the show being called ‘Sissy that walk’ after his song, and the elimination of the bottom two candidates being revealed by declaring “Shanté you stay” to the safe contestant and “Sashé away” toolset of the challenge, referencing his song ‘Supermodel’.

The following is amazing, it’s become a cult favourite and the most talked about TV show on Social media. The show also has a mass of celebrity followers and has a killer roster of guests judges, from old school icons like Paula Abdul, La Toya Jackson and Debbie Harris, to the new it-girls like GiGi Hadid, Khloe Kardashian and Ariana Grande. This season saw Lady GaGa take to the panel for the premiere episode, where she entered the work room in one of her most decadent outfits, caked in make-up and wearing sunglasses. It wasn’t until she took off the glasses that the people in the room realised she wasn’t just another contestant and was in fact GaGa, an idol for many people in the room, and LGBT people everywhere.

But while the show is frivolous and run, it also has some important messages. One of RuPaul’s catchphrases is, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?!” The saying consistently gets an amen from everyone in the room. And it’s true – RuPaul has become something of a therapist as he gets contestants to open up as many of them have struggled in one way or another – from being bullied at school or outcast by religious families who didn’t accept their sexuality, to men who have been beaten up for being drag queens or lost loved ones to AIDS. Underneath all the hair and makeup, there are real people with real problems. But the show helps them to open up and talk about it. It’s an important message not just for LGBT communities, but for everyone. Self worth is so important.

The show can get catty, and one element of being a drag queen is being able to throw shade – witty insults. But as RuPaul points out, it’s easy to be a bitch, but you have to be clever to throw shade. After the girls are done insulting each other, there is real camaraderie that you don’t often see in other reality show competions. Yes, there is the occasional showgirl who wouldn’t hesitate to push a frenemy down the stairs, but there’s a real community that develops in the work room where they create their outfits and paint their faces. 

And the show isn’t afraid to get political either. One of the competitions in previous seasons saw the queens adopt politician personas and run for America’s Drag Presient as they spoke out about what mattered to them – more money on AIDS care and less money on wars – albeit with a tongue in cheek approach. 

RuPaul himself has even spoken out about how “we need America’s next drag queen now more than ever”. Under Trump, drag is being used as a form of political expression, even on SNL as The Atlantic highlighted in their article “Why Drag is the Ultimate Retort to Trump,” with Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Sean Spicer. And Trump himself is often compared to a drag queen thanks to his “technicolor tan, bouffant hair, love of insults, and exaggerated display of masculinity.” As a Drag Race contestant said of Trump, “Girl, look how orange you f*cking look, girl!” – an insult from one queen to another on a previous season.

The show has become such a success in recent years, and the political and social climate has helped that. While RuPaul may have been a pop star with the song Covergirl back in the early 90s, he was still seen as a fad to many (some people don’t recognise charisma, uniqueness nerve and talent when they see it). And while there isn’t a drag queen topping the charts at the moment (Conchita Wurst back a few years ago came close) more pop stars are celebrating drag by including queens in their performances – Miley Cyrus had several drag queens perform with her on her last tour and is a big fan of the show – she was in the audience of the season 7 finale. And now Katy a Perry is following suit after her recent SNL performance.

Some of the contestants themselves have become (minor) celebrities in their own rights, and it’s no surprise with their vibrant personalities and costumes. There’s Bianca Del Rio, season 6 winner – an insult comedian with quick wit who throws shade like a pro and always has flawless outfits and signature catch phrase, “Not today Satan!”

  

Sharon Needles, winner of season 4, is the alternative drag queen – more into goth and gore than the usual glamorous pageant look – but this, paired with her self deprecating humour makes her like a modern day Elvira. 

  

After Sharon won Season 4, her (now ex) partner Alaska took part in season 5 and went on to become a runner up and a fan favourite thanks to her whimsical nature and ability to turn a rubbish bag into a glamourous gown – literally; that was a challenge that she won, turning dumpster findings into couture.

  

My personal favourite is season 6 finalist Adore Delano – the former American Idol semi-finalist (he competed as Danny before taking up drag). She’s a fun time party girl, who was not as polished as other girls, but always turned it out on the runway, and (obviously) has a killer set of pipes, and pins, and despite only being 23 had no problem holding her own in a season of strong queens.

  

There’s too many spectacular queens to mention, really. Even their names are hilarious, some tongue-in-cheek faves include Farrah Moan, MiMi Imfurst, Ginger Minj and my favourite name – Penny Tration – shame her performance wasn’t as spectacular as her moniker. 
Drag will never be entirely mainstream, but will always have a cult following. The important part is that people accept it. Take comic books nerds – they will always be the butt of jokes, but they have a strong community with their own conventions and some people deem them to be cool, albeit in a quirky way – comic book-based films now regularly top the box office, yet the hard core Star Trek nerds are still sometimes pariahs. 

Drag also has its on conventions – notably RuPaul’s Drag Con in New York, and Drag World UK coming to London Kensington Olympia this Summer, but I feel we may be waiting a while longer for a box office smash. But to be fair, drag queens always do their best work live – part of their charm is the off the cuff retorts, jokes and insults thrown at audiences, and his still works on Drag Race when they have a panel and other queens to interact with, it loses its impact when scripted. But business is booming in drag bars from Brooklyn to Soho and pop stars never turn down a chance to take the stage at G-A-Y to perform their latest hit. Just yesterday I saw a man walking down the street wearing a Bianca Del Rio t-shirt.

With Drag Race about to start filming its 10th season, it shows no signs of slowing down. It’s a cult juggernaut and I can’t wait to see what next series brings. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching the show before, it’s available on demand on Netflix and is binge worth, feel good, trash TV – go check it out.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2: film review

The Guardians of the Galaxy sequel opens in spectacular fashion with a fast paced fight scene set in slow motion as the camera follows around the adorable Baby Groot as he dances to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky blaring through Quill’s sound system as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket  (Bradley Cooper) fight a giant, alien slug trying to steal valuable and powerful batteries from the Sovereign – a proud, gold-skinned alien race.

The scene is indicative of what’s to come in the film – cheesy, fun sci fi action with impressive action sequences that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still has an interesting story line. One that in the climax of the film actually brought a tear to my eye – it’s surprisingly moving at times too!

The film picks up where the first instalment left off – the rag tag group of friends are still working together and still bickering as they fend off this monster after being hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) leader of the Sovereign for a very generous bounty – Gamorra’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan) who they had captured trying to steal the batteries herself.

But true to form, Rocket raccoon has other ideas and steals the batteries himself, which puts them on Ayesha’s hit list. These gold ethereal looking beings may look serene, but they’ve got a temper on them and don’t take kindly to being stolen from, especially from the very people they bored to protect them, heresy of the highest order, Ayesha calls it.

So the Guardian gang are on the run again – Rocket being stubborn and rude as ever, “I will put a turd I’m your pillowcase… Not one of mine, Drax’s”; Drax is still bluntly hilarious, “My turds are famously large”; Gamorra being sassy and trying to keep the boys in order, “What is wrong with you?!” and Star Lord, Peter Quill being the good guy with a quick wit and a taste for trouble, “You trash panda!”

  

Them there’s the adorable Baby Groot, who has started to regrow after he sacrificed himself to save the rest of the team in the first film. He is the most adorable baby tree ever; I defy you not to say “awww” at some point during the film at those big brown eyes full of empathy, intrigue and innocence. It’s Vinn Diesel’s most endearing film role to date (mind you he only actually says three words, albeit with different inflections, and he’s a computer animated living tree).

The story line is pretty ridiculous, but having seen the first film, that’s what we can expect. Quilł, who never knew his father, meets a mysterious, powerful being, played by the great Kurt Russell, claiming be a god, and also claims to be his father. Of course, Gamora thinks here’s something suspicious about the whole thing.

Gamora’s also got a side storyline of her own as she struggles wether to accept her sister or hand her over for a bounty. To be fair, Nebula was a bitch to her in the first film, so you can’t blame her a lack of sisterly warmth.

Then of course there’s the ongoing will they won’t they between Quill and Gamora as they continue to flirt and fight with one another. Or as Quill says, an unspoken some,thing – like in Cheers with Sam and Diane, but Gamora screams back at him – “I don’t know what Cheers is!!”

After the opening number of Mr Blue Sky, the rest of the soundtrack is solid, but not quite as cool as Volume 1. There is another great fight scene later in the film where Rocket and Yondu take out hundreds of Ravagers to the tune of Come a Little Bit Closer by Jay and the Americans. It’s reminiscent of recent slapstick action films like KickAss and Kingsmen: Secret Service. It’s all good fun and the rocking 80s soundtrack really adds to that.

  

Chris Pratt is on great form as ever, effortlessly cracking jokes and occasionally showing off his torso and post- Andy from Parks and Rec body. I don’t mean to objectify him, but, yum! He’s one of the most popular actors in Hollywood at the moment, both on and off he camera and it’s easy to see why – he’s like the Everyman action hero – likeable, funny, relatable but can still kick some serious ass. I think Dave Bautista is underrated – his deadpan jokes as Drax always land so well and I a film full of jokes and funny character he still manages to stand out as a comedian.

While Volume 2 is a great film, I don’t think it lives up to the original Guadians of the Galaxy. It’s visually a much better cinematic experience, with the scenes on Ego’s planet being particularly spectacular: it looks like Wizard of Oz meets Avatar’s Pandora by way of the Hunger Games District 1 Pamem. The new characters introduced were solid and the story continued the core characters’ story arcs well, but overall the story just isn’t quite as great. But definitely worth a trip to the cinema as the visuals deserved to be seen on the big screen. As does Chris Pratt. 

13 Reasons Why: Netflix’s most controversial series yet

It’s the show everyone is talking about; whether it’s praise or criticism, 13 Reasons Why is blowing up online as people chime in on the Netflix teen drama that centres around the suicide of a teenage girl.

For those of you that don’t know about the series, it is set at an American high school in the aftermath of a pupil’s suicide. Hannah Baker killed herself after months of bullying and left behind recordings on 13 cassette tapes (well, 7 cassettes, 13 sides) one for each person who she blames for her demise.

The story, based on the best selling novel by Jay Asher, is told through flashbacks from the point of view of nerdy, but likeable nice guy Clay as he listens to the tape and hears Hannah tell her unfortunate story of what led her down such a dark path. It’s especially hard for Clay as he had harboured a crush on Hannah, even loved her, but never had the courage to tell her before she killed herself.

It’s a dark premise and while it has been praised by critics, it has equally been criticised by schools and mental health groups who feel that it glamourises self harm and suicide. The show, produced by Selena Gomez, has been defended by its cast and crew as a realistic look at mental health.

Gomez told AP: ‘We stayed very true to the book and that’s initially what Jay Asher created, was a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story, and I think that’s what we wanted to do.
‘We wanted to do it justice and, yeah, [the backlash is] going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing and I’m overwhelmed, very proud of it.’

Mental health is a big talking point at the moment, especially in the UK with Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge fronting the #OkaytoSay campaign with the help of Lady GaGa, and Heads Together being selected as the lead charity for this year’s London Marathon. Some people say that anything that gets people talking about mental health is a good thing, so a series like this that highlights the most extreme outcome of depression brought on by bullying could help some people.

However, some schools and mental health groups, notably Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, have petitioned against the series urged parents not sensor it or to talk to their children about the issues covered in the programme, should they choose to watch it.

The series starts with a text card issuing a warning of the potentially upsetting scenes to come and there are further warnings at the openings of later episodes in the series that are particularly unsettling – scenes of rape and sexual assault as well as a graphic suicide scene where Hannah slits her wrists in the bath. But Netflix has now taken steps to add additional warnings and provide helpline numbers following criticism that some scenes could act as triggers for people with self harm tendencies or depression.

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Suicide scenes are generally not shown on film or television for fears it could be a trigger or give vulnerable people ideas. However, the show’s writer Nic Sheff defended the decision to show Hannah’s final moments. Sheff has a history of depression himself and has publicly spoken about his own suicide attempt, which is one of the reasons why he felt so strongly about including the suicide scene in 13 Reasons Why.

“It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. When it comes to suicide… Facing these issues head-on – talking about them, being open about them – will always be our best defense against losing another life,” he said.

Having watched it myself, I can tell you that the fateful scene is difficult watching – Hannah’s death is slow and painful, not at all romanticised. And it’s not just the suicide that’s uncomfortable viewing – SPOILER ALERT – Hannah sees her best friend get raped after Jessica passes out drunk in a bedroom at a house party and Hannah herself later gets raped by the same boy in a hot tub, despite telling him no and trying to fight him off. It’s not pleasant, and even more upsetting is when her mother discovers Hannah dead in the bath, clinging to her lifeless body and telling her she’s going to be ok. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

Like many Netflix series, all 13 one hour episodes have been released at once so viewers can indulge in binge viewing if they wish. This move by the streaming service has also been criticised as some believe that people may watch the series back to back without taking a step away from the intense storyline to process their emotions, which could prove dangerous for people suffering with depression.

Controversies aside, the series has been very well received by critics. IndieWire described the series as compelling viewing: “You won’t want to stop watching this show. But at times, you’ll wish you could look away.”

The New York Observer praised it’s nuances of teenage angst and the emotional roller coaster the 13 unwitting teens are taken on: “the toughest part of 13 Reasons Why – watching everyone, and yes, I mean everyone, really struggle to not feel as though everything is being kicked out from under them on a continual basis. But, what this says about how fragile people feel, all the time, is incredibly realistic. It’s yet another level to this story; one that’s all too real.”

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The young cast all put in solid performances, particularly newcomer Katherine Langford who plays Hannah so well and goes beyond being a stereotypical angsty teenager and delivers a heartfelt portrayal of someone who loses all hope and self confidence, lonely in a crowd. No doubt her performance will be recognised come awards season. Dylan Minette also delivers a strong performance as we see Hannah and the world of Westmont through his eyes. The rose tinted specs he wares for Hannah mean that both he and Hannah are unreliable narrators, but Minette plays him as aimiable and believable. There’s an air of Logan Lerman about him , and I hope Minette goes on to achieve a similar level of success in interesting and varied roles. 

Controversial as the series may be, the additional warnings Netflix has put in place may prove beneficial and the fact that the series has prompted people to openly talk about suicide and depression is good thing. Mental Health should not be a taboo subject. It’s okay to say.