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.

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