I am a huge fan of television. Reality competitions (Project Runway, Top Chef, Survivor) and narrative shows (Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk) are all fare game. And in this age of binge-watching I have been devouring more series than ever before.
There is one show, however, that has continually sunk its well-manicured claws into me; this year the obsession continues. I’m talking about RuPaul’s Drag Race, for my money the best competition show on television, and perhaps one of the least respected.
Now in its seventh season (not counting that sort-of unfortunate All-Stars outing), Drag Race is a hybrid of countless other shows, made significantly more entertaining by its drag premise. Essentially, 14 drag queens from across the country compete each week in challenges testing their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent (you work out the acronym). Disciplines include stand-up comedy, acting, improv, aesthetic beauty, sewing, dance, and, through it all, a real emphasis on individual creativity and vision. Each week there is a runway of some kind, after which one queen wins while two other find themselves in the bottom; then, they must Lip Sync For Their Lives, and whoever impresses the least is sent packing.
Sounds fun, no? It also happens to be moving, poignant, hilarious, and incredibly melodramatic, all the while maintaining an undeniable sincerity. Whether you’re a long time fan or a first-time watcher, follow along as I explore five reasons Ru and her gals stick with me long after the episodes end! I’ll make a convert out of you, I promise.
*Note: All pictures are from this season of the show!
1. Exposing the World to Drag Culture
Drag Race is uniquely anthropological in its approach. Watching an episode is, for newcomers, often a confusing experience. The drag world is deeply entrenched in our pop cultural landscape, utilizing references from popular music, world history (see above for Katya’s Babe-raham Lincoln look), camp classic films, and the like. It is also, interestingly enough, a world all its own, an exotic locale complete with a strange form of slang and approaches to aesthetic beauty far removed from any we see on a day-to-day basis.
It isn’t often that a reality T.V. show aimed at adult viewers serves double duty, both entertaining and educating audiences. But it is impossible to walk away from an episode of Drag Race without some new vocabulary or makeup tips. Whether the proper deployment of the word “fishy” or the phrase “I will read you to filth!” is likely to come up in your daily routine is somewhat more suspect, but the importance of a show this dedicated to elucidating a largely hidden cultural subset of society deserves kudos.
Not only does the show offer an overarching look at something that most people have never a) seen in person, or b) taken a particular interest in, it also highlights a hugely diverse group of queens, all demonstrating their particular style. In that sense, Drag Race legitimizes so many forms of drag (spooky girls, pageant girls, funny girls, fashion girls), and just as many ways of being beautiful. Amen to that!
2. The Surprises Keep On Comin’
Anyone who watches a lot of reality television can attest to the fact that surprises are few and far between. For the most part, shows stick with the formula that has worked, offering little in the way of innovation and a lot of predictable pieces in their respective puzzles: similar challenges, bringing back an eliminated contestant at the same time each season, the now-we’re-going-to-travel-abroad portion of our programming, etc…
RuPaul’s Drag Race is formulaic in some senses, and sometimes dull in others, but between the seasons there is an astounding level of innovation. New challenges, new runway themes, and shocking twists to the game mean a lot more fun for long-time viewers, while main-stays of the show (including an episode each season devoted to Snatch Game, the celebrity impersonation challenge) are great starting points for new devotees.
For example, several shocking (spoiler-filled) moments from season 7:
- No one could have known that Violet Chachki (above) had an 18in corseted waist until she donned this choked goth look for the “Death Becomes Her” runway!
- Who would have predicted that Trixie Mattel, a fan favorite, would be defeated in a lip sync battle by Pearl, who most considered one of the weakest contestants of the season? (Trust me on this one; the bar I was watching in actually exploded in anger and confusion.)
- And who can forget RuPaul’s inspired method for bringing back an eliminated contestant: pair up the remaining queens with an eliminated girl and challenge them to become “conjoined” twins (see Trixie and Pearl as twins at the top of this post), thus forcing everyone to step up their game so that their eliminated twin can come back into the competition!
Phew! I’m exhausted by the sheer ingenuity.
3. Judges Who Know What They’re Talking About (and Genuinely Fun Guests)
*No, the two queens above are not judges—they’re Max and Pearl, two of the season’s maddeningly inconsistent, hyper-talented contestants.
When you’ve got RuPaul and her breasty best friend, and drag connoisseur, Michelle Visage heading up your panel for this competition, you know you’re in good hands. Add in fashion experts Carson Kressley and Santino Rice, of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway fame respectively, and gay comedians like Ross Matthews and things look pretty stacked.
The truth of the matter is that drag is more subjective than cooking, fashion design, makeup artistry, etc… It’s about performance, character, and a queen’s personal expression. But somehow the panel, which has varied only slightly in the show’s eight season history, makes their judgement feel as objective as possible. Whether pin-pointing specific areas for improvement, cracking delightfully hilarious jokes and one-liners, or reading the queens for a stupid mistake, the judges have a sincerity and goodness about them that makes their honesty all the more refreshing.
While the common core all play their part, the rising popularity of Drag Race, along with RuPaul’s long career, bring a stunning array of guest judges into the mix. Kathy Griffin has sat on the panel multiple times, always to critique the queens on their stand-up skills; fashion designers like Bob Mackie and Isaac Mizrahi (aka Big Deals) are brought in for the runways that require the contestants to create their own designs; and then there are just those people who seem too famous but still want to be a part of all the awesomeness, like John Waters, Ariana Grande, Jessica Alba, and Olivia Newton-John.
*If you’re still unconvinced, you may be a hopeless case. Nevertheless, I’ve saved the two most important pieces of Drag Race appeal for last.
4. An Emotional Roller Coaster That Sheds Light On LGBTQ-Related Issues
Rarely has a show engaged in a critical discourse on modern issues surrounding the LGBTQ community in the way that Drag Race does. No, you won’t be having a real discussion with these queens about their oppressive families or childhood bullying, but their rich backstories will come into focus throughout the season, creating a varied tapestry of concerns, worries, trauma, and experience.
Perhaps it is the high stress pressure-cooker of being on reality television, but an undeniable connection forms between these queens. In the best cases, everyone gets along well on a fundamental level; in the worst, there are a couple of villains who are insufferable and hateful. Either way, though, the contestants begin to open up about their pasts and presents, and their hopes for the future. Many of them discuss drag as if it is an escape from reality, a way to glamorize an otherwise unglamorous life. It is a unique art form in that sense, and a highly personal one. It is also almost entirely comprised of people who identify as gay or bisexual, and, in the context of this show, sometimes transgender as well.
This specifically minority status engenders another degree of connection and grounds for discussion of particular subjects. In season seven alone, queens like Jaidynn Diore Fierce (above) have talked about how their families don’t know they are gay—and would disown them if they did—and would prefer they didn’t do drag; others like Tempest DuJour have revealed that they underwent reparative therapy in an effort to become heterosexual; and Trixie Mattel even discussed her abusive step-father, and how his favorite effete slur to hurl at her younger self, “trixie,” transformed from a source of pain to a source of pride and celebration.
Cue the tears, from fellow contestants and audiences alike. Drag Race is not therapy, nor does the show linger long on these downbeat conversations. It is, however, a sounding board for issues like the suicide of LGBT teens, shame and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and the continued struggle of coming out. Because the characters are real people, seen both in and out of drag, they become more than your average “after school special” subject and bring these under-discussed issues to the pop cultural plane. Whenever this happens, I can’t help but applaud the queer stage Drag Race affords in an otherwise hetero-dominant television landscape.
5. These Queens Are Really F*cking Talented!
Each season, RuPaul assembles a dynamic group of queens for our enjoyment. Because they are tested in so many different ways, and each bring a unique perspective, it is easy to see week after week just how talented they truly are. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Never are these queens defined by just one set of criteria or a particular skill. They are multi-talented singers, dancers, actors, lip synchers, makeup artists, and designers. Even better, Drag Race contestants who survive the initial few challenges always dredge up new and unexpected skills, diversifying their own “type” in unexpected ways and making us fall in love with them all over again.
But, I suppose you wouldn’t know that unless you watch. And what better place to start than with the handsome gentlemen (above) and gorgeous gals of season seven, which you can watch for free at logotv.com!
As you partake, check out my Ru-caps of each episode over at /bent, Indiewire’s queer film blog. And honey, expect a lot more drag-tastic posts here on I Wish I Knew How to Quit Film, too!