When I come home from a gig at 4am and won’t be sleeping for a couple of hours, or when I’ve just woken up and I need to be eased into the day, I’ll watch some trash TV. Previously that has taken the form of an obsession with the early seasons of Dallas, various interiors programmes, and now a new series has joined my trash list. Welcome to RuPaul’s Drag Race: think America’s Next Top Model crossed with Project Runway for drag queens. Premiering in 2009, the show is now in its fifth season on Logo in the US.
The show largely follows the ANTM format. Between nine and fourteen queens are chosen at the start of the season. They are given mini-challenges and an overall challenge in each episode. Some challenges are repeated across seasons like Snatch Game which is a challenge where the contestants re-enact Blankety Blank: the drag queens impersonate celebrities of their own choosing, RuPaul hosts, and two celebrity guests stand in as contestants. The bottom two queens in each episode are up for elimination and in a final bid to impress the judges they must lipsynch for their lives.
When I started watching Drag Race I considered it TV bubblegum. However in the fifth episode of season one, the queens were tasked with making over women into their little sisters. The twist was that the women were MMA fighters and boxers, women competing in traditionally male sports. It made for one of the most interesting pieces of TV I’ve seen for a long time, a fascinating study in exploding gender stereotypes. While not every episode gives as much food for thought, I am particularly fascinated with the genderfuck aspects of drag culture that the show has introduced me to.
My favourite part of the show is watching the queens prepare for the catwalk, sewing costumes and doing their own hair and make-up. The make-up is true artistry and what these ladies don’t know about shading, highlighting and blending isn’t worth knowing. The transformations are astonishing: in season one a butch tattooed man became an edgy arresting beauty in the form of Nina Flowers, in season two a pierced attractive guy became a pouting glamorous knockout named Raven. Many of the men, especially Raja in season three, walk the runway better than most working models, and I’ve always thought that men have an unfair advantage in that they nearly all have great legs in heels.
The show is more provocative than most other reality shows, as befits the drag culture, and double entendres, profanity and trash talking are all on the menu. Whoever does the bleep censoring on Drag Race is very busy. For example, RuPaul frequently tells the contestants “don’t fuck it up”, and the checklist for the perfect Queen is “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (you can put the acronym together yourself). RuPaul is a funny, gracious and charismatic host perfectly suited to this TV format. She is famously stunning as her drag incarnation but when you see the man, Rupaul Andre Charles, he cuts a very stylish figure in bespoke Klein Epstein & Parker suits.
Drag Race features a varied array of guest judges including Dita Von Teese, Juliet Lewis, Jackie Collins, Sharon Osbourne, Henry Rollins, Debbie Reynolds and Lily Tomlin, and is produced by World of Wonder, the same team that did 90s club-kid classic Party Monster.
If you haven’t seen the show I suggest doing a hungover Sunday marathon of the first season. By bedtime you’ll be hooked.
(And, in case you’re wondering, my drag name would be Glenda Lock.)