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“Drag Race” Is Bigger Than Ever. Is That A Good Thing?

As queer identity became mainstream and social media transformed reality TV celebrity, the onetime niche show became bigger than ever. But so have the criticisms.

Posted on May 29, 2020, at 3:39 p.m. ET

In a 2016 interview, RuPaul talked about still feeling like an outsider in pop culture. Drag “will never be mainstream,” he said. He’d never been a guest on Ellen or The Tonight Show, he pointed out. Drag Race, by that point, had never won an Emmy. “And listen, what you’re witnessing with drag is the most mainstream it will get.”

What a difference four years make. Since then, RuPaul has been profiled everywhere from Vogue to the New York Times, feted on nearly every talk show, including Ellen and The Tonight Show. Drag Race has won 13 Emmys, and the show has become an inescapable cultural phenomenon. There is an entire universe built around the brand, including DragCon, where fans can bond with each other and meet some of the show’s biggest stars. There’s even a Drag Race Vegas residency with a revolving cast of former contestants from the series.

The entire ecosystem depends on the show itself, and since its 2009 debut, the ratings have gotten bigger than ever. Arguably more important in the age of “engagement,” its stan base is passionately invested and active on social media, making mega-influencers out of its stars.

In the reality TV landscape, everything from minor celebrity judge shuffles to major cultural upheavals (around, for instance, beauty politics) can mean the demise or decline of many former monocultural behemoths, whether it’s America’s Next Top Model or American Idol. Yet Drag Race has endured, staying resolutely on-brand even as it has responded to cultural changes, while also growing and expanding its audience.

As social media celebrity and streaming has transformed TV, Drag Race became a major star factory. Still, many critics suggest the show has peaked and become too mainstream. And inevitably, with this major success, RuPaul and the franchise’s gay capitalism reproduces some of the same hierarchies of the wider entertainment industry. But as Season 12’s ratings attest, the Drag Race juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down.

Youtube / Logo

RuPaul in Season 3.

Drag Race started at the LGBTQ network Logo in 2009, because, as producer Randy Barbato said in a 2018 interview, no other network wanted it: “Everyone felt like it was too much.”

"We were going through such a bad stereotype at the time and drag was really not as popular as it is now," Jade Sotomayor, who competed in the first season, told Paper magazine years later. As that piece points out, the general public only knew RuPaul, if they knew any drag queens at all, and what they saw on the carnivalesque Jerry Springer or Maury Povich daytime talk shows.

But Drag Race has never caricatured. Like drag itself, it’s a queer Frankensteinian mashup of genres and challenges that turn TV tropes on their head. The show has its own camp-glamorous style: From the “pit crew,” the resident models who bring out props and do RuPaul’s bidding in their underwear, to the final message the eliminated queens leave for the remaining contestants in lipstick on the workroom mirror.

The variety of challenges really allows viewers to see all aspects of a contestant’s artistic personality. That first season, the queens had to undergo fashion challenges (making outfits out of 99 cent store items), learn choreography for a girl group competition, make over women firefighters, and conceptualize and pose for a MAC Viva Glam ad.

The queens used subcultural drag lingo (like “fish” to refer to queens who look like beautiful women), and the show expected viewers to play catch-up with its plethora of cultural references. (Even RuPaul’s signature exclamation upon entering the workroom — “Hello, hello, hello!” — is a reference: to Valerie Cherish in The Comeback.)

And it’s not just the challenges and references that made the show unique, but the way the contestants’ personal lives were part of the show. Ongina famously came out that first season as living with HIV during the Mac challenge, already speaking to the way the show would be a conduit for conversations about many queer people’s realities. (The following year, Project Runway’s Mondo Guerra also came out as HIV positive.)

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Needles' "Apocalyptic Couture" look from Season 4.

It’s easy to forget how many early reality shows made freaks out of queer or gender nonconforming contestants, especially during the judging. RuPaul’s only condition when he started the show was: “I don’t want to do anything mean-spirited.”

Aside from RuPaul, the judges included Project Runway runner-up Santino, and, after a judges shuffle in the second season, former girl group member and radio personality Michelle Visage. Their emphasis was — and remains — on the quality of the outfits (“crafty” is a big insult), the makeup (hairlines are important), and the performances.

“The key to this show is being able to look at yourself from the outside,” RuPaul once advised a queen, and that’s what the judges help them do. They counsel contestants to lean into particular aspects of their personalities to make their drag grow: to be funnier, show more vulnerability.

The judging wasn’t about cheap takedowns or flowery positivity — it’s in service of the contestants. “Impersonating Beyoncé is not your destiny, child,” RuPaul said to one contestant eliminated after the now-famous Snatch Game challenge, where the cast impersonates celebrities. Even the mini challenge, in which the queens “read” each other, is an organic way for castmates to air out the usual squabbles that emerge on competition reality shows, as well as a nod to queer history.

That ability to keep evolving with the culture is both what has kept the show relevant, but also why it has waded into trouble.

My own favorite early season is the third one. In retrospect, I loved how former America’s Next Top Model makeup artist Raja, along with Carmen Carrera (who has since come out as a trans woman), Manila Luzon, and Delta Work created their own legendary clique, the Heathers. The grouping of Latinx and Asian American queens was more like a parody of a white girl clique than an actual one. (It was also different than the “mean girls” in-fighting or homosocial bro battles that constitute most cis-hetero reality television rivalries and that have derailed other reality brands.)

Raja emerged victorious that season, beating the more comedic Manila Luzon in the final “lip-synch FOR YOUR LIFE.” I still think about the whimsical perfection of Raja’s cotton candy swirl fantasy look for the hair challenge.

But Raja’s win started audience mumblings that all the winners so far seemed to hew to RuPaul’s own version of femme glamour. The competing visions of what drag and gender should do — and the different styles of queens: pageant, comedy, high fashion — are a big part of the discussions both on the show and among the fans.

There’s an iconic exchange that took place in Season 4 between Phi Phi O’Hara, a pageant queen, and Sharon Needles, a goth fashion concept queen — one of many to become a meme. O’Hara calls Needles’ spooky aesthetic one-note. "Oh, I have one look?” Sharon responds. “Tired-ass showgirl!” And then there’s O’Hara’s retort: “At least I am a showgirl, bitch! Go back to Party City where you belong.”

Needles’ eventual win that season showed RuPaul’s, and the producers’, openness to changing trends in drag. That ability to keep evolving with the culture is both what has kept the show relevant, but also why it has waded into trouble.

Chelsea Guglielmino / Getty Images

Attendees are seen during the third annual RuPaul's DragCon in Los Angeles in 2017.

Drag Race has never chased its audience. Instead, new audiences seemed to find it. When it landed at Netflix for a time, around Season 4, it started expanding its reach beyond the queer Logo fandom.

By season 5, Michelle Visage told Vox, she and the queens started to do more gigs outside of the bar scene, and they’d see “lots of young kids, little boys dressed in drag with their moms, a lot of teenage girls. … Drag Race went from [serving] a cult gay following to a necessary television show that opens the dialogue of ‘I'm not normal and it’s okay.’”

Younger queens saw the show as an opportunity to grow their brands. Season 6 contestant Adore Delano, who had previously appeared on American Idol as Danny Noriega, became a meme thanks to their comeback (“Some people weren’t liking it!”) to Simon Cowell calling their performance “grotesque.” They started doing drag as a YouTuber as Adore Delano, and it was seeing Drag Race Season 2 runner-up Raven that inspired them to perform in a club and eventually join Drag Race. After her season, Delano was the first queen to reach a million Instagram followers. That season’s winner, insult comic Bianca Del Rio, became the first t0 reach 2 million followers.

The queens were becoming mega-influencers, as the reality TV social media feedback loop started becoming a major indicator of a show’s importance. DragCon started in 2015 during the airing of Season 7, and these new fans got a chance to interact with their new celebrity icons. “When I was their age, it wasn’t as easy to go and meet Lady Gaga,” Naomi Smalls told Vox. “I think it's so cool that they have these accessible drag queens they can gravitate toward.”

Youtube / James Charles

Trixie on Instant Influencer.

The show’s move from Logo to VH1 for Season 9 (in 2017) also doubled its ratings, up to 1 million per episode. It was parodied on SNL and started garnering Emmy wins and nominations, not just for the original franchise, but for spinoffs like Drag Race All Stars, where queens from earlier seasons are recycled to compete against each other.

Drag Race’s influence is now everywhere: from middle American network “lip sync battles” to James Charles’ Gen Z YouTube reality show Instant Influencer (which even included Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel as a guest judge).

But even with a new audience and increased visibility, RuPaul still speaks directly to the queer audience. He has spoken out about a “gay shame,” or the way “Gay people will accept a straight pop star over a gay pop star, or they will accept a straight version of a gay thing, because there’s still so much self-loathing, you know?” And the show is almost like an antidote to that.

Even with a new audience and increased visibility, RuPaul still speaks directly to the queer audience.

“Ladies, so many younger viewers watch this show to find their tribe,” he says to the top five finalists in the later seasons. “What would you say to a younger self?” He pulls out their respective childhood photos, and the contestants talk about how their shame over their gender nonconformity or body size impacted their life. Kim Chi’s “Fat, Fem & Asian” song in the Season 8 finale was one of the most spectacular overturnings of the racist, anti-femme, body-shaming trope seen on gay hookup apps ever to appear on cable television.

At the new finale spectaculars, RuPaul chats with the parents of the finalist queens who are in the audience, seemingly aware of how rare representations of affirming parents of gender nonconforming people are. At the Season 11 finale, Brooke Lynn Hytes’ mom said she was changed by having a gay son. “I thought as a mom I was there to mold my children, but I have four children and each one has shaped and molded me,” she told RuPaul. A'Keria C. Davenport’s mom said the queen got her ass — and her glamour — from herself, expanding pride about the lineages of femininity to her son.

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Lady Gaga and RuPaul in Season 9.

Of course, like any show that lasts this long, Drag Race has faced plenty of criticism. On and off the show, RuPaul expresses his beliefs in a kind of respectability politics. He loves Judge Judy for bringing back “civility” to the culture, and her main message is one of personal responsibility. “Wear a suit to job interviews,” he suggested in a master class interview as part of his philosophy of success.

RuPaul has sometimes allowed this attitude to seep into his interactions with queens on the show itself. When the black queen The Vixen opened up about her struggles, he basically told her to take responsibility for herself during a heated exchange in a reunion which ended in Vixen leaving the stage. RuPaul never apologized, but he did face a backlash. “She’s just become a part of the system,” Vixen said later.

Some have argued that Vixen’s villainy was part of a pattern of the show making drama out of black queens. Race also impacts the show’s influencer economy, as white queens gain followers more quickly, and there are often racist backlashes in the fandom against black queens.

RuPaul’s anti-trans 2018 tweets about not wanting trans women on the show — likening it to athletes, he said they can do drag, just not at the Olympics — also prompted plenty of backlash. The name of the “You’ve Got She-Mail” videos that RuPaul used to announce the challenges was changed the following year for Season 7 after a Twitter backlash to the pun on the pornlike fetishization of trans women, one that RuPaul himself has played on in a song. (Carmen Carrera recently called RuPaul the “Hitler of the LGTBQ community.”)

RuPaul has since apologized for earlier comments, and the show has cast trans contestants, including Monica Beverly Hillz (who came out on the show) and Peppermint, who was openly trans from the start of her season.

Speaking to the Advocate about the Twitter backlashes, Beverly Hillz pointed out that it’s partly a generational issue of younger Drag Race fans holding the show, and its main icon, accountable. These new fans understand the specifics of trans identity and "sometimes aren't as gentle and forgiving with others who lack a basic understanding on what it means to be trans."

The trans controversy hints at the limitations of RuPaul’s theory of drag as genderbending, which is basically about cis gay men performing femininities. But, more broadly, younger queers (and even non-queer viewers) who grew up taking gay representation for granted are less impressed by RuPaul’s success at the kind of gay capitalism (with fracking!) that reproduces the same hierarchies of the wider culture industry.

Some young queens outside of the Drag Race circuit, like Seattlite Kylie Mooncakes (real name: Michael Xi), have spoken out in favor of nurturing alternate drag scenes. “Representation on RuPaul’s Drag Race means nothing anymore,” Xi told a Washington college paper. “We need to continue to speak up against the show’s ethics, uplift other platforms of drag (local talent and online personalities not related to the Drag Race brand), and loosen the monopoly RuPaul has on drag culture.”

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Drag queens depart RuPaul's DragCon outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, May 24, 2019.

Queer identity has become a sometimes-diluted, easily commodifiable metaphor for being yourself. Lady Gaga’s own career, and fandom, exemplifies that strategy, and her appearance on Season 9, as a challenge muse and guest judge, felt like a flashpoint of the show’s mainstream drift. As Visage put it, the show went from a cult gay show to a television spectacular that tells viewers: “I'm not normal and it’s okay.”

RuPaul said in a recent finale that Drag Race is “for queer people by queer people.” But more specifically, it’s a show about gender nonconforming gay men finding themselves, and that’s partly why the show has achieved mainstream universality.

Honoring that specificity is also why it remains important. In the current media landscape, where queer universality is still so often white and gender-conforming, it remains rare to see such full portraits of gender nonconforming queer people, and especially queer people of color, on television.

“Thank you for showing me that you can be a little black gay boy and you can grow up to be whatever you want to be — even if that’s a black woman, okay,” one queen said after being eliminated this season. It was a reminder of why the show’s perspective on pop culture still feels like essential work. And precisely because it's so important, it's just as essential to hold the franchise accountable.●

CORRECTION

Glam queen Jaida Essence Hall was not eliminated from the current season of Drag Race, as we stated in a previous version of this post. Thankfully, she is still competing in the finals.

And Raja's whimsical cotton candy look was for the hair challenge, not candy challenge as previously stated. We stan a cotton candy queen and regret the error.

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