Why RuPaul’s Drag Race Is My Religion
The season finale of series five has just aired in America. Now seems as good a time as any to talk about RuPaul.
This article deals with season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was posted before season six began — so unless you’re a year behind, there are no spoilers.
It took a hurricane to get me to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. As Sandy ravaged New York City, leaving thousands without power, food or homes, I was merely disadvantaged by boredom. When news of a ‘Frankenstorm’ started hitting headlines, I smugly stocked up on beer and sea salt chocolate to weather it out while the subway was down. ‘No more than two days’, said my blasé friends. ‘Get some sleep’. Out in the Narnia-like border between Bushwick and Queens, where I was subletting a mutual friend’s apartment with my girlfriend, there wasn’t much to do except fill the bathtub with water and wait. Drink the beer. Eat the chocolate. Talk to Australian breakfast radio hosts on the phone to tell them the newsworthy news that I… hadn’t really been affected. Or so I thought — until our subway line remained down for the entire length of our visit, leaving us effectively cut off from anyone we knew, or anywhere we wanted to be; stranded in a railroad apartment with nothing but a couple of cats and an internet connection. It was Ru that got us through.
It’s Not Me, It’s Ru
Now I can’t imagine life without that shimmering, sweary, soft-focus glamazon. If I didn’t already list my religion online as ‘Lisa Simpson’, it’d be down as RuPaul genderfucking Charles. But before we get into the elegant world of the Drag Race, some facts: Yes, RuPaul is his real name and she doesn’t care which pronoun you use to describe him. His boyfriend of nineteen years is from Australia. He once had a band called Wee Wee Pole and his first major onscreen appearance is in the B-52’s Love Shack clip (2:04), wearing a powerful white jumpsuit.
What may well be my favourite nugget of pop trivia, RuPaul appeared as a magic Judge on Sabrina the Teenage Witch (I’m gagging for some Salem Saberhagen fanfic), as a successfully converted straight man in But I’m A Cheerleader, and as Jan’s guidance counsellor in the Brady Bunch movies. The first drag face of a major cosmetics line, Ru had a couple of kitschy dance floor hits in the ’90s with ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)‘ and ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart‘, a duet with Elton John. Lastly, he’s got three Christmas albums under her tree skirt and the most recent is titled Ho Ho Ho. Naturally.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race
Now that we’re all on the same page of herstory, let’s talk about the greatest show that has ever been on television.
The premise is in line with most reality competitions: thousands of amateurs upload awkwardly kooky audition videos, and fourteen are chosen, immediately cut off from their community and trucked to television land where each week they will cry, laugh, get plied with booze from producers, and face elimination until only one remains. With the season finale of series five having just aired in America this week, this is prime time for non-draggers to get up to speed before the next crew of haughty bitches appear. It’s got all the girly hissyfits and eating disorders of America’s Next Top Model, the egos of Top Chef, and the “high” fashion of Project Runway. But it has the heart, charm and sisterhood that those voyeuristic crackpipes lack. At the end of each episode, two queens have to lip-sync for their lives. Lip sync. For their motherfucking lives!
Drag Race is completely and utterly revelatory; hands down the most tender hour of television each week. Here’s why.
1. It Is So Gay
The wrists of Glee, Will & Grace, Modern Family — hell, even The L Word — are all practically in rigor mortis compared to this. Most TV shows these days (even Wife Swap Australia) give a polite 15 minutes to queer issues, but Drag Race dedicates 100% of its run time to completely shameless, totally proud homo behaviour.
One episode of season four saw the contestants playing a game called ‘In Da Butt Ru’, where they were asked to guess the bunk bed choices of their teammates: top or bottom? In season five, an older gay US army veteran announced that he thought he’d killed Judy Garland. The only thing that comes even close to being this gay is the Christmas episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where Grace Jones arrives in a box, k.d. Lang swirls in a skirt and Pee-wee hires a bunch of muscle bound hunks to build an extension to his house using fruitcakes as bricks.
2. More boobs than Game Of Thrones
Unless you’re a queen yourself, where else are you going to learn about the tensions a breastplate can bring? For the record, Ru creates his “bosom illusion” with make-up, while his sassy sidekick from childhood Michelle Visage (who judges alongside Santino Rice) enhances her big naturals with silicone. The choice of breasts can mean a lot more than a simple tit parade: it can create a rift between ‘pageant girls’ and ‘freaks’; a divide between those who are aiming for full femme realness, and those who just want to perform as a man in a dress.
And just when you thought every topic had been covered, season five prompted an excellent, eye-opening conversation about the drag rights of transsexual women. Of course there’s a lot of dick too, but it’s generally kept well tucked. Lady on the streets, dude between the cheeks.
Ru’s a believer in knowing one’s lineage, so the weekly competitions often involve a little piece of queer history, getting the queens to incorporate pride protests, gay icons and moments of political adversity into their routines.
Each season, one of the major challenges gives a massive, fake-eyelashed wink to the vogue balls of yore, where it’s assumed that everyone is familiar with the documentary Paris is Burning. Whereas Jenny Livingston’s queens competed in categories like ‘Executive Realness’ and ‘Butch Queen First Time At Drag Ball’, our ladies do ‘Super Duper Sweet 16’, ‘Sugar Mama’ and ‘Candy Couture’. It may be a little sweeter, but it’s still Pure Pride Realness.
4. Where My People At?
“We gays get to choose our own family,” says Ru, who is consistently referred to as Mama throughout each season. Just when you have one queen pegged as a petty troublemaker, some personal info will trickle out (as it tends to do on reality TV) and you’ll soften your attitude, at least until the commercial break.
Almost all of the contestants have tragic pasts and dysfunctional childhoods, and they’re happy to share if it can help someone at home. Left at a bus stop by your own mother when you were a toddler? Kicked out of the house and cut off from your family? Mama Ru’s there with big bronzed arms, a cheeky double entendre and a pearl necklace of wisdom. It’s like a sincere (as opposed to earnest), hour-long version of It Gets Better. But with better celebrity guests.
5. Eat it
There’s a lot of focus on healing old wounds and patching up rivalries. A lot of Getting Over It. Officially. Maybe you’re not a man in a wig — perhaps you’re a happily coupled-up lesbian who spends too much time wishing she could text sardonic emojis to her pet rabbit while she’s at work — but everyone can learn from Drag Race. Season five beauty Alyssa Edwards (who chose her name as a homage to Alyssa Milano) — despite being embroiled in a rivalry with her arch nemesis Coco Montrese for most of the series — will tell you about the three Gs: Get a grip, Get a life and Get over it.
But the best advice comes from season’s four’s “large and in charge, chunky yet funky” ex-prison inmate Latrice Royale, who once said “everyone makes mistakes, but bitch you better look sickening when you get up! Look sickening and make them EAT it!”
And if you’re not feeling fierce enough for that, take her 5 Gs as your new daily affirmation. Good God Get a Grip Girl.
6. Oh No You Better Didn’t
Once again taking cues from queer legacy, each episode is a plunge into deep drag vernacular that’s been creeping out into the mainstream over time. I mean, even Janelle Monae talks about shade in her new ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ clip. There’s also reading, T, squirrel friends, being fishy (John Waters doesn’t like that one), and you can ki ki or you can kai kai. Shanté means you stay, but losers must sashay away. We’re told each week that the four things America’s Next Drag Superstar must possess are: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. Which brings us to Hunty, perhaps the greatest portmanteau of all time. A cross of Honey and… Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.
7. The Girls
And then of course there are the girls, the drag sisters who pull out all the stops to razzle and dazzle and make you cry and scream and eat it and then take away the crown. The consummately regal Raja. The all-knowing Chad Michaels. The ouija realness of Sharon Needles (pre-disappointing Australian tour). And most recently, the utter brilliance of narcoleptic funny lady Jinkx Monsoon, whose Little Edie impersonation stole the entire season.
RuPaul’s Drag Race? Shanté, you stay. And don’t fuck it up.