How I Finally Learned To Stop Worrying And Love ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

If you need to fill the void of time, there's so much 'Drag Race' to enjoy.

RuPaul's Drag Race

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If there’s been one nagging sense of disappointment and guilt in my life, other than all the terrible choices I’ve made, it’s the fact that for an absurdly long time, I had not watched RuPaul’s Drag Race.

There’s never been an outwardly good reason for it — people have told me for years and years that it is a good show, and that it is something that I would specifically enjoy.

I have spent years working with drag queens, have even dabbled in throwing around a big of drag (fairly badly) myself. I am a queer man. I have a ruthless and often flamboyant sense of style.  I have all the necessary ingredients sloshing around in the soup of my soul to make me love this show.

And yet.

I cannot count the amount of brunches I have attended where the topic of conversation has been exclusively about Drag Race. I cannot count the amount of dates I have been on where it’s been referenced off hand, as assumed knowledge, as gay shorthand. I have listened in vaguely bored bemusement as my favourite podcasts start accidentally recapping a show I have not watched

But still!

Since 2017, I’ve even edited weekly Drag Race recaps for Junkee, first from the deplorably handsome Nic Holas, and then from the light of my life Jared Richards. What, I remember asking myself, will it take for me to finally sit down and watch this goddamn show????

A global pandemic, apparently.

And bitches, sometimes I think it’s now the only thing keeping me GOING through this nonsense.

Sashay Off The Screen And Into My Heart

It is a really good time to start watching Drag Race. And there’s a LOT of it going on at the moment.

On Saturdays right now, you can spend most of the day watching the new season, then Untucked, and then a big old slab of Celebrity Drag Race. This is… so comforting, because every day is 1000 years of loneliness and ennui that stretches into eternity, like an endless runway of despair.

But to be honest, there is something monolithic and even imposing about the idea of getting into Drag Race, in this, the abominably late year of our lord, 2020. This is partly because of the immensity of the ruthlessly promoted and expansive franchise, which is currently in its 12th season — not to mention All Stars, Untucked, and a bunch of country-specific spinoffs. Heck, there’s even an ill-fated mobile game that came out in like 2012.

There’s a lot, and it’s intimidating to work out where to start.

Luckily, I’ve had a host of Drag Race fairy godmothers, who were able to easily guide me through the seasons, and so far the advice seems great. If anyone is in a similar boat, I was told to start at Season 4, watch through until season 7, and then go to All Stars season 2 onwards.

After that, just go nuts, apparently. I can confirm that season 4 was one of the most compelling seasons of TV I’ve ever watched. Sharon Needles… hello.

I’m currently watching season 6, concurrently with season 12. It’s weird jumping back and forth through time, getting excited about massive pop-culture events that happened a decade ago. It’s definitely odd when you see some weirdly objectionable things happen with absolutely no comment, such as cultural appropriation, some weird anti-trans rhetoric, or that time where every gay man wore v-neck shirts and we thought that was ok.

But good lord, it is so much fun. And it lives in such a carefully constructed bubble, defined by its own rules and language and culture and even celebrities ( I have no idea who half the guest judges are), that its perfect watching for isolation, because it doesn’t fall into the trap that a lot of TV has for me at the moment, of being either too cheerfully ignorant of the state of the world, or reminding me too fondly of all the things I miss.

Gotta stop the yearning!

RuPaul’s Drag Race is, in a way, separate, aloof, from all that, from the petty turnings of the world — while still commenting, mocking, and mirroring –and always has been, and was designed to be so. That’s drag, baby.

“If you are America’s sweetheart then America needs a heart transplant.”

The thing about Drag Race is that everything I crave about the world while stuck in my tiny room is condensed into one episode of high-camp, furiously silly, gloriously wholesome, and brilliantly colourful television.

Much like the queens who contest for the crown, every episode is truly expected to do it all, and often does: swing from some truly brutal interpersonal drama directly into a life-affirming moment of queer community. Sashay from some awe-inspiring gowns and runway looks directly into absurd comedy.

It doesn’t always hit — but sometimes that’s the fun. For every perfect look, it’s a goddamn joy to watch someone swing wildly and fail.

I don’t think people realise that along with serving custom couture realness, and performing a flawless lip-synch performance in the longest heels you’ve ever seen, each queen is also expected to be the funniest person you’ve ever met, and the reigning champions in the art of insulting someone for humour. They are icons!

That bubble Drag Race lives in is more than a set of complicated reality TV rules — this isn’t some overly convoluted series of Survivor. Rather, it’s an homage, a simplification, and even commodification of drag culture, something rooted deeply in not only queer culture, but drawing specifically from black queer drag community.

In season 4, RuPaul admonishes a younger queen, Phi Phi O’Hara, for not knowing her drag herstory, and asking if she’s watched the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning, about the drag and vogue community in 1980s New York. It sets the foundation for so much of what Drag Race is about — including almost an entire lexicon of terms and language taken from that community.

I was aware of the huge amount of herstory that Drag Race has, and it was a daunting proposition to spend the time immersing myself in such a huge and vivid expanded drag universe. I am a perfectionist, and an obsessive — the idea of the time required always seemed prohibitive, and I wanted to do it right.

Now, however, I have nothing BUT time, and immersing myself into the camp lore of the show has given my flat, broken brain something giant to gnaw on in the dark interminable nights.

Drag Is For Everyone

But I think in the end, it was the fact that show was so iconically gay (and I use gay specifically here) that gave me a lot of, perhaps subconscious, hesitation about watching the show.

A lot of my lived queer experience is not so much about finding, or enjoying community — but having to aggressively clear space within the community for myself. It’s not so much of an issue these days for me (god bless the queer youth of today), but when I was a teen, the idea of a bisexual man in a gay space was uncommon. A bisexual man dating a woman at the time, was unwelcome.

Queer now encompasses a lot of identities and experiences that fall outside of “mainstream gay”. And good lord, from the outside, RuPaul’s Drag Race can seem like the epitome of mainstream gay culture.

It truly seems like gay men have adopted Drag Race as their sport, and before I watched the show, I was aware of the sometimes toxic nature of the Drag Race community, of allegations of bullying, of racism, of transphobia. It felt exhausting to have to, once again, force a space in this church of gay culture. Would I be welcome? Am I even meant to be there? It’s not hard to see how furiously certain aspects of gay culture have claimed Drag Race as their own.

But, not only is the fandom massively more diverse than what I expected, (and almost dominated by women, which is iconic) the show is so CLEARLY about owning who you are that’s it’s ludicrous to think that anyone can’t find a home in drag.

I hate to end on a wholesome note — the show is not above criticism for a bunch of reasons, and it’s also more vibrant than a kind of bland Queer Eye feel-good special, it’s more mean, less polished, much more fun — but while I live for the drama, it’s the genuinely beautiful and heart-felt moments, the transcendent moments of campness, that you find in this show that feeds my soul.

And, above all, I get to talk about it with people after each new episode– being a part of the conversation, online, with my friends, reading articles, hungrily absorbing memes into my pallid skin, is honestly making me feel alive. It’s giving me everything, even if it’s getting into online spats about Jeff Goldblum. So much more dynamic than staring at my wall and thinking about the void!

Isolation has felt a lot like being becalmed, waiting for just a breath of wind to get things moving again. Drag Race isn’t that wind — but it sure makes me remember what it felt like when life was full of energy, drama, and drag.

All 12 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently streaming on Stan. Junkee recaps each episode too.

Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.