I’m not a particularly big fan of reality TV or modern day popular culture. I do not keep up with the Kardashians, all my favourite music seems to have been created in the 90’s (or before), and I legitimately cannot tell which 19-year-old celebrity is which. Yet somehow I have become obsessed with a show which is all about pop culture, and frequently references people I have never even heard of.
That show is RuPaul’s Drag Race.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running since 2009 and is currently in its 9th season. The premise for the show is fairly simple: RuPaul, the American drag superstar who has (to name a few accomplishments) released music albums, published autobiographies, acted on the big and small screen and launched his own fragrance, is on a quest to find ‘America’s next drag superstar’. The show begins with 14 competitors, and through a series of maxi challenges and lip-sync contests, the queens are eliminated until America’s next drag superstar is crowned. Previous winners have gone on to star in their own films, tour the world and bring their style of drag to new audiences.
RuPaul’s drag race shows that the art of drag (and especially making a name for yourself as a drag queen) is far from easy. Most reality TV competitions only test their contestants on one area of expertise, normally their singing talent, performing skills, modelling potential or business/cooking ability. Some shows such as Any Dream will Do or ‘I’d Do Anything’ focus on finding the new musical lead and so (presumably) the contestants will have to act, dance, sing and prove that they have stage presence, but this is still only focusing on one specific set of skills.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is probably the hardest competition in herstory because the contestants have to be truly multi-talented. Aside from the obvious make-up skills (I can barely put on eyeliner: they can completely change their faces) the competitors also have to act, dance, sing, demonstrate marketing skills, create TV adverts, do celebrity impersonations, choreograph dance routines, and even make their own election speeches. Did I mention they also have to design and sew multiple outfits? Can your average celebrity do half of that?
RuPaul’s Drag Race has managed to bring drag to a mainstream audience. It allows people who may not have had any previous contact with drag queens and do not know much about it to be exposed to the very best of drag. It is therefore important that the show raises awareness about the hardship and very real pain that the LGBTQ community has suffered and continue to suffer today. The contestants often share their own experiences of growing up and they are very open about family rejection, bullying, violence, and being ostracised simply for being who they are. The fact that RuPaul’s Drag Race even exists and is as popular as it is, shows that things have improved a lot in the last few decades, but it also demonstrates that things are far from perfect. And that is something everyone needs to be aware of.
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The show is about celebrating drag, but it is also about the reality of being a drag queen in today’s society. RuPaul’s Drag Race is fun and sassy and shady, but it also has a heart. One of the aims of this show is to speak to young LGBTQ people and show them that, even as messed up as the world is, there is a community which will accept them, nurture them and allow them to be who they are. If you embrace who you are and focus on what you love, and what you are good at, it could turn into something wonderful. There is more than one way to live. There are options. There is a place for you. There is a big and beautiful world out there. Things will get better.
That is a hell of a lot of messages for one reality TV show.
RuPaul’s Drag race seasons 1-9 are available on British Netflix.