So. You’ve finally heard enough chatter and now you say you want to get into RuPaul’s Drag Race but you’re unsure how to pick up a show seven seasons into its run.
First of all, chill out—this isn’t Lost.
Every season brings with it a new cast of queens, so it’s real easy to start fresh. Still, longtime viewers of the show have had six seasons–plus All Stars–to familiarize themselves with the world of drag. It’s only fair that you should be able to catch up.
We’re gonna make this real easy for you.
Gimmie the Basics
Okay! RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition (it’s 2015, I assume we don’t have to explain what a reality competition is) airing on Logo TV, whose expressed purpose is to find the next drag superstar.
Wait, okay, before we get too far ahead of… I mean …
Stop. It’s fine. I won’t force you to ask me to explain what drag is. A brief primer: “drag” in its most basic form is dressing up as your opposite gender. Of course, it’s so much more than that. In performative terms, men dressing up as women for the purpose of a show has been around for centuries, actually (remember when Shakespeare’s plays had men playing women’s parts? Of course you don’t remember that, but ask Tempest Dujour, she does).
The capital-D Drag as we celebrate it on Drag Race has its roots in female impersonation, the drag balls of the 1970s and ’80s (rent the documentary Paris Is Burning; it is essential for your drag education), and the trailblazing example of such legendary queens as Divine, Lypsinka, Miss Coco Peru, and Lady Bunny. And of course RuPaul.
Okay. So about this race.
So like we were saying, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition where 12-14 drag queens compete to become America’s next drag superstar. Every week, the queens are put through competitions designed to showcase their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. Every week, one queen is eliminated, until a winner is declared. That winner receives a prize package that includes $100,000 cash.
And there are eliminations each week like most reality competitions?
Yep! Think of Drag Race like Project Runway with more personality and better makeup. Or America’s Next Top Model with a sense of humor on the judging panel. Or Top Chef with a lot more fish. Basically, here’s how a week’s worth of competition looks like:
Mini challenge: these generally take place within the queens’ work room and are commissioned by RuPaul dressed in boy drag. You could compare these challenges to Top Chef’s Quickfire challenges, in that they are frenzied, fast-paced affairs that could give the winner an advantage in the main challenge. Where they differ from Top Chef is that you so rarely see the chefs dressing up dolls as drag queens or lip-synching upside down. Which is too bad.
After the mini challenge is a main challenge, which can range from breaking out your best celebrity impersonation (in the show’s most popular recurring challenge, Snatch Game), to performing stand-up comedy. Something that pertains to the drag queen qualities of flawless presentation and captivating performance.
After the main challenge, the queens are tasked to create a specific look to present before the judges. At this point, all that week’s challenges are taken into consideration, and the judges ask for the week’s best and worst performers to answer some questions.
A winner for the week is declared, while the two worst-performing queens get one last chance to save themselves: a lip synch for their life! They perform simultaneously to the same song, and in the end, RuPaul declares which queen sticks around (“chantey, you stay”) and which queen goes home (“sashay away”).
So what does it take to be a good drag queen?
Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent are more than just words that always have to be spoken in the same order for some reason. No, they are an incredibly useful rubric for what the show values in its queens. Ultimately, Ru and the judges (but mostly Ru) (but also the judges!) (love you, Michelle Visage).
Charisma: Watchability. Likeability. That spark that draws people to you and gets them to pay to watch you perform. On Drag Race, it includes being quick with a quip, able to shine in a presidential debate or hustle on the streets to sell tickets to a show.
Uniqueness: Show us something we haven’t seen before! That can be a look, a character, a concept. Drag can be so many different things, and Drag Race is always looking to showcase something truly unique. We’ve seen this in the form of Sharon Needles’ spooky drag in season 4 to Detox coloring herself black and white for the season 5 reunion.
Nerve: Drag queens never got anywhere by playing it safe. The boundaries of good taste simply don’t exist, so whether you’re clucking like a chicken in a commercial for extra-greasy shortening or walking out on a runway nearly naked.
Talent: Whether you’re funny, fierce, flawless, or a flutist, your talent is, as Hedwig said, what you’ve got to work with. Some queens are great makeup artists, some are great sewers, some have a gift for quick wit and comedy, some can act, some can sing.
So … just impress RuPaul then?
Not just RuPaul! But, yeah, mostly RuPaul. She’s only the most famous drag queen in the world! Her opinion carries a bit of weight, don’t you think. But Ru is joined by a panel of judges to help her evaluate the queens.
Sitting at the right hand of Ru is Michelle Visage, radio DJ, former pop star, cleavage enthusiast, and vigilant foe of the color green, Michelle will spare no one’s feelings on the runway. Stop relying on that body and learn to blend your makeup and you’ll be good with Michelle.
This season, Ru and Michelle are joined by Ross Mathews, former intern, sometime red-carpet reporter, and drag queen appreciator, and Carson Kressley, fashionista and possessor of not one but two queer eyes.
In addition to the regular judges, every week brings with it extra special guest judges that usually (though not always) have something to do with the theme. These have ranged from Kathy Griffin to Jackie Collins to Adam Lambert to Elvira to Lisa Rinna to Neil Patrick Harris. To date, only Leah Remini has gotten into a fight with Michelle.
So ultimately what it comes down to is who can make the most convincing woman?
Not exactly. The illusion of femininity is really only the beginning. The next drag superstar isn’t supposed to just glide through a room and pass for a (rather tall) lady. This is about entertainment, and a drag queen can take many different forms. Speaking in the broadest possible turns, here are a few of the “types” of queens you’ll find most often on Drag Race:
The Pageant Queen: Raised and trained in the world of drag pageants, the pageant queen is polished, is in possession of many glamorous looks, and prides herself on flawless makeup and wig work.
The Comedy Queen: More willing to look a little busted for your amusement, the Comedy Queen will use her drag as an avenue towards slaying an audience with laughter. Historically on Drag Race, there have occasionally been rifts between the glamour queens and the comedy queens, as their approaches to drag are so different. Look no further than Season 5’s conflict between comedy queen extraordinaire Jinkx Monsoon and glamour queen Roxxxy Andrews.
The High Concept Queen: These are the avant garde queens. Maybe they’ve come up through the world of art, maybe they’re trying to subvert conventions of beauty; either way, they’re out to make a statement. These are the queens that will often embrace androgyny as a look rather than femininity.
The Fishy Queen: In the drag world, to be “fishy” is to appear so feminine that you might pass for the real thing. These are the so-called “body” queens, whose natural gifts give them a (toned) leg up on the competition.
It sounds like they’re so mean to each other!
Sometimes they are! It’s a competition, after all, and personalities this oversized are bound to clash. But what’s fun about drag, and what makes Drag Race unique among the usual snippy/scratchy reality competitions, is that drag personas are, by their nature, kind of mean.
Think of old-time divas like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. These are the women that drag queens historically took after, and their personalities followed suit. So there’s a performative aspect to a lot of that backstage bitchery. Not saying feelings don’t ever get hurt, but just as often the jabs and barbs are taken in stride.
So it’s all an act?
Ehhhh not exactly. Personality conflicts do happen, factions form, things are said that we can’t take back. Season 3’s conflict between the Heathers and the Boogers was one of the show’s more enduring rifts. Season 4 saw Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara engage in a workroom screaming match about which one belongs at Party City (spoiler: it was Sharon) (if you ask Phi Phi). But! There have been zero physical altercations to date on RuPaul’s Drag Race, so take THAT, The Real World Seattle.
Why is this supposed to be so much better than other reality shows?
Well, for one thing, whereas some reality shows compete to deliver a dress or a modeling photograph or a plate of food that you can eat, the end product of a Drag Race challenge is a fully entertaining drag queen performance that you can watch and enjoy from the comfort of your living room. (Or out at your nearest gay bar, where we hear the viewing parties are pretty fabulous.)
It’s also a marvelously informative and educational series about a subculture that most of us were completely ignorant of. Even among the gay community, the ins and outs of the drag community weren’t acquired knowledge just because you came out. Drag Race offers a peek inside a world full of talented, proud, fiercely committed entertainers who work hard to do the thing they love and have a damn lot of fun while they do it.
Can you sum up the appeal of Drag Race in one video?
Season Three. Manila Luzon and Delta Work. Lip Synch for Your Life. Donna Summer. “MacArthur Park.” Watch it and LIVE.