There are two types of people in the world: those who watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and those who do not. One of those groups is much happier than the other.
If you’re feeling left out, don’t be overwhelmed. The reality competition to find America’s Next Drag Superstar – requiring stunning couture looks, outrageous comedy skills, fabulous acting talents, sickening lip syncing, flawless make-up and fearless dancing – might be into its ninth year (and 12th season) but is never too late to board the rhinestone train to RuPaul’s bonkers television utopia.
There is plenty of time for you to invest as RuPaul – the self-proclaimed supermodel of the world – serves up his best Tyra Banks impression and a show filled with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent...and a healthy dose of brazen self promotion.
Despite what you might think, Drag Race is not the daunting mountain you faced with your boxsets of The Sopranos or The Wire. Purists will tell you to start from the beginning but with Drag Race that is nigh-on impossible. Season one exists in a more innocent time – filmed before widescreen, high definition and social media. There are blurry clips available on Youtube but it has mostly been laid to rest in the reality television hall of faded glory, like Popstars and Fame Academy.
The early years of the show are endearing – when the prizes were basically an eyeshadow palette and a roll of duct tape, and challenges were rough and ready: turn this cardboard box and AA battery into a couture dress that speaks to your personal brand! But, let’s face it – unless you’re recovering from an operation, or using the show as a post-Glastonbury path back to humanity, time is tight. With a plan, and a few ground rules, catching up quickly is totally achievable. Come on, kitty girls, let Mother guide you through.
The most valuable advice when it comes to approaching Drag Race is that the key to the show is seasons four through six, when production values shot up. Start here. After that, there is a slight lull in quality and momentum (with some notable exceptions like Katya and Kennedy Davenport) which means you can confidently skip to the most recent series (nine). The best news? All of these are on Netflix.
When it comes to the All Stars series (pitting fan favourite queens from different series against each other), the first one was kind of a car crash and is best avoided. The second series, though, may just be one of the greatest series of television ever broadcast (this is not hyperbole). Sadly, it’s not on Netflix but it can be tracked down if you know where to look.
We’re a few weeks into All Stars 3 now (being shown on Comedy Central and Now TV in the UK) and things are looking good – so far we’ve seen parodies of both Handmaid’s Tale and The Bachelor.
If this is your first foray into drag, don’t be daunted by the fact everyone seems to be speaking an entirely new language. You’ll pick it up quickly enough. One runway in and you’ll be completely gagged for Sharon Needles’ gorgeous grotesque. You’ll be rooting for Adore Delano to lean how to cinch her waist and screaming for Alyssa Edwards’ death drops. It’ll take less than an hour for you to understand that Miss Fame beats her face for the gods or that Trinity Taylor is so much more than a pageant queen.
And if you’d rather dip into the show at whim, there are always stand out episodes that will give you the best (and delightful worst) of the show. The annual Snatch Game episode requires the queens to impersonate celebrities and has produced seminal versions of gay icons like Mae West, Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Liza Minnelli, Britney Spears and Judge Judy. Another highlight is the makeover episode when you really see the warmth of a show with the catchphrase: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”. For all the hot glue guns, sequins, contouring and outrageous puns, Drag Race is a show with a heart and it is often surprisingly moving. Season five’s makeover of gay military veterans who served before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a total tearjerker.
When the so-called golden age of television is reviewed, I have no doubt that RuPaul’s Drag Race will be seen as relevant as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Big Little Lies
It is this kind of heart and approach to sensitive social issues which is why anyone who has – so far – steered clear of RuPaul’s Drag Race is really missing out. When the so-called golden age of television is reviewed, I have no doubt that RuPaul’s Drag Race will be seen as relevant as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Big Little Lies. Nowhere in pop culture will you find such nuanced conversations about sexuality, identity, race, class, gender and culture.
There are genuinely heartbreaking moments as people who have been cast as outsiders their whole lives talk about their journey to acceptance through drag – navigating families that never accepted them, bullying, hate crimes, HIV diagnoses, depression and drug abuse. And when Channel 5 started 2018 by continuing to flog the dead horse of Celebrity Big Brother, it was relevant for the first time in years with Drag Race alumnus Courtney Act winning after a month of having frank discussions about gender, trans rights and self-identity on primetime television.
Drag has been around for centuries, existing on the fringes of society or sometimes in plain sight. RuPaul broke through in the 90s to become a household name, but with Drag Race he has taken the biggest leap ever in bringing the artform to the mainstream. And the focus on “herstory” of drag, gay rights and feminism makes it consistently respectful and educational.
With Emmy awards and huge viewing figures, it may not be underground anymore but it is still subversive. In the first season post-Trump, the queens discussed the Pulse nightclub shooting, where several of them lost friends, and one contestant talked about their experience living as a queer person in Russia. US Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is due to be a guest judge on the current season. RuPaul knows exactly what message he is sending.
And come on, wouldn’t you like to know why shouting “BACK ROLLS!” is so funny? The answer lies in season five. It’s time to get to werk: good luck and don’t fuck it up.