I spent most of January intensively binge-watching all the seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race I hadn’t seen before. It was a happy reunion after sadly losing touch with the series over the years. I’ve always believed it should be watched in a group – and, since I moved abroad, that natural gang of gay friends is not so natural any more.
The first time I watched RuPaul’s Drag Race was a late night in 2009. I was hanging out with two gay friends in Stockholm, and one of them told us we had to see at least an episode of the show, which was then in its first season on the US LGBT channel Logo. I hadn’t even heard of it before but, in the end, we stayed up all night, watching as many episodes as possible, first downloaded ones, then streaming directly from the Logo website. I’ve never been as engaged in a reality TV series, before or since. Through the drama and artistry we clutched each others’ hands, gasped and cried. For this reason I have a very different relationship with the first season to other people. I’ve heard people say it’s a bad season (it was re-aired as “the lost season” in 2013). But to me it was superior in its newness.
You learn a lot through the show – not just about drag culture or LGBT culture in general, but little pop psychology nuggets about believing in yourself, how to break free from your constraints, overcoming adversity, and how sometimes your biggest foe is your “inner saboteur”. But the reason I became a RuPauholic was because I wanted to see what the show could teach me about glamour. Here is what I learned.
ONE – GLAMOUR IS ARTIFICIAL
If there’s one thing RuPaul’s Drag Race reveals about glamour, it is how much effort goes into it. It takes hours to transform into a glamazon and, when the girls get only ten minutes for a so-called “mini-challenge” they usually end up looking more like dudes on a stag night. To look truly glamorous, you need to go all in: big hair, tons of makeup, massive eyelashes, padding, glitter and sparkle – and when someone is able to pull off “fishiness” with little makeup (like season six’s Courtney Act) you don’t necessarily think of a glamorous woman, rather a beautiful one. The most interesting detail is revealed in walk and posing. It’s the artificial way of holding and moving the body that truly takes a drag queen from beauty pageant to runway.
TWO – GLAMOUR IS A SERIOUS FACE
That glamour rarely cracks a joke is clearly illustrated in the lip sync battle between Serena ChaCha and Monica Beverly Hillz in the second episode of season five. Monica looks great because she looks like she means it. Serena bounces around, acting like a child playing dress-up. Naturally, she had to sashay away!
THREE – GLAMOUR DOESN’T SHOW FEELINGS
The best example of this is the most glamorous queen of all: RuPaul herself. For example, in season seven, Kennedy Davenport tells Ru about her dad passing away and her sister being “severely mentally retarded”. Rupaul keeps her poise throughout. Even when Roxxxy Andrews breaks down on stage in season five and reveals that she and her sister were left at a bus stop by her mum, RuPaul’s voice barely cracks. It’s just enough to show she’s human.
FOUR – GLAMOUR IS BAD LIGHTING
“I believe in low lights and trick mirrors,” wrote Andy Warhol in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. This is the essence of drag makeup, with all of its contouring and “beat face” – it’s made for the club. The light in the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is not so much low as it is bad. Ru’s face is almost bleached out, and a thick layer of Vaseline seems to be applied to the camera lens. You’d be lucky if you caught even a hint of facial features, but everyone looks stunning, of course. Here I want to interject that some people are convinced the bad light was needed to smooth out wrinkles that were later subjected to some nip and tuck (not that tucking), but I believe the same effect is just reproduced with better technology and computerised filters. If you don’t believe me, look out for Marc Jacobs’s face when he’s a guest judge in season eight. It’s never been smoother.
FIVE – GLAMOUR IS NOT ENOUGH
“Stop relying on your body” is a recurring piece of advice from the judges. It’s an indication that beauty alone will only take you so far, and that a drag queen has to bring something else to the table if she is to be a winner. Most of the time, this other thing is humour and wit. But it can also be a great voice (Adore Delano), a large personality (Tyra Sanchez) or sheer professionalism (Chad Michaels). Many queens seem to arrive at the show having been revered because they’re so glamorous, only to discover that glamour in itself is kinda boring.
SIX – GLAMOUR + TRAGEDY = CAMP
Watch a few episodes of Untucked, the behind-the- scenes web series, where the queens sit backstage and talk shop, and you reach a conclusion. All these queens decked out in glamorous dos, breaking down and crying? One hundred per cent telenovela.
SEVEN – GLAMOUR IS PROBABLY PASSÉ
As Sharon Needles took the crown ahead of Chad Michaels in season four, we heard a rip through the fabric of drag herstory. The first three seasons saw more glamorous queens, like BeBe Zahara Benet, Tyra Sanchez and Raja – although Raja’s version of glamour was more high fashion than anything – walk away as overall winners. But Sharon Needles’ use of horror, grotesque and humour changed the game. From then on, glamour would not be enough.
EIGHT – GLAMOUR MIGHT BE DEAD
The younger queens often seem to have more in common with contemporary performance art than old-school drag. Just look at the makeup marvels of Trixie Mattel and Kim Chi, or perhaps the most off-kilter drag queen on the show so far: Milk. Is Milk Drag 3.0? If so, glamour is dead.
NINE – GLAMOUR IS SURVIVAL
If there’s one overarching lesson of all 118 episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, in its various incarnations, it is that glamour saves lives. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about the HIV reveals of Ongina (season one) or Trinity K Bonet (season six). It doesn’t matter if you are talking about the trans women on the show, like Monica Beverly Hillz or Sonique. Some of the queens have sad family histories: Ginger Minj breaks down when her father shows up on screen, and Latrice Royale tells how her dad beat her mum. It continues. Darienne Lake uses her glamorous persona to field off the abuse she has received for being overweight. Pearl hints at something very dark happening to her when she was a young boy, and creating Pearl as an escape. Chi Chi DeVayne used to be in a gang and has seen people being shot. PorkChop even tells us she’s been shot at. To watch the show is to see how glamour has the power to mask almost any tragedy in the contestants’ lives. For those not willing or interested to choose the path of glamour, humour tends to become the weapon of choice and, in this, we see that perhaps comedy and glamour are not so far from each other as one would think. In this life, you must either sharpen your tongue or your pose.