Jackie Hedeman watches RuPaul's Drag Race transform into more honest homage
THIS TIME LAST year, I was wondering whether RuPaul’s Drag Race had run its cultural course. Season 7 of the Logo TV reality show unfolded creakily, almost joylessly, its by-the-numbers familiarity elevated only when Katya Zamolodchikova, a Bostonian with a put-on Russian accent, cartwheeled or chain-smoked her way across the screen. Katya was appealing because she was self-deprecating, culturally savvy, and hilarious but also because she appeared to have been driven so far around the bend by the show and its machinations that she attained a kind of Nirvana: there for the fun while it lasted, glad to be done with it when she finally did go. After Katya was eliminated, the joy went out of the season. Unlike Katya, RuPaul’s Drag Race appeared incapable of laughing at itself.
In its early days, Drag Race embraced a knowing humour grounded in (what seemed at the time) the inherent absurdity of a reality show pitting drag queen against drag queen. Drag Race set itself up as half-parody of shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, both wildly popular when Drag Race began to air. A tongue-in-cheek self-awareness permeated every scene in which RuPaul assured contestants that one of them would become “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” Drag Race winners could no sooner hope to attain RuPaul’s level of fame than Top Model contestants could replace Tyra Banks. Drag Race contestants knew this, because they knew the landscape of drag: there was, at the time, no mainstream to leap into. Contestants were not really hopefuls—many had been working for years. Drag Race was less a launchpad than a welcome diversion with prize money and a modest platform.
The shift started around Season 3 or 4. Drag Race’s viewing numbers increased, and the show attained the cultural capital to be a career boon for its contestants. Even for non-winners, involvement with the show represented an almost guaranteed increase in bookings. As the show’s profile increased, so did the cash. From $20,000 in Season 1, to $25,000 in Season 2, the increases were at first modest. The announcement in Season 3 that the pot had tripled to $75,000 was greeted by audible gasps. The next year the show settled on an even $100,000, where it has remained. Now, in Season 8, the show no longer devotes screen time to unveiling what the winner takes home; it is presumed everyone knows.
Along with an increase in stakes came an increase in drama. Prompted or not, the moment Drag Race became mainstream reality TV could arguably be the Season 4 feud between Phi Phi O’Hara and Sharon Needles. The friction between traditional, tanned, and cinched Phi Phi and envelope-pushing, fake blood-spewing Sharon built over episodes and finally erupted in a pitch-perfect moment of venom. Half in and half out of makeup and still wearing their street clothes, Phi Phi and Sharon prod at each other until Sharon walks off with a dismissive, “Tired-ass showgirl.” Phi Phi fires back, “At least I am a showgirl, bitch. Go back to Party City where you belong.”
Previous seasons saw their own centrepiece showdowns (“Bitch, I am from Chicago,” shouted Mystique Summers Madison in Season 2, stealing my heart), but those flareups were minor, resolving when one contestant or the other gave up or was eliminated. Sharon and Phi Phi powered a whole season with enmity that was both all about and had nothing to do with drag. Their feud was foregrounded in different styles of, and beliefs about, their art (punk rock rebellion vs. pageantry), but it rapidly became personal. Like many arguments, theirs was, at its core, a battle of belief: I suspect you aren’t taking this seriously. I suspect you aren’t taking me seriously.
With their blowup, talent, creativity, and wrenching backstories took a back seat to what was going down in real-time between these two contestants. Elements of camp are only evident in hindsight. Sharon and Phi Phi’s argument is no more tongue-in-cheek than Teresa Giudice’s table flip on The Real Housewives of New Jersey. This accidental mainstreaming had a normalizing power: Drag Race was show about drag queens, yes, but it was also just like any other reality show, showcasing human drama, live, before our very eyes.
Perhaps in hopes of recapturing the raw animus of that single moment, Season 4 served as the template for subsequent seasons, both in the types of challenges contestants faced each week, and in the diversity of styles of drag featured. As a result, and perhaps out of a desire to replicate productive conflict, what had once been an unapologetically untranslatable show veered into lucrative predictability.
This changed with Season 8, which premiered at the beginning of March. This season is not unpredictable, but that very quality of familiarity that doomed previous seasons to staleness has, in Season 8, been embraced to the point of mimesis. The container remains the same, but its contents have been washed, dried, and refolded. Where once Drag Race was a campy homage to shows like America’s Next Top Model, it is now a campy homage to itself.
Drag Race has begun to acknowledge its own history and mythology. It needs no other referent. Season 8’s marketing has revolved around the fact that this latest batch of contestants includes the 100th queen to take part in the series. Where in past seasons there may have been throwaway references to the queens who came before, Season 8 is all about that intertextuality. Each of RuPaul’s episode introductions has included at least one catchphrase coined by a previous contestant (Tammy Brown’s “I don’t see you out there walking children in nature,” Latrice Royale’s “The shade of it all,” and Laganga Estranga’s drawn-out, “Okurrr,” among others). Season 8’s opening challenge involved redoing clothing challenges from past seasons. When New York drag queen Acid Betty says “The main bullet point of Acid Betty is she’s a bitch. That’s it. Even Bianca won’t fuck with her,” she assumes a savvy viewership familiar with Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio.
These throwbacks and references are moments of calculated fun, the equivalent of citing an internet meme in a PowerPoint presentation. They are also emblematic of this latest era of Drag Race, where the positive exposure of making it through at least a few memorable episodes with your head held high is enough to grow a fanbase. On American’s Next Top Model (which aired its final episode months before the current season of Drag Race began) success was often confined to the show, with constants less likely to walk runways than populate endless Where Are They Now listicles. On Drag Race, contestants are increasingly internet savvy. They arrive self-promoters, fully aware that a loss on the show can be parlayed into a career win with the right Instagram and YouTube channel. The numerous Drag Race-sponsored or Drag Race-adjacent tours and gigs support this theory; promotional material often favours fan-favourites over season winners. Good news for Katya Zamolodchikova. Good news for everyone.
There is another hallmark to this multimodal era of Drag Race fandom, and that is the fan-turned-contestant. Drag Race is a show with an especially tenuous fourth wall. Social media aside, you are far more likely to meet a contestant on Drag Race passing through your hometown bar than you would just about any reality star. Younger Season 8 queens functionally grew up with Drag Race, learning to be queens from the show itself. And now, as contestants, they close the loop, sharing their own Drag Race-influenced drag with a new audience.
Even those contestants who honed their own style of drag long before Drag Race have a working knowledge of what has come before: the common pitfalls and recurring challenges. Before their elevation to cast members, Season 8 contestants were backseat-driving fans, imagining what they could do and do better for each challenge. Early Season 8 favourite Bob the Drag Queen sums up this phenomenon in episode two: “‘If I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race I would never do that.’” She imagines the jump cut to some faux pas. “Cut to, girl.” It is progressively more reasonable to assume that, like Bob, the other queens, once audience members themselves, know that it is almost always bad news to remove your wig during a lipsync, that you will need to have at least a beginner’s knowledge of sewing, and that runway judge Michelle Visage will, inevitably, ask to see more than your everyday shtick. She will, in fact, ask to see “who you are.”
And this, perhaps, is the perennial hurdle for Drag Race contestants, though in this respect, Drag Race may be one of the most honest reality shows on TV. The show is, after all about layers of artifice. “Who you are” is always already a persona, something you come up with watching TV. Over the weeks of getting to know the contestants, their backstories, their makeup tips and tricks, their quick and ready costuming shortcuts, their strengths and weaknesses, you start to relate. Drag Race recasts drag in a radically normative light, as something you could do, if you aren’t already doing it. You don’t have to have read Judith Butler to get it: getting into drag is not so different from getting up in the morning.
JACKIE HEDEMAN, contributing editor to Partisan, is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station, and on stage with Available Light Theatre. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University.