Have you reached lockdown breakdown? Ready to claim for a refund on 2021? Then step this way my friend, I have just the tonic for you.
In a January that seems especially drained of colour, when joy is thin on the ground, what we all need is a little sparkle, a bit of pep. In short: we need RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I know what you’re thinking – no TV show can slow this descent into existentialism. But this prescription is one I offer with total confidence, as I have first-hand experience of its rejuvenating properties.
Six years ago I was a newly minted mum. I was utterly cock-a-hoop with my tiny human, but I was also riding out the aftershocks of a post-birth trauma that left me feeling completely apart from myself. Unmoored, anxious and breastfeeding a staggeringly hungry baby, I spent my nights in those early weeks of motherhood sitting in the dark of my living room, aimlessly scrolling through the Netflix menu while my son fed.
Drunk with tiredness, initially I couldn’t even settle on a programme to watch. And then, there she was: a golden-maned vision in candy pink racing leathers. Ru. Yes. This, I thought, with an inexplicable conviction I hadn’t felt about anything since gas and air, THIS is what I need. Whether it was intuition or divine intervention is unclear, but some a force from within or beyond knew that RuPaul’s Drag Race was the balm for my troubled soul.
Come to think of it though, ‘balm’ might not be the right word. Watching Drag Race for the first time feels like being at a fireworks display, your eyes pulled in a dozen directions at once – the wigs! The gowns! The tucks! – the overall effect being one of dizzying exhilaration. For a woman on high dose iron tablets and two hours sleep it was a TRIP, and an addictive one.
Reality gone rogue
For the uninitiated, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition, and a hugely successful one. Having started out on a niche US cable channel with a budget that, on the evidence of season one, stretched only to one set light and some Vaseline for the camera lens, the show is now in its 13th season and an Emmy winner 19 times over.
It made the leap to Netflix a few years back and, since then, has become a global phenomenon with franchises blossoming in Thailand, Holland, Canada and the UK, where our second season has just arrived with impeccable timing. Filming on RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Underis set to start in Australia and New Zealand later this month, and already I can’t bloody wait. Because while some spoilsports complain that there’s now too much Drag Race on our screens, I, for one, cannot get enough.
The makers like to shake up the format every now and again, but typically, a dozen or so drag queens of varying styles and experience compete each season in a range of fashion and performance challenges for the top prize of $100,000 and the prestige of being crowned the ‘Next Drag Superstar’. To be reductive about it, it’s all the best bits of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, turned up to 11.
Each week the least impressive queens must lip-sync for their lives for the chance to remain in the competition. There is no audience participation, your vote will not be counted and verified because, to be frank, your opinions (and oh, you will have many ) do not matter. While there’s ostensibly a judging panel of four, the rulings are solely Mama Ru’s to make.
And why wouldn’t they be? RuPaul first took the art of drag to the mainstream in the early 90s and she’s maintained her premiership ever since, despite advancing the careers of over 100 talented queens who could easily have taken her place if she weren’t so damn flawless. And did I mention that she’s edging 60? Queen indeed.
A tonic for our times
Let’s be honest here, this is not a subtle watch by any means. The queens throw c-bombs around the Werk Room with the casual abandon of Frankie Boyle, and sexual innuendo is a pillar of the show. It’s also irrepressively joyful, and a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community to be sex positive, body positive and gender fluid. These queer people aren’t just visible, they’re neon.
Of course, in reality, often these electric drag personas conceal people who have experienced discrimination, family estrangement, poverty and homophobic abuse because of their sexuality. Indeed, with the arrival in season 13 of the first ever trans male contestant, the show’s catchphrase has been edited for inclusivity – a recognition that even here, equality requires evolution. Despite these challenges, though, these contestants project a defiant positivity and pride in themselves that makes them impossible to watch without feeling a little emboldened.
On a much shallower note, there are the LOOKS. At a time when the very concept of an ‘outfit’ is evaporating from the collective consciousness, these queens are serving you fashion, dahling. And while I may never emerge from my lockdown comfort combo of yoga bra and maternity dungarees, it feels so very good in these style-starved times to look at some incredible clothes, and on people who really know how to wear them.
Drag Race was my salvation from the specific loneliness that accompanies early motherhood. The queens, their resilience and the unshakeable positivity that they pour into their art pulled me out of a funk and gave me life at a time when I felt disoriented by my own. Now these beautiful, technicolour birds of paradise are back, back, back again, just in time to save us all from this bleakest of midwinters.
At a time when we’re all in dire need of a jolt of energy, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a B12 shot in your eyeballs. Get into it.
Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race is streaming on Netflix, with new episodes released each Friday. Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is streaming on BBC iPlayer, with new episodes released each Thursday.