Drag is a wonderful thing for a very strange reason. I have no idea how I feel about it on any real level: it polarises my own beliefs in a spectacularly Dantesque way. Do I object to it for its ritualistic objectification of females or do I love it because, well, it can be entertaining in a guilty, chortle-worthy kind of way? The long and short of it is a bit of both, and so without further grousing I introduce the uninitiated to the queer world’s answer to America’s Next Top Model: RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now on its fourth ‘season’ (Yank talk for series), the show’s format will be familiar to most who’ve watched any reality television since its precipitate unveiling. In essence, a big bunch (in some instances, very big indeed) of drag queens enter into competition with each other to be the crudest, most lickerish bodily representation of “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (RuPaul’s words, not mine). A few months later, one emerges the victor (or should that be Victoria? Chuckle, chuckle) as America’s Next Drag Superstar and owner of a novelty oversized cheque to the value of $100,000. But it’s all the in-betweeny bits that are the juiciest, when you learn that a dramatic on-stage splits is to be scoffed at, not revered, and that walking with panache and gravity is worthy of our veneration.
The brio of the clan seems to have no real bearing on their individual successes: the most hyper-animate and super-confident queen can be one week’s reigning leader and next week’s Marie Antoinette. This is a democracy, after all, and the queens are judged on merit, not their ability to stay afloat in a sea of bobbing, clownish heads. These characters, and they are characters in the most literal of senses, strut their stuff for a living, so it always comes as a surprise when one is so surreptitiously awful as to be an affront to the eyes and/or ears. With some of the behemoths this year, let’s just be thankful smell remains unaffected. Time-wise, the show is loosely segmented with minutes set aside in each episode for (presented here in no particular order): bitching, drag challenges, feculent limericks, sewing, frolicking, crushing one-liners, dramatic pauses, shrieking laughter, a run-way extravaganza with creations from aforementioned sewing, RuPaul peddling some of his back-catalogue’s wonder-muck, a queen being crowned and the loser being asked to “sashay… away” (with dramatic emphasis on the ellipsis, thank you very much). Simple yet shockingly effective, the formula works, with each episode delivering a hit of epilepsy-triggering sparkle.
Taking a closer look at some of this year’s queens, we have some brilliant stars and some bastions of turd. Of equal fierceness (on the entirely scientific scale I have devised) we have the refreshingly chipper Cher-a-like Chad Michaels (above) and gothic, ethereal wonder Sharon Needles. The two least ‘obvious’ of the pack, they see themselves as forces to be reckoned with. Sharon Needles (main picture, above) is, in her own words, “the future of drag”, which is heading in a fairly chthonic direction if her predictions are anything to go by. Her alabaster face has won her two of five challenges so far, dragging her delightfully off-putting self straight to the Interior Illusions Lounge (the hub where the safe ones get exponentially drunker during eliminations). Her ‘spooky’ look has its fans and detractors, the most vocal of whom has been the interesting-as-naval-fluff Phi Phi O’Hara. Biliously cocooned in her own silly little version of what it is to be successful, Phi Phi’s greatest influence seems to be insipidity. Channelling the drag of yesteryear and weighed down by a burdensome distaste for playing well with others, this creature might go far in its circuit, but more fool the people that waste their time and money. That leaves five others left in competition, with only one worthy of real attention: Latrice Royale. Her choral renditions of what surely must be her own little ditty, ‘Jesus is a Biscuit’, makes the show worth watching, if for nothing else. That and her thunderous laughter (see below picture of said booming).
But enough about the others, let’s get back to my faux-ethical stance on drag as a whole. I have done drag three times in my life, twice with a particularly flamboyant chum with an inexplicable command over me and the other with a female visitor to my then-home of Glasgow. She donned my sleeveless denim jacket and lumberjack shirt to parade as Richard Milk for the evening and I wore an abomination of a lace dress and pleather jacket as Pisa Kayke. We cackled and crowed at Tranny Bingo in Glasgow’s most glorious end (The West, for those of you afraid to venture north of Stoke Newington) until we were chucked out of the place for being too fabulous. Warning: the last clause might have been sexed up to make my life seem punishingly amusing to you, whilst in reality it is mostly rather dull with intermittent periods of new shoes and viscid vodka cocktails. The problem, however, isn’t simply that you can whip yourself into a gleeful frenzy with all these drag goings-on, it’s that in playing an ersatz woman with hyperbolic qualities for the amusement of others, you’re drawing inspiration from the real subjugation of women. But of course things aren’t as simple as that. In subverting gender roles, you hold the most glaringly obvious mirror up to society, screaming “DIS IS WAT YOU DO 2 WIMMIN, SOCIETY. IT’S NOT RITE, IS IT?” Yeah, take that, society!
Any half-baked lamentations on the state of our society and the role drag has to play in the breaking-down of patriarchy in it (read: a very small one) aside, RuPaul’s Drag Race makes for some solidly entertaining watching. Especially good if watched with a gaggle of froth-mouthed queers and a Dictaphone to forever remember some of the most devastatingly witty and lascivious quotes you’re bound to ever hear. Not yet available for viewing on bog-standard telly here in the UK – woe is we contemptible islanders – series 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race can be watched, with some trickery, on logotv.com. See the trailer below for some sickening (here, a good thing) action: