How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ came to dominate pop culture

It’s big, okurrrrrrr

RuPaul’s Drag Race is about to embark on its tenth season. It airs a week after the third All Stars season ended, which on its January 25th US premiere reached almost one million viewers. Once a fringe programme on an LGBTQ TV network, Drag Race is now a spearhead of mainstream pop culture.

For those unaware, the format is simple: It’s a reality TV show where a bunch of drag queens compete to show off their CUNT: charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. There are a series of challenges and runway shows, by which contestants are eliminated one-by-one until the next drag superstar is left standing. There are interpersonal dramas, exaggerated to the point of absurdity, impossibly chic homemade costumes, and emotional conversations about what it means to be queer in modern America.

Reality TV shows fall into two categories. There are the kind you stick on to help pass a crippling Sunday hangover (like Dinner Date), and the kind that attract a generically invested audience (like X Factor), who will occasionally switch on, eat a takeaway and maybe, maybe get out their phone and vote. But with so many high budget TV dramas at your fingertips, why would you tune in week after week to watch quite boring people cry about how they’re auditioning to honour their dead hamster’s wishes?

Yet Drag Race has thrived, increasing its premiere ratings by approximately 600,000 between seasons seven and nine. The contestants, far from falling into post-reality show obscurity, have launched spin-off shows on VICELAND and independent movies, Marc Jacobs modelling contracts and lingerie brand campaigns. Drag Race has transformed the meme market, and made terms like “reading”, “tea” and “realness” part of the common millennial lexicon. Slowly but surely, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become the most culturally relevant show on television. But that process hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

Drag Race offers viewers a full package. It’s one of the first genuinely multi-platform programmes, without try-hard gimmicks. Unlike …Got Talent’s undiscovered gems, contestants mainly arrive on the ‘Werk Room’ set having performed on the drag circuit for years, picking up an online audience that is already invested in their success. They maintain their social media accounts whilst the show airs and comment on the events of each episode, maintaining a proximity to fans that is rare in the modern reality TV marketplace. A drag queen’s artistry for costume, makeup and quick wit naturally lends itself to the casual Instagram scroll and all its aesthetic cues.

 

For its third All Stars season, viewers joined a contestant ‘Fantasy League’ connected to their Facebook account, which allowed them to compare their results directly with their friends’. As a result, the show transcended late night binging sessions and got fans to watch as a collective, compare notes and gloat as they climbed the leaderboard. Success in the game became a measure of one’s Drag Race knowledge and dedication.

The growing profile of Drag Race is best reflected in its ever more glittered guest judging table.  Though a few household names were featured in the first season, like Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams and Bob Mackie, All Stars 3 showed the programme to have become a who’s who of modern gay icons. Emma Bunton, Tutuss Burgess and Vanessa Hudgens all took to the table, while US House of Representatives Minority Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Marc Jacobs made special appearances. Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain and Courtney Love will appear in season 10. It’s a desirable slot for stars looking to show off a more human side of their personality: to the delight of the internet, Vanessa Hudgens performed a lip-sync against a pork chop in her episode, an ode to Victoria “Porkchop” Parker, the first queen to ever be eliminated.

These in-jokes have become fundamental to the show’s continued popularity. Being ‘in-the-know’ with references to past seasons and queer culture has helped Drag Race to develop its own digital meme currency, often paralleled or copied in teens’ online parlance. Sharing a Drag Race gif or referencing “shade” in a tweet holds a value for followers of the show, only enhanced by the fact that “grown ups” probably don’t understand what you’re saying. Even fellow queens can be penalised for missing the references, as was All Stars 3 finalist Bebe Zahara Benet when she could not recall Ornacia, a memorable former contestant who made a wig out of a polystyrene head.

Glyn Fussell, co-creator of British drag club night Sink The Pink, points out that several of these references come from a specifically American drag scene. “RuPaul introduced me to ‘the tea’, and all that stuff. None of us knew what that meant. So we can look at it as a representation of our scene, but we’ve also got to appreciate the representation of America, and the highly glossed, shiny, sellable force that it is. Because if Drag Race had come from the UK it wouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have worked.”

 

He adds: “You have to be honest and say America thinks they’re the world, we all know that, so when you get a TV show that’s crossed into the mainstream but they’re the first to do it on that level, they take that form of drag as gospel.”

But Drag Race’s verbal currency also reflects the very simple fact that, co-opted or otherwise, online liberal voices care more about queer culture than ever before, and it’s an easily accessible reference point. Sharing Drag Race content exemplifies you not only want to support the gay community, but you understand and embrace it. It’s the kind of public rock n’ roll fuck you that might have been made with a Sex Pistols t-shirt in a bygone era. Brexit, Trump and Theresa May only make that urge to distinguish yourself from the establishment stronger.

Discrimination may abound, but it’s never been cooler to be part of the gay agenda. RuPaul’s Drag Race is simply writing the manifesto.