RuPaul and... RuPaul

Australia loves a good drag queen. Our biggest exports are iron ore, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Dame Edna Everage. From humble Aunty Jack beginnings to Claire De Lune’s Midday with Kerri-Anne cooking segments, from Courtney Act’s turn on Australian Idol to Carlotta’s reign on Beauty and the Beast, Australian TV has always been the drag queen’s natural habitat (though Carlotta is notably a transgender woman, something increasingly common in the drag profession). Hell, have you seen The Footy Show recently? Drag is like 51% of their content.  There’s something about being subversive, brash, colourful, outspoken and just a teeny-tiny bit oppressed that speaks to our core.

RuPaul, self-appointed “supermodel of the world” and unarguably the world’s preeminent drag queen, hosts a reality TV contest to find “America’s next drag superstar”. Performing drag queens from across the United States strut, pose, sew, glue, dance, catwalk, joke, and lip-sync their way to the crown, a modest cash prize and — more importantly — a guaranteed full-time paying career as a drag performer. The latter is more prize-by-proxy than official award, with all five seasons’ worth of contestants are working solidly across America, if not the world.

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One of the most fascinating things about RuPaul’s Drag Race is the way it manages to be both a reality TV competition and a vicious parody of all reality TV competitions at the same time. And as far as reality TV competitors go, there is value for money. These are legitimately some of the most talented people on television. 

Where most other reality competitions involve one particular skill: singing, dancing, designing clothes, smizingRuPaul’s Drag Race involves all of these things and then throws in a few more. The weekly challenges incorporate fashion design, catwalk modelling, acting, singing, dancing, even script writing. This is on top of the basic skills of face artistry, hairstyling, illusion and contortionism (it’s called a “tuck”). Every job RuPaul has ever taken in her long career is mined, twisted, and worked into a challenge for “her girls”. If she’s done it, her contestants have to do it. In an episode from the most recent season, the queens had to design their own fragrance: come up with a name, design the bottle, and write and shoot a TV commercial for it in full drag. But it wasn’t just a dummy project: they also had to actually create the fragrance itself.

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The result makes excellent television, because it means even the hateful, useless idiot contestants have some pretty mad skills. Watching an episode of Drag Race is a guarantee that, at least once every episode, you will witness someone pull some amazing talent out of their proverbials. I mean, a hateful, useless idiot is still a hateful, useless idiot, so there are still plenty of delicious helpings of reality TV schadenfreude: if anything, the schadenfreude is even more delicious because you know these people are, in their own way, accomplished performers, so there’s no need to fear for their basic competence as humans; an actual fear I’ve had on more than one occasion after watching an episode of My Kitchen Rules.

But the hand RuPaul uses to cherry-pick elements from other reality shows is wearing a rhinestone-studded knuckle-duster: a trope stolen is a trope lampooned. Every borrowed element of the show exists in a weird nexus between respectful mimicry and brutal satire, and from one moment to the next it’s nearly impossible to tell where the line is. The contestants are told they must possess “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent”, and the hidden joke is never even winkingly acknowledged. The pre-recorded TyraMail-style messages are called “She-Mails”. The helpful Tim Gunn-style workroom catchphrase ends with “don’t fuck it up”. The Idol-style duel to prevent elimination is called “Lip-Sync For Your Life”, and it is exactly as preposterous as it sounds, but it is announced with breathless, deadpan severity. Everything is exactly as you’d expect in a TV competition of this type, just tweaked a little. The format has had some, ahem, “werq” done.

Which brings me to another benefit of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race: the vocabulary. Five years ago I had no idea what it meant to “throw shade”. I didn’t know how to “read”. I didn’t know where in a sentence to inject the phrases “realness”, “the house down” or “to filth”. I had apparently been spelling “work” wrong. I couldn’t give you the “T”, I didn’t know who to call “hunty”, and if you’d told me to “gag on your eleganza extravaganza” I would have called the police. Now I throw these words about with (literal) gay abandon, and I think it’s safe to say my immediate social circle is better for it. More annoyed, but better.

Somehow, despite the biting satire and the overblown theatrics and the entirely new language and the ridiculous spectacle of men transforming into fieeeeeerce drag queens (and yes, that is officially the correct number of Es), there is a heart to RuPaul’s Drag Race. I don’t think this was ever an official intention of the show, but it’s there. Because the youngest, prettiest, funniest, most successful drag queen on the show is still, by virtue of who they are and what they do, facing a big, angry world of adversity. Even the top dogs are still underdogs. And while there are no piano-laden, pre-packaged segments (a la The Voice) to ram the stories of hardship overcome down your throat, the stories are there, and they come out, and just like the show itself they range from ridiculous to inspiring to extraordinary.

So you should watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. The insight is dazzling. And hilarious. And very occasionally thought-provoking. I mean, the premise of reality TV is getting that behind-the-scenes access, and the premise of drag is illusion. These are two ideas so completely at odds with each other that the result of their union can’t be anything but mesmerising. To see the man behind the curtain is as riveting as it is funny as it is educational. Also, in season five, one of the drag queens makes a gown out of a curtain, so you literally SEE THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN.

(Full disclosure: the juggernaut that is RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2013 was not planned for when the show was greenlit in 2008. The prize money was a quarter of what it is now, and the same can be assumed of the entire show’s budget. So season one — which is what’s about to air here — looks a little rough: the sets are lit like a hotel lobby, and the camera-to-Vaseline ratio appears to be 1:1. You’ve seen Snapchats with better production values. Still, the show is still worth watching, because not even the semi-constant JJ Abrams lens-flare can disguise the heart and the teeth show has had from the very beginning.)

RuPaul’s Drag Race airs, starting this week, at 8:45pm Saturdays on SBS2.

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Christopher Welldon is a writer, former breakfast radio jock and television harbinger of doom: He has written for Rove (Rove quit three weeks later) been a contestant on Wheel of Fortune (it was axed six weeks later) and appeared on Letters and Numbers (now on indefinite hiatus). He tries to not take it personally. He now confines his TV midas touch to and @chrisopotamia.

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