“You’re born naked and the rest is drag”
These famous words, amongst a myriad of other campy yet empowering slangs, are one of the major reasons why RuPaul’s Drag Race is more than just a show geared towards the LGBTQ+ community, but a fearless in your face movement. Ten seasons down, two Primetime Emmy wins and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for its titular star, RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) has shattered all preconceived notions of failure from when it premiered almost 10 years ago, becoming one of the biggest mainstream platform for others.
A glamorous, over-the-top, glittery love child of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model and Heidi Klum’s Project Runway, revered drag queen RuPaul Andre Charles combines classic weekly reality elimination show format with more drama (and hair) than the Bachelor and Jersey Shore. Creating a platform for various drag queens (some, already having a certain amount of social media following and clout) to showcase their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent aka C.U.N.T, by fulfilling weekly tasks ranging from designing pieces to Victoria-Secret-style runway struts, until the last queen standing is crowned. The elimination process is now probably the most iconic part of the show, with its famous tagline “Lip-sync for your life!” where the contestants on the chopping block attempt to outdo each other in a lip-sync battle where they vogue to pop songs.
Drag culture has always been a polarising topic with non LGBTQ+ members and even some members of the community trying (or not trying at all) to wrap their heads around the art form. Men in women’s clothing and make up, without being transsexual, and not even wanting to be in some cases, just seemed like a complicated concept to comprehend. Although movies like Paris Is Burning gave a glimpse into the lives of members of the drag community by way of underground ball competitions, RPDR is the one show that efficiently encapsulated and catapulted drag culture into mainstream media.
Drag race has been monumental in defeating the tiresome notion that drag is just a fancy version of clowning. With a multi-dimensional cast each season, ranging from celebrity impersonators (almost every season features someone who feels they’re Beyoncé) to comedic queens and pageant queens who are more prim and proper than the next person, the show has tried its best to present fully thought out characters living their outlandish yet sincere truths.
The impact the show has on pop culture and daily living is practically immeasurable. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a Miss Vanjie reference. The first season’s biggest feature was probably former Destiny’s Child membe,r Michelle Williams, but with more pomp to its name, the show has been able to pull LGBTQ+ icons like Lady Gaga and badass Game of Throne queen, Lena Headey. With slangs and phrases from the show seeping into regular lexicon, normalcy has been accrued to the drag community as a result of the show.
“It’s hilarious and entertaining….coming from a typical African society where one becomes an instant target, and constantly faces an onslaught of slurs for coming across as too feminine for a guy. Their bravery to live on their own terms, damning the stereotype and taking on female impersonation, in a way gives both license and courage to exist as you are unencumbered by what anyone thinks”
Nigeria has always had a penchant for passing quick judgement on anything that feels remotely foreign or doesn’t fit into its tiny bubble of what is morally/religiously right. So it comes as no surprise that drag is not only looked at with the deadliest of side-eyes, but could bring a case of physical and verbal assault from strangers along with it. Oftentimes boys who are effeminate, pay extra attention to how they appear or show interest in fashion and beauty, tend to get boxed in a scarlet letter situation and are branded “Homo” or “Fag.” Bearing this in mind it’s easy to picture a typical Nigerian’s reaction to seeing a man in a dress, full on makeup and hair. I can picture it and it would probably go left fast.
I got my first introduction to RuPaul in my second year of university and my initial reaction was, shamefully, disgust. You see as gay as I was and in full acceptance of my sexuality, the idea of a man in a dress and makeup still made me uncomfortable. Why I felt this way, I still don’t know. Over time I’ve learnt to appreciate RPDR not just for the safe space it provides the drag community, but the gay community as well. Representation, as I’ve said countlessly, is vital for the emotional and mental growth of an individual. With RPDR presenting extravagant, yet flawed characters, young and sometimes older LGBTQ+ members are provided with more than just funny quips, and people who, just like them, have overcome adversity and use their acts as a means of expression and also a way by which these young folks can live vicariously through them.
Each season has shown different queens dealing with different life-altering issues from living with HIV and AIDS to body insecurity. These stories provide us with the feeling that we are not alone in this big ole gay world, plus it also empowering af seeing a person of colour at the helm of the show. I’ve seen first-hand, how young boys my age light up whenever it comes on.
“RuPaul provides a temporary escape, a look into people’s lives, possibly the life you’d want to live with freedom from discrimination, if you could.”
Each meme and gif used brings us closer to these people and their stories. With famous slangs like “KiKi” “Read,” “Shade” and “Wig” (not to be confused with this atrocity on the internet) becoming a part of our daily vocabulary –gay or straight– its inspiring to see that drag still contributes to general pop culture.
Visibility and normalcy are some of the achievements the show has been able to pull off over the years. Families get to see the people behind the makeup and realise that drag doesn’t try to caricature women and their struggle, but rather compliment and uplift them. With more people watching the show, the education continues and people, regardless of sex, orientation etc. get to connect with relatable people further proving the beauty of humanity.
Even though that level of visibility seems farfetched for us Nigerians at this moment, we are happy just to have a safe place! The core aim of RPDR has always been about preaching the gospel of acceptance, from self-acceptance to changing the way society views the LGBTQ+ community, the message hasn’t been lost in over 10 years.
We are definitely not ready to sashay away from this incandescent masterpiece that has provided us with laughter, tea, gif-able moments but, most importantly, confidence in not just who we are but who we can be.