RuPaul’s Drag Race, for those who are unaware, is an American reality competition TV series wherein drag queens from all over the US compete for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. The TV show swept the world by storm and it opened a gate to a booming drag industry. The show has nine Emmy Awards, three Reality Television Awards, and three NewNowNext Awards under its wing. It has proven to be a powerhouse in LGBTQ+ entertainment. Despite their recognition in awards and accolades, the show somehow managed to fly under the radar to a lot of people. But since you are reading this, I’m assuming that you’re a bit curious about the show and the buzz surrounding it. Well, put your seatbelt on because I’m going to take you to the races.

*Knuckle crack* LET’S DO THIS

The Show Format

Of course with getting into anything, the basics always comes first. Here’s the show format digested into a list:

Mini Challenges: In mini challenges, the contestants are assigned to perform some tasks with varying requirements and limitations. No matter what the challenge is, the ultimate goal is to entertain or make RuPaul laugh. Even through the mini challenges are always different for each episode and each season, there are some recurring mini challenges like the photoshoot, reading challenge, and the puppet challenge. The winner of this portion of the show is usually given an advantage to the main challenges.

Maxi Challenges: The maxi challenge is one of the things that determines the winner of the week. Maxi challenges involve one of four things: acting, musicals, comedy, and fashion. Let’s break them down one by one. Acting challenges are either group or individual wherein the drag queens are given a script and they need to portray their parts out entertainingly. It does not actually matter if the queens are bad at acting, the baseline here is that it is entertaining. Usually, acting challenges are satirical spinoffs of actual shows or movies. The award-winning series gave us entertainment gold with ‘RuCo’s Empire’ inspired from the show ‘Empire’, ‘9021-HO’ inspired from ‘90210’, and ‘Gay’s Anatomy’ inspired from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. Aside from skits, the contestants also face musical challenges along the way or as the show coined it, ‘Rusicals’. Rusicals does not necessarily involve the queens actually singing but lip syncing to pre-recorded songs. The times that they actually do get to sing, it is usually for song-writing challenges where the queens make their own lyrics and record them to the instrumentals of one of RuPaul’s songs. Usually, the Rusicals are tribute to women in media or parodies of cliche musical tropes. But then again, the goal here is not to be the best singer but to become the most entertaining. Moving on to comedy challenges, these are one of the deciding factors if a queen goes far in the competition. Comedy challenges could be a plethora of things but all of them involve some level of improv. One of the recurring comedy challenges is the Snatch Game, a parody of the gameshow Match Game. In this challenge, the queens have to impersonate a celebrity while trying to match the guests’ answers and also volleying witty comments with RuPaul and the other contestants. This challenge alone has produced some of the show’s most iconic moments. If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, the goal is to be the most entertaining in order to win the challenge. Last category of the challenges is the fashion challenges. This has taken many forms, but it boils down to the queens making garments worthy of the runway. If you are a fashion connoisseur and you haven’t seen the show, you will be blown to what these queens serve on the runway.

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Runways: Segueing from the previous segment, the show always require a runway before their critiques on the maxi challenges. The looks must follow a certain theme that is given to them that week. The runways are also a crucial part of determining the winner of each week. As the show progresses, the looks that these queens give become increasingly better reaching the levels of Paris Fashion Week. The fashion part of the show has been so successful that some queens go on to work with giant names in the fashion industry like Vogue, Versace, and many more. Some queens even start modelling careers as drag queens. If you’re not convinced, see the figure below.

Drag Culture into the Mainstream

In order to understand why the show is popular, let’s look at how drag entered the mainstream. Drag has been around since the 17th century when only men were allowed to perform in Shakespearean plays in the Globe London theater. They would dress up to fill in for female characters. The term ‘drag’ came from the fact that the dresses the men wore dragged across the stage floor.

The art of female impersonation didn’t kick off until the 20th century with vaudevillian entertainment. This gave birth to the rise of the first well-known drag queen named Julian Eltinge. His success moved beyond vaudeville and enabled him to become one of the world’s highest paid actor at the time, surpassing Charlie Chaplain.

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The modern style of drag that we see today started from the prohibition era of the US. Underground clubs and bars became safe spaces for everyone in the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Gay men who wanted to express their gender used the artform of drag and be free in these hidden gems.

In the 1960s, the New York mafia and the Genovese family gave an outlet to the drag queens and gay community through the purchase of the Stonewall in Manhattan. If you’re familiar with the stonewall, this is the birth of gay rights movement and pride. Drag queens were at the forefront for fighting for equal rights for gay people.

The 80s and 90s saw more openness to gender expression to the mainstream with the likes of artists like Boy George and Pete Burns. The popularity of RuPaul in this era allowed drag to be known worldwide. His career became an inspiration to children everywhere and kickstarted a new era of drag when he created the show RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The culture of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically drag queens, have always been resilience. This resilience is tied to its brutal history of oppression. Without a place to fit in, the drag queens built their own and it its beautiful. If you can get past the fashion, tongue pops and death drops, you will find social rejects trying to make something out of the nothing they were given. The show RuPaul’s Drag Race has enabled the voices of the underrepresented be heard and show the world what they’ve created. The popularity of the show is a testament to the beauty of drag culture.

One of the main drivers to the show’s popularity isn’t actually the content but the culture surrounding it. Death-defying acrobatics, jaw-dropping fashion, and unique lingo have captured the attention for much of its viewers. Aside from that, the show has been something that LGBTQ+ people can call their own in a world made for heteronormative views. You have this show to thank for terms like ‘Yas queen,’ ‘werk,’ and ‘slay’.

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If you have a few hours to spare, I cannot stress this enough, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. You won’t be disappointed. It takes wigs, lashes, and nails to make a drag queen, but it takes heart and dedication to make a good show.

As RuPaul says it, “YOU BETTA WORK!” *tongue pop*