Last Friday, the season 9 premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” found its highest ratings ever, with nearly 1 million viewers. With its move to a new time slot (from Monday to Friday) and new channel (from Logo to VH1), and an epic appearance by Lady Gaga, a new era of “Drag Race” is upon us.
The little reality show that could has struck a chord with a whole new audience, which is why it’s critical for newcomers to approach the franchise with the respect it deserves. “Drag Race” began as the gay dive bar that no one knew about, and it’s about to be discovered by all the straights who come for the great playlists and sassy bartenders. While it’s never been the kind of show where you’d see blowjobs in the bathroom (about the only reality-show staple that’s missing), newcomers would be wise to know their “Drag Race” herstory before jumping on the pride float.
But, with great popularity comes great responsibility, as RuPaul learned in Season 7 when he had to cut the catchphrase, “You’ve got shemale,” a degrading slur for trans women. And yesterday, “Drag Race” alums Detox and Alaska voiced their disapproval that Wendy Williams was co-hosting a “Drag Race” companion show on VH1, “Fierce Fridays.” According to New York-based drag performer Stephanie Stone, Williams once removed an audience member from her talk show for wearing drag, and Alaska added that Williams has said things about Caitlyn Jenner that were “beyond questionable.”
As gay culture moves closer to the mainstream, there’s reason to be wary of those jumping on the bandwagon. Here are five things any new fan needs to know about why “Drag Race” is the smartest reality show on television.
It has all the elements.
“Drag Race” works on many levels; the first is that is has all of the elements of a satisfying competition reality show. Truly: All of them. If you like “Project Runway,” the queens are often making their own garments under time constraints. For “Top Model” fans, the girls must walk the runway and serve face in photo shoots. “American Idol,” “X Factor,” “So You Think You Can Dance”? These girls have to sing, dance, perform comedy, write musicals, you name it. And these ladies can read each other to filth with far wittier zingers than any “Real Housewives” franchise (except maybe Atlanta).
And all the catchphrases.
Let’s face it: When Tim Gunn unwittingly turned “Make it work” into a household phrase, he was probably echoing RuPaul’s hit song, Supermodel (You Better Work). RuPaul is like the hen that lays the golden eggs when it comes to catchphrases; they just keep coming, and they’re all priceless. From the show’s pun of a title comes, “Gentlemen, start your engines. And may the best woman win,” and RuPaul has an endless supply of lyrics to draw from for phrases such as “Sissy that walk,” “Shante you stay,” and of course, the always inspiring, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
The guest judges are all fans of the show.
One of the best parts the Season 9 premiere was seeing just how thrilled Lady Gaga was to be there, and how thoughtful and funny she was with her critiques. (When one comedic queen didn’t have the best look, Gaga saw potential.) RuPaul practically has his pick from gay-icon royalty when it comes to guest judges, who have included John Waters, Neil Patrick Harris, Paula Abdul, and Kathy Griffin.
The permanent judges are all funny.
In drag, you have to be able to get a laugh. Though the final decisions are always RuPaul’s, he has a grand time listening to the bickering of his best squirrel friend, Michelle Visage, comedian Ross Mathews, and the original gay-reality royalty, Carson Kressley. Each look that comes down the runway gets a barrage of jokes and puns, and the judges’ discussion is often the funniest part of the whole show. What other reality show can say that?
The show is a reality show in drag.
Borrowing from the drag tradition itself, “Drag Race” takes influences from all over the reality television landscape, piling references so high it’s a wonder it doesn’t topple over under the weight of its own satirical wig. The show still operates on a fairly low budget for how slick it looks, an old drag queen trick. From behind RuPaul’s pun-spewing sparkling grin, he winks at the audience with the wisdom of a showbiz legend who knows what’s really important: “It’s all a game,” he seems to say, “let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs on VH1 on Fridays at 8 pm.