By any standard imaginable 2020 has been a difficult year in the world, but for many people stuck at home RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a consistent spirit lifter to look forward to every week. The US reality competition show puts fourteen drag queens from around the nation through runway presentations and challenges to determine who will be America’s Next Drag Superstar. In the last four years the franchise has been expanding at a remarkable rate, premiering its own iterations in Thailand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and most recently The Netherlands; not to mention its two US spin-offs, All Stars and most recently Secret Celebrity Drag Race.
Beyond the giant marketing machine however, the show has gained cult status with a large fraction of the queer community who watches religiously, knows each season well, and follows the queens long after their run on the show ends. RuPaul, the host of the show, often talks about Drag Race as a GPS system for young LGBT people around the world and in many ways it is. A show celebrating queer people for their femininity, their weirdness, their identity and art in whatever expression that takes form its not the most common ask in the television landscape.
Drag Race this year (and most years to be frank) was an opportunity to not just speak about Black excellence but watch it in motion. Season 12 was packed with beautiful Black queens, telling their stories of resilience through domestic violence and homelessness (Thank you Window Von’ Du), and through financial hardships (thank you Heidi N’ Closet, crowned Ms. Congeniality as well). But the crowning jewel of the season was of course its winner, the ‘Essence of Beauty’, Jaida Essence Hall, who throughout the season showcased the best of modern drag. Having made most of her runway presentations herself, impressing the judges with her impeccable makeup skills, and hypnotising audiences with her lip sync performances.
Then came All Stars 5, with a string of talented Black and PoC performers. We had Mariah Paris Balenciaga perform spoken word about racial inequality in America, giving a performance reminiscent of poet Maya Angelou, stunning the judges with her ballroom style of drag on the runway. Mayhem Miller made her comeback a treat to watch as well, especially on the hotel makeover challenge with some especially funny quibs. As a Latinx person I stanned Alexis Mateo with great passion, her traditional pageant stylings made for a heartwarming reminder of drag’s origins. The two Asian queens of the season (Jujubee and Ongina) brought the Laotian and Philipino heritage to the forefront in their runway presentation. But the crowned jewel was without a doubt our front-runner, Shea Coulee, who week after week stunned viewers with her vision, elevated from an already stellar showing on her original season nine.
Lastly, the surprise release of the year was Canada’s Drag Race. The spin-off was not sizzling with anticipation to begin with, but as it progressed (during quarantine I might add) it became a weekly comfort to see these Canadian queens fight for their spot on the race, ultimately ending in a really successful run. An honourable shout out to some remarkable POC queens go to Anastarzia Anaquway (pageant queen extraordinaire), Tynomi Banks (lip sync assassin of the season), Ilona Verley (our first Two-Spirit First Nation queen to make it on the show) and Kiara (our young French Canadian prodigy). But the standing ovation goes to the winner of the season, Priyanka! Who won our hearts over with her charming personality, representing her Indo-Carribean heritage and ending the season with a landmark runway presentation (very honourable mention to her iconic I Drove All Night lip sync).
As the show has grown further into mainstream, contestants catapulted into global recognition face a frenzy that very much reflects the times.The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement during the pandemic, several Black and NBPOC queens have spoken out about the disparity in treatment and racial abuse some receive from ‘fans’ after the show ends. White queens are often more sought after for gigs and followed on social media that is, whilst PoC queens are not always afforded the same respect or appreciation. Just as the pandemic has amplified the voice of Black people around the world, a magnifying glass is on the Drag Race universe for queens (and fans) to change the way they interact online to stand in solidarity with queens of colour and act against abusive users online.
Every step of the pandemic has been isolating, gruelling and filled with uncertainty. But this year has meant that we’ve had to hone in on the things we love and appreciate them on a new level. There is no show in television that has showcased as many stories by queer PoC like Drag Race has in 16 US seasons distributed globally. Finding hope in these performers and their art has done wonders for the queer spirit of many people out there, and as the eyes of the world open up to the need for PoC visibility on television, Drag Race stands as a great example to follow. Showcasing complex queer stories, centering them, celebrating them, is the way of the future in the present.
The new season of the UK Drag Race will be coming up in 2021 on the BBC, so we look forward to more PoC talent there than there was in the first season (shout out to Vinegar Strokes and Sum Ting Wong as our only PoC queens of that season). Similarly for Drag Race US and its All Stars spin-off, fans are looking for a cast that reflects the colours of the rainbow and the drag scene as it stands, with Black and PoC talent, in its many gender expressions. Non-binary and trans performers included! As Drag Race continues to grow and takes steps in the right direction, we look diligently to its evolution every year, and hope its move to the mainstream brings some much needed light in these challenging times.