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Baga Chipz on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
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In a fractured Britain, Drag Race UK highlights drag’s own messy politics

Queens of colour Sum Ting Wong and Vinegar Strokes opened up new narratives for the show on race and the difficulties of queer life

The quaint, camp, and uncomplicated pastiche of Britishness on offer with RuPaul’s Drag Race UK has been an unexpected balm for my hurt mind this autumn. After a summer of prime ministerial upheaval, the prorogation crisis and, last night, yet another proposed deal on our exit from the EU, it’s oddly comforting to see a cavalcade of out, proud, and feminine gays throw the United Kingdom’s decrepit pop culture back in our faces. We Brits just love melodramatic Edwardian period dramas! We Brits love hot Bond girls! We Brits love maypoles on the village greens! We love 90s British high fashion!  

Of course, the fun is the show itself knows this isn’t real: it’s realness. It’s a world away from British people’s actual lives in a country that has struggled for 10 years through austerity. These are arguably the components of a national mythology we have created for ourselves to sustain our fading self image as an imperial power. At least the queens are honest about the fact they’re just playing dress up. Watching the show, I’m aware that the world outside is somewhat more bleak, not least for the type of people Drag Race centres and celebrates. This week, hate crime statistics released show the largest rises in recorded hate crime were those against LGBTQ+ people. A court heard submissions on whether to make permanent an order banning a homophobic protest outside a Birmingham school over an LGBTQ+ inclusive school. It’s reasonable to wonder if the Prime Minister would refer to Drag Race contestants as tank-topped bumboys. Corporate-sponsored Pride season – when even your mobile banking app half-heartedly says ‘gay rights!’ while you’re trying to pay your council tax – is officially over. Girl, things are bleak.

Just because it’s an alternative to the Westminster news cycle doesn’t mean drag doesn’t have its own politics. It was possible to see that in last night’s lip sync, when close pals Vinegar Strokes and Sum Ting Wong were in a dancing deathmatch to the soundtrack of “Would I Lie to You” by the Eurythmics (side note: none of the lip sync tracks on Drag Race UK have really banged? Maybe all the best British gay club tracks have already been used on the US show, and I’m sure Dua Lipa is lovely in person but can we PLEASE have a real bop? Hopefully Geri Horner née Halliwell’s appearance next week will yield fruit). When the lineup was announced, Vinegar and Sum Ting were the show’s only two queens of colour, a fact that drew criticism. The show’s American original has not always had the best reception to its attitude to race, but the ethnic and cultural diversity of the queens has always been notable. 

At the time, sources on the cabaret circuit whispered to me that BBC Three had approached many of the most well known, best reviewed, and eminent drag performers of colour but many had said no, at least for series one, as they wanted to see how it panned out in dealing specifically with race. In fact, it seems to have done really well. In episode two, one of the series’ only genuinely moving scenes so far came in a conversation between Vinegar and Sum Ting. Vinegar discussed the difficulties in coming out as a gay man who is black and of Jamican heritage. Sum Ting then explained heartbreakingly about how she never discussed her sexuality with her parents, who don’t know she does drag or lives with her boyfriend. Her account of the necessary compartmentalisation of many LGBTQ+ people’s lives was a glimpse at queer life difficulties that no statistics could match. That said, both queens catwalk looks for the design challenge in episode three were appalling. Sum Ting’s use of plastic screens for her costume was technically proficient, but the result was a structured suit that didn’t move, so she walked down the runway like Coco Chanel with a hernia. Vinegar’s look was year nine form room waste paper bin realness – she had to go. Her wit and warmth did her a credit.

If Vinegar and Sum Ting were the loveable failures last night, their mirror image came in The Vivienne and Baga Chipz’s friendship. These two have become close not least because it looks the same person does their fillers (no shade – we all love a prick). I don’t know... these girls both should ring alarm bells: for years, Baga has drawn fire on the London scene (and my social media timelines) for her controversial political takes and contrarian views. The Vivienne has the energy of someone who would have been a complete bitch to me in the smoking area of a club when I was 22 (before I became a transsexual microinfluencer, natch). But both have won me over with their brassy charm and superior ability to make a quip – though honorary mention most go to Blu Hydrangea, who I’d written off as a bit of a drip, for her scathing one-liners!

The Viv and Baga also understand and embody the two Drag Race champion archetypes: the face queen and the comedy queen, respectively. The Vivienne’s look is conisistently excellent and Baga usually looks ropey as fuck but makes you not care a jot. There were hints of a Rolaskatox-esque alliance between these two and Crystal, but the Canadian turned east Londoner seems to take herself too seriously to truly fit in with these two. 

I think Crystal looks fierce, but oddly there’s a sense that what we’re seeing isn’t authentic – a criticism that’s already attached to Essex queen Cheryl Hole, but to me seems better applied to Crystal. I also can’t look at Crystal’s attempt to pass off her chest hair as genderfuck without thinking of a tweet by social media starlet Sean O’Neill: “East London queen’s pretending their chest hair is some radical queer statement rather than there so they can still be otters when they’re out of drag….I have to laugh”. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to Crystal to blame her for the fact that she’s the ‘radical’ queen in a sea of cisgender men, when the UK’s drag scene is increasingly led by drag kings, cis female queens, and trans people as much as gay men. Scaredy Kat’s bisexuality and Crystal’s body hair are doing a lot of work to mask the accusations of one-note identity politics.