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RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, UK Hun United Kingdolls
United Kingdolls – Lawrence Chaney, Tayce, A’Whora, Bimini Bon Boulashcourtesy of BBC3

Coronavirus-hit Drag Race UK stirs unglamorous but vital industry questions

Episode five saw a COVID-positive queen forced to bow out, a Ruruvision banger with the United Kingdolls’ ‘UK Hun?’, and an irate outburst from Ru that felt unsympathetic to the dire straits of drag amid pandemic

“I don’t want to see any fucking H&M!” RuPaul bellowed at her startled charges on Thursday night’s Drag Race UK mainstage, an irate outburst we haven’t seen before from the Empress of Eleganza, at least in the British version of the show. It was an explosive crescendo to a high octane episode – arguably one of the best episodes of Drag Race ever aired – and one that has prompted much discussion online about the industry of drag itself amid a pandemic.

But before we get into all that, we must lay our scene: the queens returned to the workroom after a seven-month hiatus thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and first British national lockdown. Having just passed the peak of the second wave, we are all aware of how mistaken the government’s active encouragement of non-essential international travel over the summer was…. except in the sole instance of flying Ru and Michelle back here to resume filming, a decision which is frankly exempt from political condemnation for reasons of national morale. What has our cast been doing during the break in filming? Well, frankly, they’ve been hitting the injectables hard. A’Whora, Bimini, and Sister Sister’s facial feature adjustments took us briefly to the uncanny valley before we re-adjusted to their new proportions. Meanwhile, Mama Ru herself was inexplicably wearing a peculiar bright yellow wig when out of drag. Rather like the glowing briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction’, the precise meaning or significance of the yellow wig was never explained to us. Was it a postmodern puzzle representing the untarnished ideal of masculinity, or was it simply to hide the incisions from a facelift? It’s not for me to say.

In a shocking twist of fate, Veronica Green tested positive for coronavirus and so was unable to return to the series. Her climbing narrative arc from the previous four episodes was brutally cut short, as so much has been during the pandemic. However, we were reassured she is allowed to return next season. To replace her, the queens were told they could vote to return one of three contestants who had already been told to sashay away: they were Joe Black, Asttina, and Cherry Valentine. Despite Cherry mentioning quite pointedly that she had been working as a nurse throughout the pandemic, she didn’t attract a single vote. So much for valuing key workers – hope she savoured the claps every Thursday last April. In the end, Joe Black was voted back into the competition, perhaps hoping to regain some valour after being controversially sent home after falling at episode one’s first hurdle.

The maxi this week was the well-established girl group challenge, with a Eurovision bent: the kind of uniquely British flourish to the American format that makes the UK series dazzle. Lawrence Cheney (as champion of the previous challenge many months before) and returning queen Joe Black were allowed to pick their groups. Lawrence, Tayce, Bimini, and A’Whora formed the United Kingdolls and Joe Black, Tia Kofi, Sister Sister, and Ellie Diamond became Banana Drama. Both groups had to sing and choreograph performances of the same song “UK Hun?” Its chorus, “Bing, bang, bong/Sing, sang, song/Ding, dang, dong – UK hun?” has already intrusive thought levels for me. The queens were coached with aplomb by British music’s queer sweetheart MNEK who, can I just say, looked gorgeous throughout this episode, both as mentor and judge.

“RuPaul’s demand for glamour at all costs has not been as well received in the UK drag community. Expectations of queens to fund expensive looks during a pandemic are onerous, even unsympathetic. (But) the episode itself did tackle the economy of drag in a way the show has never really before”

When it came to the performance, the queens were judged as groups, not individuals. It was clear instantly that the United Kingdolls had snatched victory, with a stand out rendition of the single that was so infectious it’s already Number 1 in the UK charts. If individual prizes had been handed out for the challenge, it is without question that Bimini Bon Boulash would have taken the crown. Her performance was both campy and polished, with incisive, sharp lyrics: “gender bender, cis-tem offender”. It was obvious no other queen on the stage could step to her. I was delighted to watch it.

Poor Banana Drama. Their performance was just not the one. It was lacklustre and very much the poor relation. It was when they, as a group, were up for elimination that H&M’s share prices were about to take a tumble. Much of the criticism fell on Joe Black, who, despite a well executed look on the runway for the British seaside theme, had worn a shapeless H&M dress with a belt during the girl group performance that left the judges underwhelmed and RuPaul aggravated. 

RuPaul’s demand for glamour at all costs, however, has not been as well received in the UK drag community. Expectations of queens to fund expensive looks during a pandemic are onerous, even unsympathetic. The episode itself did tackle the economy of drag in a way the show has never really before; perhaps because before COVID, it didn’t need to. The entire industry has been wiped out with the overnight disappearance of nightlife and socialising, and there’s very little indication of when it may return.

Where it has existed – in summer’s socially distanced drag brunches, Instagram lives, virtual office Christmas parties or, indeed, on pre-recorded Drag Race UK – drag is a spectre of its former self. It is an artform that belongs in noisy pubs, bars, and clubs. It thrives on spontaneity and inebriation. Not to mention the fact that its performers can only prosper on a proper income. Who would or could start doing drag in 2021? How, then, can we expect those who have dedicated their lives to this art form be able to keep throwing money at glamorous high fashion looks without the certainty there’s anything in it for them? It’s a valid question, and one Joe Black may be considering given that this week he was eliminated again. Would investing in a better dress have saved him, or would he have been asked to leave regardless and been all the poorer for it? 

These very unglamorous questions are now ones the whole industry into which Drag Race UK is fast becoming a key player will have to contend with, until at least next year. It is refreshing, though, that this series – from its discussion of nonbinary gender identities to industry economics – is having a reflexive discussion about the show’s own place in the wider subculture it claims to represent. I hope we see more of this self-examination in future episodes. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK airs every Thursday from 8PM on BBC iPlayer