The British iteration, with its niche references, regional accents, and panto humour, is a breath of fresh air for a bloated franchise
RuPaul’s Drag Race. This fucking show. The American original of this franchise has been on our screens for 10 years and I’m certain has been airing nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past four. Or, at least, it feels that way – there’s a constant turnover of new seasons, each lasting up to fifteen weeks, as well as the companion series Untucked and the spin-off series All Stars.
I used to be a diehard fan, ever since I stumbled upon the unpolished first season airing at midnight on E4 back in 2009. In those first few years, Drag Race was a cult obsession – if you found another fan of it in the smoking area of a club you’d both spend the rest of the night bonding with each other by arguing about it. Then it grew, and grew, and grew, and grew. The show, which was originally envisioned as a campy send-up of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway became a brand in its own right and self-referential: new queens each season would make in-jokes about their predecessors on previous seasons, recent contestants often started doing drag precisely to get on the show. Meanwhile, off-camera, every drag queen in the anglophone world was either slagging off Drag Race or trying to get on it (usually both). Throughout the 2010s, my Facebook and Twitter timeline became an exhausting sea of hot takes – to justify watching the show you had to be ready to critique its political failures. If you were an LGBTQ+ journalist or critic worth your salt you wrote a po faced article about what the show meant for queer identity (yes, including me, back in 2016). The audience became larger and, necessarily, more heterosexual, while the show became glossier and the queens more media savvy. The format felt stale and joyless.
I don’t know quite why, but the Drag Race pussy wagon died on me – after 2017, I simply stopped watching. It’s why the low-budget, stripped back premiere of the UK version of RuPaul’s Drag Race that aired last week was such a joy – it was smaller, less overwhelming and cruder in every sense. It had more heart (and more laughs) than the American version has had for years and I found myself enjoying the show with fresh eyes.
There were fears about how the show would embrace a uniquely British character and the distinct flavour of British drag, which has more historical connections to Christmas panto in clapped out British seaside towns than it does to the Harlem ball scene, Vegas casinos, or the glossy pageants that inform American drag culture. If you asked most of the British population, outside the LGBTQ+ community, to name a famous drag queen you’d be just as likely to hear Lily Savage’s name as RuPaul’s and Paul O’Grady, who performed as Savage from the 1980s through to the mid 2000s, and has criticised Drag Race.
However, the UK series’ first episode showed a pleasant refusal to make the show ‘relatable’ to Americans. The British camp references were there and they were pleasingly niche: in the mini challenge, Scouse queen The Vivienne gave a sterling impression of reality TV cleaner Kim Woodburn to a bemused RuPaul (who had no fucking clue who Woodburn is), the episode contained two jokes about erstwhile Girls Aloud member Nadine Coyle, and Vinegar Strokes entered the work room with the iconic line from Eastenders’ Kat Slater: “I didn’t become a little bit of a slag – I became a TOTAL SLAG”, a meme beloved by British gay twitter. It’s hard to imagine American Drag Race fans being able to decipher the free use of grotty British slang; “gob shite”, “minge”, “slag”, “tuppence” replaced the arch code of “shade” “realness” “tea” and “werk” that have been popularised by American drag queens. In some of the more culturally interesting moments, Drag Race UK highlighted the ways in which even British queens from different backgrounds were somewhat of a mystery to each other: English contestant Baga Chipz, unable to recognise accents of other countries in the UK, asked Northern Irish rival Blu Hydrangea if she was Scottish. Birmingham-based Sum Ting Wong freely volunteered that her drag name was chosen to take back power from racist microaggressions directed towards people from east Asian backgrounds and their accents.
The show did best when it didn’t apologise for its Britishness. First loser Gothy Kendoll’s half assed runway look was savaged by Alan Carr in one of the funniest moments the show has ever had: “she looks like an estate agent that’s gone to Regents Park Zoo and said, ‘Can you face-paint my face for 50p?’. And then she’s gone back into work and gone, ‘What do you think girls? Rawr’. In contrast, the episode’s nadir came with Baga Chipz’s appalling and tired “homage” to Amy Winehouse, stumbling around to signify the alcohol addiction which ultimately killed her. This was the kind of one-note cruelty that characterised pastiches of Winehouse in life (Eminem’s “We Made You” video anyone?) and have been considered pretty tasteless since her death. Bizarrely, British actor and heterosexual guest judge Andrew Garfield, whose appearance and interactions with the contestants exuded all the awkward earnest admiration of a first-time tranny chaser, waved potential criticism of Baga’s effort away by insisting that it was part of British culture to honour the dead by mocking their pain. What? Way to make us sound like a nation of wankers.
Above all, the greatest delight of this surreal culture clash was the gleaming figure of RuPaul himself at the heart of it all. While his right-hand man, the icon that is Michelle Visage, has also been imported from the US show, RuPaul looks singularly gauche amid this pared back spin off. Visage is an avowed anglophile who has appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, has recently completed a turn in London’s West End, has been a regular on the UK gay nightlife circuit for years, and is concurrently starring in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. RuPaul, by contrast, is having to wing it. Beneath his radical claims about drag’s anarchic nature, RuPaul is a wealthy liberal hippy who feels most at home in the shallow aphorisms of West Coast psychobabble, memorably telling Buzzfeed’s Patrick Strudwick in 2015 that he once saw a man drowning and instead of calling for help simply sent the man “loving energy”. He is too much of a professional to show it, but for the next 10 weeks we’ll all have great fun wondering if the Mama Ru herself has any idea of what the hell is going on around her.