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Underneath the pritt stick and false eyelashes: has Drag Race changed?

When it first aired over a decade ago, RuPaul’s Drag Race was a niche experiment in reality television, broadly unknown outside of its cult following. But combining the most entertaining features of competitions like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model with drag culture was a recipe for success that no one could have predicted! Now, 19 Emmys and 2 spin-off shows later, Drag Race is entering its 13th season and I can’t help but reflect on the evolution of the show and whether its transition from niche cult phenomenon to mainstream hit has been entirely positive. 

The early seasons of Drag Race were rough around the edges. From washed-out filters to gaudy stage sets, it had room for improvement and a budget increase. Yet the show was still entertaining, camp, catty and heartwarming. To newcomers to the drag queen world like myself, it was captivating. These early seasons were followed by what I consider the golden era of Drag Race. The kinks had been ironed out, but the drama remained. We saw drag superstars like Alaska and Bianca Del Rio reach celebrity status after their run on the show, while queens like Violet Chachki brought haute couture to the main stage. The show was becoming more and more popular, with hard-working artists finally being recognized for their talents and influence. Yet with this came an inevitable shift that can be attributed as much to the show’s success as it can to the rising influence of social media. 

The show we see now is different to what it once was. RuPaul and wing woman Michelle Visage remain crucial fixtures, as do the iconic lip sync battles and runway challenges. Yet the focus has shifted. Youth is valued over experience, with young high-fashion ‘look’ queens replacing the comedy queens and costume designers of old. Many of the contestants enter the show with an established social media presence, suggesting that fame may be a new prerequisite of entry. The messy, but entertaining, chaos of the show has waned in favour of a more polished, structured format which guarantees each of its contestants at least 15 minutes of fame. While these changes are by no means devastating, many performers fear their wider impact. Drag Race’s encroachment onto the mainstream has threatened its status as a transgressive and political artform. It has been critiqued for trying too hard to appease the masses instead of remaining true to its subversive roots.

Has it sold out?

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In short, no- it has not sold out, but it has changed and in the process, it may have lost what hardcore fans of the show once considered authentic. In actuality, the art is still there, the authenticity is still there and the challenge to preconceived norms remains- but is presented differently. As it evolves, the show continues to push the barriers of gender and sexuality. Its entry into the limelight has enabled it to broaden its reach, exposing all manner of people to a revolutionary artform, even influencing online slang (It is near impossible to scroll through Instagram without coming across drag-coined phrases like ‘werq’ or ‘throwing shade’). Crucially, the creativity of the contestants remains inspiring. 

So, if you haven’t watched it – WATCH IT! What this show has done for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as popular culture, is reason enough to make it essential viewing. It is also always incredibly entertaining, and season 13 looks to be no exception. I am, however, nostalgic for what the show once was and I would advise new viewers to watch some of the older seasons alongside the newer ones, to better appreciate the work that went into creating the stylish commercial success that RuPaul’s Drag Race is today. 

Image: dvross via Wikimedia Commons