Thursday, September 22, 2011

Television Review: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Untucked & Drag U


An ex once told me: “You’d make a great drag queen.” Upon seeing my puzzled expression, he added: “Oh, not a convincing one but one of those dignified ones, like Terence Stamp in Priscilla – Queen of the Desert.” Now, many years later, I still do not own a kimono or any kind of make-up and after watching all three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I am more convinced than ever that I would suck at drag. It takes a certain kind of mentality to do it: you have to crave attention, be willing to risk ridicule and not mind the large amount of time and money that goes into it. Being a drag queen is a whole lot of work, especially if you paint your own face and make your own outfits. It’s a bitch to turn yourself into a glamorous bitch. And you have to have courage to femme yourself up in a world that demands that men are masculine, which strangely seems even more true within the gay scene than outside of it. Likely this is because a lot of gay men feel they need to overcompensate for ‘not being a real man to begin with’. They may appreciate a guy in drag for the spectacle and entertainment value of it, but it’s not likely to be a turn-on. (Fun fact: if two drag queens hook up, which is supposedly a rare occurrence, this is called ‘kai kai’.)

RuPaul’s Drag Race showcases the shiny outer appearance of drag but – more interestingly – also explores the characters behind the fa├žade somewhat. It has been roughly modeled after America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway: each season a group of drag queens is put through a series of challenges, testing their skills at performance, their ability to follow instructions and to work together and their ‘technical’ skills at putting together an impressive look in a short time. They are judged each week by a jury led by the titular RuPaul herself (full name: RuPaul Andre Charles) – who you are most likely to know from the 80’s hit ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’. Also present are a gay-friendly C/D-list ‘surprise’ celebrity and some recurring stylists: Santino Rice, Michelle Visage, Mike Ruiz and Merle Ginsberg (seasons 1 & 2). Each week, one performer is named the ‘winner’ and two end up in ‘the bottom two’. This duo is then told to “lip-synch for your life”: a final battle to win favor with RuPaul or else risk getting banished. The one who performs better is spared: “Shante, you stay.” The other one has to “Sashay… away.” In the last episode of each season ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’ is chosen from the final three contestants.

Because there are various equally valid styles of drag, the judgment calls can feel subjective. It’s easier to predict who is going to be in the ‘bottom two’, than to predict who is going to be coming out on top, since a ‘hot mess’ is generally obvious but it’s harder to distinguish between types of ‘great’. Some performers adopt larger-than-life looks and persona’s, putting the emphasis on spectacle, while others seem to strive towards being a professional high-class fashion model and occasionally a performer seems to just want to be a convincing girl. Some have a sense of humor about the whole thing, while others play it straight. Going by RuPaul’s Drag Race’s track-record, the fashion models rule the roost and someone with a strong emphasis on humor like Pandora Boxx is likely to get culled. Since the winner will be representing a company ultimately, as part of the prize, I have a feeling that glamour is an unspoken demand imposed by the sponsors. And speaking of sponsors and plugs: a lot of brand names get thrown around each week on the show. It’s heartening to see that corporate America is embracing drag. Also expect to hear a lot of Rupaul’s music, from the albums Champion and Glamazon for the moment, because – damn – that lady knows how to self-promote, as is evidenced by the fact that she sticks her name in the title of all her programs. She herself stars in the show both as a scarily thin man with a pencil moustache and as a glamorous Diva.

RuPaul’s Drag Race comes tied to a behind-the-scenes program titled Untucked. It shows more of the interpersonal drama happening backstage and adds character. If you just see the main show, you will form a different opinion of certain contestants than if you watch both shows, since more is explained about people’s motivations and background. I am pretty sure that a lot of the drama is fabricated in the editing room though, as happens with all reality television.

But there is a far more artificial third program on RuPaul’s roster, called RuPaul’s Drag U. In this program, a weekly selection of the drag queens from Drag Race – here dubbed Drag Professors at Drag University, where RuPaul is the President and Lady Bunny is the Dean - give three downtrodden women a make-over, to bring out their fierceness, self-confidence and to upgrade their mojo. The women tell their sad story, homilies are said, hugs are given and then the three ladies compete with each other for ‘draguating’ with top honors and some nice prizes. It is an odd concept, since after all the uplifting chatter two people are being sent home a ‘loser’, sort of deflating the niceness. Since the teachers have nothing really at stake apart from their honor, real tension is lacking even though there are some forced attempts at making them throw each other shade. (In other words: making them do or say something to take a rival down a notch.) While during Drag Race you start to have favorites to root for as the shows progress, these contestants don’t stick around long enough for you to care who wins. And generally it tends to be the one with the most depressing story who takes top honors, making the actual make-over seem somewhat irrelevant. Two seasons have been wrapped, but the formula is in need of more fine-tuning, as opposed to Drag Race and its Untucked add-on, which after three seasons run like a well-lubed machine.

One thing is certain: RuPaul has built an empire for herself and a flock of gender bending talent. The Drag Race set-up is a very addictive one, even – and maybe especially – to people like me and my boyfriend who would never dream of slapping on make-up and slipping into a dress, but are fascinated by these extravagant, extravert creations and the sometimes surprisingly shy and introverted people behind them. What I would love to see is a more Real World-like program starring the drag queens from Drag Race; following them on the road as they do shows, getting behind-the-scenes and learning about their day-to-day life. Rather than take away from the mystery, I think the contrast of life on-stage and off-stage would be fascinating. RuPaul, don’t rest on your laurels – there is more to be done. Fashion those laurels into a Caesar’s crown and expand that empire. As a magnificent bitch once said: “you better work”!