Liam O’Brien: Let’s Get Sickening – ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’
Liam O’Brien was the runner up in the 2015 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism for his piece ‘Let’s Get Sickening’, on RuPaul’s Drag Race, reprinted below.
Let’s Get Sickening
It is just impossible to get tickets to see Bianca Del Rio. She is too famous. She is laptop-open-for-8am-log-on-and-click-buy-now-twenty-times type of famous, like Kate Bush and Beyoncé. It’s worth getting tickets, though, because otherwise you have to endure the gig via YouTube shaky-cam clips, trying to discern her jokes over screaming kids wearing tight Bianca t-shirts emblazoned with her catchphrases, ‘Not Today, Satan’ and ‘Clown Realness’.
Bianca’s real name is Roy Haylock, a 39-year-old costume designer and sometime comedian from New Orleans, and she’s the winner of the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
To many British readers, a lot of these words will sound unfamiliar, but be assured: across the English-speaking world, this is the show that has the greatest cultural clout among gay men, and young gay men in particular. It makes Looking, HBO’s attempt to portray the modern gay man, appear positively turgid. It makes other reality shows seem quaint and colourless. Its every moment is gif-ed and redistributed over thousands of tweets and blogs, and its contestants are turned into minor superstars who command fees of £5,000 to whack on a wig and mime to the hit parade.
It wasn’t meant to be so successful. The show first aired in 2009 on the LGBT cable channel Logo. It was hosted by the drag queen RuPaul, chiefly known for being a junior player in Michael Alig’s New York club kid scene of the late 80s and as the face of Mac Cosmetics a few years later. In each episode, RuPaul and his fellow judges would assess the drag queens in a variety of tasks – tests of skill in dressmaking, comedy, singing and acting – and in a traditional runway pageant. The two queens who produced the poorest performances and looks that week would “lip sync for their lives” – mime to a popular song – and the least spirited of the two would go home. The overall winner was crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar. It was a lazy, facile play on America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, filmed on the cheap with a catwalk that would have appalled the contestants of Little Miss Backwater 1975.
The show could easily have been a joke, a one-series commission for the curio cabinet. Instead something very different happened. Faced with silly challenges like ‘Channelling Oprah Winfrey’ and giving butch female fighters a feminine makeover, the queens were taking it very seriously. They were seizing this opportunity for everything it could give, because back home they were performing for dollar tips from bored audiences in dive bars. When Nina Flowers Vogued, she Vogued for her life, with the remembered euphoria of the old drag balls in the Big Apple put on by black and Puerto Rican men who’d been thrown out of their family homes with a Buffalo Nickel, ripped tights and some lipstick. When RuPaul praised Ongina for constructing a brilliant HIV-awareness campaign for Mac Viva Glam, Ongina broke down in tears, and said it had been her pleasure, because for the past two years she’d hidden the fact she herself was HIV-positive.
RuPaul was taking it seriously, too. He was intelligent, and he knew his queer history. He could quote the documentary Paris is Burning by line. The film’s protagonists, the fabulously attired and the prematurely dead, who would have been famous in any just life, would surely have been heartened to know that twenty years later their anecdotes and antics would be required viewing for any Drag Race hopeful.
On the announcement of a second series, the American drag world woke up. Queens realised they now had a proper platform for their art, when previously, “making it” was defined as being an extra in a Rihanna video or enjoying a brief scene as a murder victim on a major network crime procedural. The contestants started pushing themselves further, and in doing so they broadened the art of drag. In the ‘Snatch Game’ episodes – a take on Blankety Blank in which each drag queen impersonates a celebrity – viewers were treated to a Britney Spears who sniffed marker pens because they “smell like home”, and a Carol Channing who led the charge for Broadway Actresses Against Scurvy. Jinkx Monsoon, a 24-year-old narcolept ridiculed by the other competitors for her lack of fashion sense and her inability to paint her own face, gave a take on Little Edie Beale that was so accurate that it might have raised a smile from Mother Darling. On the runway, Courtney Act recalled Klaus Nomi in a triangular tuxedo; the slender Raja slayed the judges in diverse costumes that had their roots in an Indian subcontinent-inspired Jean Paul Gaultier collection from 1994. It is impossible to get through an episode without feeling the urge to Google something for explanation, to shed further light on their vast, catholic influences. The show should cheer the hearts of anyone involved in the creative industries, and anyone who ever produced anything weird or controversial or generally disliked, because here is the surest evidence that it found a home in some outcast’s scrapbook, that in typical families Texan, Floridian and Georgian, there were kids who Pritt-Sticked exotica into secret folders and dreamed they were someplace else.
Drag Race became Logo’s top-rated show. Here in the UK, it was picked up by E4, but cancelled after just one season due to a lack of interest.
And then something happened: Sharon Needles.
Needles, whose real name is Aaron Coady, was the undisputed star of the fourth series. A whip-smart, whippet-thin 29-year-old, he’d gone from being bullied out of secondary school to horrifying small venues in Pittsburgh, attaching bags he’d pulled from the dustbin onto his body and ripping them open on-stage. On Drag Race, he vomited blood, he wrapped his head in bandages and pretended to inject his lips with chemical fillers. He enjoyed being booed and heckled, he said, because that was just “applause from ghosts”. After winning the show, a circumstance that means their every gig is accompanied by a shower of audience tips, he took their money, put it in a blender with vodka and drank the resultant mixture.
Kids who eight years ago might have idolised Pete Doherty now had Sharon. And if you were British or Australian or French or Spanish, it didn’t matter that you couldn’t watch it on TV, because some kind soul would always be there to illegally upload it onto the Internet. And if you couldn’t do that, you could always follow what Sharon and her drag cohort were saying and wearing on social media.
It feels odd to extol Sharon, because she’s become the show’s very own fallen star, a Lindsay Lohan or Judy Garland figure of the Drag Race universe. She says the N-word too often for the comfort of most fans (if a person’s pallor could make the blasphemy worse, then Sharon’s would exacerbate it threefold), she has confessed to regular cocaine use, and there are videos of her burning cigarettes into people’s arms. The fans that loved her now proclaim their preference for Alaska, who appeared on the following season. Alaska was Sharon’s ex-boyfriend, and their relationship ended after vicious physical fights.
As Sharon fell the show went from strength to strength. The Queens star in adverts for American Apparel, their parodies of hit songs (‘This Girl Is On Fire’ became the rather more crude ‘This Boy Is A Bottom’) reach millions of online viewers. Adore Delano – a failed American Idol contestant – used the show as a springboard for a top sixty album, and Bianca del Rio was the last person Joan Rivers followed on Twitter before she died.
The reason gay people love it is that it goes against what the modern entertainment industry believes gay people want. It does not coddle. It does not give everybody a hug, like Glee. Sure, you can sing an old-fashioned showtune if you want, but you better be doing something dangerous with it or you’ll be packing your bags. It doesn’t hide the fact that gays can be the most competitive, vicious people in the world when you dangle a sash in front of their faces. The fans are allowed to get vicious, too: when Roxxxy Andrews broke down while remembering how her mother abandoned her at a bus stop as a child, there was outrage because she’d done it at a time when such a sob story might save her from elimination.
The fans are the show’s fiercest critics. They say producers are too ready to shoehorn talented people into convenient storylines: the pageant queen who rocks the comedy challenge; the seasoned professional who coasts on her past achievements.
They should ease up, because the show is teaching them an important lesson: being ‘faggy’ and wanting to adorn yourself in sequins does not mean, as we’re encouraged to believe, that you’re betraying workaday gays on the nine-to-five. It means, on the contrary, that you might be remembered. That you weren’t boring. That you were sickening.