RuPaul has come in and out of vogue since her 1993 hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work)” offered MTV viewers an alternative to Nirvana’s grunge croonings and Wu-Tang Clan’s confrontational, brooding gangsta rap. Now, her painstakingly crafted, hyper-feminine, fantastic, and even fierce alter-ego is the driving force behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, a commercially successful, talent-based reality show that seeks to crown “America’s next drag superstar.” It's fascinating to watch the masterful artists on RuPaul’s Drag Race create and refine their alter egos, but something more noteworthy is taking place in this subversive reality TV competition: RuPaul is running a show that both furthers the politics of drag, and propagates her personal brand of lgbt advocacy.
In many ways, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a copycat talent show with thinly veiled allusions to America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. The queens compete in weekly challenges, create thematic runway looks, and after the judges deliberate, the bottom two queens are required to “lip-sync for their life” before RuPaul decides who should be eliminated. However, the show's nods to other reality competitions are precisely what make RuPaul’s Drag Race so entertaining. It is queering the reality TV model, and presenting a cleverly crafted artifice that is as “fishy” — realistic — as many of the drag queens walking the runway.
Mockumentary shows such as the immensely popular Modern Family and critical darling Parks and Recreation serve as direct responses to the proliferation of reality television. In contrast, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a much more subtle parody of the reality model. RuPaul has curated a show that brims with the queens' witty, lewd zingers (known as "shade"), bringing the audience into the fold of drag culture. The show has has pulled back the chiffon curtain, revealing an art form that is as genuine as it is self-mocking.
It’s been over two decades since Paris is Burning, the Jennie Livingston’s documentary that brought drag ball culture to a much larger audience. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a bawdy homage to drag stars like Pepper LaBeija and Angie Xtravaganza, who appeared in Livingston’s documentary. But where the drag queens of ball culture often judged each other on verisimilitude — "realness" — RuPaul judges her girls on a more commercial, mainstream level. The queen-select must possess charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent in order to fulfill her duties as a figurehead of lgbt culture writ large. RuPaul's Drag Race does more than simply select a winner. By way of camp and histrionics, RuPaul is selecting an LGBT idol and spokes(wo)man that can be as popular and “mainstream” as RuPaul, herself.
There is still something mightily ironic about the “mainstreaming” of a performer and LGBT advocate that so brazenly rejects the gender binary, but RuPaul’s Drag Race may be offering us a different set of rules for picking an advocate for progress and engine for social change. The previous winners of the show — BeBe Zahara Benet, Tyra Sanchez, Raja, Sharon Needles, Chad Michaels, and Jinkx Monsoon — all represent what Susan Sontag called, "a victory of 'style' over 'content,' 'aesthetics' over 'morality,' of irony over tragedy." These queens are not the Dan Savages of the LGBT movement. They are a new type of audacious camp champion that focuses on inclusion, self-acceptance, and community.
Each show ends with RuPaul’s uplifting call-and-response motto: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else? Can I get an amen?” One episode this past season especially highlighted this philosophy. After a harrowing "lip-sync for your life" to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” Roxxxy Andrews broke down, saying she was “not feeling wanted and not feeling good enough.” With an air of sagacity and poise, Ru told her, “We love you. And you are so welcome here. We, as gay people, we get to choose our family. We get to choose the people that we’re around. I am your family. We are family here. I love you.” This sentiment of unity, togetherness, and self-actualization has been echoed by many contestants. Season four’s Miss Congeniality, Latrice Royale, said in her tearful goodbye, “Dream and dream big. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, the shape you are. Be the best that you can be.”
Staking out a vision for cohesion in the LGBT community is a lofty goal for a show that is caked in a patina of lipstick, cosmetic foundation, and glitter. Nonetheless, RuPaul is providing a platform for sexual minorities to display and demonstrate their craft on TV in a way that we have never seen before (such a show may not have been possible without the creation of a gay-themed channel). Through its unabashed use of camp, RuPaul's Drag Race has demonstrated its commitment to the the LGBT community’s cries for acceptance and understanding. In its own sly way, RuPaul’s Drag Race may be doing just as much for the LGBT community as the many advocates fighting for marriage equality and employment protections. The queens are just doing it in heels, while lip-syncing to their own brand of advocacy.