Drag Race needs a plus size winner

Across 11 years, 12 American seasons, five All Stars, one British, two Thai and a Canadian season, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race has never been a plus size queen. 

by Gina Tonic
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27 August 2020, 4:00pm

Representation has been a hotly debated topic for RuPaul’s Drag Race for the last few years — whether that’s over the inclusion of trans performers, bioqueens or gender non-conforming contestants, or over the treatment of queens of colour by the online fanbase — but one group that has always been given time on the show is the plus size community. From Latrice Royale to Jiggly Caliente, Drag Race includes at least one (usually more) plus size contestants in each season. But despite having been blessed with 12 American seasons, five All Stars, one British, two Thai and a Canadian season airing currently, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race has never been a plus size queen.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this decision as luck of the draw, but, without detracting the validity of the queens that have won so far, it also feels unlikely this would have happened in a non-fatphobic society. Just as the show has been critiqued for its lack of diversity in everything from winning queens, fan favourite queens and even queens allowed to compete, so too is it open to critique from a sizeist standpoint.

Darienne Lake, the fourth runner up for Drag Race season six, says that even from a logistical standpoint, it’s harder to be a plus size contestant on the show. “When you’re only allowed five suitcases, they fill up pretty quickly when you’re a big girl.” She explains that, “because plus sized people aren’t represented enough in fashion, it can be hard to find fashion designers who are willing to create looks for you.”

Before even getting through the doors, the limits of what is available to you threatens to shrink your chances of winning. Darienne points out that the literal filming of the show is challenging too: “Physically it’s very taxing to compete on the show whether you’re a small queen or a big queen. The long days can wear on you if you don’t have the stamina.” Stamina is a difficult word for many plus size people, because while our bodies do have different limits to smaller frames, having our abilities automatically assumed as lesser is a hurdle faced by many bigger people, especially in a competition environment.

“When it comes to the dancing challenges, sewing challenges, any challenges, it’s almost like plus size queens have to work even harder than everyone else to prove a point that they can do it just as good, if not better, than a thin queen,” says Meg, a plus size fan of the show. “Because they know the second they slip up, or can’t keep up, they get dragged because everyone else can do it and they can’t.”

As well as the physical strains of competing in the reality show, the mental gymnastics that are added to the task list of plus size contestants only serves to frustrate fatter queens. When Ginger Minj declared “there’s solidarity in solid queens” as her reason to choose Jaidynn Diore Fierce for her team in one challenge, my heart soared. Working together with others feeling the weight of the competition — and the weight of life — is how many plus size people get through the day. When Sasha sashayed away and Ginger was left on a set with solely slimmer queens, her struggle was palpable, but her frustration was edited to make the queen seem bitter.

Often on Drag Race — a show where your look can be the difference between winning and losing — outfits worn by bigger girls are declared “unflattering” and marked down. “There’s an added pressure for queens on the show to showcase a very stereotypically ‘womanly’ silhouette,” Grace, a super fan and feminist film critic says. “I often feel like plus size queens are critiqued if they didn’t cinch or pad properly.”

Grace’s feelings aren’t unfounded — what is allowed for a thin queen is grounds for lip syncing in a bigger one. In the first season of Drag Race UK, Sum Ting Wong is commended for making a suit jacket from window blinds, then derided for showing her “boy” chest underneath with electrical tape across the nipples. The look was reminiscent of America’s season seven contestants Max and Violet Chachki, who wore pasties on their plain chests often and received no similar critique. Although Ginger Minj’s leather-and-lace Elvis impersonation was brushed over by the judging panel, when Naomi Smalls emulated the outfit years later in All Stars 3 with a Prince look, she won the challenge. What is average on a plus size contestant, it seems, is groundbreaking on anyone else.

Vinegar Strokes, who recently competed on the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, says that aside from the judges and fellow competitors, there is a faction of Drag Race fans who exclusively “lift up the skinny white queens.” She continues, “We can see it simply from the different amounts of Instagram followers that plus size, black and older queens aren’t supported as much as the skinny white queens — some who might not even have lasted as long on the show.”

Darienne agrees, expanding on Vinegar’s point: “It seems easy to write fat queens off if they don’t like the way they look. Fat people are also automatically looked at as being lazy, or unclean and sloppy.”

While juggling the heavy workload of the competition with sizeist preconceptions steeped into the subconscious of the cast, crew and fans, plus size Drag Race contestants are also expected to laugh at themselves and their bodies throughout the show. When Alexis Michelle became upset in season nine about the fat jokes during the reading challenge — after a heart-to-heart between the queens about disordered eating in a previous episode — she was judged as too sensitive. Even in the reunion special, her problems with the jokes are brought up and Michelle was forced to apologise for taking offence, or she would have seemed overly fragile. Darienne confirms this expectation to laugh at yourself, saying there is a “preconceived notion that a plus size person is jolly and comedic” and that complaining means you seem “sensitive to fat shaming or bullying”.

The problem is that it should never be the minority (Drag Race contestant or otherwise) who is blamed for being upset. The problem is that RuPaul’s Drag Race, just like everything else in our lives, is steeped in sizeism so vicious that we are unable to protest without being the bad guy.

The limitations of fatphobia are rarely considered — let alone stopped — both on television sets and in society. So when a plus size contestant hasn’t won an international TV show with a total of twenty one seasons, the onus is placed on the fatties who weren’t “good enough” and not the show that was designed to never let them win.

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