is the uk ready for drag race?

Prepare yourself for niche 'Eastenders' references, because they are a-comin'.

by Roisin Lanigan
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01 October 2019, 7:15am

There’s a moment in the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK where one of the queens, upon walking into the workroom, announces her entrance with an uncanny impression of Eastenders icon Kat Slater. “I didn’t just become a slag,” she said, quoting the emotional scene from a soap opera that consequently became (inevitably) a cherished British meme. “I became a total slag.”

So sets the tone for the British offshoot of Drag Race. The reality TV contest has, in just under a decade, gone from a niche show on a niche American network -- harnessed by messy drama and dubious camera filters -- to an international juggernaut. Since its debut in 2010, Drag Race has spawned conventions, about a million club bangers, worldwide tours, YouTube series and endless lines of merchandise. It’s catapulted over many to fame -- or at the very least transformed their hobbies into viable careers. Last year, the Drag Race banner launched its first international offshoot, Drag Race Thailand, which was an immediate success. Now the RuPaul train is coming to the UK. Whether that success will be replicated? We’re about to find out.

Traditionally, the British drag scene is anathema to the polished, commercial, lip-syncing mainstream, championed by the kind of American stars we’ve seen on the past 11 seasons of VH1’s Drag Race. Immersed in comedy, live music and inherently tongue-in-cheek, the British drag scene landscape hard to sum up with brevity, precisely because of the diversity on which it thrives. American drag performances are fuelled by the artist’s demand for dollar bills they’re showered with on stage, and their pageant scene is hugely influential. Both of these elements simply don’t exist in the same way in Britain. At a premiere screening for the British spin-off earlier this month, judge Michelle Visage told Graham Norton that the differences in style were notable to an outsider too, pointing out the more holistic approach UK queens have to staging their acts.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has already infiltrated British minds -- to the point that people here think that lip-syncing is the norm now!” says London-based drag performer Crayola. “Before Drag Race’s influence started creeping over, lip-syncing was actually considered an alternative form in the UK. The legacy of UK drag is in live performance -- standup comedy, cabaret, pantomime -- and sadly we already seem to have forgotten that.”

As Crayola notes, the sheer popularity of Drag Race -- the lens through which a younger generation of audiences have discovered drag -- has begun to influence the UK scene already. Plenty of the cast of the new show’s cast seem to embody this influence. Several of the younger contestants -- Scaredy Kat, Gothy Kendoll and Blu Hydrangea -- identify themselves as “looks queens”. In the opening episode as the queens gather by the mirrors to chat while doing their make-up, 19-year-old Scaredy Cat reveals to drag veteran Vinegar Strokes (to the latter’s horror and bemusement) that he’s never even been to a drag show. Instead, he discovered the art form watching the show with his girlfriend, posting his looks to Instagram. Even the more “polished” acts have looks and styles that might not look out of place on the American pageant circuit. At one point the queens admire the flippers (lightweight dentures commonly used by drag artists in past series) The Vivienne -- who was also appointed RuPaul’s first ever UK Drag Ambassador back in 2015 -- wears over her teeth when performing.

But for every Americanisation on the show there’s 10 niche references that make it, for a UK viewer, almost more enjoyable than the US version. In the episode’s mini challenge there’s a great moment where The Vivienne gives an uncanny impersonation of Kim Woodburn to a perplexed but amused RuPaul. At the premiere, Baga Chipz arrives in a look paying homage to Princess Di (we think). She also serves a stumbling, drunken Amy Winehouse in her hometown ball look, which guest judge Andrew Garfield explains as “English humour” that plenty of Americans might have found in poor taste. The names themselves are quintessentially British; in an episode of Fashion Photo Ruview released ahead of the UK premiere, American queens Mariah Balenciaga and Vanessa Vanjie struggled to even understand them, theorising that Baga Chipz was a reference to a packet of crisps and, even more hilariously, that Cheryl Hole was a joke about “sharing a hole”.

There’s plenty more local references in the first maxi challenge of the season: a ball in which they’re asked to serve two looks. The first asks each queen to evoke their hometown, a throwback to Season 10’s opening challenge as judged by Lady Gaga. In the second, they’re each asked to create a look which pays homage to Queen Liz. Without posting spoilers, Reading-based queen Sum Ting Wong steals the show with her regal look (it’s really really great); Liz herself would be very proud. There are also plenty of nods to the cultural implications on airing a drag show on the BBC, a far cry from its original home on Logo TV. At one point, after a particularly crass joke by one of the queens during a photo-shoot mini challenge which sees them holding their own heads on a CGI screen (it’s all very Gucci SS19), RuPaul looks directly into the camera and reminds viewers in a cut glass accent: “You’re watching the BBC.”

Even outside of these specific references, a very typical British humour imbues the entire show with a new, exciting and fun energy. It feels like more than just a rehashed spin-off that’s clearly meant to launch a new international Ru-era (Drag Race Canada has also just been announced, set to star Season 11’s Brooke Lynn Hytes as a judge). Perhaps it’s just that British humour appears more brash than American, but these queens also seem less afraid of their eventual edit too. One of the major criticisms of Drag Race in the past few years was that it’s become so big that the contestants are afraid to be themselves, frightened that they’ll be attacked by fans on social media and ruin their own careers. It’s a fear that’s warranted too -- even ahead of the show airing, Baga Chipz has been cancelled on Twitter. As the British contestants quip and laugh with each other in the first episode, it doesn’t look like they give much of a fuck about editing fears.

Another criticism of later-era Drag Race though, has of course been diversity. Brighton bio-queen (a term used to describe a woman-identifying drag queen) and DJ Emily Meow echoes Crayola’s sentiment about the homogenisation of British drag through the influence of Drag Race. “The UK and US drag scenes have their similarities, but fundamentally are completely different,” she explains. “The foundations of our drag styles differ greatly. Through the casting of the first season, it was disappointing to see the lack of diversity in the queens they picked. The UK drag scene is rich with incredible woman, trans, and non-binary artists and kicking of the first season of the show with a more diverse cast (gender and ethnicity wise) would have been refreshing for a lot of us. The UK scene is strong because of our differences, in our looks, performances and art."

The casting of Drag Race UK has predictably already been picked apart by fans online, and the lack of diversity Emily mentions is painfully apparent. There are no bio-queens on the line-up, nor contestants who have identified themselves as trans or gender non-conforming. And only two of the 10 queens -- Vinegar Strokes and Sum Ting Wong -- are contestants of colour. In a closer look at the season’s proposed judging panel, which will be led by RuPaul, Michelle Visage, Graham Norton and Alan Carr, Gal-dem found that the only permanent black judge is RuPaul himself, with just two guest judges of colour we know of so far, Michaela Coel and Jade Thirlwall. Much has been made of the fact that Scaredy Kat is at last lending the show some bisexual representation, but seen in the wider context of a majority white and cis cast, this doesn’t feel particularly groundbreaking.

Clearly the show hasn’t reached far into the edges of the UK scene in terms of casting, but, as Crayola points out, given the precedent Drag Race has set in America, perhaps audiences shouldn’t be surprised. “Like any queer community, our drag scene is super diverse, comprised of queens, drag kings, hyper queens, trans performers, non-binary cryptids, creatures than transcend gender, and beyond -- the possibilities are endless and all the iterations, valid,” they explain. ‘When Drag Race rose to popularity in the US, male-bodied queens stepped into the spotlight, sidelining the rest. And RuPaul has made sure to keep it that way. A similar power dynamic exists over here already, and I fear Drag Race UK will serve only to solidify this inequity.”

But will they be watching the show? For both Emily and Crayola, it’s a resounding yes. “I’m critical of the show, but I love watching it as much as the next fag,” Crayola says. “We all have our guilty pleasures!” Seeing the show as a guilty pleasure perhaps sums it up best. Will it ever be perfect in its casting or presentation? No. Having seen the first episode, am I already buzzing with anticipation to see the references turned out during Snatch Game and the hugely impressive looks to match? Fuck yes. If Blu Hydrangea doesn’t impersonate Nadine Coyle, butchering the world 'flour' to a completely lost RuPaul then honestly, I’ll be bereft.

“I'm hoping for endless Kim Woodburn jokes and Eastenders references,” Emily says. She will not be disappointed.

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