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RuPaul’s Drag Race is an oasis for gay viewers in a fraught political climate

Photo: VH1
Photo: VH1

For decades, drag shows have provided gay men a place where they can congregate and celebrate the things that they are ridiculed for by a society with rigid views of masculinity. Drag is all about the performance of gender, and it’s an art form that compels the artist and the audience to reconsider gender norms and find strength in tearing them down. It’s a provocative idea, and RuPaul Charles has been largely responsible for bringing it into mainstream culture.

RuPaul rose to fame in the early ’90s with his song “Supermodel (You Better Work),” and he became a household name with appearances in television shows and movies that highlighted his bold personality and sharp comedic talent. His star began to fade when conservative values took hold of the country during George W. Bush’s presidency, but was reignited by the 2009 debut of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV series that has drag queens from across the country competing to be named “America’s next drag superstar.”

The contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 9 (Photo: VH1)

Drag Race shines a light on the artistry of drag while giving viewers the opportunity to learn about the people underneath the makeup, and the show has grown in popularity with each new season. It’s immensely entertaining, but it also makes a strong statement in a political climate that is rapidly backtracking on progress made regarding tolerance and acceptance of people who challenge traditional ideas of gender. A recent profile of RuPaul in The Atlantic explored how drag is a transgressive act when the country’s leader is fixated on conventional standards of masculinity and femininity, and Drag Race is fostering a sense of community for people who feel threatened by the current administration’s antiquated views.

Drag Race jumped from Logo to VH1 this season, and the move to a basic cable channel has helped the show continue expanding its audience. “Bringing RuPaul’s Drag Race to VH1 was a perfect opportunity to introduce the show to a whole new audience and allow even more fans to experience the incredible talent these fierce queens bring to the stage every week,” says Pamela Post, SVP of Original Programming & Development at Logo/Viacom. “We are very proud that we are nearing the finale of what has been the most watched season to date.”

A big part of the fun of a live drag show comes from the energy of the crowd and how it reacts to the performers, and the same goes for Drag Race. Gay bars have come to realize this over the years, and Drag Race viewing parties are a common occurrence. I’ve been writing recaps of RuPaul’s Drag Race since season four, but this year was the first when I didn’t have another TV Club conflict that kept me from attending bar viewing parties. The experience has been revelatory.

I had seen Drag Race in a large group once before when I attended the season-seven premiere party at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, and watching the show with more than a thousand boisterous fans was significantly more thrilling than sitting at home and watching it with a small group of friends. I can still remember the collective gasp when Violet Chachki took to the runway in a reversible tartan jumpsuit, and every joke, every shady comment, and every look is amplified by the reactions of the crowd. Bar viewings aren’t quite as big, but the effect is the same.

“The ability to go to a space and watch a show in live time with five or six hundred people that are like-mindedly fanatic about what they’re watching is an experience like no other,” says Brad Balof, the general manager of Sidetrack, Chicago’s largest gay bar. Sidetrack is the home to the official VH1 Drag Race Chicago viewing party, and they have a partnership with the network that provides them with promotional materials to give away to patrons. “At its core, RuPaul’s Drag Race has always been a show about community,” says Pamela Post. “Our partnerships with LGBT bars and clubs is born out of that sense of community, supporting a space for people to come together and enjoy the show.”

In addition to the network shift, Drag Race also changed time slots this year, moving to Friday nights at 8pm. Having Drag Race on Mondays (or Thursdays in the case of the most recent All Stars season) helped fill bars on nights that don’t get as much traffic, but there are benefits to moving the series to the start of the weekend. “We were not a fan of Drag Race moving to Friday night,” says Balof. “I don’t know that anybody in the bar industry would be, but I think it’s actually boosted our viewing audience overall. When it was another time in the week, [people] may say, ‘I’m not going to go tonight because I have something to do tomorrow. I don’t want to be out late.’ In years past, we would see huge numbers at the premiere, and then it would dip down as the weeks went on and then it would pick up again as it got closer to the final three. But this year we’ve just seen a really nice consistency of people coming out.”

That sentiment is echoed by James Wells, the manager of New York City’s Therapy, which is the home bar for two contestants this season: Alexis Michelle and Peppermint. “It’s been very busy,” says Wells. “Having it on a Friday, the crowd can get pretty wild, and the turnout has been bigger. It’s a different vibe, but I think it’s cool and it’s a nice button at the end of the week for most of us. Now more than ever, given our political climate, the release of Drag Race is just perfect for our community. It’s just a nice escape for an hour. I call it the Gay Olympics, because we can’t wait for the next season and everybody’s talking about it and watching it.”

Chicago’s Roscoe’s Tavern hasn’t seen much change in its audience numbers, but that’s because it’s been consistently packed for its viewing parties, which are hosted by current and former Drag Race contestants who also perform afterward. Sidetrack takes a different approach for its drag talent, spotlighting local queens with hosts Dixie Lynn Cartwright and The Vixen. For the last two seasons, queens that performed at Sidetrack have made it all the way to the Drag Race finale: Kim Chi last year, and Shea Coulée this year. “For the last three years, it’s like, ‘Who is going to be on the next season?’” Says Balof. “It’s a large part of the excitement for people who are not just Drag Race fans but also drag fans in the Chicago community.”

I’ve written in the past about how Drag Race revolutionized drag by bringing it to the masses, and that increased exposure has been very good for the gay community. “One of the biggest benefits of [Drag Race], especially with it being on VH1 now and RuPaul winning the Emmy for it, is that it has brought drag into the mainstream culture and legitimized it as an artform,” says Shawn Hazen, the marketing manager at Roscoe’s. “It’s brought something that before was just for gay bars, for showgirl bars, out into the bright lights of the mainstream, and it’s helping everything become more acceptable. It’s opened people’s eyes, and people are having a good time with it because of that.”

“It’s so important for people to remember that it’s still great to be creative and artistic and funny and still continue to not take things too seriously,” says Balof. “Even though Drag Race is a competition, it really brings both the contestants on the show together and the people that view the show together under a common cause of celebrating people being themselves. A phrase [RuPaul’s] used a lot this past year is ‘coloring with all the crayons in the box’ and how life is better when we have more diverse points of view.”

In a year that has felt like a never-ending deluge of bad news, Drag Race is giving viewers an hour of joy each week, but it’s also acknowledging the struggles of the LGBTQ community. The 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was a topic of discussion, centered on contestants Trinity Taylor, a former Miss Pulse who had been at the nightclub the week before the tragedy, and Cynthia Lee Fontaine, who was supposed to perform at Pulse on the night of the shooting. This season has also acknowledged the struggle of transgender queens with Peppermint, a trans woman who had to fight stigma within the community that made her seriously doubt her future as a drag queen. Peppermint is one of the four final queens this season, and while she deserves that spot because of her outstanding performance skills, having her go all the way to the end feels like an active decision to get rid of the stigma she had to overcome.

The popularity of Drag Race has inspired a new generation of fans who have a deep appreciation for drag, and these fans are actively engaging with the art form to give Drag Race a steady supply of new queens for future seasons. In 2015, RuPaul started Drag Con, a convention where drag queens, fans, and vendors come together to share their experiences and discover different facets of the drag industry. There have been three Drag Cons in Los Angeles, and it’s expanding to New York City for the first time this year. In his Atlantic profile, RuPaul talks about his goal to “mobilize young people who have never been mobilized, through our love of music, our love of love, our love of bright colors,” and that’s exactly what he’s accomplishing with his growing drag empire.