Nine years ago, RuPaul Charles launched his conquest to bring drag performance into the mainstream with “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a campy reality competition show loosely modeled after “America’s Next Top Model.” Even in its humble beginnings, “Drag Race” was destined for success. It had every element necessary to become a household name on primetime television — memeable one-liners, wig-snatching glamour, tea-spilling drama and iconic personalities. It was the perfect recipe to gain a cult following. From there, a star was born — actually, many glittery, gay stars.
Fast forward to 2018 and the show has exploded into a global phenomenon. From winning big at the Primetime Emmys to prompting events such as DragCon, there is no doubt that RuPaul has created an empire of drag queens and millions of fans around the world. And while it has been criticized for implicit racial biases and pigeonholing practices of drag and femininity, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has also made undeniable contributions that have transformed both drag and the LGBTQ community for the better.
Now approaching its 11th season and 10th year on air, “Drag Race” has become one of the most progressive shows on American television, exposing the rest of the world to queer culture in ways unimaginable since Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word.” An established cultural institution with over 100 alumni, the series has also become a vibrant relic of popular culture.
In many respects, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is all about questioning gender and identity. In its nine-year history, the series has documented queer representation and reflected the ever-evolving state of the queer community. And, prior to the show, the dominant image of the drag queen was often hyperfeminized, but the self-expressions of the contestants helped humanize the queer experience.
In the first episode of season four, however, drag witnessed a radical shift with Sharon Needles, who shocked viewers as she strutted down the runway as a post-apocalyptic zombie spewing blood from her mouth.
RuPaul interjected a signature witty comment: “Gingivitis never looked so good.”
After Sharon Needles’s coronation, it was evident that drag as an art form could no longer be boxed or confined to glittery gowns or pastel-colored wigs — creativity became limitless, whether it be through fashion or comedy or lip-syncing. By that point, “Drag Race” mobilized a new generation of drag queens. Bianca Del Rio graced season six with her crude, deprecating humor; Alyssa Edwards amassed thousands of fans for her hilarious one-liners and ridiculous dance moves; and Shangela took her talent from reality TV to the silver screen through “A Star is Born” with season four alumna Willam Belli.
It goes without saying that icons like Lady Bunny, Divine and Leigh Bowery transformed the world of queer performance art. However, it was RuPaul who took drag to the next level by putting it on America’s biggest platform, flipping off cisgender heteronormativity with a big, bold — and bedazzled — middle finger. It was this simple concept that allowed drag queens to finally rise to prominence in today’s LGBTQ community.
Take Ongina, who became the first contestant to talk about her HIV-positive status on national television in season one. Or Kim Chi, who embraced the intersectionality of being a queer Korean American through her drag in season eight. Or Sonique and Peppermint, who both publicly came out as transgender during their respective seasons. Or Trinity Taylor and Cynthia Lee Fontaine, who told their stories about performing at Pulse nightclub prior to the mass shooting that took 49 lives in 2016.
“Drag Race” and its contestants have become a voicebox for the queer community. From exposing people’s perception of transgender performers (whether it be positive or negative) to recounting the lived and shared experiences of its queer cast, the hit TV show always displays a willingness to dive deep into sensitive issues, thereby disrupting cultural norms in giving its queens careers, voices and platforms (higher than six-inch stilettos) for political expression.
Drag is no longer just one out of a 100 stitches in the LGBTQ tapestry, and it is no longer restricted to Bingo nights at gay bars on Sunset Strip or The Castro. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” allows its contestants to sparkle, dazzle and “sissy that walk” onto the main stage of entertainment. Beyond this, it has also shed new light on what inclusion and diversity mean for queer people, all while becoming a multimillion-dollar enterprise. And it’s not slowing down anytime soon.
Fellow queer Trojans: If you have never witnessed the magic of a drag performance, come out to the Queer and Ally Student Assembly’s ninth annual Drag Show Friday night at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center ballroom to support local USC drag queens. Shangela’s hosting, in case you needed any more incentive. And remember: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell [are] you gonna love somebody else?!”
Allen Pham is a senior majoring in public relations. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Writing Rainbow,” ran every other Friday.