RuPaul’s Drag Race snatches the spotlight

The reality series has helped propel drag to a new level of visibility, and season 9 queens Sasha ­Velour and Shea Couleé – as well as Toronto performers – want to see the show's popularity uplift an even greater variety of drag artists


GREEN SPACE FESTIVAL: STARRY NIGHT with PEPPERMINT, SASHA VELOUR, SHEA COULEÉ, BROOKE LYNN HYTES, SOFONDA COX, TYNOMI BANKS, FAY SLIFT and others at Barbara Hall Park (519 Church), Thursday (June 22), 5 pm-midnight. Free. greenspaceto.org.


RuPaul’s Drag Race is on the verge of crowning America’s next drag superstar.

Spoiler alert: she may or may not be quoted within these pages.

The four queens still in contention on drag icon RuPaul’s cult reality competition series’ ninth season are appearing during Pride Toronto. To ensure no one leaks the winner, producers shot alternate endings of the finalists claiming the title, which comes with a cash prize of $100,000.

They’ll find out who wins when everyone else does – during the finale broadcast on Friday (June 23).

“Standing on that stage with RuPaul is a surprisingly emotional experience,” explains Sasha Velour, a Brooklyn-based season 9 Drag Race queen, Fulbright scholar and comic artist. (The other finalists are Shea Couleé, Peppermint and Trinity Taylor.)

Over 13 episodes, Velour – aka Sasha Steinberg – earned a rep as a stylish and conceptual queen who thrived by exploiting her academic bent to comedic effect.  She is bald in tribute to her late mother’s battle with cancer and defines drag as “a performance of gender that allows gay and queer people to push outside of the binary.

“I’m certainly not inventing anything new with drag,” she adds. “But I represent a world of drag that maybe hasn’t had its moment yet on the show.”

Velour landed on Drag Race at an auspicious time.

Last year RuPaul won an Emmy for outstanding host for a reality or reality-competition program, a sign the show was breaking out.

After eight seasons on LGBTQ cable network Logo, Viacom moved the World of Wonder-produced series further up the dial to sister channel VH1. Ratings tripled for season 9’s Lady Gaga-focused premiere. According to social-media measurement service Shareablee, the June 9 episode ranked as the eighth-most-viewed prime-time series in the U.S. across platforms – ahead of Orphan Black and Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

It’s not surprising, given that fans gather in bars and homes for viewing parties. An episode of Drag Race has become the gay equivalent of a pro-sports game.

For contestants, Drag Race has become a potentially lucrative launch pad. Queens have gone on to tour the world, star in commercials, release albums and appear in fashion campaigns, movies and comedy specials. Drag Race stars are heavily sought after on the Pride and club circuits, commanding thousands in performance fees.

This month, publisher Palgrave is releasing RuPaul’s Drag Race And The Shifting Visibility Of Drag Culture: The Boundaries Of Reality TV, a collection of academic essays about the show’s global impact.

Meanwhile, the kickoff of the RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq The World Tour in Toronto attracted a capacity crowd to the Danforth Music Hall in May, and many who paid $60 or more for tickets were part of its growing audience of young women.

“I went to dinner last night and met a cis straight couple from Texas who noticed we were with the queens [from the tour],” says Jon Norris, a senior events manager for New York-based Voss Events, the company behind Werq The World. “They almost melted in their seats. It’s incredible that the show has transcended barriers. That probably was not planned when it was first conceptualized.”

Ironically, drag is more visible at a time when hard-won LGBTQ rights are under threat from the regressive Trump administration and the racists, homophobes and bigots it has emboldened.

As RuPaul’s Drag Race wraps up its ninth season, who and what the show represents is as much a point of discussion as who the winner will be.

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Cheol Joon Baek

Drag Race fans packed the Danforth Music Hall in May for the Werq The World Tour

Since debuting in 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race has expanded its pop culture footprint, attracting a dedicated following in the fashion world and introducing catchphrases such as “Sashay away” and “Lip-synch for your life” into the zeitgeist.

In Canada, the show and its spinoffs have aired on specialty channel OUTtv since the second season.

Execs have watched it grow from niche series to top-10 cable show across key demos. Not only has the audience of gay men expanded, but more straight women in their 20s and 30s and teen girls are stopping by OUTtv’s Pride booths to say how much they love it. Women and teens were also a big presence at this year’s RuPaul’s DragCon in Los Angeles.

In January, OUTtv co-promoted the cross-Canada Tea With Tati Tour, featuring season 2 and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars queen Tatianna, a fan favourite with a big social media following. Venues ranged in capacity from 100 to 500 in bigger markets, with tickets priced at $25 to $35.

“We thought cities like Toronto and Vancouver would sell out first,” says OUTtv head of content marketing Anthony Jiwa. “It was actually cities like Halifax and Ottawa where people were really clamouring for this type of content. The notion that only metropolitan audiences relate to drag is not necessarily true.”

Drag Race contestant hopefuls require a U.S. visa to audition, leaving many Canadian queens out of contention. Church Street veteran Miss Conception (aka Kevin Levesque), who’s hosting this year’s Pride parade, has auditioned a few times.

She’s not too bothered that she hasn’t been accepted, however, since she’s busy touring her cabaret act nine months out of the year.

“I was never on the road six years ago,” she says over the phone from St. Catharines. She’s seen increased demand from resorts in Mexico and cruise ships, which she attributes to social media.

Drag Race has inspired more people to start doing drag, creating a more competitive environment for seasoned queens. Consequently, she’s dropped the drag-show staple of lip-synching in favour of live singing.

“Everyone is upping their game,” she says. “And I’m glad. Drag for a while got really stale. One queen would spend $500 on a dress and one would be in jeans and a tank top onstage, and that would drive me nuts.”

An oft-repeated complaint among queens is that the series has spawned legions of armchair drag experts.

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Adam Ouahmane

Shea Couleé

The show has also birthed some serious queens, including one of season 9’s top competitors Shea Couleé (aka Jaren Shea Merrell).

The Chicago-based performer’s look, like Velour’s, is on the high-fashion spectrum of drag but with a more glam approach compared with Velour’s clean lines. Naomi Campbell is a big inspiration, and after Couleé did an impersonation on Drag Race’s Snatch Game episode, the fashion icon tweeted her approval.

“I was at a place in my life where I was feeling lost and uninspired, and [the show] totally pulled me out of that,” Couleé tells NOW over the phone a few days before the finale taping. “There were a lot of bumps on the road: learning the ins and outs of drag, performance techniques, makeup and sewing techniques. Along the way, I became more and more polished and settled into my own brand.”

Drag Race places a big emphasis on branding, entrepreneurship and self-promotion in the challenges. Not only are the queens required to create campy commercials and music videos pushing RuPaul’s various products, but they’re essentially groomed to be similarly well-rounded entertainment personalities, capable of acting, hosting a talk show and doing improv.

Couleé talks of expanding her appeal with travel opportunities, music, fashion and film projects, but also activism when the topics of drag’s roots comes up.

“I don’t think drag will ever really go mainstream because it takes so many social constructs and flips them on their head,” explains Couleé.

“People forget a lot of times that it was queer, non-gender-conforming people that have been on the front lines of the movement pushing us forward,” she says, noting that Black trans drag queens like Stonewall Riots instigator Marsha P. Johnson were key in shaping drag culture and the gay liberation movement. “Now that we have an opportunity to be celebrated as these great personalities in the community comes the responsibility – and honour – to continue on that legacy and push forward our community.

“We had a lovely time during the Obama administration, but it’s important for us to stand up and be heard more now than ever because that is the simplest form of resistance,” she adds. “Drag is in a really brilliant place and we definitely have to take advantage of the attention.”

Drag Race regularly features conversations between the queens about drug use, body image, race, gender and HIV/AIDS, which have become increasingly essential drivers of the show’s themes of transformation and self-improvement.

At the same time, Drag Race has exposed divisions.

The series drew intense backlash among trans viewers over a season 6 mini-challenge called Female Or She-Male? The uproar forced producers to drop the recurring catchphrase “You’ve got she-mail.” Some fans have since noted the phrase “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!” feels inappropriate given season 9 queen Peppermint was out as trans. (In all, eight Drag Race competitors have come out as trans women.)

RuPaul has refused to apologize for language controversies, insisting that “drag mocks identity” and that looming threats posed by Trump render such debates trivial.

“When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies,” he said in a recent interview with Time magazine. “And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident.”

In other ways, the show has dealt head-on with transphobia. During season 9, Peppermint told RuPaul and judge Michelle Visage in an interview for their What’s The Tee? podcast that a respected New York queen warned her, “You’ll never work in the gay community again as a drag queen” if she came out as trans.

Drag queen Cassandra James heard similar comments in the Toronto drag scene. Although she noticed an uptick in calls for queens in film and TV casting calls over the past eight years, her bookings dropped off after she came out as trans. So did interest from club, corporate and wedding bookers.

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Adam Ouahmane

Sasha Velour

“I’ve heard things like, ‘She shouldn’t be doing drag,’ ‘This isn’t your space,’” she explains. “The straight/binary/cis drag audience and community want to be able to tell they’re seeing a man in a dress. Anyone who breaks down or confuses that system is very challenging.”

She’s now based in Los Angeles, where she is able to move through the community and be recognized as a both a drag queen and transwoman “for the most part, without drama.

“In Toronto, I was made to justify my work constantly,” she says. “What’s really important is to focus on love and joy. But you can’t get to the love and joy if you don’t get the reality.”

Drag Race has yet to cast bearded queens, bio-queens (cis women) or drag kings (masculine drag) as contestants.

“I do feel if RuPaul or the media would cover drag kings more or even mentioned us, it would spark interest,” says Pretty Riikkii, who runs the drag king show Kings And Classics with Spencer Munny. “Getting visibility has always been harder for kings because in the eyes of some people we aren’t flashy enough.”

In Toronto, the booking opportunities for drag kings shrunk after the bar Zippers was torn down to make way for a condo development.

Drag kings are part of the mix in Sasha Velour’s Brooklyn scene, where the audience is more broadly queer than heavily gay male and the vibe tends to be sincere and serious.

“Drag Race has pushed against a traditional idea of what drag is, but at the same time it definitely raises expectations around glamour and beauty. There’s always a huge world of drag outside of Drag Race that’s underrepresented,” she says. “It’s interesting as the show grows, will it grow to include all of that?”

The show has taught Velour to lighten up, and as a result she’s reaching a wider audience.

“I’d like to see drag really cultivate its political roots,” she adds. “Drag Race has made a lot more people into fans of drag, and that’s allowed local communities to grow and flourish, but it’s up to individual queens to share the spotlight with their communities. I definitely want to be one of the people who does that.”

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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