The Tylt

How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ reshaped drag culture

Picture it. Actually, reminisce it. Early 2009: We watched Barack Obama’s inauguration with Michelle slaying next to him in yellow silk; we paid for a movie ticket to see a reboot of “Fame.” Well, some of us did. And many of us were enjoying Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as they dominated pop music with smash hits like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and “Just Dance,” respectively keeping us in good spirits and entertained amid The Great Recession. While we were slipping into leotards and swiveling our hips to reenact Queen Bey’s moves (and hoping not to get injured – like I did), arguably what would become Logo’s most famous show — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — premiered on Monday, Feb. 2, 2009.

“RPDR” had yet to amass the same level of success it has today. Many even refer to the first year with the blurry filter as the lost season. Still, on March 23 that year, it came down to three queens who are part of the inaugural class of “RPDR”: Rebecca Glasscock, Nina Flowers and BeBe Zahara Benet. Each queen was required to put the bass in her walk…literally. As their final challenge, they had to learn choreography, record a rap and perform in RuPaul’s music video to “Cover Girl (Put the Bass in Your Walk).” In the end, one queen had all the charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Cameroonian queen BeBe Zahara Benet became America’s first drag superstar. History was made.

Like in the ’90s with the iconic hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and “The RuPaul Show,” RuPaul had reshaped drag culture in the ’10s, cementing drag into the mainstream globally with the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” franchise. Over the decade, “RPDR” became a star-making system, crowning queens like Sharon Needles, Bianca Del Rio and Bob the Drag Queen. The fanbase grew when the show officially moved from Logo to VH1 starting with season nine in 2017. But while the show continues to expand and positively catapult the careers of drag entertainers into popular culture, some feel like local queens have almost no career choice.

In 2020, drag queens face many challenges beyond even making it on “RPDR”: Covid-19 is stopping the coin flow and local gay bars are closing, racism is still rapid and diversity in drag is still lacking, just to name a few issues.

Obviously, the pandemic presents new challenges for many queens whether they have already achieved local or mainstream success, but in general, being on the show has propelled many queens’ careers to new heights. Mother Ru’s saying, “You’re a winner, baby,” can be applied to any breakout queen. Just ask season 11’s Miss Congeniality, Nina West, 42, who auditioned nine times to be on the show.

“I'm [42] and ‘Drag Race’ has been around since I was 30. It’s always evolved,” West said via a Zoom recording. “We’ve seen ‘Drag Race’ become much more powerful. We’ve seen ‘Drag Race’ become much more of a staple in putting people on a platform that really does amplify and change their lives.”

Initially, she couldn’t audition for season one because she was a national pageant titleholder and didn’t understand fully what it was, but when season two rolled around, she had time and tried out for the first time.

“The show has drastically evolved from what it was,” West said. “The legitimacy of everything, including what it does for people, has really changed and evolved.”

The audition process became a much more demanding and lengthy process, but, as West explained, she became fixated on it.

“It became for me more so a goal than a dream. It was like, ‘I'm going to get on that show. I'm going to prove to myself that I can do it. I'm going to grow. I'm going to challenge. I'm going to win,’” West proclaimed. “I had grown a lot in my confidence. I was like, ‘they need a big girl. They need someone who’s big, who's going to win, and who’s going to show people there's a different way to do drag.’”

She finally got on after doing her most authentic audition tape. Drag queens would ask her: What’s the secret to get on “Drag Race"? As West explained, “There is no secret. There is no recipe other than to be yourself. Also do you fit what they're looking for in casting for at that moment. It is a talent show and they do have a casting department. Whether I like it or not I fell into a specific role of a character and whether anyone else who’s ever been on the show likes it or not, the show casts them as a specific kind of character.”

As we've seen many times throughout the life of the show, the element of surprise for the audience or producers is when people show who they are – and maybe who they aren’t. “I think that's what makes the show exciting because it's a living, breathing thing that’s supremely organic and no one knows how anyone's going to react the second we started filming,” said West.

She became insular during season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” regarding herself as a pretty outgoing queen, while also acknowledging her own insecurities.

“I was eliminated, and I came home, and I think an important part of my journey and my conversation was finding a therapist,’’ she recalled. “And I sought mental health professionals to talk me through everything I was experiencing because you go through the experience and you sign an NDA. I take everything really seriously. You asked me to sign this contract, I’m going to sign this contract, and I’m not going to talk about it.”

Instead, she talked with a therapist who was legally bound to confidentiality — the best path for her to share her experience on the show.

“’Drag Race’ is undeniable. ‘Drag Race’ is the most powerful thing for a drag queen or entertainer like myself to be part of in this form right now and it has been and it will be for a long time,” West said. “It’s not going anywhere. It elevates people to a specific platform, gives you access that you otherwise did not have. It legitimatizes your art and your career, and it takes you to new heights.”

Yes, the show crowns a winner and that queen gets $100,000, but West says the show elevates drag and anyone can become a star from being on the show by building their craft up.

For more on Nina West, check out the latest episode of Fiercely Fandom with Deron. Host Deron Dalton has a kiki with West about the ins and outs of "RuPaul's Drag Race," how the popular show changes the lives of the queens on it and nevertheless, the challenges drag queens are facing.

So far, 18 queens have won “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This spring, before season 12 crowned Jaida Essence Hall and season five of “All Stars” celebrated Shea Couleé’s as the ultimate all star, The Tylt launched a bracket featuring the 16 previous winning queens to hand off the honorific title of “RuPaul’s Drag Race Ultimate Winning Queen.” 

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images
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Graphic by Connor Hyman

Fans voted Alaska Thunderfuck as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Ultimate Winning Queen with 63 percent of the vote in the final. Nearly 76 percent of Tylters who voted ranged from 18-34 years old, proving just how much young people are fans of the reality competition. 

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Graphic by Connor Hyman

“So, what I can tell you is pre-’Drag Race’ [for me], ‘Drag Race’ and the phenomenon of drag queens in pop culture, mostly led by ‘Drag Race,’ brought more people to the bar,” West said.

West says the ripple effect of the show will never fully be known, but it has given queens access.

“So, when I would be at home in Columbus doing my shows before ‘Drag Race,’ the shows were getting busier because there was a renewed interest from a cisgender heteronormative audience about, ‘oh there’s drag in our town,’” West recalled. “Also, pre-‘Drag Race,’ we would book ‘Drag Race’ girls. They would come to town and would pack our bars. I was working in all those shows. So, it was more exposure to an audience. And it was inspiring new queens.”

“RPDR” introduces new people to the art form and inspires youths to do drag and gives queens access to larger platforms. West isn’t alone in recognizing the impact of “Drag Race.” Philadelphian queen VinChelle, 32, who calls herself the tri-state tribal queen, is also a fan of the show and has been a fan of RuPaul’s since watching her in “The Brady Bunch Movie.”

“I do think with ‘Drag Race’ it became more accepting in the straight community as far as it’s helped us get bookings. As far as people who want drag queens and they book us because maybe they watch the show or they like someone they saw on the show and we reminded them of someone,” VinChelle said. “I do like that aspect of ‘Drag Race’ being mainstream because it makes me money. Because I do gigs where there are sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of people there.”

With straight people showing up to events like drag brunches, VinChelle acknowledges that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” actually helped put drag on the map, with its availability on the mainstream level.

“One great thing about ‘Drag Race’ is that they always seem to have a very diverse cast,” VinChelle acknowledged. “Now, how they get treated is one thing, but they definitely always have a diverse cast.”

In recent years of “RPDR,” the cast of Black queens on each season have been diverse, highlighting that’s it’s nice to see Black queens not be painted as a monolith. That said, Black queens have faced a lot of anti-Black racism from the fandom.

“The fandom has become ratchet, wrecked…and awful,” VinChelle said, having discussed this on “The Black Diaries” with other Black entertainers. “The fandom is God awful. So, if I were to ever get on the show, that will be one of the only hesitations I have. I’m very so prepared and ready to be on the show. Of course, if I have the opportunity, I will do it, but the fandom is insanely racist, insanely crazy [and] toxic. Not all of them, but most.’’

Honey Davenport, who appeared on season 11 with West, recently released a video on the anti-Black racism and online harassment Black queens receive, including death threats. More Black queens are coming forward to share the horrific experiences they face after being on the show. VinChelle calls these shared experiences “eye-opening” and “sad,” hoping that the toxic fan culture will change.

But online racism isn’t the only form of racism queens of color, especially Black queens, are facing. It’s happening in real life too.

“I was very blessed to be booked quite a bit and very well known in Philly. Sadly, with that being said, I was kind of one of the only Black people to be booked,” said VinChelle, who started doing drag in 2015. “I know a lot of the Black queens in this community felt like if VinChelle is in a show then I’ll never be able to be in it. I was being held to the standard and it was always just me. And I felt it. I did feel it.”

VinChelle felt like the token Black queen in Philly queer spaces. But instead of going along with that train and saying, “see y’all later. I hope y’all can catch the next one,” she decided to create her own space for Black queens, by Black queens.

“There’s a lot of hardship. I do want to plug my show “The Black Diaries” every Wednesday on Facebook…because that is where we really talk about a lot of hardship,” VinChelle said. “There are so many, but to sum it up, I think it’s the way we’re treated pretty much. As big as I am in Philly, there’s still a lot of white people that don’t even attend my shows and don’t even care to know who I am, but they’ll know I’m a drag queen. I think that a lot of the Black queens do see that with me.”

VinChelle says she expresses this sentiment a lot on “The Black Diaries.” While some would regard her as a famous queen in Philly, she says that’s not always the case. Not all spaces have supported her, and definitely not all white people.

“Being the token is not a good thing,” VinChelle said. “Any Black person feels like that they being a token is a good thing, they have to look at themselves even more.”

Pixie Aventura, 33, a Latinx New York queen, can relate. She does not see enough representation of Latinx queens in queer spaces, let alone across mainstream mediums. It’s been this way since she was growing up in the ’90s.

“It's moved on now to having a platform and actually being a representation for the Latinx queer community, which I still believe is lacking in representation in media, especially in Latin media,” Aventura explained about her voice in drag.

Latinx queer representation is still stereotyped as comic relief. To change that, Aventura uses her platform to reflect the image she’d like to see.

“There's a lot that comes into being a Latinx queer individual in America because you have those that could possibly be immigrants but then you also have those [who] are first generation; and the question comes into mind of well I'm not quote-on-quote American enough or I'm not Latin enough,” Aventura said. “There's like a small community within a small community within a small community. So, I definitely found my voice as a drag queen. And I’ve definitely learned more performing as a drag queen than I did going to school.”

Each queen’s experience is all at once individual and part of educating the whole. VinChelle thinks that Black queens are doing the work by being vocal about their treatment and are standing in solidarity with one another.

“I just think that white folks need to educate themselves. That might be one of the main things,” VinChelle said. “Educate themselves to maybe take a step back and understand that their privilege means more power…If they realize that then maybe we could start getting treated better.”

It won’t happen overnight. Hopefully, the Black Lives Matter movement means change is going to come, as VinChelle and West both believe.

West said the LGBTQIA+ umbrella needs to promote and support spaces that speak to the needs of queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).

“We need queer spaces so people feel comfortable and safe in those spaces,” West said. “That means we need queer own spaces by diverse people. People who represent and provide space for everybody. So, if you're a queer person of color you feel comfortable going to those spaces. We know there is a long history within the LGBTQIA+ community of its own racism, of its own race issues.”

West elaborated on how anti-Black and anti-brown racism shows up in the gay bar system.

“It’s a full circle,” West said. “So, when we have a bar system or bars or local bars that then support the growth in the community to allow entertainers to come in and work and use their platform to speak to not only entertainment needs but then to speak to things like politics issues.”

As season 11’s Miss Congeniality, West said drag queens are the pillars of LGBTQIA+ communities and we should support them monetarily.

“On top of it all, local queens are taken so for granted and are holding the weight of entire communities,” West explained. “Your local queens have probably been online entertaining on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitch or on Zoom, trying to ensure that their community still feels connected.”

West worries that the pandemic will continue to shut down gay bars all over the country, but she hopes that young people focus their energies on rebuilding their communities.

“Take time out to throw a couple of bucks to that person you know. Throw them a 5, a 10, throw twenty bucks at them because they really are trying to make everything move and continue to make sure that there’s some place to go back to when this is all said and done,” West said about supporting local queens.

West — who still considers herself a local queen from Columbus where she performs — was raised in a gay bar, which always made her feel safe. Now it’s time to save these local queer spaces.

“For us, I liken a gay bar or a queer space to kind of like a church. It’s very sacred to me,” she declared. “Even when I was walking on the street and someone was yelling faggot at me as I'm trying to get to the bar, I walk in the bar and I can breathe. It was full of people like me.”

She knows that some people in the community may not feel as though they need any gay bar. Instead, they go on social media to find connection, but West argues social media isn’t real.

“There's nothing that will ever replace the real feeling of being around other people who are like you,” West explained. “So, I just hope people, we take the energy, because we're going to need it. I guarantee we're going to need it. We can see already LGBTQIA+ spaces are being closed all over this country because of the pandemic. So, I just really hope people will — once this is all said and done, and it’s safe to do so — go out and support queer bar establishments and the entertainers [who] are keeping it alive.”

[Nina West podcast insert here w/ Fiercely Fandom intro]

Not every bar will survive. Aventura performed at Therapy, a gay bar and lounge located in a two-story brick building amid the tight streets of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. The midtown space will not reopen due to the impact of Covid-19.

“As far as Therapy, there are many things that are going into it that is not very easy to just raise money and keep it afloat,” said Aventura, who hosted a Wednesday night show called “The Help” with Kizha Carr. “One year ago…it shut down for two months because next door, the building was deemed uninhabitable. It’s just a bunch of stuff.”

Therapy will be missed. To Aventura, it will always be the space that hosted one of her biggest shows — “The Help,” which once featured “RPDR” season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen and “All Stars” season four co-winner Monét X Change, as well as Carr.

“That show became more like let's see how it goes into a show that really portrayed Black excellence, Latin excellence, queer excellence,” Aventura proclaimed. “It became the blueprint for other shows in my opinion that came after.”

Aventura says she’s in a discussion with Carr about a sendoff show with Monét X Change, too. “As far as moving, it's just really difficult because the show set up was perfect in Therapy,” she said. “Everyone could see it from wherever they were standing. Our capacity was a lot and not many bars can do that.”

But being a local queen hasn’t been all struggles for performers like Aventura or VinChelle. These queens better werk and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing in the face of uncertain times. Aventura garnered a sponsorship from Logo TV to do the network’s live shows on Instagram. This led to Pride Month sponsorships from Smirnoff, The Visiting Nurse Service of New York and Bubly.

VinChelle can be found on “The Black Diaries” show every Wednesday on her Facebook page. Her Facebook page is also where she puts on a Black Girl Magic show once every month. She also hosts a show streamed to Facebook from Jocks in Philly every Tuesday. Once the pandemic is over, she hopes to get back to her usual tri-state hustle. This includes Industry Bar, which is across the street from where Therapy used to be, every Monday in New York, as well as other places in the city and Philadelphia. 

Maybe someday soon we’ll return to a world where LGBTQIA+ communities can watch “RPDR” in their local gay bars.

The show is a must-see cultural phenomenon. And while many queens see the positive impact that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has on local drag, not everyone agrees that being on the show should be the only way to hit the next level.

After all, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a reality show – hence, the drama. It’s not always a mirror to the real life of a drag queen.

"I want to see girls doing their art. I want to see girls performing. I don't care about the drama. I really don't,” Aventura said. “That's why it comes down to reality shows. I don't watch reality shows. I don't find them entertaining.”

To local queens like Aventura, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” shouldn’t be the only route to career advancement. Violencia Exclamation Point, 32, a drag queen who lives and works in Boston, says queens who have built their followings on social media — such as YouTube or Instagram — also hold influence on drag.

“I think that social media has changed the way that people book drag and people see drag artists as more popular or less popular by just a number that's next to your name,” Violencia said.

While “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has the biggest following of all the drag shows, “The Boulet Brothers' Dragula” is emerging – and only in season three. If you think back to “RPDR” during season three, the show was just starting to catch on.

“It's only something that's going to get bigger and more popular as the years go by considering it started on YouTube as a YouTube competition and then went from YouTube to Amazon Prime and then from Amazon Prime, it's now on Netflix,” Violencia said about “Dragula.” “It's just gotten more popular even over the last three seasons.”

In Boston, the lack of representation of drag queens of color and of drag kings is evident. As Violencia explained, while there are drag king shows, the kings aren’t allowed to host.

“The clubs should be held accountable. If they say they're going to be an all-inclusive space they need to really practice what they preach and really be an all-inclusive space for the whole community, not just the ones that they think are the people that they want in their business,” Violencia said. “There's an entire community of queer people that feel completely under represented in some of these Boston nightclubs and it's becoming extremely apparent – especially throughout this whole pandemic and from people talking on the Internet about all the stuff that's going on in these clubs or that had been going on.”

While the Boston scene lacks representation, she argues that “Dragula” has been a platform for intersectionality. Violencia had auditioned for season nine and season 10 of “RPDR.” But when season 11 auditions rolled around, she had already decided to go after “Dragula.”

“I saw that they were opening their casting to all forms of gender identity and I thought that was amazing,” Violencia said. “I was like I really should be part of this. I've always felt that I was an alternative drag queen and that my drag would be better suited on a show such as ‘Dragula’ more so than ‘Drag Race.’ There were so many different identities on this past season of ‘Dragula’ but a drag king won.”

The winner was drag king Landon Cider, highlighting the show’s inclusivity. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is mainly open to gay men in female impersonation or to pre-transitioned transgender queens only.

“The community and the times have changed since then and more people should be represented on that show than are represented,” Violencia said. “There's an entire community of people that are drags artists that aren't allowed on the show because they're trans or because they're a drag king or because they don't identify as a cis man.”

Violencia will be featured in a documentary that discusses the challenges local queens face as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” soars in popularity and continues to impact drag culture. She met documentarian and filmmaker Stephanie Stender years ago at an event in Boston. 

Stender considers herself an ally to the community, positioning her perspectives through the lens of a storyteller who set out to highlight the challenges queens face in the era of “RPDR.”

“It’s kind of an old-school feminism thought where some people think it’s bad that a female is going to see a drag show because I’m promoting the stereotyping of women, which I never thought that,” Stender said. “I think it’s giving the middle finger to the patriarchy and showing the gender stereotypes.”

Stender got the idea to do a “short” on drag upon attending drag shows while in college at Hollins University in Virginia. As she moved to Boston for film school, so did the documentary. She started her storytelling focused on the Boston drag scene, while filming for the doc started in 2013.

Initially, she wanted to highlight how drag could also be a feminist statement in how it tackles gender. Then she spoke to more queens. “Drag Race” premiered in 2009, but she mentions you could already see how “RPDR” was shifting drag a few years after the show’s premiere in 2013. The evolution of drag also changed the focus of the doc to how mainstream drag was challenging local drag.

You heard it before. The show was turning local queens into celebrities, and that would impact local queens who weren’t in these shows. “They wanted to save their money for ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ queens to come in,” Stender said.

“It left the queens who were the [local] stars with less booking fees even though drag was becoming more popular. It’s the opposite of what you think would happen,” Stender said.

Stender hopes that her documentary – “All Stars: The Changing Face of Drag” – will come out in 2021. “There is definitely a mindset with some local queens that if you're not on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ you don’t have a career,’’ Stender said.

Of course, queens on the show still have to work for it, she continued, especially if you’re not one of the top contestants. You have about a year to capitalize off of your season and time on the show. Vanessa Vanjie Mateo was eliminated first off of season 10 in 2018, but with her catchphrase “Miss Vanjie” becoming an Internet meme and her subsequent “RPDR” appearances, she has become one of the most the popular queens to ever appear on the show. Stender calls it the “RPDR” seal of approval.

“When you’re a local queen and you see that your club is being taken over for big events like that and you’re not in the spotlight for any of those events, I can see where that idea comes from – that the only way to make it is to be on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”

Some local queens would be uplifted when “RPDR” stars would visit — like with West in Columbus or VinChelle in Philly or New York City, but not all queens had this experience. “All Stars: The Changing Face of Drag” documents testimonies from a variety of Boston queens — including Violencia — as well as “Drag Race” alum like season six finalist Adore Delano and season four winner Sharon Needles.

With a new “RPDR” spinoff, “RuPaul's Drag Race: Vegas Revue,” the franchise isn’t slowing down anytime. When the show premiered in 2009, Lady Gaga’s breakout success was mentioned. She was earning her first no. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” that year. In 2017, Mother Monster was now considered one of the greatest pop icons in music and she was the guest judge on season nine’s premiere — revealing the show’s trajectory into mainstream popular culture.

As the popularity of “RPDR” continues to soar, a couple of things are apparent from all of these drag queens. “RPDR” elevates a drag queen’s career to the mainstream entertainment industry, turning them from local celebrities into pop cultural superstars who are globally recognized. We’re talking clout in music, movies and TV. While “RPDR” serves as a mega platform for drag queens to take their careers to new heights, the show by no means fixes the many issues drag queens face as part of the larger LGBTIA+ umbrella. There’s work that needs to be done.

“People need to educate themselves to learn more and to take a step back before they comment or say stuff,” VinChelle said about the challenges drag queens and LGBTGIA+ communities are facing in 2020. “I think more education all around. Black folks need to educate themselves. White folks really need to educate themselves. All colors need to educate themselves. I think that'll help the community become better. Until then we're going to have a lot of people who do what they want, say what they want, but I'm hoping that there is a change that comes from this.”