When he’s a man, RuPaul Andre Charles looms over the average person at 6’4” – a lanky, bespectacled figure with a glistening bald head and commanding demeanour.
However, Charles is much more imposing as a woman.
Sky-high heels and giant blonde wigs backcombed to monstrous proportions push him up to seven-feet tall. Shimmering floor length gowns and makeup blended to perfection make for a statuesque presence who carries herself with charm and wit – a goddess with a penis.
Charles is a drag icon – nay, the drag icon of the world.
Aside from being an actor, model, singer, songwriter, and television personality who climbed to fame in the 80s and 90s, RuPaul is a marketing genius who’s managed to milk every bit of his stardom to create web series, TV shows, spinoffs and spinoffs of spinoffs. Charles is first and foremost the creator and host of 3-time Emmy award winning cult reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which hit Indian Netflix earlier this year with season 11.
Built on the styles of shows like Project Runway and Americas Next Top Model, Drag Race pits contestants against one another in weekly episodes that showcase talents ranging from comedy and dancing to sewing and makeup skills. The only difference, of course, is that the contestants are usually men, who shape-shift into caricatured version of women by stuffing themselves into corsets, hip pads and breastplates, and painting their faces into unrecognisable hyper-female versions of themselves.
The first five episodes of Season 11 have been released so far. Contestants include K-Pop princess Soju, loveable weirdo Yvie Oddly and the unintentionally hilarious frontrunner Vanessa Vanjie Mateo.
Drag in India
India’s a good 10 seasons of drag race behind America and Europe, where it’s gained a cult following like few other shows have. The only visible form of ‘drag’ in the Motherland is comedic – Cyrus Sahukar playing Semi Girebaal, or the various expressions of transvestitism on Comedy Nights with Kapil. But these shows don’t attempt to explain or understand gender fluidity and expression, they mock it.
Then there’s India’s historic and sizeable hijra community. It might be easy to slot hijras under the “men in drag” category but that’s incorrect – hijras represent an alternative expression of gender, whereas the drag subculture is a simultaneous performance and subversion of gender and identity, meant to entertain first and foremost. You have your dance queens, comedy queens, weird queens, conceptual art queens, lip-sync queens – all of whom represent a separate set of talents and individual iterations of a visual fantasy.
Of course, all of this is based in a rich history and culture of drag that goes way back to European pantomimes and American Vaudeville. Contemporary drag culture pulls its references from a variety of sources, from pageants, to pop-culture and the art world.
The subculture of drag has been steadily growing in India too. Clubs like Kitty Su in Delhi regularly host drag shows that feature Indian and international performers, including Drag Race alumni like corseted burlesque queen Violet Chachki, Brittney Spears impersonator Derrick Barry and season 9’s trans runner-up Peppermint. But these shows are usually tucked away in the back rooms of clubs or reserved for the odd festival.
While the reigns holding alternative performers back have loosened over time, there’s still an undeniable stigma against drag in India. Which is why RuPaul’s Drag Race’s entry into Indian Netflix is so radical. Netflix is far from being the main source of entertainment in India, and its algorithms largely decide what the viewers watch. But it’s growing, and it’s interesting to imagine aunties and uncles clutching their pearls with shock as a man in a wig and bedazzled pasties lip-syncs to Cher.
For the deep-dive reporting required for this piece, I made my own parents watch a few episodes and saw their reactions carefully evolve from bemusement, to curiosity, to a promising “he looks the prettiest”.
Drag in the mainstream
But what makes Drag Race work at such a mainstream level isn’t its progressive stance – in fact, I’d say it’s more punk than PC given the amount of controversy over its representation of women and the trans community. It isn’t the boundary pushing aesthetics of queens like Violet Chachki and Sharon Needles, Sasha Velour’s inimitable artistic vision, or even the comedic prowess of Bianca Del Rio, Trixie Matelland Bob The Drag Queen. What makes Drag Race really work is its commitment to the formulas of good old-fashioned, trashy reality TV and utter silliness. It’s TV junk food – that big, greasy slice of pizza you know you shouldn’t eat but just can’t resist.
Over the top editing creates villains, clowns and winners who pepper each episode with theatrical displays of emotion. The drama is tempered with absurdity: each series features a challenge called Snatch Game, in which contestants have to imitate celebrities often resulting in wheeze-laugh inducing, innuendo laden comedy. In one episode, the queens dressed as MILFs and psychotic stalkers a la The Bachelor, for a remake titled ‘The Bitchelor’. Other performances include My Best Squirrelfriend’s Dragsmaids Wedding Trip, Beverly Hills 9021-HO and the supremely bad Welcome to Breastworld, The Gayest Place on Earth.
However, Drag Race’s campy comedy is often punctuated by very real moments of tragedy.
Every once in a while, a queen shares a horror story – of discrimination, bullying, abuse and rejection – not just by society but by their families. In one candid episode, a contestant revealed that she was meant to perform at gay nightclub Pulse, the site of deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in US history, on the night that it happened. Another contestant spoke about being shot for being a female impersonator, another about being raped in college.
Despite the façade of its pink-walled workrooms and ridiculous story arcs, RuPaul’s Drag Race never lets its viewers forget the immense cruelty that the LGBTQ+ community experiences every day. Recent seasons have even become political, poking fun at the US president himself. In fact, the fourth episode of the current season featured a musical called Trump: The Rusical, where the offensively named Ginger Minj parodied the chubby, Cheeto-hued world leader as contestants pranced about in their roles as congress members, spokespersons and celebrities.
If you love reality TV, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s gaudy, bawdy, punk fantasies are hard to resist. It’s still too early to tell but so far season 11 lives up to its predecessors with its insane challenges, over-the-top personalities and that addictive, exaggerated, reality TV show editing magic. Only time will tell whether the show actually manages to sell its radical fantasy to Indian audiences.
Drag is far from becoming the most accessible or open form of entertainment in our cities. But at least now we have the sanctuary of our screen to watch RuPaul glide up on stage each week, raise a graceful arm and start the show with his signature catchphrase – “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman – WIN!”
Diya Gupta is an art and culture journalist currently based in New Delhi. You can follow her on twitter at @dovagurp
Featured image credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race/Facebook/vh1