Every time someone watches RuPaul’s Drag Race for the very first time, a bigot’s hairline recedes by a millimeter. Just kidding. But I like to think it’s true.
If you’re hoping the same and would like to start partaking in the LGBTQ+ community’s favorite sport, you’ve come to the right place. Getting into a show with 15 seasons, 7 All-Stars rounds, and a host of international franchises can be a little daunting, but it also means that there’s plenty to enjoy — and All-Stars Season 8 is just around the corner.
Here’s what you need to know before starting your engines and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.
RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) is a reality competition TV show that feels like what would happen if Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and America’s Got Talent had a glittery lovechild, and it’s been around since 2009.
In place of Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, and even Tim Gunn is RuPaul Charles, who’s been a mainstay in pop culture since the 1980s. Some might’ve first heard of Mama Ru from her 1993 hit single Supermodel or have seen her in films like, But I’m a Cheerleader! (1999), a campy treat for WLW audiences. But as RPDR grew, RuPaul became the face of drag — winning an impressive 12 Primetime Emmy Awards for her work on the show.
Alongside RuPaul herself are regular judges Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and a special celebrity guest of the week. Over the years, the show has invited a host of exciting personalities, from superstars Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande to designer Marc Jacobs and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Aside from the challenges that the show’s contestants must go through (more on this later), there’s a lot of talk among racers and judges on the show about everyday issues LGBTQ+ people face. This makes it an excellent platform for issues like depression, familial acceptance, the gender binary, and grappling with addiction or homelessness, on top of things like how best to apply a lace-front wig and contour one’s nose.
Queer history is also a consistent theme throughout the show’s growing number of seasons. RPDR regularly references the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which covered drag and ball scenes in New York.
The result, then, is a show that features not only exciting and often hilarious competition but also insightful conversations on the past, present, and future of the queer community. Frankly, that combination is hard to find elsewhere.
Today, RPDR has grown from a scrappy little show to an international cultural force to be reckoned with. Once you’ve finished an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you can watch the corresponding Untucked! episode, which features behind-the-scenes footage with more enjoyable drama.
Once you’ve watched enough regular seasons, it’s time to enjoy All-Stars, where contestants from previous seasons battle to make it to the Drag Race Hall of Fame.
And then there are the international editions, which include RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Drag Race España, Drag Race Philippines, and even cross-national competitions like Canada’s Drag Race: Canada vs. the World.
The top prize at RuPaul’s Drag Race, usually announced during the opening credits, can vary. In the US, for instance, it’s a one-year supply of Anastasia Beverly Hills Cosmetics and a cash prize of 100,000 dollahs. (Watch the show enough times, and you’ll hear that sentence as you read it.) Here in the Philippines, it’s a one-year supply of ONE/SIZE Beauty Cosmetics, with a cash prize of 1 million pesos.
In the UK, the show is produced by BBC Three, which means it’s publicly funded and cannot be sponsored. Thus, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK winners are given an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood in order to produce their own digital series instead.
Of course, this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race, and not everyone goes home a winner. But, even if drag queens don’t end up winning their season, the exposure they get on the show tends to be more than worth the investment they put into their wigs, makeup, and clothing.
Thus, having to “sashay away” (more on this below) during your season isn’t necessarily the end of the world. RPDR alumni have found themselves on Broadway, at the Oscars, in commercials, ad campaigns, international tours, on Billboard Hot 100 lists, and even on store shelves with their own cosmetics brands.
Most RPDR episodes contain a mini-challenge and a maxi (or main) challenge.
Mini challenges are quick contests held in the first half of an episode, where queens are asked to showcase their quick thinking skills in a less serious set-up. Winners of mini-challenges usually get a prize that helps them later on in the main challenge, like getting extra time to prepare or picking their own teammates for group challenges. Some might get a small, often sponsored, prize, while others just win for the fun of it.
One example of an iconic mini-challenge is the Reading Challenge. In RPDR, to read someone is to criticize or critique them in a funny and non-insulting way. Reading (which, as the queens will say, is “fundamental!”) is an art form. Do it right, and even your targets would double over with laughter; do it wrong, and you’re mean, petty, and not all funny.
You’d know it’s time to read when RuPaul brings out some glasses and declares that “the library is open.” The entire concept of the challenge is a tribute to Dorian Corey, a drag performer who explained the concept of reading in the documentary Paris is Burning.
Main challenges, meanwhile, are each episode’s central event. Though some episodes might not have mini-challenges, all regular episodes will have a maxi challenge.
These challenges run the gamut of talents drag queens are praised for, from acting in Rusicals (that’s RuPaul musicals) and commercials to dancing and designing their looks. Some main challenges are iconic in their own right, and none more so than the Snatch Game.
Snatch Game is patterned after Match Game, a game show popular in the ‘70s, except instead of celebrities, we have celebrity impersonations. The jokes are filthy and the stakes high in Snatch Game episodes, which are usually the most memorable of each RPDR season. That’s because good Snatch Game episodes are sublime — and bad ones are so memorably awful.
Towards the end of an episode is the runway stage, where each queen is given time to strut their stuff and shine according to a chosen theme. In some episodes, the theme is directly related to a main challenge (say, if the challenge is to design a look or several). Other times, it can be unrelated to the episode’s other events.
How Winners and Losers Are Chosen
So we’ve covered a lot thus far about what happens in an episode — but there’s plenty more drama to be witnessed.
At the end of the runway stage, the judges choose their best and worst queens of the week based on the main challenge and the queens’ runway looks. The rest of the cast — dubbed “safe” — go backstage as the judges critique the top and bottom queens. Based on their deliberations, RuPaul identifies a winner (or winners) and, crucially, a bottom two.
The episode’s bottom two queens will have to battle it out in a Lip Sync For Your Life.
Based on this final performance, RuPaul then picks a loser who is eliminated and must then “sashay away.” There are rare episodes where the performances are so good both queens stay (a “Double Shantay”) or are so bad that both queens are eliminated (a “Double Sashay”).
All-Star seasons do things a little differently with a Lip Sync for Your Legacy. For some editions, the top two queens are the ones that lip sync at the end of each episode, and the winning queen has to choose which of the two bottom queens go home (cue dramatic music). In others, the winning queen faces a Lip Sync Assassin — a former contestant known for their killer performance — instead.
How a Queen Is Crowned
In every episode, a queen is made to sashay away until we get to a final four (or three) queens who must face each other in the finale.
Do the challenge wins matter at this stage? Not really. Queens with no challenge wins have made it to the finale, and front-runners with a winning track record across their season have fallen to their less-awarded peers.
A lot can happen in a Drag Race finale, though it usually involves a final Lip Sync For The Crown.
While filming, the crowning moments for all finalists are shot. This way, the show avoids leaks, and the winner isn’t revealed (even to the finalists!) until the finale’s air date.
Not Without Its Share of Controversy
As beloved as RPDR and its army of contestants have come to be, the franchise is not without its share of controversies throughout the years.
RuPaul has had a bit of a contentious history with the trans community, leading to a backlash from Drag Race alumni in 2018. Among them is trans woman and Season 9 runner-up Peppermint, who, in her eloquent response to RuPaul’s apology to the trans community, wrote: “My hope is that together, we can uplift all forms of drag, both on TV and in the real world. Gay men do not own the idea of gender performance.”
In recent years, the show has taken a lot of steps to be more supportive of the transgender community. Trans drag queens — including a trans man — have competed on the show, while former racers have come out as trans.
Not all trans people are drag performers, and many transgender people don’t do drag. But transgender people who are drag artists are just as valid as the gay men who do it. (And also, with the current political climate the way it is: I just want to quickly note here that trans women are women, trans men are men, and transgender people deserve to live full, happy lives.)
A Quick Glossary of Drag Race Terms
To the uninitiated, folks on Drag Race might sometimes sound like they’re speaking a foreign language. I remember being confused about what a mug was or what being a fish meant. And so, I present a quick glossary for the RPDR newbie:
- Beat: Not to be taken literally; to beat one’s face is to apply makeup flawlessly. As in, “Her face is beat for the gods.”
- Charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent: The four elements of a winning RPDR queen.
- Drag mothers and daughters: Drag queens often belong to drag families or chosen families composed of queer people that develop their drag together. To be a drag mother is to take a younger queen under your wing and teach them the art of drag. Drag moms and daughters might share a last name, as with Alexis and Vanessa ‘Vanjie’ Mateo, or they might not, as with Bob the Drag Queen and Miz Cracker.
- Fish: to look or feel very feminine. As in, “to feel fishy” or “serve fish.”
- Gag: To lose one’s mind over something so fierce or amazing. As in, “Her look had us all gagging.”
- Mug: A queen’s face.
- Pit crew: A group of scantily clad men who assist in the challenges. It is a drag race, after all.
- Read: To criticize or critique, usually in a funny way.
- Sickening: To be so good, someone gags.
- Shade: Different from a read, to shade someone or to be shady is to insult them subtly.
- Tea / T: Gossip or private information. As in, “Spill the tea, sis.”
- Tuck: The art and tape-heavy science of pulling back one’s junk while in drag.
Now Racers, Start Your Engines….
Honestly, Drag Race is a lot. And that can be a good thing, too.
If you want to dive in, it’s good to start with the main US series, though not necessarily in chronological order. Most people consider Season 3 to be a good starting point, as the show starts to pick up here, and you’ll be treated to a time capsule of the good old early 2010s. Other popular recommendations are Seasons 5 and 6, which produced plenty of iconic queens.
It’s also good to know your herstory, so I’d recommend watching Paris is Burning and other great LGBTQ+ documentaries when you have a spare hour or two.
Remember: Drag is not a crime!