RuPaul’s memoir Lettin It All Hang Out (1996).
The Insider (2008) introducing the launch of RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009). ...
... "Move over Tyra and America’s Next Top Model.” (Pictured: ANTM host Tyra Banks)
Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1979).
ANTM: judging a model.
An ANTM meme joking about Tyra’s egotism.
Contestant Sharon Needles impersonating judge Michelle Visage.
America's next top drag queen
An October 2008 segment of the entertainment news show The Insider introducing the launch of the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race (first aired February 2, 2009) begins with the announcer saying,
We then see behind-the-scenes shots of the contestants in the backstage/makeup/workroom area with commentary from RuPaul reassuring reality-TV fans that there will be lots of drama because “we’re queens.” The contestants’ self-introductions are interspersed with footage of RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” music video from 1993, thus reminding the audience of RuPaul’s earlier moment in the spotlight of mainstream culture. Over shots of the panel of judges, RuPaul explains that they are looking for America’s next drag superstar, distinguished by “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent.” We can already sense a bit of RuPaul’s subversive sense of humor in smuggling an obscene acronym (C.U.N.T.) onto mainstream television, and RuPaul jokes that no one has come for her title and it is “kind of lonely at the top.” (I will use “she/her” to refer to RuPaul in female drag, and “he/his” for RuPaul’s “male drag” persona, often including glasses and a mustache). But RuPaul is also strikingly sincere and Oprah-esque when she explains that these are people who have “taken adversity and turned it into something beautiful and powerful.” She offers up her version of the drag American dream:
This encapsulates the meritocratic dream of talent-scouting television like Star Search and Miss America that The Insider’s audience also recognizes from reality television shows America’s Next Top Model, American Idol, and Project Runway.
What we don’t see in The Insider’s profile is RuPaul in dapper suit-wearing “male drag” (rather than “out of drag”—a state reserved for the contestants). RuPaul famously declared,
This concept of drag as revealing the imitative structure of gender (including normative heterosexual gender, not just lesbian, gay, and drag “role playing”) will be recognizable to readers of Judith Butler’s influential essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” (though many forget that Butler credits this insight to Esther Newton’s anthropological study of drag, Mother Camp). Butler, however, has since downplayed the example of drag (as conscious or voluntary performance) in her idea of gender performativity (perhaps understandably, since many use the word “performative” when they mean “performancy”). [open endnotes in new window] But I want to take RuPaul’s conscious — and perhaps unconscious — performances seriously. I will go on to argue that RuPaul’s multiple personas offer a kind of metacommentary on talent contest reality television conventions and specifically the roles of Tyra Banks and Tim Gunn from America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. RuPaul’s television performances offer “readings” of their performances, as well as revisions of her own iconic “Supermodel of the World” persona. RuPaul’s Drag Race is thus a form of “meta-reality television.”
Werner Wolf has identified a “metareferential turn in contemporary arts and media” in two edited volumes that speculate about works that call attention to themselves as artifacts (metafiction, metacinema, metatelevision). Wolf defines “metaization” as
This is generally associated with a kind of intellectual, critical, and distancing reflexivity, but certain contributors to the edited volumes (including myself on “metahorror” films) suggested that metareference in popular media does not necessarily conflict with the immersive enjoyment of the text by the audience, and can act as a kind of flattering wink to the savvy fan. In what follows, I will examine both the intertextual and metatextual elements of RuPaul’s Drag Race in relation to ANTM and Project Runway and reality television more generally, but I will also look further back in time than The Insider to gauge the impact of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 drag documentary Paris Is Burning on RuPaul’s early-90s persona (for example, the lyrics on her album Supermodel of the World), the format and vocabulary of RPDR, and audience reception of RuPaul’s show.
Much of RuPaul’s dialogue is borrowed from the drag ball scenes in Paris Is Burning. Sometimes this borrowing takes the form of direct quotation, for instance: RuPaul tells Santino, a judge on RPDR who also competed on Project Runway, to “shake the dice and steal the rice” (which may have been slang at the time of Paris Is Burning, but is recognizable as a snippet of dialogue from the MC in the film, along with Venus Xtravaganza’s idiolect also quoted by RuPaul: “between me down there”). Sometimes it involves revision and re-inflection: “Xtravaganza” becomes “Eleganza,” “Psychological” becomes “Biological,” etc. This kind of mutation is characteristic of a “meme” whereby culture is disseminated through fan communities and the Internet. I will end with some speculation about the effects of new media on our sense of “drag community” and “gay community.”
To start with The Insider’s comparison: does RPDR turn “the rules” of America’s Next Top Model upside down? Other than the gender (or genders) of the contestants, the contest itself is relatively similar: each week the host announces a specific challenge (with some coaching) that tests the modeling and spokesmodeling skills of the competitors, usually producing an artifact (“your best shot” taken by a celebrity photographer; a short promotional video), and a runway performance/ interview in front of a panel of judges chosen for their industry experience who offer their critiques, presided over by a successful spokesmodel. The final prize competed for is also similar: a modeling contract, an advertising contract, the opportunity to appear in a top magazine, and the title/crown. In ANTM, Tyra Banks (a “top model” who is also the executive producer of the show) reveals one-by-one the photographs of the contestants that have not been eliminated, saying,
The first-called contestant receives a small prize and sometimes an advantage in the next challenge, and the final two contestants left standing are usually given further criticisms before Tyra breaks the suspense by revealing who will stay and who must pack their things and leave the show. One major difference is that the decision of who stays and who goes is made by the panel in ANTM whereas the panel of judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race play only an advisory role, since RuPaul reserves the privilege of making the final decision herself of who will “Shantay, you stay/Sashay away.”
RuPaul’s decision is allegedly based on the “Lip-Sync for Your Life” performances of the bottom two queens. In asserting her power (often calling the panel of judges to “SILENCE” dramatically) and her judgment by fiat, RuPaul parodies and exposes the pretense of democratic voting by a panel of experts (since the open secret of reality TV competitions is that the producers have a say in who stays because they are “good television”). RuPaul also highlights the way ANTM is really Tyra’s show (Tyra’s ability to make everything about her through aggressive empathy can also be seen in her successful Oprah-esque daytime talk show). This megalomania (“bring in my girls”) and narcissism is also parodied in the recap (“RuCap”) episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race where the most memorable outfits are all RuPaul’s own runway appearances.
So, while RuPaul’s Drag Race does not follow the exact pattern of ATNM, it frequently refers to Tyra (“the other Tyra”) and borrows several aspects of the format and trademarks of Tyra’s show: on ANTM, the challenges are announced by “Tyra Mail” (usually rather enigmatically, to create a guessing-game for the contestants); RuPaul revises this as “You’ve Got She-Mail”: a video appearance of RuPaul in female drag announcing the challenge (again somewhat enigmatically). She-Mail is both an appropriation of Tyra’s device and a reappropriation of the offensive “she-male” label for drag queens (likewise for RuPaul’s use of “ladyboy,” although the show is ambivalent at best about transsexuality, as seen in multiple arguments between contestants). Another direct link between RPDR and ANTM is the controversial winner of RPDR season 3, Raja (Sutan Amrul), who was a makeup artist on ANTM. ANTM can also be connected to Paris Is Burning through the guest appearances of voguing-coach Benny Ninja of the famous House of Ninja. When Tyra invited the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church family (known for protesting with “God Hates Fags” signs at funerals) on her talk show, they accused her of being a “Fag Enabler.” Beyond the repulsive homophobia intended by this comment, I think it is a brilliant description of the positive work of her enterprise and her collaboration with effeminate gay men of color (Mr. Jay and Miss J).
When RuPaul enters the workroom to announce the mini-challenge on RPDR, he is in “male drag” (a tailored suit, what he calls “executive realness” in Lettin It All Hang Out [x–xi], borrowing a term from the drag balls of Paris Is Burning). This is where the show more closely resembles Project Runway, and RuPaul as a man resembles the charming and dapper gay mentor Tim Gunn at Parsons The New School for Design. RuPaul’s tone in the workroom is less imperious, and he focuses on coaching the contestants and getting them to talk through their costume ideas for the main theme challenge, while reminding them how things might play out on the runway (but instead of predicting the criticisms of Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia, RuPaul in female drag is the one to impress, so the coaching is slightly schizophrenic).
Unlike ANTM and Project Runway, we rarely get to see the contestants of RPDR in any kind of dorm-room/apartment/non-studio setting, rather, the show emphasizes the conventional reality television distinction between public and private through scenes in the workroom (the “You-Better-Work-Room”). The genre of reality television is in fact known for eroding the distinction between public and private, since at least MTV’s The Real World, which introduced the private “video confessional” format but developed drama around making intimate cohabitation public. Often the contestants are in a state of semi-undress, and the show emphasizes the process and the work that goes into “the transformation” from “gentlemen” to “women”—tucking, padding, “cooking” makeup, etc. (a major focus of RuPaul’s autobiography and more recent style guide, Workin’ It: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style, which itself resembles Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style). We also see this emphasis on the “work” of drag in challenges where the queens must give non-queens makeovers to look like them (butch women, jocks, older gay men, straight fathers).
The promise of getting to see “behind the scenes” is one of the major draws of reality television, and explains the appeal of the online supplement to RuPaul’s Drag Race “Under the Hood” which was replaced by a full half-hour program RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked in season two. Untucked shows the contestants in the “Interior Illusions Lounge” critiquing each other and the judges while preparing for the final “Lip-Sync for your Life” portion of the show. This provides viewers at home the chance to speculate along with the contestants about who will be in the bottom two, who is being two-faced, what allegiances are forming, who will be in the final three, etc. As John Fiske and John Hartley note in Reading Television, competition shows like dance contests with a panel of judges, quiz shows, and sports broadcasts allow the audience at home to vicariously participate and identify with the roles of both competitor and judge (146). Untucked provides a further meta-level where the contestants (and audience) can judge the judges (Santino, Merle, Michelle Visage, celebrity guests—Sharon Needles’s impression of Michele Visage in “the Snatch Game” during season four was perhaps the most inspired “read”). This also makes us feel even more like “insiders” to the proceedings, thus reinforcing a sense of fan community.