As RuPaul’s Drag Race enters its sixth season, hundreds of thousands of viewers are girding their loins, praying their favorite girl will be declared “America’s next drag superstar.” Yes, I am glad to live in a time when drag competitions are a televised sport, and prouder still that RuPaul has earned the mantle of America’s Sweetheart—even we NYC Lady Bunny loyalists can’t resist Ru’s gracious charisma, unflappable good humor, and glamorous demeanor. But RuPaul wasn’t always the ultimate glamazon!
Even before he had given himself much of a makeover, RuPaul was quite the event in the queer New Wave/Punk scene of Atlanta. Below you can see Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and The U-Hauls making their Atlanta debut in 1983. The interviewer, James Bond, is from The American Music Show, a LOOONG running, legendary super-weird program that’s just too brilliant for anything other than cable access (ask anyone halfway cool from Atlanta about it, they will know about The American Music Show, trust me). But then, RuPaul has always held in the weird and novel in very high esteem:
While channel surfing one night, I came across a local “public access” TV show called “The American Music Show.” Obviously videotaped in someone’s living room once a week, it had a talk show/sketch comedy type format that had no format at all. Hosted by Dick Richards and James Bond and featuring a weird cast of social misfits. It was very politically irreverent, funny, sick, wrong and I loved it. In my gut I knew, I had found my tribe. I immediately wrote a letter to the show explaining how much I loved what they did and that I would love to be a part of it. Two weeks later, I got a call from Paul Burke, saying they got my letter and would love for me to be on the show after the holidays.
By the time of the Atlanta show, Ru had already played New York CIty, but was still anxious to perform for the home crowd. The band is high-energy, dancey, and a little bit nasty (in the good way). Ru himself is (obviously) warm, bubbly, and genuinely excited—a legend in the making.
As another series of RuPaul’s Drag Race draws to a close (with its highest viewers yet), RuPaul’s position as a titan of queer culture is cemented.
It can’t be easy being the best known drag queen in the world, and fans of Drag Race will be familiar, by now, with Ru’s very Zen way of handling the spotlight, as well as handling other people.
Which is why this candid interview with Joan Rivers is so very refreshing. Ru really spills the T, from his often-overlooked background as a punk rocker and a go-go dancer, to his long term relationship and its “open” status, his mother (who sounds great!), his make-up tips, and his musings on gay culture and its relationship with the mainstream, which makes for some of the most interesting, and insightful, conversation here. You also get to find out RuPaul’s real name, which may come as a bit of a surprise if you don’t already know.
Of course, Joan Rivers is no minnow in the sea of gay culture herself, so it shouldn’t be surprising that when these too get together it’s a real treat. Both are fountains of knowledge, both queer and straight, and to see them kiki with so much mutual admiration is great. There’s simply no way they couldn’t be fans of each others’ work, which probably explains the openness and ease of this interview.
RuPaul in bed with Joan Rivers really is worth a watch:
Isn’t it sad to see something you once truly loved dissolve into a lacklustre parody of itself, right before your very eyes?
Last year I went on record here at DM to state that RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best reality TV show ever. I mean, seriously, how can a show about competing drag queens not be!? So that’s why I am forced to write this blog post today. It’s depressing, yes, saddening, for sure, but I have to be honest. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has fucked it up.
Let’s rewind a little first. If you have never seen Drag Race, let me explain just why it has been the best thing on TV, and still may be. First of all, the challenges the contestants face on Drag Race are harder than on any other reality show. Which other competition would ask its contestants to excel in acting, singing, dancing, stand-up comedy, design, clothes-making, catwalk presentation, make-up, hair and character creation? You have to have genuine talent to make the grade here, and in a number of areas.
Secondly, seeing as this is drag, there is a streak of irony a mile wide running through this show. It almost acts as a satire of the whole idea of reality TV competitions. Drag Race knows that you know how reality TV works. RuPaul delivers every product placement with a knowing wink, and certain tasks the queens face are direct parodies of tasks from other reality competitions.
Thirdly, and this is where it really strikes out of the ball park for me: Drag Race, whether unwittingly or in full knowledge, has done more than any other show of the last decade to make a set of gay people usually viewed as stereotypes appear actually human. The straight world generally sees drag queens as mentally unsound weirdos, obsessed with something they will never be, as easy to ridicule as to just simply ignore. They are either prostitutes or delusional, walking clichés. Well, guess what, Drag Race makes them people. Living, breathing, crying, lusting, funny, sad, flawed, brilliant people. This show has done as much for gay acceptance in the mainstream (it has been Logo TV’s break-out hit) as it has for a consistently marginalized art-form. And yes, hunty, drag IS an art form.
Last year’s Season 4 of Drag Race was unadulterated TV gold. It was pure televisual magic, the kind that simply cannot be planned or forced, the kind that unfurls organically, much to the viewers’ and the producers’ delight. Perhaps it was the larger-than-life personalities, and the strength of character of all he queens involved (not to mention the level of genuine talent on display.) Maybe it was the kindred sisterhood that formed among the queens that brought a lovely solidarity to the show that was unexpected and genuinely touching. Or maybe it was just the fact that some of the fiercest bitches in the world were there, in one room, trying to outdo one another. Whatever it was, it’s something that you simply CANNOT buy, and I urge anyone who has even a slight interest in television and/or alternative culture to seek out RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 on Netflix or iTunes. You will not be disappointed.
But that was then, and this in now. It seems crazy to think that a “golden age” of TV could have started and finished less than a year ago, but that is indeed how it feels. The current season of Drag Race is but a pale imitation of itself, with queens who have been cast seeimingly because of their resemblance to last year’s crop, but who sadly cannot deliver the charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent needed to become the next drag superstar.
Whereas last year the tension between the race’s two front-runners (well, one front-runner and one sore loser) was affecting because it was so obviously organic and real, this year the producers and editors are spending way too much time trying to create drama where none exists, rather than just letting it happen. Instead they are opting for the George Lucas-school of heavy handed, “kill a kitten” emotional engagement: half an hour of bog-standard bitching followed by a story about an absent parent and two or three minutes of hanky daubing and maybe even some actual tears. It’s boring as hell, and that’s something I never thought I would say about Drag Race. This might work on some other shitty reality shows, but as I have already stated, Drag Race is no ordinary reality show.
But you know what? If that was the main problem, then I could live with it. Sure, editing and production values get changed up every year, it’s par for the course (though they seriously need a brand new set!) but that’s not it. What I really miss from Drag Race this year is any kind of warmth. This seasons’ queens are too interested in themselves and “playing the game” (poorly, I might add) to actually connect with the viewers. Sure, after 5 series, I guess it was expected that contestants might be a little more savvy upon entering. But really, it’s as if these queens watched the last series, thought “I could do that,” yet truly didn’t understand what made that season work, what took it far beyond the ghettos of drag and gay culture, and made breakout stars of the contestants. And that was the heart. It wasn’t pretending to be a stone-cold “fierce bitch” all the time. That schtick gets boring very quickly, and the truth is that none of this year’s contestants have enough charm to pull off being a likable bitch. It’s just annoying.
This year Drag Race has been christened “the year of the fish” (fish being a term to describe a very feminine looking queen.) In retrospect, I feel last year should have been called “the year of the mother.” There were some awesome caring drag mothers in there looking out for everyone, and you can tell that some of those children are themselves gonna grow up to be fierce mothers. The caring, mothering aspect of drag is rarely seen outside of the drag community, and it seems obvious to me that it was a very strong pull for a non-gay audience. Seeing drag queens who actually care, and are not just bitches, is a novelty to a straight audience, and one they can connect strongly to. But who are the house mothers this year? There’s maybe one or two future mothers in there, but they have yet to bloom.
In essence, I would gladly show my own mother Drag Race Series 4, and while she might blush at points, she would come away with a lot of respect and admiration for these people, and a bit more of an understanding of her gay son’s life. But this year? Forget it! Many of these queens are the kind of people that re-enforce the stereotype of the bitchy, backstabbing, insecure homo. They’re taking up all the screen time, and it’s making Drag Race a chore to watch.
So yeah, you probably think I am overreacting, writing a huge blog screed about a goddamn reality competition show. But the fact is, if this show didn’t mean so goddamn much to me, I wouldn’t have even brought this whole rant up. But it needs to be said, it really does. Put a lid on the toxicity Drag Race, it’s off-putting.
In lieu of Monday night’s “sob story means a bully stays” Drag Race episode, I’d like to end with a clip from another reality show, Naomi Campbell’s The Face, in which the supermodel (and Queen Bitch) has to choose between two models, both with heartbreaking back stories of neglect that will bring a tear to your eye and a lump to your throat. This is how you deal with weak contestants who use their personal stories as an excuse for failure, and it’s highly entertaining. This clip is specifically for you, RuPaul. Learn it and learn it well:
If you’re a fan of drag or a follower of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo TV, then you’re probably aware of the Drag Stars at Sea Cruise organized by the show with Carnival Cruise Lines, and featuring many of the queens who have appeared over the past seasons.
Sounds like a fun time, right? Pay money to go on a luxury cruise, get to meet and hang out with your favorite drag queens, all in what is presumably a “safe space” for drag fans, fancy dressers, gender-benders and many on the queer spectrum.
Only it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Carnival Cruise Lines have just issued a “statement” (read: warning) that public displays of drag are not going to be tolerated on the ship, and could cost anyone who offends their conservative sensibility to be kicked off the cruise with no refund. Nice!
In order to ensure a fun and memorable time for everyone, we want to take a few moments to make you aware of certain policies and conduct expectations so as to avoid any potential disappointment during your cruise.
Carnival attracts a number of families with children, and for this reason; we strive to present a family friendly atmosphere. It is important to us that all guests are comfortable with every aspect of the cruise. Although we realize this group consists solely of adults, we nonetheless expect all guests to recognize that minors are on board and, refrain from engaging in inappropriate conduct in public areas.
Arrangements have been made for drag performance in the main theater featuring stars form Logo TV. These functions will be private and only the performers are permitted to dress in drag while in the theater. Guests are not allowed to dress in drag for the performance or in public at any time during the cruise.
It seems the company has not got its priorities in order. Why book a “drag” cruise, only then to tell passengers that dressing in drag, even inside the performance auditorium, is not acceptable? At the risk of offending minors? What does this really say about the company’s attitude to men in women’s clothing?
Sounds awfully like discrimination to me, not to mention that the line “all guests are comfortable with every aspect of the cruise” is an outright lie, if the company are willing to ban ALL forms of drag by passengers on a bloody DRAG RACE AT SEA CRUISE.
I was so excited to be a part of the Drag Stars at Sea Cruise and to meet so many of you in person and enjoy our time at sea together. It is so disheartening to myself and I know you too, to receive an email from Carnival Cruise Lines only a few days before that is, well, you can read it and decide for yourself. I, personally say let your freak flag fly. We should never be told how to dress, how to act and certainly ever be told not to be ourselves. Just know that we will still enjoy ourselves and party, even if it’s like 1920.
There’s more at NewNowNext. We’ll see how this pans out, but already it’s looking really bad for the company.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, RuPaul’s Drag Race is THE best reality show on TV right now. No, wait, let me rephrase that: RuPaul’s Drag Race is THE best reality show in the history of TV. Yes, I’m fucking serious.
It feels a bit like coming out all over again, to admit an obsession with a show so frivolous and outrageously camp as RDR. But I’m not ashamed, no siree. I couldn’t give two hoots what any of the detractors say, Drag Race is fun, funny, glamorous, touching and educational. It delivers on so many levels that it puts the bigger, mainstream reality shows to shame, a fact acknowledged by Pamela Anderson, who has stated that the talent on Drag Race easily outclasses that on American Idol.
And I’m not even a reality TV fan. I hate it! You know how these competition shows seem like such a fucking lie cos all the contestants are MOR dweebs hand-picked for their inanity, and the judges spew out bullshit platitudes when the truth is they have no clue how to control the market forces of the entertainment industry? That has always bugged me, as has the premise that somehow a mystical team of background operatives can bestow superstar status on an individual of their choosing. Well, Drag Race is different. Very different. First off, it’s a show about competing drag queens. Case closed. But in case you’d like me to explain further, don’t worry, I fully intend to…
Right away, out the window goes that hypocritical, bullshit false humility that stinks up reality TV. Being a show-off is always frowned upon on these shows, and a confident extrovert is generally framed as being “arrogant.” It’s a fundamental mythos of the entire reality genre (you know the score, the loveable loser who would still be lingering in a factory or waiting tables if it wasn’t for the grace of Simon Cowell to descend from his throne and bestow fame upon them.) Realistically the judges and producers need someone who is easy to manipulate and control, but they also need someone who is comfortable in front of an audience and a few cameras yet who knows their place and won’t outshine the real stars, the judges themselves.
Drag Race contestants are not random losers plucked from the braying horde to be made famous, these girls have been picked to compete because they are FABULOUS, and they are not scared of showing it off! RuPaul herself actively encourages showing-off, with a peacock-parade at the end of each show, and a lip sync competition between relegated queens to see who stays on. These are goddam drag queens after all, and showing off is in their bones, their genes, their very make-up. Seriously, who’s ever heard of a shy drag queen!?
RuPaul doesn’t promise these performers the world on a plate. No, she offers them a slot performing on a cruise liner. That and princely sum of $100,000. The queens are expected to bring their own talents to the table and to show us how hard they can work them, rather than having to bow to the judges nit-picking advice and barely-hidden agendas.
But it’s not even that that’s got me hooked. It’s Sharon Needles herself.
Here’s the other major lie of reality TV, one that is getting thinner and more see-through as the years go by, and turning off more and more fans of the genre. The lie that they actually produce stars. Seriously, in the ten years now that reality TV has dominated the airwaves, it has yet to produce one genuine superstar. One performer or personality that you can tell will still be around and claiming the spotlight once the promotional budget has run out or the new series has started. Well, step forward Sharon Needles.
Needles (real name is Aaron Coady) is a 31-year-old performer based in steely-grey Pittsburgh, a punk-rock goth queen who exudes wit and warmth and always looks simply phenomenal. Aaron describes Sharon as being “beautiful, spooky and stupid” and she quickly went from being Drag Race‘s rank outsider to head of the leader board, winning a record four challenges with a style that is equal parts Donatella Versace and Lux Interior (Sharon quotes Amanda LaPore and GG Allin as her drag idols.) She is television gold. Seriously, this is the first time I have ever watched anything like this and actually thought “Wow - this person really does deserve to be superstar.” It’s a slightly strange sensation, and is exactly what has made this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race so captivating.
Needles is not a queen without controversy, either. Within the world of drag Sharon is seen as a freak because she does not conform to “fishy” standards (looking convincingly sexy as a female) and even though she looks fantastic she has had to struggle to prove her worth to the other Drag Race contestants, not to mention to audiences and venues in her native Pittsburgh. But Sharon’s outsider/underdog status has actually worked in her favor. In the insular, catty scene of drag and female impersonation, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that to the straight world grown men dressing as girls is always going to be seen as freaky, no matter how fishy they are. Sharon’s open embracing of her own beautiful freakishness has endeared her to audiences both gay and straight alike.
Sharon’s outsider status has also brought to the fore stories of Aaron’s childhood bullying and social exclusion, from not only the straight world but also the gay scene itself. Aaron is an eloquent speaker against discrimination and bullying of all kinds, and Sharon’s warm acceptance of all of nature’s little oddities is a refreshing change from mainstream gay society’s focus on the shallow beauty of the image. In an era of institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals, where the battle for our basic human rights is still very much happening, Sharon Needles is the unlikely hero that we need. That we ALL need, regardless of gender, orientation, color or any of that. If you’ve ever felt even a little bit at odds with society and its relentless conformity, Sharon Needles is the fierce bitch for you.
A genuine one-off with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to burn, Sharon Needles is a true star. In fact, she’s exactly the kind of contestant you don’t see on reality TV shows because they are just too good! And that’s why we here at Dangerous Minds would like to throw our full support behind her in the race to become America’s Next Drag Superstar.
VOTE NEEDLES 2012.
This video is a compendium of Sharon Needle’s best moments in the earlier stages of Drag Race, mixed with performance footage from the streets and bars of Pittsburgh:
RuPaul’s Drag Race airs on Logo TV, and the winner of Season 4 is announced on Monday.