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All the shade, none of the heart: Has ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ fucked it up?

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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:
 

 
Note 1: Well RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 WAS on Netflix, but it appears to have been removed. I still can’t recommend it highly enough though, so here’s a link to watch/buy the show on iTunes, and here it is on Amazon.

Note 2: Jinkx or Alaska FTW!

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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03.14.2013
12:22 pm
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‘The World According To Wonder’: Saluting the pioneers of alt and gay TV
03.05.2013
10:46 am
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imageThe glorious RuPaul
 
imageChloe Sevigny
 
Los Angeles-based World Of Wonder productions are marking 21 years in the business of televisual entertainment, and to celebrate they have just brought out a new coffee table book, The World According to Wonder featuring exclusive portraits of practically every person they have ever worked with; from stars like Pamela Anderson, RuPaul, Dita Von Teese, Elvira and John Waters, to many of their behind-the-scenes crew, and even the staff at their popular The WOW Report blog.

The list of portrait sitters for The World According to Wonder‘s photographers Idris & Tony and Mathiu Andersen is huge, and the book (which has been a few years in the making) is very impressive indeed. When I say “coffee table book,” I mean if you stuck legs on this thing, it would be its own coffee table. (It weighs 8lbs!)
 
imageJames St James and companion “Harvey”
 
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Chaz Bono and ex-partner Jennifer Elia
 
World Of Wonder have brought us some of the best television of the last 20 years, shows and documentaries like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Becoming Chaz, The Adam & Joe Show, The Divine David Presents, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Inside Deep Throat, Pornography: The Secret History Of Civilisation, Jon Ronson’s Crazy Rulers Of The World, and Party Monster: The Shockumentary (not forgetting Party Monster the feature film, starring Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig, the murderous king of the NY club kids, which has gone on to influence a new generation of club kids and become a cult classic in its own right). 

Interspersed among the pictures is the story of World Of Wonder itself, eloquently and entertainingly told by the company’s founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; from its beginnings in 80s New York, its early work with upcoming drag legend RuPaul and British TV station Channel 4, through expansion into full-length documentary features, all the way up to the present day, a slew of coveted awards and its position as brand leader for all things queer/drag/alt on television.

As an early 90s TV junkie, glued to late night BBC 2 and Channel 4—oh those really WERE the days!—this book brings back a lot of good memories (and reminders of forgotten but influential shows like Shock Video and Manhattan Cable) and it is inspiring and instructive to read how these shows came to be, directly form the people that made them. If there’s any message, here, I would say it is “believe in your vision and never take no for an answer” and The World According to Wonder is testament to how dreaming big, and thinking outside the box, can ultimately pay off.
 
imagePamela Anderson
 
imageSharon Needles
 
You can download the first chapter of The World According to Wonder as a pdf here.
 

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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03.05.2013
10:46 am
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Institute of Oral Love: All talk and no action?

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The Institute of Oral Love was situated on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue, and this photograph was taken in 1976, as part of an article on LA’s growing porn scene.

Though there has been the bizarre suggestion this was a dentist and oral surgeon, as well as the more obvious belief it was “blow job central”, the Oral Institute of Love was, I am reliably informed by the lovelies over at World of Wonder, not exactly what it seemed, as it mainly “dispensed talk”.
 
Via Los Angeles Relics
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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07.29.2012
12:04 pm
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Ninety minutes of the Divine David

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Can you handle it?!

This 90-minute film is edited together extracts of the Divine David’s late 90s Channel 4 show The Divine David Presents, produced by World Of Wonder

At the time this show originally aired was one of the most out-there things on TV, and you know what, it’s still pretty damn bizarre and hilarious. Thanks, of course, to the wonderful stylings of the Divine David himself, who now goes by his real name of David Hoyle and regularly performs in London and Manchester. 

If any one person was responsible for kicking drag square on the backside and, erm, dragging it into the 21st Century, it was David Hoyle. You could even say his look goes beyond drag, as it’s an over-the-top parody of a form that is already a parody, and which coupled with his pissed-and-paranoid English gent persona can lead to belly laughs simply from a knowing glance or a flick of the wrist. It can be grotesque, yes, but I dare you not to laugh the laugh of wrongness.

‘Til this day David Hoyle remains criminally neglected outside of the UK, and under-rated even in his homeland (except to comedy nerds that is - Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker personally selected Hoyle for the older rock star character in Nathan Barley.) His strange comic genius is as relevant as ever, and needs more exposure - so please, PLEASE World Of Wonder, don’t yank this off YouTube!
 
The Divine David Presents - the Collection:
 

 

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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03.16.2012
01:01 pm
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