The Problem With RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

Photo Courtesy Of BBC Pictures
I’m sat in the back of a taxi with a friend*, both of us in full drag, necks craned at a 45 degree angle because our wigs are too tall for the car roof. We always travel in Ubers when we’re in drag – every drag performer I know does, when they can afford it; when we can’t, we drag all our drag to the club and put it on there. It’s just not safe to get on public transport in drag.
"We’re about to enter a new era of drag in the UK." Now that sounds promising – like perhaps the arrival of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK means that this conversation I’m having with my friend in this Uber could happen on public transport, because with increased visibility you might assume that the world might get safer for people like me and mine. But that’s not necessarily true.
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The announcement of RuPaul UK sent worry-waves through the drag community a year ago, and the worry has only heightened as the air date has edged closer.

Both our voices warble with worry, for various reasons. The announcement of RuPaul UK sent worry-waves through the drag community a year ago, and the worry has only heightened as the air date has edged closer. But what is this worry about?
For the average British Drag Race fan – of which there are, literally, millions – this news is awesome. Finally some queens of our own who’ll come down the local gay bar in Lancaster for a night. That is exciting: the fact that people who aren’t necessarily exposed to drag will witness it on their TV screens, via the BBC no less. "Undoubtedly, this will change a few minds," another drag friend of mine, who lives in Blackpool, tells me. "I for one am excited, although I don’t know how well a polished American competition format can represent the real heart of UK drag, which to me is dirty, cheeky, unpolished."
Changing minds is one thing, certainly, and we all know exposure drives understanding. But my friend, who we’ll call Mary, is on the money when it comes to her worries about true UK drag representation. Firstly, the heart of UK drag is not about polish. It’s about entertainment but also about challenging the system around us, whether via punk politics or impressive gender subversion. We occupy basements and bars, and having watched episode one of the show, it feels like this heart isn’t quite captured.

It's a cast full of cis male drag queens which, frankly, is both boring and utterly unrepresentative of where the best drag in Britain exists.

"The show is real white, right?" another friend, who also wishes not to be named, tells me. "I mean, the most talented, most special drag performers I know come from my community, the QTIPOC+ community, and it’s both disappointing and unsurprising to see so many white faces on this very stereotypically British themed show. It’s also, obviously, a cast full of cis male drag queens which, frankly, is both boring and utterly unrepresentative of where the best drag in Britain exists: among kings, in-betweens, gender fuckers, aliens – that’s drag’s future. This is the same again."
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These are points that are felt widely across the drag community, and people – like the brilliant Chiyo – are staging anti-Drag Race parties and performances which will platform and prioritise bodies and styles of drag not allowed on the show. This is British drag as it should be: radical, diverse, non-competitive, punk.
Photo Courtesy Of BBC Pictures
Another worry we’re feeling in the drag community is about the changing economy of our work.
Over the past seven or eight years, the unstable economy of drag has slowly been able to level out somewhat. This is undoubtedly because of a confluence of the presence of RuPaul’s Drag Race and increased LGBTQIA+ media representation – so now we get booked, we write books, we read them to kids and get BBC podcasts; we host brunches and dance at Pride, and we take all this work to feed ourselves, pay our rent and allow us to make the radical work which most people won’t see, which is by queers, for queers. This is a rough sketch of what the drag economy looks like, at least in London. But that’s most probably about to change.
"The Drag Race queens out here get $5000 an appearance, and people like me often get $100 or less, and then tips – if people are feeling generous, that is," a friend of mine who is very active on the Brooklyn scene explained over email. That’s a terrifying prospect in many ways – that a budget that would usually be shared over five performers’ fees might be swallowed into one girl from Drag Race’s pocket. That’s not her fault of course, but intensifying the capitalist framework through which drag will most probably now have to exist can only mean loss of earnings for those who have just about struck a balance. For those who get booked less – which is often the case for the bodies we don’t see on the show – this could pose a real problem.
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My friends are more driven than ever to make, and take up, more space. Of course I might be wrong about our small slice of the economy, but it feels like we’re about to plunge into a new era of British drag – and that’s a little scary.
I do hope I’m wrong, of course. I hope our delicate drag ecosystem isn’t too damaged by the arrival of this new drag behemoth. And if you’re reading this and wondering how to help beyond the show – the key is to support your local drag nights. Remember we exist and work hard off-screen. Go to the bars and the scenes where we exist off the box, and witness Britain’s real drag superstars in action.
*All of the drag performers who contributed to this piece wish to remain anonymous.

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