The Day RuPaul Came to Town

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They came, they walked, they lipsynced.

It was the day we’d been eagerly awaiting for so long – the day RuPaul came to town. But The Queen didn’t give us long to prepare. The hastily promoted search for a UK RuPaul ambassador was heralded by Queen Ru just a few weeks before the intended final in London, most likely to tie in with the UK premiere of Season 4 on TruTV.

The uncertainty over exactly what a drag ambassador does – beyond receiving an all expenses paid trip to L.A. – didn’t deter over a hundred British drags (myself included) from hurriedly putting together an entry. After all, what more motivation do you need than a free holiday and a chance to meet RuPaul?

But now the glitter has settled and the Rujects have sashayed away, is anyone else wondering what it was all really about?

Will this be an annual affair? Is this the precursor to a British incarnation of the show? What exactly is a drag ambassador? Is that peculiar aftertaste of dissatisfaction a desire for more or a disappointment with what we got?

And of course … Why didn’t you pick me, Ru!?!?

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Any disappointment I may feel was certainly not with Ru’s choice of winner – the always richly satisfying The Vivienne from Liverpool. She’s gorgeous, she’s nice and she’s northern. All absolutely fine with me.

I am sure whatever being a drag ambassador involves, The Vivienne’s finely polished mug will be gracing our feeds aplenty in the coming months. There were of course the expected (and unjustified) groans from members of the gallery at Viv’s appointment. The usual shock, quiet outrage, bitterness and just a hint of ‘I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog too!’ that occurs at any drag competition.

Everyone has their favorites. It’s no secret that I was rooting for one of the three #manchesterqueens for the win, but there is no questioning that Viv is also perfect for the job. Her style blends elements of classic British drag with the high polished finish that characterizes the RuPaul’s Drag Race aesthetic. The only doubt I ever had of Viv’s chances of snatching the title was that she fitted the task a little too perfectly.

When the variety of the line-up was revealed – a bearded queen, a trans woman, a drag clown and Sue-gives-a-fuck – I had the brief fluttering that Ru would select someone leftfield … or as Grace ‘The Face’ put it to me recently, ‘drag that asks more questions than it answers’.

It would have been a gesture towards the plurality of British scenes, rather than adhering to the polish that dominates American pageantry and will soon become the new British standard.

But this was a competition for RuPaul’s Drag Ambassador, and in that light Ru’s choice made perfect sense. It would be unfair to lay the burden of representing the variety of the entire nation’s drag on Viv’s sensually exposed shoulders, although her friendships with artists of all styles will undoubtedly mean she will be spreading awareness of our drag multiplicity in her global travels!

However, it was a shame that we didn’t get to see a little more contrast in the later stages of the competition. La Voix and Eddie OK Adams are both amazing performers, neither of whom really had the chance to show their talents fully in the show format (she’s called La Voix for a reason).

I mean, come on Ru! You could have given us at least one performer in the final three that was a little out of your Drag Race comfort zone? I suppose when you send over half of the line-up home after a simple strut on the catwalk, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that diversity was sacrificed to fit the format.

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No doubt the show organisers were constrained by the amount of rounds they had. If this was the case, why invite so many to compete in the first place? Thank heavens for the online buzz generated by the queens promoting the relatively unknown TruTV network prior to the show, as we really didn’t get to see anything of their personalities in the several seconds they were given under the spots.

‘They’re saving you for the real show!!!’ the crowd of Rufanatics that are slowly gathering around this conversation exclaim, raising their hand to commence a Z-snap. The dangling carrot of a RuPaul’s Drag Race UK hangs on the horizon. The ever shrewd Ms Ru is staying quiet on that for now, perhaps hedging bets (read: waiting for the cheque to clear).

But with buses flaunting her gold catsuited booty all over the nation, it looks likely that a full blown invasion is imminent – and UK drag queens want it now more than ever. But surely those 12 queens voted off in the first round would have been better kept in the wings (not to mention saving money on train fare)?

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Great as it was to see UK queens getting some exposure and to see my closest sisters up there competing (and even getting a mention in The Daily Star!) I was left wondering what kind of drag RPDR UK would deliver, and how well the format will represent UK drag.

WHAAAAAT??! I hear the assembled Rufanatics cry in Runison (Z-SNAP!!). Make no mistake: I love RuPaul and the way that Drag Race has pushed drag out of the backroom and onto the global stage. Ru is one of the only drag pheomena to have an international presence and as an access point to the wonderful, crazy and amazingly diverse world of drag, there could be no better.

The show has contributed to a flourishing of all drag scenes in the UK – littered as it is with kings, queens, club kids and drag creatures – and that’s the question mark for me. So often the drag that I love and that I think is the most important doesn’t fit the RPDR US mould.

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From the continued success of the edgier and less polished aesthic of London clubbing brands like Sink the Pink, to the prominence of female performers like Julie Hole, our drag scene is buzzing with kings, queens and betweens that wouldn’t be allowed to compete on the show.

Yes, Drag Race has celebrated a variety of styles of drag. We’ve seen and loved genderfuck characters like Ongina, Nina Flowers and the splendid Milk Queen. Winners like Raja, Sharon Needles and Bianca Del Rio were certainly not held back by their unique spins on feminity. But deviate intionally too far in the other direction and expect to be mocked for your manliness.

The show presents a diverse range of talent, but it is diversity with clear expectations and entry requirements. Although not excluded formally, trans performers are not allowed on the show if they are taking hormones for fear of creating an unfair advantage (yet facial feminisation and body type don’t seem to be considered in the same way).

Women have been completely excluded from the competition thus far – as either kings or queens. These unsubtle forms of gender policing in the selection of contestants and the show’s format run peculiarly contrary to the host’s famous mantra, ‘You’re born naked and the rest is drag.’

Even though RuPaul is no stranger to any and all sorts of drag, the Stateside competition has been shy to deviate too far from it’s mainstream audience’s expectations of drag-as-female-impersonation – only even approaching risqué areas like bearded drag (it’s been around since the 70s, folks) in the latest season.

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Drag animals, clowns (Joe Black) and even living brands (Eppie Conrad) populate nights across the UK like Room Service, Ultra Violet, Garlands, Shade and our very own Cha Cha Boudoir in Manchester.

Even Jonathan Ross’s favorite drag Meth (Just Meth) is a vocal advocate of a more open approach to drag, including club kids, mustached nuns (Virgin Xtravaganza) and the like, in the line-ups of the now infamous Meth Lab cabaret. Four of The Familyyy Fierce, Meth’s performing drag troupe, are female performers.

Our heritage is about more than Dame Edna, Lily Savage and Dave Lynn – fabulous as they were. More ambiguous forms of drag have been part of the UK underground clubbing scene for generations. You only have to look back to the scenes that gave us Boy George and the prominence of that other Australian drag artist Leigh Bowery to see that they have always been there, waiting under the neon lights.

Does embracing a UK Drag Race mean that we once again leave them in the shadows in favour of what the mainstream expects from drag?

Maybe these are sacrifices that need to be made in the name of accessibility? Maybe something is better than nothing? Maybe it’s the thin end of a gender explosion about to happen on Drag Race?

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I keep hoping with each season that Mama Ru is about to throw open the doors of the drag palace to her children of all genders. But each year it doesn’t happen.

Perhaps we should keep in mind that the show is RuPaul’s Drag Race and as such never claimed to be doing anything other than finding Ru’s next drag superstar. She’s worked hard all these years and if that’s the Drag Race she wants, then fair enough. It is also primarily a commercial venture – and still has done more for drag than anything else in the last 20 years.

Maybe this is the strange taste I detected – a bitter pill that we might just have to swallow.

From the perspective of performers at the recent search for a UK Drag Ambassador, the pill could probably have been a little more sugarcoated. I have been offered a selection of words in private from a number of the drags who took part: ‘treated like cattle’, ‘farcical’, ‘utter shambles’ and ‘Didn’tEvenGetOfferedADrink’.

This last one is particularly alarming! Everyone knows that if you are getting a drag for free you should at least make sure that their alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage of choice is in their hand at all times … It’s like a rule or something.

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But our gals still turned it out for love of their art … and at least they got to meet their idol – oh wait. The global advocate of drag didn’t even take the time to go backstage and meet the entrants: the assembled finest of UK drag talent who had paid their own transport and expenses for the privilege of performing for her.

Now Ru, we all know how busy you must be with the invasion fleet, but that’s a bit Rude by anyone’s standards – all they wanted was a selfie!

I am quite surprised that more of the British girls haven’t kicked off about this. Perhaps they were genuinely in awe of our glorious ‘mama’, or maybe they are worried about their future Ruprospects.

I think we all hoped Ru would be a little more of an anglophile like her right-hand queen and leading UK advocate, the charming darling of the British public, Michelle Visage.

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Not only has Michelle taken the time to visit the UK almost a dozen times in the last few years, including a stint locked in with Perez Hilton and Katie Hopkins in the Big Brother House, she always makes a point to meet her fans at her shows.

A UK version of Drag Race headed up by someone like her, who has shown a real commitment to British drag, is something I could get behind without question.

Come on, Ru – show us a bit more love! We just want you to want us as much as we want you!

I can hear the clicking of nails and clinking of mace cans from the mob. I best try to pull this back to the positives.

It wasn’t hyperbole when I said I love RuPaul, I really do. I would love to see a version of the show here and Ru is one of the only names that has sufficient pull with television networks to get it on the air.

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It looks unlikely that Lily Savage will be grabbing her heels out of the closet any time soon and even if she did, it is unlikely she will be able to capture the imagination of the contemporary generation of drag fanatics in the way that RuPaul has.

Whatever format the British show takes, hopeful contestants take note: the tagline may read ‘the search for the next British drag superstar’, but it’s unlikely the reigning American one will be going away any time soon … and would we want her to? Of course not!

The pushing of any form of queer performance into the limelight can only be good for everyone who lives gender beyond the binary. But what happens to my less legibly gendered drag sisters, brothers and others when the queens get their time in the sun?

Why not have a British Drag Race that embraces our diversity in all its confusing glory? Come on, Ru: we’re up for it if you are.

If the British public are voting for a dog two years in a row for Britain’s Got Talent, I reckon they are crying out for a little more variety in their variety light entertainment.

cheddar gorgeous balls

About Cheddar Gorgeous

Super hero, drag and idealist, Cheddar Gorgeous draws, writes and dresses in Manchester. In addition to hosting the infamous underground club cabaret Cha Cha Boudoir with Anna Phylactic and the rest of the Family Gorgeous, Cheddar is also an anthropologist.

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