Back in 2009, season one of a late-night reality show called RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired on cable television. It presented a familiar talent show format: each week, a group of drag queens competed in a zany challenge and the weakest amongst them faced off in a shared lip sync performance, which ended with one of them being instructed to sashay away from the competition. Ultimately, the final queen standing was crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar.
It was a fun show. The footage was fuzzy, the runway was rickety, and it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, a send-up of its more serious contemporaries such as America’s Next Top Model and American Idol.
Nowadays, it is a different beast. Modern Drag Race is polished, high-budget, and it even has its own fan convention (RuPaul’s DragCon, in Los Angeles, New York City, and now London). Perhaps the most startling difference, however, is the fact that the contestants on the show aren’t just there for fun and a little bit of exposure anymore – they take the competition seriously and they are hungry for the crown. For these reasons and more, it seems odd that nobody has pointed out RuPaul’s obvious dark secret.
RuPaul is a devourer of souls.
Perhaps we should begin at the beginning.
The early days of RuPaul’s career were a blast of chaotic, gender-bending outsider art. As a young drag queen in Atlanta in the 1980s she made regular musical appearances on public-access television, produced and starred in her own low-budget blaxploitation film (the amusingly titled, Star Booty) and fronted a punk band (the rather more nihilistically named, Wee Wee Hole).
By the 1990s she had enjoyed a flash of national fame as a back-up dancer in the music video for “Love Shack” by the B-52s and was a regular on the Atlanta club scene. It was a comfortable level of success. Then her career began to change. Her dance album, Supermodel of the World, was a surprise hit and spawned several popular singles. She made history by becoming the first drag queen to score a modelling contract (with MAC Cosmetics, one of the most prominent cosmetic companies in the world). She was given her own VH1 talk show (The RuPaul Show). She posed for that photo with Nirvana.
Before she knew it, RuPaul had lost her footing in the fun, gender-bender underbelly of Atlanta and had fallen hard into the bright scrutiny of American celebrity, a somewhat uncomfortable habitat for a drag queen in the 1990s (in the nineties consensual same-sex sexual intercourse was still illegal in several states, and marriage equality was nothing more than a dream).
This transition was challenging for RuPaul. Even today, drag queens are perceived as impenetrable caricatures of femininity and humour, large coiffed dolls with a string of crude one-liners and minimal introspection. This is, of course, a false perception; drag queens are simply humans with an inordinate supply of makeup wipes, and just like us, eventually they burn out.
By the late 2000s, RuPaul was flagging. Her talk show was long since cancelled, she was too old to be a model, her music was no longer relevant, and the strain of being a gay icon in a country that was still giving the LGBT community the side eye was beginning to show its damage.
RuPaul was tired, and she was desperate.
It’s unknown where the idea first sprung from. All we know is the horror that it has birthed.
Relying on the dregs of her famous drag queen charm, RuPaul bamboozled the executives of Logo TV, a cable network aimed at the LGBT community, to greenlight a new reality television project, and in 2009 the first episodes aired.
It was the unspeakable solution to an unknowable problem: now that RuPaul had access to a group of eager young drag queens and a format that allowed her to eliminate one of them each week, she could devour their souls and steal their life force to her heart’s content: she had machinated her own elixir of immortality. A couple of weeks and a few ill-fated drag queens later, RuPaul was suddenly feeling more energised than she had been in years (sorry, Porkchop and Tammie Brown).
But RuPaul isn’t a monster. The format of the show necessitated a winner, and so with the crown and the prize money came an additional, unspoken award: immunity from RuPaul’s hungry clutches. To this day, whilst some contestants have outwitted RuPaul and retained their life forces, only the winners of Drag Race have guaranteed safety. Every other queen looks over her shoulder constantly and leaves in the fear of being found by the six foot four, bedazzled soul devourer.
For the past eleven years, Drag Race has been a double-edged sword. The fact that drag queens continue to audition for the program despite its fatal risk seems inexplicable, but upon closer inspection it becomes understandable: RuPaul is intoxicating in the best and worst ways.
Whilst RuPaul’s predilection for soul theft is kept a secret from the public, the drag community is small and connected enough that it is a known fact amongst queens. Realistically, every young drag queen who auditions for Drag Race knows that she is putting herself at risk for having her soul devoured by the Drag All Mother. This is a given. But these drag queen contestants are too young and too hopeful to appreciate the full danger they are placing themselves in: they want to win the crown and grow their fame, but they also want to float within RuPaul’s toxic orbit, to play the game and escape with their lives and a fun story.
It rarely plays out this way.
During a season seven lipsync between Laila McQueen and Dax Exclamationpoint, RuPaul was visibly flagging. 2015 was a tiring year; perhaps she was distracted by Donald Trump hinting at his intention to run for president, or the Bill Cosby scandal, or Rachel Dolezal’s continued insistence that she was a black woman, but RuPaul seemed much weaker than usual, and dare we say: much older. Her solution was to axe both Laila and Dax in a surprise double elimination and wait for them backstage, where she greedily gorged herself on both their souls. By the next week’s episode, RuPaul was looking much more youthful.
In the season ten finale of Drag Race, Asia O’Hara rather optimistically thought she could win the crown and escape RuPaul’s clutches with a spectacular lipsync performance to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, featuring the release of live butterflies from her bosom. Unfortunately, the butterflies didn’t feel like flying that day, and so the moment she sashayed offstage, her soul was gobbled up by RuPaul, who henceforth gained the wit and grit poor Asia O’Hara had been known for. Asia has not been seen since that night.
Queens who pique RuPaul’s interest fare slightly better (or much worse, depending on perspective). Her favourite queens have the strongest life forces, so strong that RuPaul only consumes their souls little by little, but they are beholden to her: she beckons, they come. They limp wretchedly through life, thanking their stars that RuPaul has deigned to let them live, no matter how miserably.
There should be no future for RuPaul, or for Drag Race. If any of us (the viewers) had a moral compass, we would do something. We would start an online petition, or protest in the streets, or leave our televisions out on the kerb until this was all sorted out.
But none of us will do that. Why?
Drag Race is really fucking entertaining. Since the program’s move from Logo TV to VH1 in 2018, its viewership has boomed. The only issue is that as RuPaul’s power grows, the life forces of her drag queen contestants wither; in recent seasons the queens have seemed less energetic and more resigned to their fates. Season eleven winner Yvie Oddly even seems to be suffering from an odd form of survivor’s guilt.
Sadly, this realisation hasn’t fazed RuPaul – when American souls proved to be too weak, she pivoted. Season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was fantastic: the queens were energetic, youthful and most importantly, largely ignorant of RuPaul’s dark reputation across the pond.
It only took a couple of episodes for the UK queens to learn the grisly truth about RuPaul, and the cameras continued to roll. As the scraps of Gothy Ken Doll and Scaredy Kat rotted in the alleyway behind the BBC building, the remaining queens quietly panicked, but in true British fashion they carried on. Their makeup was flaking, but their smiles stayed on.
Now that season one has ended, the hole in the UK drag community is being felt. Our UK queens were fabulous, and so RuPaul was ruthless.
For much of the British public the truth is too far-fetched to believe, but the strongest evidence can be found in silence. When’s the last time anybody saw Crystal, or Sum Ting Wong, or Cheryl Hole? Many assume she’s tucked away in Essex, working the club circuit, but have any of us actually ventured into that forsaken place to check?
The time to stop RuPaul has long since passed. The sudden removal of something so deeply embedded in our cultural zeitgeist would cause riots (on both sides of the Atlantic), and it wouldn’t even solve the problem, not with copycats like the Boulet Brothers cropping up and filling the void. Plus, who among us can honestly live in a world without Drag Race?
I can’t wait for season twelve.
J.L. Corbett is the founder and editor of Idle Ink. Her short stories have been featured in MoonPark Review, Paragraph Planet, Schlock! Webzine, TL;DR Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much.