RuPaul's Drag Race: Lewking good after 10 years
There’s only one show on TV where a dress made of sponges or a wearable Styrofoam head can become as artistically cherished as a piece in the Guggenheim. Since its 2009 debut, Emmy-winning reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race has provided a mainstream platform for its unapologetically queer contestants to showcase the breadth of their art to the masses. Pageant beauties, club kids, campy scream queens, and grungy mavericks — they all push the medium’s sequined envelope forward, one look at a time. Here, the masterminds behind the show’s fiercest lewks sashay down memory lane and explain how they helped pave Drag Race’s road to success with fabulous fabrics.
Yvie Oddly's Zodiac Lion (Season 11)
Drag Race’s reigning champion made a proper odd-ball arrival in a cyber catsuit made of circuit boards and metal. As radiant as the piece is, it’s rooted in the darkest corners of its conceiver’s subconscious. “I’ve had this dream since high school about being chased by a lion in a videogame, so I wanted to bring that to life and sell a full fantasy of this thing that used to scare the sh— out of me, but make it look awesome!” Oddly says of the $500 outfit, which she lovingly describes as a “hodgepodge” of mismatched elements. “I want to be that one piece you see is missing, that one representation for the other…. People expect a finished product and expenct you to look thousands of dollars and dripping in diamonds. My drag has shaken a lot of the viewers up: It’s not polished and it won’t ever be polished, but that doesn’t mean it’s not finished.” How’s that for roaring back at past trauma?
Where is the look now?: “I tried to take it on the road a few times, but it’s so fragile that it started coming apart, so it’s back in my looks closet, probably reserved to wear again only once or twice. My drag isn’t meant for long-term usage: it’s to get me through that one night, that one performance, or that one photoshoot!”
Monét X Change's Sponge Eleganza (Season 10)
In a predicament only Drag Race could pose, Monét X Change had to make a runway look out of dolls or household cleaning supplies as part of a week 1 challenge. The scrubbers the queen ultimately used became the most iconic piece of sponge art since Mr. SquarePants.
The creation (which Monét speculates became a hit for being “silly and so stupid”) was beloved enough by herself (she kept pieces of it “up under my brazier” for good fortune) and the other season 10 contestants that some of them still carry pieces of the absorbent material as lucky charms. “They’re trying to harness the power!” says Monét. “It’s campy, and drag queens have the ability to laugh at ourselves!”
Katya's Tracksuit (All Stars 2)
Katya describes this vintage Mugler tracksuit — which she stole from a friend and has yet to return — as a “1980s, lesbian literary agent, disinterested, pissed off, Ellen Barkin fantasy.”
A departure from the opulence that typically enchants show fans, this simple look boasts “so gross it’s wonderful” colors, including brown, yellow, and grey, which represent “sh—, piss, and old age,” per Katya.
“She’s on the way to burn down a building. She’s on the way to fire 1,400 people in her company with no emotion!” she explains of the character: a queer East German named Magritte. “It’s a powerful look, and I associate power with lesbians!”
Where is the look now? “I have the jacket, but I lost the pants. It’s a tragedy, considering it was vintage. And it’s not even mine! I think I’ve worn [the jacket] a couple times during gigs, but the Drag Race runway stuff, I sell it or keep it safe because I ruin things when I’m on stage — especially the nicer pieces. But, I might find something similar to do a 2.0 version of this!”
Sharon Needles' Postapocalyptic Couture (Season 4)
Amid a season of elegant, polished beauties like Phi Phi O’Hara, Latrice Royale, and Kenya Michaels, Sharon Needles disrupted the runway with fake blood oozing from her mouth. “I wanted to make sure nothing sparkled,” Needles recalls of her undead eleganza, inspired by Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” music video. “I’m Elvira with a d—k…. I built something aggressive and dark that washed away the polish and showed how punk drag can be.”
Needles, who ultimately won the competition and blazed a trail for freak-flag drag on television, says she initially thought her tenure on Drag Race would be limited, but credits the rise of oddball culture (thanks, in part, to Lady Gaga) for facilitating her upward rise. “The show had freaks before, like Tammie Brown and Nina Flowers…. I thought I was there for the contestants to laugh at and I’d go on my merry way. If that was going to be my only episode, I wanted to go out with a bang.”
Though many credit her with ushering in an era of spooky couture for future seasons, Needles — whose teeth were permanently stained by the fake blood held in her mouth for 45 minutes as she filmed the segment — hesitates to take credit: “I’m not going to say I changed the show, but I think I succeeded in taking a beauty pageant and turning it into an art gallery.”
Where is the look now? “Everything I wore is completely categorized and in storage. Not only am I D-list-reality-star-of-yesteryear famous, I have an Andy Warholic-like obsession with fame. I knew these garments, even though they were just poorly stretched fabric, held a power in pop cultlure [because] they like to pull things out after we die.”
Violet Chachki's Fall Runway (Season 7)
One of Violet Chachki’s first Drag Race creations — a glistening gown that morphed into a flannel jumper in a single swish — leaves the burlesque performer/YouTube beauty star both nostalgic and weary. “I definitely popu- larized reveals, [but] I think they are absolutely played out at this point,” Chachki says of the wave of runway surprises the look inspired in future seasons. “A reveal should be unexpected and clever. When you come out in a giant loofah, we know you’re going to take it off. If they came out with a giant loofah and never took it off, that would be shocking!”
As elegant as Violet’s look appeared, the outfit — inspired by an Alexandre Vautheir runway collection and made & worn well before her Drag Race debut — only cost $2 per yard. Two years after its television premiere, the look resurfaced in pop culture via a round of memes satirizing Violet’s intensity.
“Looking back, I realize it’s ridiculous. I was so game-faced because it was the first episode. I was going to show these bitches who they’re f—ing with,” she says. “I was so confident and trying to show a good poker face. That was totally real.”
Where is the look now? “I was just looking at it. My assistant was trying the hat on the other day and posted a video wearing it. I’m holding onto it for some sort of retrospective in the drag museum or something!”
Vivacious' Pal, Ornacia (Season 6)
A Styrofoam wig mount snatched the season 6 spotlight after riding into the Werk Room atop its mother’s head. “Ornacia,” as it’s known, became so popular that its owner, Vivacious — who named the 19-year-old piece after a lyric in RuPaul’s 1993 song “Back to My Roots” — now sells themed recreations for Pride (“Pridenacia”), Valentine’s Day (“Valentinacia”), and Halloween (“Hallonacia”). “She also has two sisters named Sheneeda and Shewanna,” Vivacious explains of Ornacia. “We’re a part of an Ornation, honey!”
Shangela's Box (Season 3 and All Stars 3)
Three-time competitor Shangela knows how to make an entrance. Season 2’s first eliminee made a surprise reentry into the competition by popping out of a giant box the following year. When the queen returned again, for All Stars 3, the original box (which was “probably from that $1 section at Target,” says Shangela) had been given a “high-end” makeover. “You see a Tiffany box and you’re like, ‘Oh, honey, I’m getting something special today,’ ” Shangela says of the turquoise remix. “I wanted to honor that [season 3] moment and give it a little upgrade!”
That upgrade including learning “how to do makeup,” Shangela jokes of her early-season aesthetic.
“I evolved. I grew into who I always wanted to be as a drag entertainer and performer,” Shangela adds, noting that her career (with roles in A Star Is Born and on several TV shows) has appropriately taken off, too. “I started watching, growing, learning, and putting in extra effort to become the best queen I could.”
With a little extra jush in her box, Shangela’s now ready to spread the love even further into the world.
“I’m waiting for UPS to call me and give me a sponsorship!” she says. “Can somebody call FedEx, Kinko’s, Amazon Prime… I don’t care! I will show up in a box!”
Sasha Velour's Finale Reveal (Season 9)
Spilling rose petals from her wig and gloves helped Sasha Velour win the crown, but she spent only $12 to make it happen. “[The craft store] Michaels sells red mixed with pink, so I had to go through and separate!” the queen says of purchasing the petals hidden inside the wig, which was pulled off during the final lip sync of the season. “The song told me what it needed,” Velour says of performing to “So Emotional” by Whitney Houston. “I thought about romance, pride, anger. Roses conjure all of that. The rose moments [on stage] grew the same way [Houston’s] voice gets louder and the intensity of the song increases.”
Velour adds that she also prepared a second number for the other song option — Britney Spears’ “Stronger” — which would’ve involved a pair of golden scissors. Still, that wig was coming off, one way or the other.
“I do not like to step on stage and just improvise. A song tells me a story and I want to prepare that to share with the audience. I prepared conceptual numbers to those two songs. When I walked out there, I had a holster strapped to my thigh with scissors [to cut off the wig and reveal the roses] in case I got the Britney number,” Velour continues. “If you go the other way around and you come up with a trick you can do and look for a song to fit it, it will never have the same kind of theatrical impact.”
Where is the look now? “I have two versions of the wig, and I’ve lost track of which one is the original.… I had them both touched up, and they both look great. I turned one of them into a wig I wear in [my stage show] Smoke & Mirrors in a completely different style, so we recycled it into something new. The dress is in a garment bag in my closet…. My body shape has changed a lot. I corset tigheter and wear bigger pads now, so I don’t think that dress would really fit anymore!”
RuPaul's Facekini (Season 10)
“Maybe that was me under that facekini. Maybe it wasn’t,” RuPaul cryptically tells EW. “I’m saving the true story for a future crime podcast.”
Raja's Comedy Couture (Season 3)
Grotesque beauty met camp in the season 3 winner’s take on Sissy Spacek’s pig’s blood-soaked prom dress from the 1976 film Carrie. “I find horror funny and comforting,” explains Raja, who wanted to challenge conventional humor for the week’s stand-up comedy contest by juxtaposing cheap materials (the bucket is a child’s beach toy from a 99-cent store) and macabre cinema influences. “I was a bullied kid [like] Carrie, and she used telekinesis to f—k everyone up — it’s hysterical to me. I mean, a bucket is floating over my head!”
At a time when most queens sashayed only glitz and glamour down the Drag Race runway, Raja bucked trends with a dark sense of humor and grotesque vision long before Sharon Needles — whom many credit with revolutionizing Drag Race‘s aesthetic on season 4. “I do feel like I was partially responsible for that, and the specific reason I was chosen to be on Drag Race was to provide that edge that drag had always had that so many drag queens could relate to, and it wasn’t just about being feminine or being a woman. Drag represented color and fashion and art to so many people,” Raja observes. “I don’t want to give myself all of that credit, but as far as Drag Race, yeah, I did that!”
Where is the look now? “I don’t even know where it’s at! It was actually taken from me after Drag Race. The day after it was announed that I won, it was displayed in Planet Hollywood in Times Square. It was up for two weeks…. At the time, Logo was taking care of it, and I believe someone at Logo might still have it in their home. Or they probably threw it out. It was never returned to me! I would love it back. I made several newer versions of it and a more sophisticated version, but I definitely want the old, primitive one that I just hand-made in New York City while I was depressed in the winter. It’s sentimental to me and I want it back!”
Kim Chi's Black & White Fantasy (Season 8)
“I wanted it to look like it was printed in a newspaper in the 1920s,” Kim Chi explains of this silent film-era clown look. The Korean queen’s colorful makeup skills and eccentric outfits had quickly made her a fan favorite, but, Chi admits, emotions got the best of her during this monochromatic challenge. “I was actually sad,” the queen recalls of breaking down on the runway over the competition’s pressures. “But the outfit made everything sadder. It’s drama! That’s drag!”