In its 11-year run, RuPaul's Drag Race — the trailblazing reality competition series that pits the world's finest drag artist against each other for the title of America's Next Drag Superstar, as crowned by Mama Ru herself — has won 13 Emmys, molded its performers into queer household names, and pushed a subculture to heights taller than Trixie Mattel's hair. But, where does the craft go to stand out amid a saturated market it helped sashay into mainstream consciousness?
If HBO’s upcoming docuseries We’re Here (premiering Thursday at 9:00 p.m.) is any indication, the next phase in drag’s TV evolution might exist outside the realm of spectacular showgirl fantasy and within small-town reality, somewhere between the eastern stretches of Gettysburg, Pa., and way out west in Twin Falls, Idaho — two of six rural locales primed for a makeover when Drag Race alums (and producer-stars) Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka, and Shangela arrive to reinvent the lives of townsfolk through the magic of the medium.
“We don’t just do a physical transformation; we’re hoping for an entire human transformation,” Shangela says of the show, which, like the original Drag Race and Netflix's Queer Eye, aspires to be a force for acceptance as the queens help participants cope with homophobia, familial abandonment, and racism as they embrace a kind of inner confidence attainable only through a new therapeutic technique otherwise known as strutting in six-inch heels.
“We’re living out the real stories told [by contestants] on Drag Race,” Eureka adds, going on to praise the transformative power of the personal lip-synch numbers the pairs perform in bars at the end of every episode in the hopes of bringing the local queer community out of the woodwork to support those struggling to find their tribe. “Drag has been a taboo, hidden art form for so long. People are finally being exposed to it [on TV], they’re starting to accept that they love it, and they’re seeing the power behind it. They’re hungry for it.”
So hungry, in fact, that major media corporations are betting on drag to fortify business. In addition to being a visually pleasing feast for the eyes, mainstream drag has also become a fierce money-mover, as indicated by ViacomCBS' upcoming plans to move the RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars spin-off from VH1 to Showtime on June 5 to convert loyal Drag Race fans into premium subscribers, because, as company president Bob Bakish put it on recent earnings call: "There's money and momentum in contemporary drag."
Case in (stiletto) point: RuPaul's DragCon, an international, very, very gay version of San Diego Comic-Con that gathers queer artists together to perform for fans, host panels, conduct fan meet-and-greets at flashy booths, and, most of all, sell merchandise. Recent expos in New York and Los Angeles pulled in approximately $8.2 million in combined sales, with attendance for the west coast edition approaching 50,000 over its three-day stretch.
"Last year, I made $10,000 at DragCon," season 11 Drag Race contestant Soju tells EW, adding that she's still grappling with the shock of the financial hit this year's coronavirus-related cancellation will have on her annual earnings. "I was depending on [money from] DragCon to help me get through the rest of the year."
Still, We're Here's Bob the Drag Queen feels it's important to remember that drag — no matter how commercial the art form might become in the few lanes it occupies on major network airwaves — is a niche art that needs fostering and attention from the community that birthed it, regardless of how global it becomes.
"People at 'the bottom' are always the first to accept something, and Drag Race started on Logo, a fringe Viacom channel. Then, of course, it moved to VH1, and everyone else caught wind, from Netflix to HBO," Bob says. "It takes a while for big-dollar networks to get on the train, but we’re here now. I think it’s still niche. Drag is still a niche job. You might see a lot of drag queens on TV, but in terms of the percentage of the workforce, we’re still a niche thing."
That's why it's important for a show like We're Here to register on an emotional level, and HBO's commitment to representing drag culture authentically and organically — which high-tier networks often allow for by minimizing censorship and, in the case of We're Here, bringing the queens on as consulting producers on set — was essential for its central trio's participation.
“[We’re Here] isn’t ‘produced,’ there’s no amazing lighting where everything is gold-lit in every shot,” Shangela explains, while co-creator Stephen Warren, who devised the series with Johnnie Ingram as a way to stretch the magic of Drag Race to often-ignored stretches of the country, recalls “HBO had minimal notes on anything. They let us present these people the way we wanted them to be presented, from the locals to the queens, they had faith that we’d do this the right way.”
Other networks have put their faith in the process of queer artists with unique ownership over their aesthetic and brands to draw in subscribers as well. Amazon broadcast the third season of the Boulet Brothers' horror-themed "drag supermonster" competition Dragula in the summer of 2019 and TLC enlisted Drag Race contestants Thorgy Thor, Jujubee, Alexis Michelle, and Bebe Zahara Benet for its new makeover program Dragnificent!, while Quibi — Jeffrey Katzenberg's bite-sized, mobile-focused streaming app churning out episodic content at 10-minute runtimes or less — debuted on April 6 with Drag Race champion Sasha Velour's NightGowns docuseries as one of its flagship launch-day titles.
Though Velour rose to prominence as the season 9 winner of the foremost queer competition on television, her goal in producing and starring in NightGowns — named after Velour's Brooklyn-based revue highlighting alternative performance art in New York's underground scene — is to showcase styles of drag that aren't often seen on commercial stages and to do her duty in lifting up the community that gave her a stage in the first place, including artists dabbling in the grotesque, poetic, conceptual, or, sometimes, a mix of all three, as exemplified by NightGowns' cast that includes a high-femme emcee, a transgender pageant icon, one of Dragula's fiercest winners, and a drag king, among others.
"Drag is all about telling your own story and putting your own performance and idea together. It’s sketching out a dream and then bringing it to life," Velour tells EW of the series, which stands next to Drag Race alum Willam's upcoming Fashion's a Drag talk show as part of the experimental platform's robust lineup of queer content. "The goal of NightGowns is to show people behind the scenes of that process, the real-life of a drag artist and the real work of a drag artist."
She adds: "The [fantastical world of drag] can be a way of communicating this story as well, we didn’t have to wrap things up in the behind-the-scenes sections and then tack on a performance at the end.... Each section had to ask questions that the other section answered. The in-drag and out-of-drag experiences of these people’s lives flow completely together, and the artists are in charge of how both acts are told."
It's efforts like these — with Quibi, Showtime, and, now, HBO's trust in its queens running the show as producers with ownership over representing their art — that serve We're Here's overall goal of “bringing communities together,” as Ingram finishes, his words recalling the merging of an art form that has always existed in underserved communities with the mainstream machine that's finally catching up and giving it the spotlight it has always deserved. “Even if it’s just one night to say, ‘We’re here, we exist, we belong, and we’re staying.’”
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