RuPaul’s Drag Race: A Beginner’s Guide

With RuPaul’s Drag Rac season 10 arriving this week, Catherine shares the many joys of cult hit to the uninitiated…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It’s time for another sickening* season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Whether you’re new to the glittering world of drag or you’ve been waiting for season 10 to start, it’s time to take a look at everything there is to love about this reality TV show.

The first thing to say about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that there is no show quite like it. It embodies an entire subculture from which there is much to learn and love and where there are no barriers. You can be straight, gay or trans… as long as you’ve got what it takes on that runway. Each series begins with the individual introduction of each of the 14 new contestants who will be battling out to be RuPaul’s next Drag Superstar, first in drag and then immediately afterwards in a short interview out of drag. The contestants are fighting over the crown to be the best woman and so they are referred to by their female stage names and as ‘she’ whether they’re in drag or not; if that feels unusual for you to begin with, it’ll soon become second nature as you get wrapped up in Mama Ru’s whirlwind.

What does it take to become RuPaul’s next Drag Superstar? Well according to Ru, it’s all about four things: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. I’m sure she’s well aware of the acronym she’s created there, as she and fellow judge Michelle Visage are the queens of innuendo. A contestant, ideally, needs to create fierce looks on the runway from scratch, have a funny stage persona, be a champion for the LGBT community and be a pretty decent singer, actor, dancer and occasional gymnast. It’s a tall order and a fun, colourful and gruelling race to the top with enough drama to keep you going for weeks.

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All of the show in-jokes and the drag community-specific language is undoubtedly what has made RuPaul’s Drag Race such a cult hit. When you start understanding the lingo, you’re on the inside. Ain’t no getting out. For those of you who may need a little crash course in drag jargon, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s have a look at the most commonly used phrases:

Shade You know I told you about all that drama? It’s often sparked by some good old fashioned shade. If a drag queen is concealing a cheeky insult under a faux compliment, she’s throwing some serious shade. If a queen notices this back-handed compliment, she’s likely to shout “I call shade!”

Paint Face You don’t ‘do your make up’ in the drag world, you paint face. It’s not a case of highlighting your existing features but creating exaggerated new ones. You brows should not be your own and you should contour like a mad woman.

Sew It’s a pretty self-explanatory but extremely important skill for any drag queen. If you can’t make your own outfits from scratch, or ‘sew’, you’re pretty screwed. Every season has a pageant queen who just brings lots of pretty dresses and doesn’t know how to sew. That’s when the glue gun disasters come out to play.

Living If a drag queen says she is “LIVING for this performance”, she’s bloody loving it. Equally she might describe her runway look in detail in her voiceover and then end her description with “I’m living”. It’s always a good thing when they’re living.

Shante you stay/sashay away These are the most crucial words for a queen on this show. When two girls have found themselves in the bottom two after their performance in the weekly challenge and/or catwalk has failed to impress the judges, they must ‘lipsync for their life’. The winner of the lipsync will hear those glorious words, “shante, you stay” whilst the eliminated queen will be told to “sashay away”.

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She done already done had herses When the queens are assembled and ready for another task, Ru will either appear in person or a message will appear on the screen. The message used to open with Ru exclaiming, “you’ve got shemail!” but in recent seasons this has been changed to “she done already done had herses”. Ru decided to capitalize on this bizarre phrase when she heard a woman working in a burger restaurant shout it to a customer who was trying to take a second order without paying. Go figure.

Tuck You know the bit that most men have that most women don’t? Well that can’t be on show on the runway. It’s time to get that tape out and tuck like there’s no tomorrow.

Realness This is the ability for a drag queen to embody a persona on the runway. If she’s rocking a ruffled blouse and cute pencil skirt, she could say that she’s ‘serving business woman realness’. This phrase is referred to in the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning which offers an insight into the drag ball scene of New York, describing the term as the ability to “pass the untrained eye” and for a queen to successfully assume the role of their straight counterpart.

There are a number of season staples that feature in RuPaul’s Drag Race that the queens know to prepare for and the fans know to get excited about. One such staple is when Ru announces that “the library is open”. Cue much excitement from all. Ru will produce a pair of sassy shades and each contestant will take their turn to ‘read’ their fellow queens in what Ru calls “the great tradition of Paris Is Burning.” This film describes ‘reading’ as the founding father of ‘shade’; the ability to get laughs by exaggerating a flaw of a fellow queen. It might sound like an unusual way of acting within a marginalised community, but as the film stresses, ‘reads’ can only occur within the gay world; they become vicious slurs when they are exchanged between the gay and straight world. A ‘read’ is really an odd form of compliment; taking down a queen by highlighting her flaws is an unorthodox way of expressing your respect… kind of like calling your best friend the C word. And, as the queens will sing-song in unison once a season, “reading is fundamental”.

Other recurrent challenges include the Snatch Game, a zany parody of the Match Game in which the queens impersonate famous faces and aim to get as many laughs as possible from the celeb guest judges. The puppet challenge is also a much-anticipated mini-challenge that involves dragging up hand puppets as the remaining five contestants and impersonating them in wonderfully hyperbolic fashion. Why? “Because everyone loves puppets”. All of these drama-a-minute challenges count towards the queens’ fate and with Ru’s words of wisdom in their ears the pressure is seriously on: “Good luck, and don’t f**k it up”.

The seasons always include RuPaul’s latest pop hits, giving the show a camp, killer soundtrack. Previous ear worms include Sissy That Walk and Cover Girl while season 9 will have had you singing Kitty Girl day in day out. The show has also taken to using the girls’ preparation for the catwalk as a time of reflection on LGBT issues, from disapproving families to friends lost tragically to AIDS. It’s a sobering reminder that these shady ladies are faced with discrimination daily just for being themselves and a celebration of the small steps they have made individually and as a community through being the stars that they are.

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As RuPaul says herself at the end of each and every episode: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else? Can I get an amen?”

RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10 starts on VH1 on Thursday, March 22.