RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Season 2, Logo TV
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“Female impersonators are both performing homosexuals and homosexual performers,” anthropologist Esther Newton wrote nearly half a century ago in her pioneering study of drag queen culture, Mother Camp. Masquerading in skirts and high heels, Newton observed, allowed men to be unabashedly queer at a time when homosexuality remained deeply stigmatized. On the first episode of the new season of Drag Race All Stars (the spin-off of RuPaul’s wildly successful Drag Race series), returning contestant Alaska Thunderfuck invoked this ancient cusp-of-Stonewall sensibility in a retro cabaret number. Tucked into a shimmering pink gown and glitter-laden Jiffy Pop blonde wig, Alaska belted out a quick ditty that could have reverberated through the piano bars of yore, emphasizing her nasal high notes with a twirl of jungle-red fingernails through a feather boa:
There are times when it seems
That the world doesn’t appreciate me being me.
I haven’t always been pretty.
I haven’t always been nice.
But I’ve always been gaaaaay!
. . . I’m the queeniest queen of the queeniest queens!
I’m as gay as I can beeeeeeeee!
In the late 1960s, when Newton did her fieldwork in American night clubs, drag queens enacted an untrammeled gayness for the benefit of a subculture whose own ability to do so in their daily lives was harshly delimited. The queens were simultaneously the epitome of gay life and the scene’s most fugitive members, sequestered in their own demi-monde, away from the eyes of the straight world. Among the many remarkable aspects of Drag Race has been its thesis that drag still has a therapeutic role to play, both for its participants and the greater audience, in an era when queer people have won freedoms that the queens of Newton’s time might never have believed.
To say that Drag Race has grown into a cherished institution since its inception in 2009 would be an understatement; perhaps the only precedent for its popularity among gay devotees would be the cult of Dynasty in the 1980s, a show that Drag Race rivals in both the enormity of its hairstyles and the viciousness of its catfights. The initial genius of Drag Race’s concept lay in the inherent media potential of the queens themselves, perfectly suited for the needs of reality television: enthusiastic extroverts who live for the worship of a public, each bearing complex backstories tinged with personal struggle—after all, nobody boring ever became a drag queen. There is a virtually endless supply of contestants, as even the smallest gay scene has produced its bevy of queens, and big urban centers like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta have fostered generations of high-profile characters. The intense competitiveness among performers that itself has long been a signature element of drag’s shtick feeds perfectly into the game-show-like format.
In the course of its eight seasons, Drag Race has fed the hunger for its growing pantheon of stars through numerous spin-offs: the backstage drama of Untucked, makeover show Drag U, as well as a plethora of official and unofficial recap series, music videos, and miscellaneous web projects; past Drag Race contestants appear in live touring shows and, since 2015, at the annual RuPaul’s DragCon in Los Angeles. A number of international franchises and a feature film are rumored to be in the works, rounding out the RuPaul Expanded Universe. Over a hundred contestants have by now flounced through Drag Race’s doors, and never before have so many drag performers been given access to this level of international fame. On screen, the contestants act not so much like queens as noblewomen at court, each vying for the attention of their glorious monarch.
Assembling a roster of runners-up and fan favorites from past seasons, All Stars functions like a best-of revue. The first iteration of the concept, in 2012, was enjoyable, but felt like a stop-gap between seasons of normal competition. Season two of All Stars clarifies the stakes and ups the ante; the “Lip Sync for Your Life” finale of the series proper has been replaced with a chance to “Lip Sync for Your Legacy,” with a $10,000 cash “tip” to sweeten the win. But the real goal of competing in this All Stars, as the first episode made clear straightaway, is the rehabilitation of the performers’ reputations based on their losses in past competitions. Burlesque queen Roxxxy Andrews hopes to show audiences that she’s not just about “playing mind games.” The acrobatic Katya Zamolodchikova, giving viewers teased-hair Russian hooker realness, says she won’t be held back by the anxieties that plagued her in season seven; she arrives in red spandex, touting her new Xanax prescription. The unfailingly captivating Alyssa Edwards, who likes to punctuate her already idiomatic rural Texan accent with an alarmingly loud tongue clack, needs to prove that she can perform any other character convincingly besides Alyssa, who became the stuff of endless memes after her run on season five—though her new rival Phi Phi O’Hara responds that Alyssa is “too concerned with how many GIFs she can make out of this.”
As always, RuPaul positions himself as benevolent mentor, sharing his fame and experience with the community as a whole. He makes sure to state that “I love all forms of drag,” tamping down the personal frictions that some queens have brought into the show from their outside careers, encouraging the fashion-obsessed pageant queens to appreciate the often rough-and-ready talents of the comedy queens, and acknowledging the distinct aesthetics of different generations of drag, from club-kid holdovers to Instagram princesses. In the micro-society of Drag Race, RuPaul’s inclusive take on drag becomes a metaphor for negotiating diversity as such. Through the wisdom and diplomacy of Mama Ru, vigilantly working through the problems of her invented family, we’re in many ways given an image of the world we’d like to see, not to mention the benevolent mother figure we’d like to have run it. (This pluralistic philosophy was put to the test in 2014, when RuPaul caught heat for allegedly transphobic language; in response, he grudgingly removed certain catchphrases like “You’ve got she-mail” from subsequent seasons. That drag has long provided a refuge for trans women complicated the issue, of course, and provided an example of the pitfalls inherent in importing a subcultural form into the mainstream.)
For all the show’s uplift, Drag Race tempers its entertainment with the necessary cruelties of reality-show drama, pushing the contestants, at times, to exhaustion and tears, even as they gleefully read one another to shreds, throwing shade that would make the harshest locker-room shit-talking feel tame in comparison. As early as the first episode of this year’s All Stars, 1990s-loving Fairuza Balk channeller Adore Delano already seemed on the verge of dropping out altogether due to the intensity of the judges’ critiques. This season’s most torturous innovation is that RuPaul himself does not send anyone home, as has been typical for the show; instead, the winners of each episode must themselves choose who will be weeded out, pitting girlfriends against one another in the most direct fashion, threatening to end real-world friendships. At times, the line between bitching and bullying seems dangerously thin, as the competition’s off-screen effects haven’t always been positive. At one juncture, an aside about Phi Phi’s career reveals that she had been ostracized by the West Hollywood drag scene following her villainous antics in Drag Race’s fourth season, and so refashioned herself as a cosplay queen after other opportunities dried up. These stings and arrows are clearly meant to teach us that gay life still requires an exceedingly tough skin, even when it’s hidden behind a shield of chiffon.
Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, and Critic in Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Believer, frieze, Mousse, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.