Drag Race All Stars, Episode 4: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantyhose

chichi.gif

The Olympics are playing havoc with my TV viewing. According to the guide on my TiVo this week, Drag Race was a rerun, so I decided to catch up on some figure skating instead. Only later—jumping back to live TV after watching women hurled into the air and miraculously caught before smashing their heads on otherwise pristine ice—did I discover that I’d been misled. Suddenly, I was confronted by a very BenDeLaCreme-looking Paul Lynde, and I knew that this wasn’t just a new episode: It was the “Snatch Game” episode, the most eagerly anticipated of every season.

Maybe now we can rephrase that. With the exception of said Paul Lynde, this was perhaps the weakest installment of “Snatch Game” ever. Apparently, the girls are running out of ideas. Could it really be that they’ve done all the best divas already? How many “Real Housewives” can this show sustain?

I suppose it’s just part of the cultural wasteland we see all around us nowadays. There’s a difference between the divas of old (Barbara Stanwyck, anyone?) and those of today, who seem to consist largely of Internet wannabes, reality TV should-never-have-beens, and pop singers who can’t really sing.

But I digress. …

First of all: Trixie, darling, no one plays Ru on this show but Ru. You should have learned that from Milk way back in season 6.

And then there was the inexplicable choice of Maya Angelou—or, as ChiChi spelled it, Mya Angelou. What’s funny about Maya Angelou? And why was I so shocked to discover that ChiChi even knew who she was? She didn’t know why the caged bird sings, though, that’s for sure.

Now’s as good a time as any for a spoiler alert. I hate to say “I told you so,” but … Oh hell, who am I kidding? I love saying “I told you so.” And you read it here last week, folks. Bye bye, ChiChi.

There is a disturbing possibility breathing down the neck of this elimination process, however. Drag Race is in danger of turning into Survivor, where contestants forge alliances and then get rid of the people who are most likely to beat them. That strategy put Trixie in serious jeopardy this week. But fortunately, in the end, Shangela took the high road and got rid of the person who, on the merits, deserved to go.

As Lashauwn Beyond said, way back in season 4, “This is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.” But it’s nice to know that the cattiness can remain in the workroom and doesn’t have to infiltrate the judging. They may not be best friends, but they can be sisters (albeit of the Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson variety).

 

Advertisements

Drag Race All Stars, Episode 3: Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk

I’m starting to believe that everything you need to know in life you can learn from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

For the longest time I’ve felt that way about Sondheim. As far as I’m concerned, the history of the moral universe is contained within Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George. If there’s anything else in life that’s not touched on within those shows, it’s not worth knowing.

A similar alchemy, albeit less intellectual and with far worse music, is going on in Drag Race. You could call it a more accessible version of the same phenomenon. As I’ve noted before, this show is all about knowing yourself—an artistic theme most clearly articulated in Hamlet, but really dating back to Homer. RuPaul just shows you how to do it in stilettos and a bouffant.

With props to Thorgy Thor, I will acknowledge that this season seems to be edited to elucidate the theme in a manner more focused than usual, the episodes link by an arc of self-discovery. Last week, when Thorgy lost, in part due to her inability to see herself from the outside, Milk was suffering from the same problem. And this week, it came to bite her, as well.

Assigned to play a stalker in a sketch parody called The Bitchelor, Milk didn’t just chew the scenery. She spat it out in Trixie’s face. Her hysterical screeching and talking over everyone felt more like an adolescent hissyfit than a performance. And yet, true to form, Milk thought she had done a stellar job. When she ended up in the bottom, she was flummoxed once again: “I did not see this coming. At all.”

Oh gurl, really? Shangela had the perfect comment on that self-delusion: “Somebody put something in her cocktail. Cosby?”

Milk thought she was perfect for the part because she used to stalk her boyfriend on Myspace. I guess they’ve been together for a long time.

On the other end of the scale was ChiChi, who played the quiet half of a polymorphous couple. Actually, I have no idea who her character was. Sadly, neither did she.

The difference between ChiChi and Milk, however, is that ChiChi knew she was terrible. She lamented how she tends to compare herself to the other girls and keeps coming up short. The comparison is getting to her, as surely as it got to Thorgy.

Every queen on the show—and by extension, every one of us who’s watching, and those who aren’t—has her own talent. It’s a competition, so these queens are inevitably going to be compared. But the only way for anyone to stand out is to be her most authentic self. ChiChi is unlikely to deliver the nuanced humor of a Trixie Mattel or a BenDeLaCreme, but that can’t stop her. She can still be ChiChi.

That said … editing. ChiChi’s vulnerability is coming to the fore. Be prepared for her to be the next queen sent home.

Drag Race All Stars 3, episode 2: To Thine Own Self Be Ru

The end of episode 2 of this season’s Drag Race could not have been telegraphed more clearly. It was there in the workroom, when Thorgy complained about the role she’d been given, when she complained about how everyone else talks over her, when she complained that she’s always “in my head.”

I love Thorgy. She’s an original—creative, wacky, and brainy. Truth be told, I probably love her most for her braininess. I know about living in your head. It’s the refuge of the kid who gets picked on in school for being smarter than everyone else. You learn to live in your head because your head is your strength, and it’s the one place where the other kids can’t get you.

But it comes at a price, and the price is perspective.

Thorgy spent most of her time on season 8 focusing on the fact that Bob the Drag Queen stole the spotlight. Hello? Isn’t that what drag queens are supposed to do—especially if Drag Queen is part of your name?

But instead of stealing some of that spotlight for herself, Thorgy stayed inside her head—or, more to the point, she let Bob in. She was so obsessed with who he was that she forgot how to be herself.

We don’t always learn our lessons fast enough. This week, Thorgy again let someone else into her head. But this time it wasn’t another queen; it was a diva.

In the main competition, the queens were asked to portray gay icons. While the other girls were assigned classic femmy roles to play—Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton—Thorgy got Stevie Nicks. If she’d been paying attention, she would have seen that Ru had given her a gift. Each queen was assigned a role that was perfectly suited to her own persona, Thorgy no less than the others. You could even argue that hers was the best gift, because no one else on that stage could have done Stevie better. If only Thorgy had let herself do Stevie.

Thorgy at first resisted the notion that Stevie was a gay icon—an impression that she now blames on editing. (I’m sure there’s some truth in that. Like all “reality” shows, Drag Race has the difficult task of constructing a narrative out of the bits and pieces of actions that occur. Part of that process is turning real people into characters. Unfortunately, all we as an audience have to go on is what we see, so in this blog I’m writing about the characters I saw on screen.) I’m not quite sure what Thorgy meant about Stevie: maybe, in her view, you have to wear rhinestones and have great cleavage to be a gay icon. Or maybe she just put Stevie on a pedestal and didn’t feel comfortable playing her for laughs. (Fortunately, BenDeLaCreme had no such qualms about making hilarious mincemeat out of the staid Julie Andrews.) In the end, Thorgy put on a flowing skirt, beat a tambourine, and twirled. Okay. Thorgy turned Stevie into an intellectual exercise, not the emotional digging that would have brought the character to life on stage.

The biggest danger with being in your head, though, isn’t overintellectualizing: it’s an inability to see yourself from the outside. Like Milk, who had her own breakdown about not being “commended” for her supposed brilliance, Thorgy seemed to think that the performance she gave on stage was as good as the one she gave in her imagination.

At least someone knew how to command the runway. For all the complaining that everyone—including choreographer Todrick Hall—did about Shangela’s self-conscious “method acting,” it worked. Arriving late for rehearsal, draped in a fur coat, Shangela wasn’t just putting on the guise of Mariah: she was attempting to internalize Mariah. As the diva herself might say, “The Mariah lies in yooooooooou.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the point of Drag Race. As Ru is forever reminding us, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I think that’s the reason I love this show so much. It isn’t just about drag; it’s aim is self-awareness. The central irony of drag—its essential truth—is at the heart of the entire series: It is often by taking on characters, imagining another life, that we learn the most about ourselves. Or, as one of my favorite drag queens says, “Sometimes to be yourself, you have to be someone else first.”

Drag Race All Stars 3: May the Best Woman Win

Our long national nightmare is over.

No, Trump is still around and the glaciers are still melting. But at least there’s something good to watch on Thursday night. At long last, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 has premiered.

In the past, if you asked me what my favorite TV show was, I’d probably give you some highfalutin answer like Homeland or The West Wing or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But now I cannot tell a lie: My TV practically does a jig when that music starts and RuPaul’s laugh echoes through the room.

Most reality competition shows are cutthroat affairs. Which is why Americans can’t get enough of The Great British Baking Show, whose contestants inexplicably refrain from sticking their competitors’ heads in the oven. As Americans, we’re just unaccustomed to respecting our competitors. (Reality TV mirrors our politics, I suppose.) Drag Race sits somewhere in the middle, and that’s one of its charms. Yes, the competition is fierce—drag would not be drag without shade and a dollop of bitchiness to go with the mascara—but there’s also an underlying sense of camaraderie. These girls have all struggled to get where they are. They have struggled, indeed, just to be who they are. And Mama Ru—not to mention the fans—is there every week to let them know that the struggle was worth it.

This week’s premiere of All Stars 3 brought it all back—literally—though I would say that the term “all stars” is being used a bit loosely these days (just watch the current season of Project Runway “All Stars” to see what I mean). Other than Bebe Zahara Benet, the ringer, there isn’t a single queen here who, in my opinion, was a serious contender for the crown in her original season. (By contrast, All Stars 2 seemed willed by the gods as an opportunity for Alaska to make up for her unfortunate loss to the equally talented Jinkx Monsoon the first time around.)

I won’t recap the show here, but I would like to call out some of the highlights. And low lights.

  • Best insult goes to Shangela’s comment about BenDeLaCreme: “the low-rent Michelle Visage.”
  • But performance: Ben (take that, Shangela), and what judge Ross Matthews termed her “Ukrainian nesting dolls of bras.”
  • Thorgy Thor, a vision in white with electric-chair hair, playing the violin: I love the incongruity of her absurd look with classical music.
  • And Aja strips. Of course she does.
  • After ChiChi’s horrific number (randomly jumping around in the world’s ugliest dress), Michelle critiques her for not wearing heels. Michelle, if you were distracted by the shoes, then count yourself lucky: you missed the rest of the performance.

I was somewhat disappointed to find that they’ve returned to the practice that originated in All Stars 2 of having the top two lipsync for the right to decide which of the bottom two goes home. After all, when RuPaul is your queen, drag should be a monarchy. But, this time at least, it worked out fine: Ben had a choice between the worst performance of the night and the most distasteful personality of the season. Win win.

Now if only she’d get rid of the Jughead hat she wears in the one-on-one interviews.

 

Serving You Literary Realness

Somewhere, there’s a parallel universe in which I am a drag queen.

I’m at that age now where I no longer ask, “What am I going to do with my life?” and start fantasizing about what I might have done instead. So there are also parallel universes where I’m a college professor, a lawyer (think more Annalise Keating than Alan Dershowitz), and an opera singer. But every time I tune in to RuPaul’s Drag Race, guess which universe wins.

The truth is, I’ve always been a little in love with drag queens. Something happens to a man when he puts on a dress. It isn’t simply an appropriation of the feminine: while old-school “female impersonators” may have been trying to pass as women, at least for their time on stage, drag queens never let you forget that there’s a man under all that Revlon and bugle beads. What really happens is a strange and glorious melding of the feminine and the masculine, an alchemy that calls into question all our preconceived notions of gender. And that is, by definition, a good thing.

What drag tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that gendered behavior need not be limited by one’s biological equipment. You don’t need a vagina to wear a dress. You don’t need breasts to be nurturing. And you don’t need a penis to be powerful and self-reliant.

Drag tears down all sorts of walls. It’s performance art. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also a profound act of liberation.

I was at a show the other night where audience members were encouraged to join the performers by attending in drag. As I was on my way in, I ran into a stunning figure—tall and dignified, in a tight rhinestone-bedecked gown and beautiful makeup (eyeshadow applied in a rainbow pattern over lush lashes). She came up to me with a coy smile and a couple of flirtatious remarks that left me momentarily flustered. And then she walked determinedly away, confident, complete in herself. Only when she was gone did I recognize her as a quiet man I barely knew who had never been the slightest bit flirtatious with me.

Drag does things to people.

One of the saddest of spectacles is a person who is clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin. I’ve seen many of them—eyes glancing out of the face as if it were an iron mask. But, ironically, I’ve never noticed that in a drag queen—even an amateur one. Drag queens always look perfectly at home with themselves, even though their cinched and tucked bodies are part of the costume: their comfort in someone else’s skin seems to make them revel in their own.

I speak primarily as a fan, a fan with minimal experience of my own. But I do clearly remember those youthful Halloween nights when my sense of myself and the world became slowly transformed by the eyeliner, the lipstick, the stuffed bra, the dress, the jewelry, the wig—and at long last, the heels as high as I could manage. I would become brazen in drag—partly because I felt unrecognizable (oh, how naïve I was), but mostly because I felt free.

I shouldn’t need to add that gay people in general owe our freedom in large measure to drag queens—who, from the beginning, have challenged the status quo simply by being themselves, more loudly than most of us dare.

Drag isn’t easy—and not just because of the tight shoes. In a misogynist culture, a man’s decision to take on—or let out—the trappings of femininity is a radical act. By modeling this behavior—daring to unite the masculine and feminine sides of themselves—drag artists force us to confront the ways in which gender norms affect and limit our own lives.

Fear of the feminine is sadly pervasive in the gay community as well as the rest of the culture, if on a somewhat smaller scale. It’s perceived feminine behavior, after all, that turns a little gay boy into the butt of jokes and the victim of bullying. So it’s no wonder that, even after accepting our homosexuality, many of us keep our feminine side at a distance.

I wrote my latest novel, Channeling Morgan, in an attempt to understand that dynamic—to examine how even gay men who seem completely comfortable with their sexual orientation can be susceptible to the misogyny that permeates American culture. And because there’s no one more ironically ballsy than a drag queen, I chose drag as the vehicle for exploring this theme. The drag queen at the heart of the book challenges her lover to question his own assumptions about gender and what it means to be a man.

It takes a tough man to wear a dress. And a tougher one to own the fierce woman within.

In Defense of Luddites

(also posted on HuffPost)

I recently spent most of a day trying to create a book trailer for my website, and pulling out what few hairs I had left on my head. Despite the easy instructions on the “help” page, I found myself struggling. Just because I’ve mastered one technology doesn’t mean I can figure out the next one. They all take practice, so I tend to be good only at the ones I use the most. I’m a wiz at TiVo, but you wouldn’t want me to create an Excel spreadsheet for you.

I’m sure one of my millennial friends, coasting on intuition alone, could probably have rivaled Scorsese with the video and still had time to make popcorn to go with it. Unfortunately, that’s not me. What’s intuitive to me is the proper placement of a semicolon. That’s what comes from 50 years of reading books—on paper. That’ll teach me.

Reluctantly accepting my Ludditehood, I spent the afternoon fumbling through files, learning when to click and when to drag-and-drop merely by the process of elimination, and with the help of semi-incoherent youtube videos where 13-year-olds play professor.

As they say, getting old sucks, but it sure beats the alternative.

The other cliché that pops into mind is: youth is wasted on the young. My millennial friends are at the beginning of their adult lives, still smooth-skinned, healthy, and energetic, still excited about the possibilities that life has to offer. And I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world.

They think I’m joking when I say I would gladly turn back the clock to the 1980s—not so I could be as fresh-faced as they are, but so I could return to a pre-Internet world. In that world, I wouldn’t feel pressured to make my own videos, for one thing. Hell, I wouldn’t even need videos. There was no such thing as a book trailer in the 80s, and no place to post it.

(Yes, kids, there really was a time before social media. In those days we had media and we had social lives, and the twain never met.)

Every generation gets nostalgic in middle age, I suppose. Every generation thinks the new kids on the block have completely lost their minds. But I can’t help thinking it’s different this time. The changes wrought by technology in the past 20 years are exponential. The world I grew up in wasn’t all that different from the way it had been since 1945. Now, even 2005 seems like the distant past.

I love you, Amazon, but my heart skips a beat whenever I stumble upon that rarity of rarities, an actual bookstore. Browsing online, with some impersonal algorithm guessing and guiding me, isn’t quite the same as browsing in the real world, where all sorts of treasures unexpectedly turn up, where I can run my hands along the spines of books like Tom Sawyer running his along a white picket fence.

My only hope is that technology moves slowly enough that I won’t have to completely succumb. Thanks to my addiction to books, I’ve compiled a few towering piles already. If I keep it up, I may have enough on hand to sustain me once Kindle takes over the world. And if my DVD player holds out until they stop manufacturing them (fingers crossed against the gods of planned obsolescence) and begin forcing me to stream Cinemascope movies on my phone, my similar collection of films (yes, nearly all from the 20th century) should see me in good stead for the duration.

Somewhere along the way, the future has lessened its grip on me. Ambition isn’t really in the picture anymore, and it’s like a weight being lifted. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the present, with what I have, and I seem to be forgetting the unhappy moments in favor of nostalgic reminiscence. How kind Mother Nature is to have designed that particular brain fart. While my millennial friends live in the future, as I once did, plotting and planning their lives, looking forward to 30 or 40 more years of work, I’m in the home stretch and glad of it.

So call me a Luddite. I’ll gladly embrace the term. The kids are welcome to their virtual reality. Just leave me with whatever’s left of the physical one.