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.

 

Advertisements

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.