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The Realness In The Reality

The Realness In The Reality
Wesley Flash

Ms. RuPaul Charles–you crafty queen! Though TBT girl,  I’d be more upset about your “Final Three” episode last Monday if I wasn’t such a TV top. I took note of your hints from the very beginning of the season with your hashtags for every queen and that visit from Piyah, a longtime transgender YouTube sensation. You fed us teasers on your Facebook page and preached @ us on Twitter, too. Mama, you really know how to reinvent your craft and engage an audience!

Since this season began in January we have gathered as a queer public (often together IRL–hey CastleQueers!) around our TVs and computer screens to watch as 13 hopeful queens chock full of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent competed for the only crown of its kind today. We lived for Jiggly Caliente, we died at Milan’s floor mop, we’re still wondering what the hell Willam did to get kicked off the show (talk about a plot twist!) and–f’real ya’ll–we cried with Latrice when she was asked to sashay away too soon. With witchy crowd favorite Sharon Needles, “professional” female impersonator Chad Michaels, and driven youngster Phi Phi O’Hara now in the running for the top slot, we can’t wait to see who takes home the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” in addition to that free vacation, a lifetime supply of NYX cosmetics, and a cash prize of $100,000!

Season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race comes to a close today, Monday, April 30 (or Tuesday if you wait to stream it on and avoid all social contact) in a special Reunited episode which will spotlight the final three queens and highlight hot topics from the season. More importantly, Ms. Ru will finally crown a winner after last week’s fake-out in the final moments of the show. No other queen could serve us our first-ever triple lip synch for your life, deny us an ending citing “Last year shady queens leaked the winner,” and then lure us in for one more taste of Absolut, I mean Drag! The season ender screams of more advertising gains and product placement opportunities. This has meant an increase in revenue as well as in production value for the show this year. The trick and the bounty of its impending success also speaks to RuPaul’s longstanding ability to draw a crowd and make drag an event.

Host, drag mother, and the very inspiration for the show, RuPaul Charles is no stranger to reinvention. He came into the gay club scene of Atlanta by way of singing in bands and starring in indie films. After moderate underground success and networking with the likes of John Waters and club kid Michael Allig, Ru worked off and on in New York as well. She eventually moved to the city by 1990 as his career began to take off in popular culture. In 1993, his dance track “Supermodel (You Better Work)” made RuPaul a celebrity of the MTV generation. He signed a modeling contract with MAC cosmetics, made his own talk show on VH1, and became a household name by way of preaching the gospel of the greatest love of all: self love.

“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

Ru’s message of love never lost its luster as the decade ended and he had minimal success with dance tracks in the early aughties. In 2008, RuPaul teamed up with his longtime creative crew World of Wonder (namely Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the same folks who’ve brought us such documentary-style gems as Tori & Dean, Trans Generation and Becoming Chaz) to produce RuPaul’s Drag Race, a different kind of reality television competition. Capitalizing on the major successes of other shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, Drag Race was strictly for the gays! (Ok, not really. I mean, as if those other shows weren’t either, please.) We all know gays are notoriously starved for representation on network television so the legendary icon drag queen mama secured a perfect niche market after the first episode aired in early 2009. BAM! Ru again marked her place in reality television herstory.

The reality television competition show is actually decades old. It first appeared in the 1950’s in the form of game shows where participants went head-to-head in trivia or other challenges for a grand-prize and a title. NBC used to run a radio-turned-television show aimed toward housewives called Queen for a Day from 1945–1964. That kind of set up–with cameras rolling live and real people competing against each other for prizes serves as an early framework for Drag Race, among other reality TV shows. Today’s era of American Idol, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the talking-head-tragicomedy-of-(insert something like animal hoarding here) lies in the emergence of a multi-channel cable television environment where networks needed to inexpensively fill twenty-four hours of time for a growing popular audience. In 1991, MTV’s The Real World was the first of its kind on a national network. Influenced by documentary traditions which profess to reveal real-life experience, and in light of technological advancements such as light weight, hand-held cameras, microphones with long range pick-up, and accessible film editing programs, a fresh genre of reality television shows that focused on “real” people in unscripted events and competitions became normalized on cable networks during the last 20 years.

While the genre has evolved since the dawn of television, its simple rules remain the same. RuPaul’s Drag Race delivers two key tropes central to reality TV:

1. Extraordinary people doing real things and,
2. Real people doing extraordinary things

In the case of Ru, she’s the extraordinary celebrity drag queen serving us herself and her best girls every week. It’s only natural that a queen like her could do a perfectly normal thing like host a reality TV show. And her girls? They’re the real ones doing something extraordinary — cisgender gay men dressing as women on national television — WAIT NO I mean drag queens giving us glamour and realness week-after-week just like we believe them to do every damn day like us, the real people watching at the other end of the screens.

Let’s remember that drag, in essence, is built around “realness”–an oft-disputed term but a relevant one here if were talking about reality TV. The “reality” of reality television and realness in drag as it is understood within the ball scene is that none of it is ever really real–it is at best a very good performance that mirrors the real. Drag is a performance of gender realness and reality TV is all about performance. Producers are like a good concealer that masks your five-o’clock shadow, or in this case, the big Truth. From behind the camera, they constantly feed the queens lines, stir up backstage gossip, and dream up challenges that will make good television. No one ever sees them on screen, though, which preserves the “reality” claims of the show. When Ru invited us to vote for our favorite queen last week, she took the power away from producers, changing the game and giving a cameo the last real people in the nexus of reality television–the audience.

RuPaul wants us to come to together in the name of drag. She knows that like drag, our viewing parties are social events. It takes a family to raise a queen and sociability is one marker of a hard-working, community-building, positive force like Ru and her Next Drag Superstar. Have you ever been to a drag ball? Whether you’re dolled up for the first time or a seasoned attendee, just being at a ball is a participatory experience. There may be judges controlling the scores, but the force of a crowd reaction does not go unnoticed. Ru knows this from personal experience and he also knows how connected we all are to social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook today. Like any good queen and entrepreneur in the digital age, Ru understands the value of the viewer-turned-user in today’s online “participatory cultures.” Coined by Henry Jenkins and a team of researchers at MIT, a participatory culture is one in which individuals become consumers of cultural products, while at the same time contributing to the production of that culture. Sites like Facebook and YouTube are large examples of participatory cultures. You watch content, you make content. When we open up the possibility for a cross-platform viewer/user experience on TV and online, a key example is the way we get to vote for America’s Idol today because as viewer/users we consume the most America (or is it Coca-Cola?). RuPaul knows we’re streaming video online and following her Twitter feed. We add our favorite queens to our C-now lists and check the RuPaul’s Drag Race Facebook page for special promotions. When RuPaul asks for our voice online, she not only recognizes our seamless connection to social media, but she’s giving us a real seat at the judge’s table of a digital drag ball.

So who will be crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar? Only a chosen few at World of Wonder lay privy to such information right now. Even at the taping of the Reunited finale in LA last week, 3 separate endings were filmed with each queen gracefully accepting her yet-to-be crown. Have you Tweeted your vote yet or aligned with TeamSharon, TeamPhiPhi or TeamChad on Facebook? While you do that, I’ll be waiting wait in my heels and makeup until the final episode uploads to a satellite in the sky and streams onto our television sets and computer screens tonight at 9PM EST.


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