Since it launched nearly a decade ago on Logo, a US cable network aimed at LGBTQ viewers, RuPaul's Drag Race has become a genuine TV phenomenon. It's a kitsch, glitzy and sometimes schmaltzy talent contest populated almost entirely by queer people that beats other, straighter shows at their own game: earlier this year, it won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program ahead of The Voice and Project Runway. These days, it's so popular that it airs on Logo's big sister network VH1, and streams on Netflix in the UK.
Now, following years of discussion about a British version, including one Jonathan Ross said he was producing, RuPaul's Drag Race UK is finally happening – with actual RuPaul at the helm and right-hand woman Michelle Visage on the panel. According to the BBC, an eight-part series featuring ten British drag artists will air on BBC Three next year. “I am beyond excited to celebrate the massive charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent of the Queen's queens,” RuPaul said yesterday. "And before anyone asks, yes, we would be thrilled to have Meghan Markle join us, as we are already preparing a 'Royal-Mother-To-Be' runway challenge.”
This suggests Drag Race UK is already considering how to tailor itself to the British drag aesthetic – something which could prove vital to its success, according to a number of UK queens I speak to. “British drag has such old, old history – there's a lot to in the make-up box to explore,” says Lady Lloyd, who appeared in the 2014 reality show Drag Queens of London. “I would hope Drag Race UK will be quintessentially British in its tasks: Shakespeare, pantomime dames, '80s Blitz Kids, that kind of thing. Hell, throw a Spice Girls challenge in there somewhere, because they’re perfect for drag! The show needs to mine UK comedy too: Absolutely Fabulous, Gimme Gimme Gimme and Nighty Night are all genius graves to dig.”
Every episode of the original American RuPaul's Drag Race ends with a “lip sync for your life”, in which two queens perform an often dazzling mime-and-dance routine to a pop banger. British-Nigerian queen Son of a Tutu, who judges the weekly Porn Idol contest at London's Heaven nightclub alongside a rotating cast of Drag Race alumni, suggests this could be expanded to fit the "irreverent and iconoclastic" British drag sensibility. “We do have a long-tradition of lip syncing in this country, but it's a lot more humour-based and less about acrobatics. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”
Over the years, Drag Race has helped dozens of super-talented performers to launch lucrative international careers. In May, season six winner Bianca Del Rio will become the first drag queen to headline London's 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena. Fan favourites Shangela and Willam have memorable extended cameos opposite Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born. Loads more Drag Race alumni play decent-sized venues all over the world in package tours like "Christmas Queens", which is currently criss-crossing the UK.
But can RuPaul's Drag Race UK boost the British drag scene generally – a process which Son of a Tutu memorably terms “trickle-down draganomics?
“I think more light shined on drag talent can only raise the profile of the industry as a whole,” says Margo Marshal, a rising star of the East End scene. “A bigger drag audience in the UK will mean more opportunities to perform and better working conditions for future and current UK-based queens.” However, Marshal's enthusiasm for the UK show comes with a caveat: “I do worry that it could change people's expectations of drag and people might dismiss artists who don't conform to the narrow Drag Race beauty standards, and so the diversity of the scene might decrease.”
As popular as RuPaul's Drag Race has become on gay Twitter and the UK queer scene, where bars including Manchester's The Library and London’s The Glory regularly hold viewing parties, the show has attracted criticism from some corners of the LGBTQ community. Earlier this year, RuPaul caused controversy by saying that a trans queen who had undergone gender reassignment surgery would “probably not” be allowed on the show. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture,” the host told the Guardian.
“Will the UK show be a men-only club like the US original or be a more inclusive representation of drag across the LGBTQ and gender spectra?” Son of a Tutu wonders. “We have bio [female] queens and trans queens as well as drag kings – none of whom are represented on the US original. Seeing this considered to some extent will go a long way to bringing the format up-to-date and making it a good ambassador for what is great about the British drag tradition.”
London-based drag king Adam All agrees that Drag Race UK should cast its net wider than the US original. “Drag Race has brought an enormous new audience to drag, and it's also used its platform to raise some important LGBTQ issues, which is obviously a good thing. Not being part of that has, I think, been frustrating for some UK queens. And now, for those who fit the current entry requirements, [the UK show] must be very exciting. But of course I’d like to see much more inclusivity in the show's selection process.”
But perhaps the best way to enjoy RuPaul's Drag Race UK, however it turns out, will be to acknowledge that it offers an eye-catching slice of drag life, but not the whole pie.
“Many people now look to it as the default of drag or a staple of gayness, when it's basically a drag version of The X Factor,” says Le Fil, an androgynous pop artist who performs with the UK’s super-inclusive, gender norm-eschewing Sink the Pink collective. “It does as much for the LGBTQ community as The X Factor does for the music industry as it has such a particular stance on drag and gender. I kind of wish the UK would create its own show that isn't about catfights and competition, but is about the supportive and eclectic nature of all the artists, makers and creatives within the LGBTQ world. But for now, a UK version of Drag Race will do – maybe it's just a step in the right direction to getting more representation on the telly. One high-heeled step at a time, right?”