An opinion on the infamous scene from the perspective of a drag queen.
The second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is well underway and with just a final four remaining (#TeamBimini), episode 5 must seem like a gay lifetime ago. The controversial moment that rocked the fandom may seem like yesterday’s news, from the over meme-ing and social media fueds, it’s been played out. But you know I had to give my 2 cents.
I need to start by saying I am not a fan of RuPaul. RuPaul has a disgustingly poor track-record with the trans community and has failed them time and time again. Further, her fracking adventures leaves much to be desired. I will offer my impartial opinion, however, I felt imperative to preface this because I can see how this piece could read as a “Leave RuPaul Alone” moment.
Buckle up, this is going to be a heck of a ride.
A large part of the fandom felt that RuPaul was out of order. Then contestants arrived after a 7-month break, and this included returning queen, Joe Black from Brighton. The opinions I saw online mostly took offence from a financial perspective. Bespoke custom costumes are expensive to have made, and even if you make them yourself the cost of materials can be high. Scottish queens, Ellie Diamond and Lawrence Chaney opened up about the financial limits of drag in our Northern neighbour, sometimes only being paid £15 per gig. During the pandemic, they were entirely unable to work, even when English queens were back taking bookings. And neither of these queens bought anything off the rack. They have both been praised for their runways, showing you don’t need to spend hundreds to serve a Ru-pproved look. Given Joe Black’s notoriety in the drag community even before Drag Race, I can understand RuPaul’s frustrations. Joe entered the show with a large following and has shown the ability to present incredible looks before and during Drag Race. The parallels between the H&M dress and Joe’s Seaside look both presented in the same episode would have highlighted the lack of effort and thought put into the dress look.
Contestants and fans alike often refer to Drag Race as The Gay Olympics. The Gay Superbowl. They say that drag is sport and drag performers are athletes. Drag Race has an undeniable monopoly on the televised drag world. This is the biggest opportunity in drag to launch your career to a global level. There are limited spaces in each season with hundreds if not thousands applying, only the best of the best gets to compete. Would you not want to give yourself the best chance at doing well? I know if I was given the opportunity, I wouldn’t be bringing anything off the rack. In any competitive sport, especially at a professional or competing level, people dedicate their lives, time and money to being the best. Sure, these sports often come with huge brand deals and sponsorships, which can cover the cost of equipment and travel to events. This isn’t the same with drag, but you don’t have to spend a lot to look good, as other queens in the same season have shown.
People assumed that if it’s not H&M, it must be custom, but we know this is not the case. As we saw in episode 1 with Asstina’s win in an ASOS jacket, high-street fashion can win on the runway. The big difference between the jack and dress, taste. Asstina rocked the jacket, sold it with her runway presentation, and it didn’t look ASOS. It had volume, colour, dimension. It was fashionable, chic and read as a custom piece. Asstina describes her fashion as ‘street’ style. The dress, well that’s a different story. The colour was nice but beyond that, it really was an ugly dress. The cut was boring and basic, and the accessories felt like an afterthought. The soft pink finger wave wig, with black combat boots? Choices were made. As RuPaul said, if you’re going to wear high street fashion, you need to put the work in. Transform it, customize it, bedazzle it. Do ANYTHING. It was clear that Joe jokingly corrected the judges it was from H&M was a catalyst for RuPaul blowing up. It wasn’t the dress alone; this interaction exacerbated the reaction.
I’ve seen a lot of memes with pictures of RuPaul from game shows such as The Weakest Link from the early 2000s in clearly off the rack clothing. This has been used to suggest a level of hypocrisy from RuPaul. I think the real hypocrisy is using these, whilst claiming financial reasons for the dress. At this point, RuPaul had had some fame in the ’90s but isn’t the multi-millionaire we know now. This all came from the show, which is a business. It’s not unreasonable for RuPaul to expect a certain level of drag, given the progression of the show. If this were season 2 of the US series, I’d be more understanding. The UK series it the fourth spin-off and is being quickly followed by Spain and Australia. As the platform grows, and as drag grows as an art form, the standard should surely follow that rise and be held higher and higher each season. Using the fact that RuPaul doesn’t do their own makeup, hair and costuming makes no sense to me. She is not competing; she is the host and head judge of her own show. Makeup artists often won’t do their own makeup for TV, Film and other big events. Beauty Guru and professional makeup artist Tati Westbrook had James Charles do her makeup for her wedding day. This is a common practice in the industry. Besides, she doesn’t have to prove her abilities, she’s done that. It is the contestants time to do so.
Whether you agree with RuPaul’s actions or not, it’s clear that this isn’t a simple right or wrong situation. To understand both sides of the argument, you need to look at the progression of drag race. Everyone can see that the clunkiness and low quality of the earlier American seasons is gone, and with that drag is no longer an underground art form. This new era of drag is well underway, and the changes it has made are irreversible. Drag Race is The Queer Olympics, and if you want to get the gold, NO GODDAMN H&M.