My 12 Year 'Rupaul's Drag Race' Addiction
It must be twelve years ago that I started going out with Percy Tankengine, who introduced me to Rupaul’s Drag Race. He’d changed his name so many times on Facebook that he’d accidentally got stuck with Percy Tankengine. The story of our meeting is not dissimilar to a fairy-tale. He had seen videos of me drunkenly impersonating Boy George on YouTube. We met up in drag to go to a nightclub together, never got to the night club, and ended up making out in drag on my bedroom floor. He was the one that gave me the first taste of the Class-A televisual experience known as Rupaul’s Drag Race. I remember my first thought being that it was “too gay.” This might seem like a contradiction coming from someone who had just made out with their boyfriend in drag. But I don’t think I’d ever seen a room filled with only femme-acting gay men before. It’s like seeing a freer version of yourself, but having been told by society that it’s wrong, you are repulsed by it, even antagonistic towards it.
The first time I ever saw Rupaul was on her Christmas album cover, which I found lying in the street of my home town without a case or a CD. My ten-year-old self thought, that’s an interesting looking woman and put it in my coat pocket. Here’s another flashback: me, five years old, wearing a pink silk dress around the house, from me and my sister’s fancy dress box.
“He’s not going to go to bed wearing that is he?” My dad said.
After that I started to do my fancy dress in private. That was until my art degree. For my first ever presentation I got wheeled into the room in a trolley dressed as Princess Diana drunkenly singing Candle in the Wind. I was flagrantly homosexual, but I didn’t have many gay friends, and I was still carrying the belief that being campy and femme were not good qualities. They were qualities that comedians effected on TV to get laughs.
But Percy Tankengine got me addicted. We binge watched series one and two. He’d sit at my desk doing eye makeup, getting more and more frustrated, until he threw his makeup brushes at me. We broke up shortly after the last episode of Season 3, almost as if it had been drag race keeping us together. Since I have watched every episode, desperately searching for a download of it on Pirate-bay before it became mainstream. I remember crying while watching an emotional episode of Drag Race Untucked on the way to work. I remember singing "Shade: The Rusical" all the way through with my Taiwanese boyfriend Fei Fain (who later became a professional drag queen). Sometimes it was hilarious, sometimes it was forced reality-TV drama, and sometimes it reassured me that being gay and effeminate was a good thing. That it didn’t make me a failed attempt at a man. I could be not only funny, but also empowered.
Rupaul obsessively states that he’s a man, and dressing up as a woman is just his job. Which seems to suggest that doing drag is something, anyone could fall into: like a career in sales or computer programming. It makes me laugh when Kennedy Davenport sings: “Say yes to drag, yes mam to drag, it slays, it pays” As if the only thing standing between most people and a successful drag career are their doubts over whether it would pay or slay. I think drag almost always starts as an outlet for people that have a mix of masculinity and femininity, they need to express. When I did it five days a week it became a job. But when I haven’t dressed up in a long time, I notice part of myself is left unexpressed. I actually relate more to dressing in-between genders. Every year I say "I don't feel like doing drag anymore, maybe I won't even watch drag race." But I AM AN ADDICT. Especially when the UK version comes on, I am there, injecting it directly into a major artery, getting out those wigs, eyelashes, and glittery onesies.
After my relationships with Percy Tankengine and Fei Fain, I discovered a group called the Radical Faeries. A secret gay/queer society that have gatherings in a castle on the Scottish border. There, I experienced the kind of liberation I had seen in the Drag Race work-room. The kind of liberation that comes with being away from the hetero-normative majority. I had sex in the castle’s drag-room in a pile of wigs while people walked in and out. I remember a very messy disco, where it was as if all the normal people had been removed, just leaving the people who make the party fun. Those people are my community.
During the last two lockdowns, I’ve experienced what it’s like not to have that community around me. Last night I watched the most recent episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race UK, where the cast re-united after seven months of lock-down. I felt a mix of joy and melancholy watching them dressing up as Eurovision-style girl-bands, singing:
“Bing bang bong, sing sang song, ding dang dong, UK Hun?”
I wanted to be there, I wanted to be with the femme gays. The song gave me this strange nostalgia, as if in a parallel universe my audition tape had been successful. A far-flung parallel universe that it would be difficult for even the most experimental astrophysicists to reach. But in that universe, I’m wearing neon orange platforms and singing "Bing bang bong, sing sang song." Instead, I’ve ended up in my parents’ house, unable to move out because of conservative housing policy. I love my parents, but after long periods I’m very aware that I'm a member of a different tribe to them. A tribe with different customs and culture. But it’s a tribe that I know exists, and one that I am deeply proud to be a member of.