RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t about finding the perfect drag queen. It’s about finding a superlative human being.
Success on the show, which is down to the final four after Monday night’s episode, doesn't just require talent, awareness, wit, glamour, and the ability to articulate and agitate on behalf of a group that still faces discrimination and hatred—contestants need to pull off every single thing that could be asked of an entertainer.
Whereas most competition reality shows run on a single axis (Who’s the better cook? Who can more competently sing pop songs? Who’s the blandest, most Middle America love interest?), RuPaul’s Drag Race shatters the format by creating a competition where there is not one or even 12 north stars to follow.
If you’re not watching it, why not? Not only is it the finest form of escapism yet invented by humans—even including laser tag, opiates and Temptation Island!—but it’s difficult to envision a person who wouldn’t enjoy it. The sheer variety of the paces it puts those who aspire to wear the rhinestoned mantle of America’s Next Drag Superstar through covers the waterfront. And in doing so, the show makes a subculture intimately accessible to those of us who had no idea that “beating one’s face” could have such beautiful results.
To wit, so far this season contestants have been asked to:
• Perform an early ’90s rap in front of the flawlessly unimpressable Trina and Eve.
• Design a sickening outfit that captures the essence of, say, Duck Dynasty or Game of Thrones.
• Capture the campiness of a ’60s horror movie or the vocal fry of its ’80s reboot.
• Do a spot-on celebrity impression improv, stand-up comedy, belt out Broadway tunes, write an infomercial, and charm an inexplicably sour duo that includes Cher’s mom.
Throughout, the contestants must look perfect, arriving at the show with a wardrobe of show-stopping looks.
Yes, yes: The stated judgment standard is Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent—the producer who came up with that glorious acronym deserves a million high-fives—but four words can’t capture the weird alchemy required to be the most indelible in a group of human beings who are all unforgettable.
Take, for example, Courtney Act. On the surface, the Grace Kelly look-alike, already famous in her native Australia, has it down. She’s a triple threat, as comfortable belting out a Broadway swan song number or playing at talk show hosting as she is shutting down the runway with 20-foot angel wings that, as she notes hopefully, will take Facebook and Tumblr by storm.
But that’s not enough. Courtney is the drag queen equivalent of buttered noodles. She is technically good enough at everything, but you know who else is technically good at everything? Gwyneth Paltrow, queen of exactly zero hearts.
Courtney stands in stark contrast to Bianca Del Rio, whose crown it is to lose. Bianca, who has a storied drag career that stretches back nearly two decades, came to the show armed with the fashion and sewing skills one would expect with her costume design background, a look that briefly nods toward femininity before zinging off into its own orbit, and a brain filled with, as she puts it, a “Rolodex of Hate.”
But rather than striking the one note that could be expected of someone who presents herself as the drag queen equivalent of Lisa Lampanelli, Bianca consistently establishes herself as the smartest person in the room by tackling and managing her own storyline for maximum audience sympathy. She elegantly sidesteps the producer-driven narratives by showing moments of kindness—like giving a younger queen a waist cincher after she was repeatedly criticized for not having a feminine enough figure— though never vulnerability. Her talent is that formidable.
In short, Bianca Del Rio is exemplifying what only one show has dared to ask of its contestants. She is bringing the full-force abilities, weaknesses, and stamina of a real human being, then successfully projecting and distorting it through a lens that is solely of her own making.
And while few of us are ever asked to transform ourselves into another gender, to make a couture gown out of garbage, or experience high-stakes lip-sync showdowns to the strains of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” all of us can marvel each week at the tightrope walk.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, please—chanté, you stay. Never, ever sashay away.