On Thursday nights, drag queen Tayce settles in to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK with his housemates. “We sit around, get some food, watch the thing, then have a couple of bevs after,” he says, talking from his bedroom in London. The experience is a little different for Tayce than for most viewers; he is also one of the finalists in this year’s competition. One of his flatmates, A’Whora, was also on the show, just missing out on a top-four spot. “She’s upstairs now,” Tayce says, in his nimble Newport lilt. In ordinary times, the queens taking part in what he calls “the Olympics of drag” would be out in the world, watching at viewing parties in pubs and bars, appearing at Drag Race-themed events. But for now, they’re at home, like everyone else. “Live it up,” he says, grinning.
Along with Ellie Diamond, Bimini Bon Boulash and Lawrence Chaney, Tayce is about to compete in the final of Drag Race UK. (The queens use the pronouns she/her in drag; out of drag, Bimini is non-binary and goes by they/them, while the others use he/him, hence the joyous jumble.) This is the anglicised, rough-around-the-edges, wildly spirited spin-off of the US mothership. So far, the second season has been spectacular. The final was filmed in November, but with multiple endings, like Game Of Thrones – meaning none of them know who has won until the episode is broadcast. Alan Turing as a high-concept trouser suit. There was a perfect Katie Price impression, asserting that “nipples are the eyes of the face”. There was H&M-gate, in which host RuPaul berated a contestant for performing in a shop-bought dress, inciting a fierce debate about the economics of drag in a pandemic. Covid tore the season in half, inserting a seven-month break into filming; one contestant did not return after a positive test. The contestants launched UK Hun, a Eurovision parody song and inescapable earworm that became a bona fide Top-40 hit. Bing bang bong. What’s the best version of RuPaul’s Drag Race? It’s UK, hun.
“I mean, there are earworms and then there are earworms,” says Alan Carr, who judges on the show, alternating with Graham Norton. “That song doesn’t just get into your head, it fracks its way into your brain. I remember on set, a lighting guy started singing, ‘Bing bang bong’ and [fellow judges] Michelle [Visage] and Ru were like, ‘Who’s unleashed the beast?’ Because they knew we would all be singing it for the rest of the day.” Carr has been a fan of Drag Race since it began in the US in 2009, and is delighted to host the UK edition. “It’s so nice being part of a phenomenon.”
When RuPaul’s Drag Race began in the US it was cult, niche viewing. RuPaul, the most famous drag queen in the world, drew on his own experience to launch a contest, changing the fortunes of queens from across the US, and giving a national spotlight to performers who had previously appeared only in local clubs. The early episodes, which aired on the LGBT network Logo, were low-budget and soft focus; but over time, it became a genuine pop culture sensation. The show was a partial parody of popular reality series such as America’s Next Top Model, using drag’s strong sense of mimicry and mockery to send up the element of competition; but it did it so well that it became a gripping competition in its own right. The queens compete against each other in a variety of challenges that might require them to use comedy, dressmaking, singing, dancing, or the whole lot combined – so long as the results are delivered with Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.
It created catchphrases, stars, and shoved drag towards the American mainstream. This year’s US season, its 13th, set a record for its largest audience, with 1.3 million viewers. By the end of this run, there will have been 173 episodes of the original Drag Race and 41 of its spin-off series, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars (in which favourite past contestants compete for a spot in the hallowed Hall of Fame). Celebrity guest judges have included Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande and Whoopi Goldberg; Lady Gaga turned up in drag, as a tough-looking boy called Ronnie. In 2018, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, dropped in to the workroom (the show’s backstage area where the queens put together their looks) to urge viewers to vote. Its cocktail of high glamour, high drama and earnestness has been a stage for open and honest conversations about gender, identity and gay rights.
The international spin-offs each have their own flavour. If the US version is sometimes overly sincere, then the British one, which began in 2019 on BBC Three, brought a smutty sense of humour and scrappy ethos from the beginning. Carr points out that the UK has a different relationship to drag than the US. “Drag, normally comedic drag, has always been loitering around the UK entertainment mainstream. I grew up with Kenny Everett, Dick Emery, Les Dawson, Stanley Baxter, to name a few, plus we had the dames in the panto every Christmas,” he says. “I remember Lily Savage being on primetime telly and no one batting an eyelid.”
This year, the US and UK editions of Drag Race have been airing simultaneously for the first time, and fans have been busily comparing the merits of the two.
The American version has evolved into an increasingly polished machine. The prizes are big (weekly tips of $5,000, a cash prize of $100,000) and so the contestants’ investment tends to be big, too. Wigs and dresses are expensive, often tailor-made. In Britain, the drag queens borrow more from their end-of-the-pier history, and are bawdier, campier and filthier. Glamour, art and high fashion creep in, but even so, on the reveal challenge this season (which usually involves the spectacle of one dress turning into another), contestant Ginny Lemon whipped off a floral and gingham tea dress to reveal exactly the same frock underneath – just with the bum cut out. It’s the BBC, so prizes are small and symbolic: a “RuPeter” badge for winning a maxi challenge; their own TV mini-series for winning the season. It’s safe to say they aren’t doing it for the cash.
But they are doing it for the glory, and the British version is seen by many fans to have reinvigorated the format. “It has exceeded all our expectations,” says Fiona Campbell, controller of BBC Three. The BBC won’t release viewing figures until long after the season has finished, but the show’s success has been credited with BBC Three’s return to broadcast television (it had been digital-only since 2016). “People can watch the show on so many levels,” says Carr. “You can watch the transformations. And then you can watch them grow as people and [hear] their back stories, and find out why they chose drag in the first place.”
Many of this year’s finalists chose drag because of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Lawrence Chaney, the quick-witted comedy queen from Glasgow, was 14 and going through a Cher phase when he Googled the name of her latest film, Burlesque. It brought up a video of Cher performing in a pub. He was surprised to see a superstar in such an intimate setting. “And then I looked at it and it was [Season 4 Drag Race contestant] Chad Michaels in Cher drag. I found out about Drag Race through that, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.”
Now 24, Lawrence is self-proclaimed “Scottish drag royalty”, one of the bigger names on the Glasgow scene, having been performing there for the past six years. His drag is funny, vivid and campy. “Drag is such a broad art form that you can be a club kid, you can be a nightlife entertainer, you can be a circus performer, aerial performer – there’s so much you can do,” he says. “Myself, I love TV. I love Lorraine. I love all that, and being the drag version of that is what tickles my fancy.”
Dundee’s Ellie Diamond, whose drag is a doll-like explosion of pastels and candy colours, was 11 when Drag Race began. At 21, he is the youngest contestant on this series. “I was born into a Christian household. We went to Christian schools, church every weekend, so I was never, ever exposed to queer culture, gay culture, or drag.” For Ellie, season six was the gateway drug. His friends at school had suggested he watch the show. “I was like, I don’t think so. And then they put on season six, episode one, and the first queen that walked in through the door was Adore Delano, and I fell in love. Oh my God, she’s fabulous, I want to be her.” Soon afterwards, he saw a poster for a gig in Dundee, by one Lawrence Chaney. Inspired, he ended up hosting a weekly drag bingo night, Bingo Wigs, in the city.
“I’ve been watching for years,” says Bimini Bon Boulash, 26, from their home in London. “Look, I’ve colour-coordinated my outfit with my juice,” they purr, a vision in a red tracksuit, their trademark yellow mullet a softer shade of blond. Bimini is the punkiest queen to have competed on Drag Race UK, inspired by the spirit of their fashion heroes McQueen, Westwood and Galliano. One of their favourite looks was a Norwich City football kit, remodelled into a sort of leotard, embellished with 90s shades and a gold tooth. “To me, that was all about subverting gender norms. I grew up pretending to like football, even though I hated it, and going to matches in my home city. That outfit was not what I should be wearing, but that’s why I wanted to bring it to Drag Race.” It nearly got them eliminated, but captured the essence of Bimini’s drag. “It’s not about having the most precise, well-made garment. It’s about the attitude you bring.”
Bimini is one of the artier contestants, but in the spirit of drag requiring a bit of everything, does glamour and comedy just as well. (Their Katie Price impression on the traditional Snatch Game quizshow week was a season highlight.) For Bimini, Drag Race is multifaceted. “It’s not just about being a bit shady [slang for the art of the insult, which emerged from the black and Latin ballroom culture of the US in the 1980s] and wearing a cool outfit. It’s a lot more about the queer experience – the human experience – and people can relate to that. You don’t necessarily have to be a queer person to relate to stories about bullying, or mental health issues, and lots of things that we go through.”
Conversations about these queer, human experiences have become a mainstay of the show. As they get ready for challenges, queens have talked freely over their makeup palettes about their experiences of family strife, not being accepted, HIV, prison and drug addiction, as well as the joy and freedom that drag has brought them. One of the most moving moments of season two was a conversation between Bimini and Ginny Lemon about identifying as non-binary. “It’s basically just someone who doesn’t feel like they are either masculine or feminine, they float between the two,” said Bimini – while Ginny talked about their difficult upbringing. It was, as Bimini later tweeted, a rare moment of calm on British television, when gender was not reduced to a culture war: “How nice was it to hear two gender non-conforming people discuss identity politics without Piers Morgan?” People got in touch after the episode aired to say that it had inspired them to come out as non-binary to their families. Teachers said they’d had conversations with students about it. “Someone asked, ‘Did you go on there with that purpose?’” says Bimini. “And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ It was one of the most organic conversations ever. You can go a lot deeper than what I said, but I think people understood it a bit, and it clicked.”
Long before he had heard of Drag Race, Tayce, 26, was wearing dresses and wigs around Newport, where he grew up. “I’ve got pictures of me from a baby to 10 years old in wigs, dresses, anything I could find in my mum’s room – a scarf, a shawl. My parents would take me to McDonald’s once a week, as a treat, and I would wear this wig and feather boa. I was nine!” he says, at lightning speed. Some people loved it, but plenty didn’t. He says Newport is getting better, “especially now I’m on the show, they have no choice. But I’ve had grown mums spit at me, I’ve had people drive past and call me a faggot, I’ve had people call me the N-word, I’ve had people push me, I’ve had all sorts. But I’ve literally never cared and I’ve never changed. If I’m not hurting anyone, what’s the problem here?” Tayce is model-gorgeous, and moved from Newport to London to pursue modelling before turning to drag.
For the gay icon challenge, he chose to do Naomi Campbell, as did fellow contestant Asstina Mandella, prompting a discussion about whether there was a lack of British black icons. “It was pretty polarising,” says Tayce. “Some people said, ‘Oh my God, how do you not know who Shirley Bassey is?’ Yeah, I know who Dame Shirley Bassey is, of course I do. But growing up as a little black gay kid who loves fashion and models, [Naomi] is naturally who I’m gravitating towards.”
Drag’s spirit of defiance is strong. Ellie Diamond spoke frankly and emotionally on the show this year about his difficult relationship with his father. “It was a great thing to be able to speak about, to understand that, it’s OK, you don’t have to have a perfect family, especially growing up queer,” he says.
In another workroom confessional, Lawrence talked about being bullied at school, and using humour to turn insults into weapons. “I’m not a victim of the bullies,” he says. “I would have been, if I was still in Helensburgh, middle-of-nowhere rural country in Scotland, doing nothing. That would have been giving in to them. I’ve taken everything they said, and I’ve said, ‘I’m going to steal these jokes, make them about myself, and then run circles right out the door.’ I’m not a victim or trying to get sympathy. For me, drag is a way of fighting back.”
The shade that the queens throw at each other can be breathtakingly blunt; their ability to laugh at themselves is also empowering. Fans often speculate about the editing, and particularly the mythical reality TV “villain edit”, where a queen is portrayed in a unfavourable light. This year, contestant Sister Sister wrote about receiving abuse and even death threats from fans who didn’t like her. Are the edits fair? “It’s not like Avatar: heavily edited,” Lawrence laughs. “People have said they were giving Tayce and A’Whora the villain edit, and I was like, No! [A’Whora] just said fellow contestant Tia [Kofi] was basic.” He shrugs. “Chill out, you know? Things are going to get left out and that’s just TV.”
On the subject of Tayce and A’Whora, much has been made of the pair’s flirtation, which meant Tayce sending A’Whora home in the lip sync was bittersweet. What’s the story, I ask Tayce. “There is nothing going on with me and A’Whora!” he shouts. Then he admits that maybe there was something. “When we didn’t know each other, back in the day, we got with each other once, in a club. That’s it. And what friend hasn’t got with a friend before? We are not a thing, world!”
When Covid brought a stop to the season in March, the remaining queens had a seven-month break, and Tayce moved into the spare room in A’Whora’s house. The gap was rough for some. One frontrunner, Veronica Green, was forced to drop out after testing positive. Others used the time to study the judges’ critiques and improve on their looks, coming back with a whole new wardrobe. Tayce credits the break with getting him to the final. “I was revamping looks, changing looks completely, embellishing things, stoning things. Point blank, if we didn’t have that break, I think I would have done a lot worse.”
Despite the extra preparation time, Covid has meant the queens have been unable to perform live, and they are desperate to get back to the stage. Ellie says he is still on the books at the McDonald’s he worked at before the show. “As much as Drag Race put me on a platform and a pedestal, girl, has the money been coming in? There’s not been much.”
In 2015, when Drag Race US was finally coming to British television (it had briefly been on E4, and then TruTV, before moving to Netflix), I interviewed RuPaul. Drag Race had, by then, given birth to several spin-off series and a giant annual convention, and was very much part of popular culture. I asked him if drag was going mainstream. “Drag will never be mainstream, because it breaks the fourth wall and it mocks our culture and identity: how much you have, where you’re from, your economic background,” he said, firmly. “Drag mocks all of that. It’s the antithesis of mainstream.”
But as masses of British viewers dissect runway looks and lip-sync challenges in family WhatsApp groups, as teenagers force their dads to watch it, as flatmates get together for a bev on the sofa, it feels as though it is at least edging its way closer to the mainstream. “I think it’s great that those conversations are being seen by a wider audience,” says Bimini. “But what people have to remember is that drag was always a protest. It was always a political statement. It was about taking away those norms about gender and society, and parodying them.”
Bimini says they first saw drag queens at panto, when they were six. “British drag is very tongue-in-cheek, it’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge. It’s going to Butlin’s and seeing a few blokes in a wig making some old ladies laugh.” But while traditional drag was once seen to parody an exaggerated, heightened binary femininity, Drag Race has become less about perfect mimicry, and more about unpicking those norms. In British drag clubs, you might see a camp and bawdy queen, but you might also see a performer with a beard, armpit hair and no breast plate. Crystal Methyd, a Drag Race US finalist last year, was a psychedelic clown-doll. On this year’s US show, Gottmik is the first trans man to compete. Sasha Velour, who won season nine, largely competed with a bald head.
Despite the success of the show, all four finalists are currently in a strange lockdown limbo, having become famous as the country is holed up in a seemingly endless winter. Ellie mentions seeing a Drag Race billboard in Dundee; Tayce says he keeps hearing UK Hun blasting out of car stereos. Before we spoke, Lawrence had nipped to the shop for an Irn-Bru where they told him they’d loved him on the show the night before. Bimini was walking their dog, Disco, early in the morning when someone asked for a photo. “I’d just rolled out of bed, hadn’t washed my face, brushed my teeth.” Does that mean they’ll have to be fully done-up every time they leave the house? “Well, at least moisturised.”
One of these four brilliant, very different queens will walk away with the crown next week. The Drag Race UK prizes may not be much in the financial stakes, but winning can supercharge their career. The hope for all them is that once lockdown is lifted, they will get to perform again – and for bigger audiences than they have ever known. But of course, it’s a reality show, and it’s the taking part that counts. “If I win, it’s obviously an amazing bonus,” says Tayce, with a massive smile. There is a sense he could be speaking for any of them. “But if I don’t… I’ve won at life, anyway.”