Culture

How Emotional Realness Is The Secret To ‘Drag Race’s’ Enduring Success

by Eric Sasson

June 29, 2018

You have to give it to RuPaul. After 10 seasons as host of “Drag Race,” he and the producers of the show really know how to keep viewers hooked. Late on June 28, Aquaria was declared the winner in a finale that cannily highlighted the show’s roots, showcasing almost all of the contestants of Season One in — as Ru humorously quipped — “Season 10 lighting.”

What’s keeping people glued to their TVs?

“There are many reasons why the kids are tuning in, but the emotions is one of the bigger reasons,” Aquaria told GOOD at last night’s finale screening party at Samsung 837 in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district. “This season featured queens who were very passionate about what they believe in, passionate about their drag, and about society and life, so things definitely got heated and emotional.”

It’s not just the show’s eleganza, catchphrases, outrageous challenges, shade-throwing — and let’s not forget the drama, mama, the drama. We already know all about that. That’s why we’ve been watching all these years. That’s what led to the show’s move from Logo to VH1, where it has since exploded in the ratings and become a mainstream cultural phenomenon. It’s even won Ru a couple of Emmys as “Outstanding Reality TV Show Host.”

But after nine seasons and a disappointing, controversial season of “All Stars Three,” one might wonder if the show’s mascara has started to run.

10 seasons is a milestone, but it can also be an albatross. People might be ready to move on to the next thing, be it “alt-drag” showcases like “Bushwig” or “Dragula” or Latrice and Willam’s rumored competition series, “Ultimate Drag Idol.” The latter promises to be “all-gender inclusive,” a direct swipe at the legend himself after he said in an interview that he probably wouldn’t let female-identifying contestants compete on the show. (Ru later apologized.)

So why does Season 10 feel like such a standout season?

Two words: Emotion realness.

All photos courtesy of VH1, used with permission.

Raw and real

Sure, the show has always been emotional, highlighting the struggles the queens had to overcome on their road to success. Still, nothing could have prepared audiences for the onslaught of feels that season 10 provided, culminating in a reunion show with so much rawness that it’s certain to go down as one for the ages.

Practically every week, one of the queens revealed something harrowing about her life, be it Dusty Ray Bottoms lamenting the horror of having to go through conversion therapy or Monique Heart tearfully explaining how you “can’t be black and be gay,” in the U.S., especially if you grow up in the Bible Belt. In episode six, Blair St. Clair admitted for the first time, on national television, that her first sexual experience was rape.

Kameron Michaels, another finalist at the finale party, tells GOOD that the show is simply echoing our national mood. “There’s always been the eleganza and the show-stopping-ness on ‘Drag Race,’ but there’s so much going on in the world right now, that the raw emotions are only going to get more real,” Michaels says. “I think that’s why people are tuning in.”

In one memorable episode, Ru asked the ladies to dig deep into themselves and confront their darker selves, those inner demons which might be holding them back. This allowed for some major breakthrough moments — particularly for eventual winner Aquaria, who had to realize that some of her comments and her stoic facade were actually coming across as arrogant and self-absorbed.

“I mostly learned from the experience how to work with others better,” Aquaria tells GOOD. “I usually work alone in the city, I don’t have many friends, and I’m not the most social person, so I don’t always come off to people the way I think I come off. So being open to criticism and change is something that I’ve learned to become comfortable with. When presented with a critique of my behavior and personality, I’m very adaptive and understanding of that.”

Coach Ru

Throughout the season, Ru seemed to embrace his role as a life coach more than ever before, all while emphasizing his belief in the power of the “ministry of drag.” His message was that by sharing their own struggles in their quest for dignity and authenticity, drag queens can be role models — not just for LGBTQ youth, but for all people everywhere.

“Since day one, drag queens have been on the forefront of the LGBTQI community as leading examples,” Michaels says. “Even more so today, as we starting to struggle again as a community in a world where we may not be accepted, it’s really important to look to us to stand out and stand up for what is right because a lot of stuff’s happening now that shouldn’t be, and it’s important for us to speak up about it.”

Still, if RuPaul’s gospel is all about how anyone can make something out of nothing, the show has — perhaps unintentionally — provided viewers with one hell of a foil in Season 10 finalist Asia O’Hara.

For every time that Ru stressed personal responsibility and for the girls to understand that this was a competition which they had to play it to win, O’Hara was there to provide an alternative viewpoint. Sure, O’Hara wanted to win, but that wasn’t going to stop her from helping the other girls with their looks, even if it took time away from perfecting her own.

And in the reunion, she did what no other queen has done before her: Stand up to Mama Ru when the Vixen stormed off the set and said that all the queens were responsible for going after her, because “we are the first people to say if people aren’t treating us right.”

At the finale party, O’Hara shared what it felt like to be in that moment with RuPaul.

“That was one of the easiest moments in the competition for me because it was just me sitting and having an intelligent conversation with someone about a situation that mattered to me,” O’Hara says. “That’s most of our lives. If you see someone doing something that you don’t agree with or someone trying to get a point across that you’re not understanding, I think our natural inclination is to try and connect the pieces.”

Slaying the world

More than anything, it’s moments like this that make “Drag Race” so thrilling to watch. It demonstrated that Ru knows exactly why audiences connect with his show: Unlike other reality shows, Drag Race feels like it’s actually real.

Things get ugly and messy because life is ugly and messy.

But at the end of the day, what “Drag Race” teaches us is that no matter how many times life may knock you down, you still have to beat your face to the gods, put on that sickening wig and fierce pair of heels, and slay the world with your charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

Share image courtesy of VH1, used with permission. 

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How Emotional Realness Is The Secret To ‘Drag Race’s’ Enduring Success