A Cosplayer’s Look at RuPaul’s Drag Race

I have been cosplaying for over 10 years. At least 5 of those years, in my opinion, have been good. I also happen to love RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now, one would think there’s little intersection between drag and cosplay, but really, cosplay is drag for nerds and drag is a gateway for many to get into cosplay. Really, we’re doing similar things. Selling illusion and essence, punishing our bodies to fit impossible standards of beauty and expressing ourselves with fashion. 

But cosplay and being surrounded by talented fashionable people means that the drag competition show for me is at times a conflicting mess of what I like most about drag and what I hate most about cosplay.

Let’s get a few things clear off the bat. I started cosplaying in the mid-2000s and I am a person of color. So, my brand of cosplay has always been detail oriented, mostly concerned about characterization and about having fun. I’ve never been a huge prop-smith (though I’m working on it) and I’ve never been one for giant builds like a Kamui Cosplay or the like. I much rather have bought a piece than immediately be clocked. As far as drag goes, well my favorite season is probably 7 and my favorite queens are ones that hold rather rigid standards of female impersonation like Trinity the Tuck and Katya. Not that I can’t appreciate more gender non-conforming queens or less fishy queens but when it comes down to taste, I’ll take a Brooke Lynn Hytes over a Scarlet Envy any day. 


I started to give thought to how cosplay and drag intersected when watching Fashion Photo RuView with Aquaria (of season 10) and Raja (an immortal wine-drinking, pot-smoking alien goddess here to make us all better people) were discussing the runway looks of Season 11’s episode involving fringe (Willam’s favorite color). Raja clocked Yvie Oddly’s look which was a jellyfish-inspired number and Raja commented on her having seen this look before and it looked a little pedestrian for a look that was mostly body paint and a modded umbrella.

On the runway, Yvie got a lot of praise about bringing something to the runway that no one had seen before. And while I was reading the comments of mostly newer fans of Drag Race giving Raja a hard time for having an opinion, I couldn’t help but agree with my one of my favorite winners. It is pedestrian. I have seen this done before and I’ve seen this done before better. I’ve seen someone attach scrap fabric from Jo-Ann Fabrics to an umbrella: it isn’t high fashion. If a Pinterest Mom can do it for a last minute kid’s Halloween costume; a drag queen can certainly do it; and thus, it does not earn a great deal of praise to me.

This feeling of a lack of awe while watching Drag Race is not new. I remember feeling it while watching The Future of Drag episode of All-Stars Season 2. Phi Phi O’Hara decided that cosplay was a good way to bring back her fading celebrity and make her likable and when she entered All-Stars 2 as a “cosplayer” I mostly rolled my eyes. Her Riddler look was good but nothing I haven’t seen at convention and her looks were increasingly mall drag as far as I could tell. The Future of Drag runway though featured Phi Phi in a skin-tight suit and an over-sized gun. Now, I would be a contrarian if I didn’t admin that she did look cool.

And I was a little shocked about how she brought that prop with her. But again, it was nothing I have not seen from Plexi, Kamui or IBlue.  It was cool but if you’ve seen a costume contest at a big convention, you’ve seen that look. 

Now, let’s be honest, I couldn’t make that gun. I couldn’t pull off that look. I’m not bashing Phi Phi, I’m just saying my wig was not gone, I was not snatched, I was not gagged. It was a look, it was a look I’ve seen before for years now. That doesn’t make it any less artful or beautiful, just that it takes a little of the luster off the diamond from my point of view. 

Another example of where cosplay knowledge meant that certain aspects of Drag Race were a little less than stellar was with Nina Bonina Brown. Nina was famed for being a makeup artist and could transform her face using makeup and paper.

Now, she’s talented and sickening in her own way but again, after years of being on the con circuit and seeing makeup tutorial after makeup tutorial…a paper peach does not rare talent make. After awhile, her gimmick wore thin for me, especially as other parts of her drag became repetitive: again I found myself agreeing with Raja and Manila when they said, we see what she can do and now a skull or a painted face is not enough. I, like the two immortal fashion goddesses, wanted more from her after seeing what Nina had to offer week after week.

Drag Race also echoes a lot of conversations said in the cosplay community: questions around whether you’re still a cosplayer if you don’t “make” your own costumes. The argument that if you don’t make every part of your costume thus invalidating your work is very real but I do think when it comes to Drag Race it’s a little different. I remember that talk on Season 9 with Farrah Moan and Kimora Blac being on one side of the “ugly girls make their own clothes” argument and Trinity and Shea and literally almost everyone else asserted that it is important to know how to sew to be a drag queen. I think once you make it to the show, you should know how to sew. But if you’re fine being a showgirl, I’m not here to judge. I know I don’t sew that well and you could not pay me to sew a dress from a pattern but that’s okay, that’s what online shopping is for. However, if I were to enter a cosplay contest, I would make as many pieces as possible. 

This can be said about a lot of the looks on Drag Race for me. I particularly notice when bodices don’t fit because not all queens wear breastplates anymore or when boy body is showing because not all queens pad or cinch in their waists as aggressively as others. Makeup, too, catches my eye but in a funny way. I find that I bring more makeup skills from drag queens into cosplay. For instance, I started wearing a lot more highlighter to really catch the eye when appropriate. I also contour more and I’m more aware of blending my wigs with a nice line of concealer. 

I’d be a liar if I didn’t mention that Drag Race inspires me. Seeing drag as the elevated and mainstream art form that it is makes me want to be better. Seeing costumes and wigs and makeup done so masterfully makes me want to be better. Seeing people living their authentic life in such an idealized and colorful skin makes me want to be my very best. 

But when the judges fawn over looks and hair and trends that I’ve been seeing from my brothers and sisters in craft for decades, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. RuPaul is a beacon of excellence in drag but to see her so out of touch at times when it comes to fashion (just in regards to fashion in this post) is sort of tragic. She has to see some of the looks at conventions across America. She has to see Instagram. She has to be aware that fabric on an umbrella avant garde does not make. 

I will never discredit the work the queens of Drag Race do. I will never knock the work my brothers and sisters in craft do. But being aware of the parts of the reality TV show that are a little less than gag-worthy after seeing so many talented people for so many years was an exercise worth going through.

To Court the Cultural Muse

 

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive

I’m a cosplayer by trade. I often adapt and acquire clothes I wouldn’t normally wear from people that I am clearly not and masquerade in their skin for a brief time before I remove it and return to my own skin. Cosplay is in its purest form theater, pageantry and magic. It’s also in a weird way cultural appropriation. I’ve been on a recent kick about worrying over my status of stealing a culture that isn’t mine and I’ve been working through it and we’ll get to that but for now, humor me.

Cosplay as cultural appropriation? C’mon.

If you see a person with a Native American headdress at Coachella, do you not roll your eyes and groan? Find someone running around dressed like “A Celtic Priestess” at a Ren Faire? You probably don’t have many good things to say about them. Chubby black girl running around in a yukata?

Wait, what?

When I go back over my cosplay history I’ve been a shrine maiden, a Buddhist monk and a priest, I’ve been a schoolgirl from at least 2 or 3 different schools and I have put on plenty of other various cultural costumes and pieces from kimonos to yukatas and had to wrap an obi around my waist so tight I could die. There’s been plenty of talk of cultural costumes as cultural appropriation: it pops up around Halloween when plenty of kids run around dressed as “geisha” in a way too sexy for their age costume in a way not appropriate for various reasons costumes.

By now you probably think I’m rambling: I clearly had no issue wearing these outfits in high school so why the damn fuss? I dislike and resist wearing them now. I won’t put on another shrine maiden costume. I won’t wear another kimono casually. I just think it’s disrespectful and that’s my opinion. I won’t judge anyone else. I just personally think that I am old enough to no longer wear cultural artifacts that are not mine in that way.

Another place this topic on inquiry comes up for me is tartans. Now, I am passionate about plaids: I’m a former Catholic schoolgirl after all. I adore the Royal Stewart the most but I know my fair share of popular tartans and color schemes. Is it right for me to knowingly wear a tartan of a clan I do not belong to? Well, that may be a bit excessive: just because I can place a tartan doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible to me but it does mean I won’t be LARPing as William Wallace any time soon. These are of serious cultural significance and to diminish their honor and cultural importance would be disrespectful. But that basically won’t ever stop me from wearing plaid because I feel like it.  

 

Let’s talk about military uniforms: a beloved favorite and a common cosplay item. Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan and many others feature an alternate universe’s uniform so no harm no foul. What about Axis Powers: Hetalia? If you dress up at Germany or Prussia or even Japan: whose costumes are all based off of national, imperial or historical military uniforms is that appropriation? Probably: hence why I won’t cosplay as any of them and for others reasons you can find out about here and the more important aspect of cosplaying especially Germany, Prussia or Japan is that you’re wearing a uniform based on something worn during the 1930s and 1940s and that is a time period that still echoes painfully through the ages.

I think I’ve already spent way more time talking about something I barely like other people mentioning and this is a good time to point out that my opinions are my own and you are more than welcome to disagree with me: hell, I disagree with me sometimes. I’ll leave you with something my friend said to me: she’s a historian and when I showed her my “cultural appropriation sins” she said something very profound: as long as your work comes from a place of respect, it’s okay. As long as it’s done with respect. That won’t stop me from appreciating great cosplay when it see it. Styling cosplay whenever I can and having a great time in costume: just not dressed as a shrine maiden anytime soon.

 

 

The Lessons from A-Kon 2016

-So if I'm Fuudo, then that means Carlos is Infiltration and Ricky is Xian.-

I have returned from A-Kon and it was the most bittersweet time at a convention that I can think of in recent memory. Here are a few musings during my time paneling, cosplaying and being with friends: both old and new and some people that I much rather just avoid.

  • There is nothing like eating white cake and watching Django Unchained.
  • Paneling is still honestly the most rewarding and fantastic thing I have done in my young life.
    • Having fans and people listening is absolutely amazing and I hope to keep doing it for as long as I am able.
  • Swimming is a fantastic way to unwind.
  • Hot tubs are in fact magical.
  • Mackerel is really really delicious.
    • Let’s just say that this weekend I sorta just turned into Haruka Nanase.
  • Having a bedroom to yourself as a lady, cosplayer and introvert is a fantastic luxury.
  • Always save your presentation on your desktop and flash drive.
  • Bonding over webcomics and music is absolutely amazing.
  • Patience is a virtue: my friends have a lot of nonsense to put up with being my friend so I did have to learn to support my friends despite not being as invested in the activity as they were.
  • Cosplay dogs are the best.
    • It’s even better when you see the same cosplay dog two years in a row.
  • Jurassic World is a hot pile of NOPE.
  • Teen Titans vs. Justice League can not be saved by Sailor Moon transformation sequences.
    • And despite Damien Wayne being an insufferable brat, he has every right to feel that way. You do you, Damien.
  • As a former Sebastian, getting a hug from Ciel is actually kinda cosplayer cool.
  • Teaching Drag lingo to someone is an arduous task.
  • A girl in a Trump hat may call you a social justice warrior: she may just be right and that isn’t a bad thing.
  • Friendships aren’t about understanding everything: it’s about support.
  • I absolutely do not understand Gundam model building but I will gladly accept the hobby being explained to me.
  • Meeting other panelists is amazing.
  • Street Fighter is pretty awesome and Karin is the best.
  • Convention tournaments are amazingly fun.
  • Free breakfast is fine but paying for a Dutch Baby was worth the money.
  • Backstreet Boys are best heard at 1 AM.
  • Being recognized as a panelist and a pretty low-rent one is kinda a terrifying feeling.
    • Like I am legit not famous so for people to say “Hey, I remember you from last year.” out of like THOUSANDS of people they saw LAST YEAR is insane to me.
  • I have apparently a very intense angry face that can strike fear into the hearts of men from several feet away.
    • This face was apparently more angry than the AoT potato proposal anger face.
      • You are welcome to ask about that reference later
  • Blackberry ginger ale should not taste like grape but for some reason it does.
  • Shopping at  Tom Thumb at midnight is pretty fun but the rabbi there shopping for last minute items will judge you terribly on your choices to frolic through the aisles looking for s’mores-making materials.
  • Tastemade Japan has clearly gone too far by hollowing out a bread loaf, filling it with meat sauce, broccoli and potato then cracking an egg over it and covering the bread’s edges in mayonnaise.
    • You must be stopped, Tastemade Japan. You have gone mad with power.
  • Do not try to ride the hotel elephants.
  • Dim Sum is best when with a group and when you try new things.
    • But also eat lots of the things you love.
      • Also do not touch my pineapple buns.
  • Drama may happen but what matters is how you respond to drama.
  • Don’t be afraid to stand your ground: if someone makes you feel terrible, you do NOT have to put up with that noise.
  • Having a CVS within walking distance to the hotel is fantastic.
  • You can in fact make a cake with just two ingredients.
  • Do not do your makeup in the dark.
  • I look forward to the day that I stop being my screen or badge name to many and start being “Amanda”.
  • Fuudo apparently looks a lot like Japan from Hetalia.
  • Conventions absolutely can take you out of anime and fandoms in general.
    • Conventions are intense and they remind all of us that our fandoms are FULL of people we don’t exactly like getting to know or see.
      • To that point, it did remind me that there’s A LOT I still have to learn about modern fandoms and fan culture.
  • Team Razer forever, though.
    • And to that point despite me being a HUGE advocate of E-sports I for the life of me do not understand watching people play a game that you yourself own.
      • Zero judgement, I just don’t get it.

I said earlier that this convention was bittersweet. I had some of my biggest panel turns out and some very light drama but it was drama that I think I learned from the most. I learned so much about myself and patience and understanding things that just aren’t my thing. I had to learn that friends will make choices you don’t get. That support means support no matter what. Hype is what you make of it. And it’s always rough leaving a friend behind. I won’t forget this one. I won’t forget the applause in my panels. The costumes I saw. The costumes I wore. The bus trip there and the bus trip back. Being angry at paying for getting my car back but being so happy to unpack my loot, stash my costumes and just get ready for the next one: there’s always a next one. The show must go on and I’m always excited to be on stage and then get off the stage again. Paneling is amazing: the thrill is fantastic but learning and being around others is even better. I’m happy to be back and I’m looking forward to my next convention…but for now I need some hot tea and a nap.