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.

I Call Her “Mother”

_A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, an.png

My Mother is a 6’7’’ statuesque, African-American blonde woman who is an Emmy-winner television host and award-winning singer, model and actress.

Now, for those of you who know me and my family: you are probably confused on a few things when it comes to that statement. Firstly, my mom was short with dark hair and my mom is currently in her eternal rest.  

My Mother is RuPaul and today we’re going to talk about how important it is for so many queer people to have a person that they can call “Mother”.

Some background: I have been watching Drag Race since Season 4 (which was around the time the dinosaurs still roamed). And back then, I was a high school student and still fairly in the closet. Any time I tried to discuss such a nuanced topic I was told that I was either just confused or seeking attention. So my enjoyment of Drag Race was mostly for the drama, extravagant costumes and the music.

And in the years since Season 4, my opinions on the show have shifted. And those shifts have also been related to some of my feelings with the LGBT community, my own personal identity and how Mama Ru herself has softened in her age.

Now, some history on RuPaul Charles. Mama Ru did not spring forth from the cleavage of Michelle Visage in the early 2000s. RuPaul made her name as a model, performer and entertainer in the 1980s and 1990s. For a while, you probably saw her everywhere but you’d likely never attach the majestic woman to the equally handsome man. Many likely didn’t even know that Ru was biologically male for many of those early years and many just never questioned the unnaturally tall beautiful model. In the 1990s and 2000s, RuPaul could be seen as a guest on many television shows: she was even on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, for heaven’s sake.

RuPaul started her drag Hunger Games in 2009 and the show did…fine? It was fine. Not many got to see the mythical first season and things didn’t really pick up until Seasons 2 and 3. All the while, RuPaul the person was just that: she had stopped a few of her cameo appearances and while she was still making music: her biggest role was as host to the show. She didn’t have much of a public presence and didn’t weigh in on the political matters pertaining the LGBT community. She had an empire to build.

This seemed to shift around Season 4: a season that famously had a challenge that centered around the theme of “Hope Floats” in honor of the brave LGBT members we lost during the Stonewall Riots. During that episode, many of the older drag queens took their time to explain to the younger queens that drag isn’t just about going on the Internets and looking fish: it is political and was not always socially accepted. It was moving hearing Latrice Royale and Chad Michaels discuss drag herstory to younger queens who only saw the art of drag as a means to celebrity.

And from Season 4 on: Ru only got more political. Her music has always been a jab at current politics and policies and when marriage equality passed in 2015: she and the show celebrated. But the show continued to face issues that mirrored the LGBT community.  While per season, at least one queen came out as a trans woman: the show didn’t really know how to handle a trans woman who still is a drag queen or what that line even is between gender identity and playing a woman for tips. Ru famously stayed quiet on such matters for years and we didn’t get an open and proud trans woman as a queen until Peppermint in Season 9.

But the transformation hit around the time of the Pulse Massacre. In 2016: a domestic terrorist took aim at a pinnacle of the Florida LGBT community and many lives were tragically lost. There was the RuPaul that many of us have come to know: vocal, angry and an advocate for LGBT people of all ages, races and creeds. Famously, during an awards show, RuPaul came on stage to discuss the shooting and said proudly “Don’t f*ck with my family.” It’s a moment that still brings a tear to my eyes watching the proud figure we always needed take shape. She gave a platform to queens to tell their stories: most seasons now feature new queens and older ones because the younger girls seem to have all forgotten their herstory. She brings together mostly diverse types of queens, though they do often skew towards her own tastes: she favors dancers, models and the occasional comedy queen.

Drag has been inherently political for as long as there has been drag and RuPaul is very aware of that. So she has now been spending her time using her voice and platform to build up queens, queers and other members of the LGBT family while also being very careful with how and who she supports. She quickly shunned Willam Belli after he was outed as a bit of a transphobe and was quick to disregard PhiPhi O’Hara after her bullying and diva behavior: but she did accept PhiPhi back into her loving arms after the drama queen PhiPhi pulled queens together for several benefit shows.

And over time, around the start of Season 5-6, we started seeing a change in Ru herself. She started referring to herself as “Mother” more and more. Now, for drag queens, you often do have a drag mother. Your Drag Mother is the person who teaches you how to tuck, gets you gigs and makes sure no one steals your tips. This role is not one to be taken lightly, think of it like a Gay Fairy Godmother. For so many LGBT folks, family is not always just the one you were born into. Family often means the people that add value to your life and it is often times a family that you choose. Which is why it’s so important to have someone public facing, ideal and supportive. In her…older age, Mama Ru is supportive, kind, loving but still unafraid to tell it like it is. It’s inspiring to have someone like that to look up to at any age: someone willing to tell you to love yourself because they know how hard that can be.

And it is because of that, I am proud to call Ru “mother”.

 

At the Intersection of Fish and Fab

 

“And now, I'm just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time.” ― Lady Gaga.jpgThis may be a surprise to literally no one but I love drag culture. And while I have my issues with the LGBT community and even my issues with RuPaul’s Drag Race, I am proud to call Ru “Mother” and I love the roots and history behind what drag is today. I love the steps between Tandi Dupree and Sasha Velour. I love that when faced with a mainstream culture that would not yield that so many LGBTQ folks just built their own culture. And while drag culture has been influential it has only recently been mainstream. All of that mainstream limelight has now become an influence to so many other creators. So today I want to talk about cosplay, fashion and how I connect to being a better cosplayer and person through drag, music and high art.

I love fashion. Clearly. I cosplay. You don’t get into cosplay and not want all eyes on you. And that being said I also do love fashion in general. It’s no wonder that Paradise Kiss is one of the few shojo animes I can tolerate. I love watching a good garment come together. I love the styling and the efforts people have to do so an outfit comes together. I’ve been watching a lot of Marco Marco shows online. Marco Marco is a designer who specializes in men’s underwear and leggings but that also extends to conceptual dresses and avant-garde body pieces. If you’ve never seen a Marco Marco show, you should. Like seriously, it’s all on Youtube. Just watch one. I’ll wait.

Are you done? Awesome, back to the show. I love the way that Marco Marco plays with gender, body shape and uses elements so foundational to the LGBT culture like voguing and ballroom couture as parts of his show. The way music plays into every show and every look is pivotal. But you already know that since you watched at least one show now, right?

But let’s take a step back. Let’s go back to a simpler time. Let’s go back to the 70s. Voguing in the drag community is a dance style. Depending on who you ask Madonna did it first but most drag mothers will say she took it from the drag scene. And it’s exactly what you think it is. It’s serving fierce looks and fierce dancing mostly with your hands and arms but a good Vogue routine should be a full body experience. Think disco ParaPara. And being able to pull a look together that you could lip sync and serve face to was vitol and influenced drag culture for decades. Things didn’t get impractical until the Club Kid era in the 80s-90s. And that has continued even now. We’ve seen mainstream fashion take cues from drag and LGBT icons like Grace Jones and RuPaul. We’ve seen fashion shows become pop culture spectacles again as opposed to these haughty affairs for the upper crust. The way music plays into fashion is huge for me and as a kid who grew up with things like DanceDance Revolution and ParaPara where your clothing can actually impact your score. ParaPara is what got me to always end in a pose when it comes to cosplay and having to remember that your gender affects your score in ParaPara links it back to music, fashion and form. There’s nothing like cosplaying while dancing and having your friends cheer you on or egg you on so you either graciously succeed or comedically fail.

Fashion’s a tricky subject for a girl like me. At my smallest I was still plus-sized and I did my best to dress my body and dress to my tastes which is always something in between sailing in Martha’s Vineyard and prep who probably took your boyfriend in sophomore year to androgynous vaguely edgy but somehow still preppy bog creature. My style has evolved some from high school to college to young professional. But drag has always inspired me. Playing with shape and proportion. And despite how plain my exterior can be, I do have a serious passion for fashion. I love Project Runway and shows like it but more importantly my heart always comes back to RuPaul’s Drag Race.  The way big girls dress themselves and the way the majority of these biological men can use the power of clothing and makeup to transform into women that are not gonna lie prettier than me.

Needless to say, I watch a lot of Drag Race when I’m working on costumes. It’s good background noise and the beats of the music and the sounds of men as women fighting over who wore it well. And all the while RuPaul’s encouraging words keep me steadily sewing and painting within the lines when required. And when I have to sit down and think about it, I am so inspired by these fashionistas and trendsetters when I work on my costumes. I want to be a better makeup artist because I can see what Kim Chi can do. I want to style and put pieces together because I know Latrice Royale can style her body so well. I want to conquer my anxiety and perfectionism because I know Katya can and did get over hers. I look up to Violet Chacki and Raja for how well they can serve face and I think about that every time I overdraw my highlight line or don’t go far enough with my eye shadow.

We all have plenty of different inspirations and drag and fashion happen to be two of mine. I work hard to be a better cosplayer because I know Mother Ru would want me to. RuPaul is like my patron saint of fashion, a statuette of her sits on my mantle that I have to provide offerings of thread, lace, ribbon and glittered candles. Drag motivates me to try dyeing fabric and painting my nails even though I’m wearing gloves. Drag motivates me to be more aware of my accessories in and out of cosplay. And when you look good, you feel good. And when you feel good, you let that light show to the rest of the world.