‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ is the best show not on television

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

When I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, which is currently airing its second season on the BBC and online via World of Wonder’s paid subscription service, I’m immediately transported back to 2009. Back then, it was the series premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I was in my college dorm watching nine queerdos sashay and shantay onto the television screen — and immediately into my heart.

I grew up in a world with limited queer visibility on television, so the prospect of a show comprised entirely of queer folks — and one that celebrated their humanity and cultural contributions at that — felt seismic.

Twelve years and 20-plus seasons of the many franchises under the Drag Race umbrella later, I’m still hooked — but in an entirely different way. What was once groundbreaking feels strikingly normal. The show, in reaction to this, often feels more like an homage to its younger self, hitting familiar episodic beats and now par-for-the-course conversations about LGBTQIA+ struggles and triumphs.

Can you blame it? After so many seasons packed with so many queens with stories to tell, even nuance can begin to mollify. But that’s anything but the case on Drag Race UK, which features a crop of twelve queens (and the unseen thirteenth queens, the editors) who are all exhilarating and idiosyncratic both in and out of drag.

“The magic of Drag Race UK season 2 is found in the combination of editing, the casting and the spirit of drag in the UK — along with heart and comedy comes tragic stories, struggles, meltdowns and sharp words, of course,” Johnny Also, co-host of the Drag Race-centric podcast Alright Mary, told In The Know. “But more importantly, interesting stories that help us to get to know the performers in a quick way. I love all the performers of every cast, usually — but it takes longer to connect. This season, in just four episodes, I’ve connected with them all. That brings me joy: To connect with lots of creative queer people on my screen from different walks of life.”

The immediacy Also mentions is evident from the very first moments of the season, when the first crowned queen — the beguiling Lawrence Chaney — enters the workroom.

“I”m Scottish drag royalty,” she announces in her talking head. “Which basically means no one in England knows who I am.” Then, she let out a big, belly laugh. This moment swiftly did three things: present the ego, burst it and scoff at the notion. That’s drag!

Moments later, when contestant No. 2 Cherry Valentine entered the workroom, chop-busting was on full, elegant display.

“Where are you from?” Lawrence asks.

“Darlington,” Valentine responds.

“Do they have good teeth in Darlington? No,” Lawrence quips.

Valentine bursts into a fit of laughter. I immediately loved them both: Lawrence for the read, and Valentine for the willingness and ease to laugh at herself. That, too, is drag.

Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

Of course, there’s plenty of shade — it’s a drag competition, after all — but there’s much more beneath the surface. Take, for instance, a conversation between Asttina and fellow contestant Tayce ahead of the maxi challenge, which tasked them to emulate a British gay icon. Both had chosen Naomi Campbell.

“Growing up, there was no one that I could look up to that was Black, that was a gay icon in the UK,” Asttina explained in a talking head.

“There’s just not enough representation really, is there, for the POCs and Black culture and being gay as well?” Tayce said.

Collectively they decide that it’s their job to pave the way for the next generation. Where there was once one, together — with Campbell — they’ll be three.

In Episode 2, Lawrence reminds us of the human beneath the queen.

“Sorry, I’m probably going to get really emotional,” he says, talking through tears during rehearsal for a group competition. Viewers immediately hear, “It’s alright, babe.” Within seconds, three pairs of hands are rubbing his shoulders.

When a choreographer tells her that she’s going to think about one thing, singing and dancing (so two things), she responds, once again talking through tears: “I’m gay. I should be able to sing and dance.”

The entire room full of competitors begins applauding, affirming her. “You’ve got this,” they tell her. And she does indeed.

Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

This explicit show of acceptance was not an anomaly on the program.

“My whole life I’ve never felt comfortable in my body,” Ginny Lemon says in a talking head the next episode after RuPaul encouraged her to try a more sexy look on the runway. “I’ve found more success as a woman than I ever did as a man, and I realized that I was neither of these things. When I realized there was this whole community of nonbinary people, I was like, ‘Yes, that.’”

And that’s when a remarkable thing happens. Bimini Bon Boulash, who has been listening off to the side as Ginny shares her discomfort with Sister Sister, steps in. She grabs her hand and says, “We’re like square pegs in a circle, and how we want to self-identify isn’t up to anyone else.”

“Can I hug you now?” Ginny asks. “Of course,” Bimini says.

Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
Credit: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

It’s a kind of representation that remains uncommon: someone with a marginalized identity not often represented on television looking across the room and seeking solace in someone else through a shared lived experience. But what I especially love is how dissimilar the two are. They share little in common from what we’ve seen of them so far on the show — Ginny is a self-described “drag troll,” while Bimini describes herself as “East London’s bendiest b****.” They are so different and they are so much the same. It’s a beautiful thing.

Is it surprising that Drag Race can still find new queer stories to tell after having 200-plus queens walk into the workroom? Hardly. But it’s the spirit of these queens that’s got me teleporting to Mars.

“Of course, after twelve years of Drag Race, we’re going to see new queer stories because our collective consciousness twelve years ago about what was queer is different and visibility is different,” Johnny Also told In The Know. “We can center new stories now. We understand that omission can be perceived as betrayal and we strive to highlight, uplift and center new stories, and the nuances of queer identity.”

Perhaps what’s most groundbreaking about this season, in particular, is its ability to make what is old feel both new and fresh once more. It’s a reminder that queerness and queer storytelling can be both familiar and new.

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