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Goodbye Drag Race UK, the last good thing in the pandemic


by Holly O'Neill
18th Mar 2021

Read time: 3 minutes

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For the last ten weeks, the old Saturday feeling where divilment could happen, where fun and laughs were a possibility in the near future, has been happening on a Thursday night with Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK. In fact, everything the pandemic is missing can be found in Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK.

There is fun, glamour, make-up, fashion, laughs, gossip, celebrity appearances that don’t make you want to punch yourself in the face, music, a sense of occasion and absurdity. When another endless week has hammered you down with rising cases and longer lockdowns, Drag Race UK has been an anchor in the week, a dependable weekly jolt of joy and a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel reminder that ridiculousness and riotous fun still and will exist again.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race is the most difficult reality tv competition on television. Where other reality tv competitions expect you to be the best at posing or baking a cake, the winner of DRUK is expected to be a comedian, a singer, a dancer, an actor, talented at make-up, perfectly turned out at all times, skilled at sewing, insulting, lipsyncing and performing and to do it all with Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent, under the watchful, lashed and cut-creased eye of Ru Paul Charles, the queen of drag.

Like many industries, drag, and the nightlife that supports it, has been decimated by the pandemic. Drag Race is the world’s biggest stage for drag and ensures global notoriety for the contestants, who are often struggling performers. When Ru Paul chastised a contestant for wearing a H&M dress (while contestants dressed as an ice-cream, a seagull and a bag of chips nodded solemnly in agreement), it ignited a conversation on social media about the financial pressures drag performers are under, especially in a pandemic. When filming of the show stopped half-way through the season due to the pandemic, one of the four finalists Ellie Diamond returned to his job at McDonald’s drive-thru. So the stakes are high for everyone involved. Though not quite as high as it’s US counterpart, where prizes for a challenge can be $5,000. The prize for winning a challenge on the UK version is a Ru Peter badge.

Yet it is the UK’s rough-around-the-edges, cheaper-budget charm that brings a grittier fun than it’s glossy American counterpart. Where Americans are skilled in the reality TV script of sob stories and competitiveness, the UK approach is much softer. It’s the only reality TV show where the sob story element makes you like the contestants more, as the queens share their stories of how they became drag queens, the moments that shaped them, their family and internal struggles with who they are, the fight and prejudice they had to overcome to show up on your television, larger than life and bursting with confidence and wit in rhinestones and rouge. 

It also takes itself far less seriously, as it should, when drag, by it’s very nature, is ridiculous. 

Where the US season gets advice from Anne Hathaway on how to act, DRUK gets lessons from EastEnders’ Natalie Cassidy ahead of their scenes in their soap opera BeastEnders. Guests on Drag Race USA have included Lady Gaga, Nancy Pelosi, Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande and Whoopi Goldberg. In DRUK, with weekly guests Alan Carr and Graham Norton, the guest appearances include Dawn French, Elizabeth Hurley, Gemma Collins and Jessie Ware – meaning that the UK season perfectly understands their audience. In one episode, when Rita Ora didn’t show up to be a guest judge, she was replaced with a mannequin. In another episode, Graham Norton hosts a Drag Race Eurovision, the RuRuVision Song Contest. The winning team, United Kingdolls, reached number two in the UK music charts for their song, UK Hun? 

Tonight, either Ellie Diamond, Bimini Bon Boulash, Lawrence Chaney or Tayce will be crowned, and all should be. Each has perfected everything required of a worthy winner; biting wit, impeccable fashion, perfect make-up, Charism, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. No matter the result, Ellie Diamond needs to release an eyeshadow palette, Lawrence Cheney needs to record a stand-up special, Tayce is the next Naomi Campbell and Bimini Bon Boulash (somehow both Vinni Jones and Katie Price, but dressed in Vivienne Westwood) for president. They won’t find out themselves until it airs tonight. But without the weekly glow of their highlighters and the warmth of their self-deprecating humour, the pandemic feels that bit more gloomy. Thank you Drag Race UK for being the bedazzled silver lining of endless weeks.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK finale airs on BBC iPlayer from 7pm on March 18.

Photography by BBC.