Gareth Smith takes a look at RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season Two, and the entrance of the hugely popular show’s first Welsh contestant.
Only two weeks into 2021 and the news cycle is already filled with rocketing coronavirus cases, a far-right insurrection in the White House and the hard realities of Brexit beginning to hit home. In such an endless sea of misery, programmes like RuPaul’s Drag Race are a godsend. The UK version of the hugely popular competition to find a new drag superstar provides escapism, spectacle and laughter when they are desperately needed.
The first season, broadcast in 2019, could easily have been a disaster. The original show began as a tongue-in-cheek parody of America’s Next Top Model but has quickly grown into a reality TV behemoth, attracting an ever-growing legion of fans and spawning new franchises every few months. The American format, with an emphasis on high fashion, poise and unshakeable confidence, might have struggled to thrive in a country whose drag style is perhaps best encapsulated by Lily Savage. Luckily, the show proved adaptable enough to embrace a British sensibility. The luxury prizes won by stateside contestants were replaced by tacky ‘RuPeter badges’ while the show abounded with sarcastic humour and references to homegrown pop culture.
Based on the first episode, the second series has maintained and built upon this successful formula. Last time, the competitors were critiqued for not being sufficiently representative of UK drag and season two acknowledges this with a cast that is more racially, regionally and gender diverse. While reality TV shows usually select clear ‘early outs’ to thin the herd, it is genuinely difficult to work out which queens are destined to ‘sashay away’ first from this cohort.
As soon as the contestants have arrived and made their required snappy entrance lines, they are whisked off to a bizarre challenge which continues the tradition of relying on national stereotypes for inspiration. This time it is a Wimbledon photo shoot, giving the queens plenty of opportunities to crack jokes as balls fly at their faces. It is the sort of irreverence that RuPaul’s Drag Race UK does so well and allows the most quick-witted among the cast to shine. The main challenge asks the queens to prepare two looks for the runway: a tribute to a British gay icon and an outfit representative of their hometown. This produces some interesting results, both good and bad. Tia Kofi presents a comically misjudged tribute to Alan Turing which involves wearing a binary-print suit and a green wig, while Ellie Diamond unveils a PVC take on Dennis the Menace that looks surprisingly impressive. In what other television show would such a sentence be possible?
The ‘gay icon’ category also allows for some important discussion, as Tayce and Asttina Mandella reveal they both chose Naomi Campbell due to a dearth of black and queer public figures. While this is perhaps bias showing, Welsh queen Tayce seems like an obvious front-runner in the competition. As well as being both polished and confident, she also provides the engaging talking-head content that usually signals a contestant will be sticking around for a while. It is also great to see her bring the Welsh flag to the runway, even if the judging panel don’t seem particularly impressed. The judges have long ceased to be the draw of the show, but RuPaul, Michelle Visage and Graham Norton all provide the expected quips and puns as the contestants show off their looks. Guest Liz Hurley initially delivers her observations as though she’s being forced to at gunpoint, but eventually relaxes and develops a rapport with some of the queens.
The evaluations provided by the judges seem arbitrary, with some excellent looks dismissed and pedestrian ones praised to the hilt. The fact that the rankings seem nonsensical – and that, arguably, the wrong person is eliminated – will be nothing new to regular viewers of drag race but, as with much of the show, it is more enjoyable to go along for the ride than pick the experience apart.
The Drag Race franchise is certainly not the queer utopian show that it is sometimes presented as in the media, having weathered several controversies involving its lack of transgender contestants and the racial biases of its fanbase. It does, however, remain one of the few shows on television which unabashedly celebrates queer culture and repeatedly places a spotlight on LGBT+ history. Last night’s show, for example, referenced the fiftieth anniversary of the Gay Liberation Front and Drag King Vesta Tilley, thereby allowing its audience to get out their smart phones and learn more about them. RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is by no means perfect, but it is an excellent showcase for British drag and looks set to provide ideal distraction from the doom and gloom elsewhere on our screens over the next few weeks.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season Two is available now on iPlayer.