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The pop culture phenomenon that is RuPaul's Drag Race, explained

A still of RuPaul from RuPaul's Drag Race
A still of RuPaul from RuPaul's Drag Race
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On the night of Monday, March 2, 2015, the ever-grateful viewing public will be treated to another season of shade-throwing drag queens who will lip-sync for their lives each week.

Yes, the seventh season of reality show RuPaul's Drag Race is about to premiere. And if history holds, the premiere will continue to grow the series' audience, feature more drag queens, and once again leave pop culture fiends with catchphrases we won't be able quit.

Despite the series' growing popularity, there are still many people who are unfamiliar with RuPaul, her queens, and nuances ... like the art of throwing shade. Let's get you caught up with one of TV's best reality shows.

Who is RuPaul?  Is there any relation to Rand or Ron?

To this date there hasn't been any confirmation or compelling evidence to suggest RuPaul is related to the Paul politicians.

Instead, RuPaul is a drag queen, model, actress recording artist, celebrity, and —

Hold it right there. What's a drag queen?

Drag can obviously mean something being pulled, or something that's a chore (e.g. emptying the dishwasher is a "drag").

But "drag" has also been adopted as a term used to refer to men or women who wear clothing that's thought to correspond with the opposite gender — some say drag is a shortening of the term "dressed as a girl", or that it came from theater-speak for men who, while wearing women's costumes, had skirts that used to drag on the floor. There's even a theory that the word came from Yiddish.

And drag queen — possibly because of the way queen has been used to identify gay people or drag's roots in theater — became the term for men who, for entertainment, artistic, or cultural purposes dress up in women's clothing. Women dressing up in men's clothing can be called drag kings. Merriam Webster says "drag queen" first started popping up in the 1940s.

While there are people of all sexualities, shapes and sizes who do drag, drag queen mostly refers to gay men who dress up as women to entertain.

How is that fun?

Well, just check out RuPaul's Drag Race. The show can be wickedly funny, and even touching at times.

"We're dealing with people who have been shunned by society and have made a life regardless of what anyone else thinks of them have decided," RuPaul told The Guardian in 2014. "[The show] shows the tenacity of the human spirit, which each of us watching relates to. And we root for them. I think that's what's so captivating about it, seeing how these beautiful creatures have managed to prevail."

Drag Race isn't the first time that drag culture has found mainstream success. Movies like Hairspray (twice, with the 2007 version reeling in $118 million), cult hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and The Birdcage ($124 million) all became hits. And Broadway producers adapted Hairspray and Kinky Boots into successful musicals. There are also a number of drag queens performing as club promoters, DJs, bingo hosts, celebrity impersonators, or even stand-up comics.

What pronouns do you use when referring to a drag queen?

That is tricky. RuPaul has, on the record said that she doesn't care what pronoun you use. "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just as long as you call me, Regis and Kathie," RuPaul writes in her biography.

On the show, the men refer to their drag personas the way actors refer to the characters they play, so it is common for the performer to refer to himself as a he, but the persona as a she. Perhaps making matters even more confusing, RuPaul refers to the men by their drag names, even when out of drag. When in doubt, it's best to ask the drag queen which term they prefer.

Are drag queens transgender?

Not generally, no, though some drag queens — including some on the show — have later come out and identify as women.

The most important thing to remember is that "drag queen" or "drag king" isn't interchangeable with transgender. Drag is primarily meant for entertaining an audience. That is very different from someone who identifies as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth.

In fact, RuPaul's Drag Race came under fire from trans people and transgender rights activists in 2014 for allegedly being transphobic. The show had a segment called "Female or She-Male" in which contestants were shown a zoomed-in body part and were made to guess whether it belonged to a drag queen or a real woman. Trans people and activists found this problematic, and in response, the producers behind the show edited out the segment.

So is the show a race of drag queens?  Like NASCAR?

As awesome as that would be, that's not quite it. There are, however, actual races that feature drag queens, like Washington D.C.'s 17th Street High Heel Race. Many people would agree watching aggressive drag queens race each other is enjoyable.

RPDR, which began in 2009, is a reality competition where drag queens from all around the country (and Puerto Rico) compete to become America's next drag superstar. RuPaul hosts and serves as one of the judges alongside Michelle Visage, a co-host on her original show, and Santino Rice, a former finalist from Project Runway.

So, it's like Survivor?

Well, it's more like Survivor than it's like NASCAR. The queens go through various tests, like costume design, standup comedy, and acting. For example, every season has an episode  where the queens show off their celebrity impersonations:

RuPaul herself says she's looking for the queen with the most charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. (If you turn that into an acronym, that gets filthy. Yes, it's on purpose.) There have been six winners — BeBe Zahara Benet, Tyra Sanchez, Raja, Sharon Needles, Jinkx Monsoon and Bianca Del Rio so far.

Each week the bottom two queens are made to "lip-sync for their lives."

Oh my god.  They kill the drag queens?

No, no. That's just an expression. No drag queens have ever been harmed during RPDR ... though there was that one time Mimi Imfurst picked up India Ferrah.

But this isn't the Hunger Games or the end of the world. However, there is heartbreak. The drag queen that performs the lesser lip-sync is told to "sashay away."

"Sashay away" sounds familiar.

It's from RuPaul's song "Supermodel" and is one of the catchphrases of the show. So there’s a chance that might be where you picked it up

How popular is the show?

In the grand scheme of television, RPDR pales in comparison to anything you'd see on network television. But it's been growing every year. The fifth season's premiere and its after show, Untucked: RuPaul's Drag Race, garnered over 1.3 million viewers and was the highest rated premiere in Logo's history.  And this season, the show's seventh, was greenlit before the show's sixth season even aired last year. And according to the AP, it's Logo's highest-rated show.

But those numbers aren't as good in the context of network television. In comparison, CBS's Big Bang Theory draws around 15 million viewers on any given Thursday night.

But despite the show's ratings, it's having a big cultural impact.


For starters, you knew about sashaying away. That's just one example of RPDR's effect on language.

Here's a Google Trends (Google's public service that allows you to see what people are searching for) chart, where I've entered two phrases that appear on the show often, "throwing shade" is the blue line, while "sashay away" is the red line:

What you'll notice, is a pronounced spike in the blue line at the end of 2009 and a spike in the red shortly after. The first episode of RPDR premiered in February of 2009, and its season finale ran in March, coinciding with the rise of "throwing shade." And both lines are now higher than they were before the show premiered.

What does "throwing shade" mean?

"Throwing shade" means a passive-aggressive or artful insult. It isn't something RuPaul invented — its origins come from 80s drag ball culture, and it is a term that was used in the South. Shade (and its many permutations) has become one of the words that found a home on the show.

There is even a dedicated episode each season where the queens are encouraged to throw shade and "read" (an insult more outright than shade) each other:

Fast forward to Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2013, and you have news outlets using their headlines to question if Michelle Obama, the first lady of the most powerful country in the world,  is throwing shade at Speaker John Boehner. "Throwing shade" was repeated enough to get a foothold in pop culture.

So watching the show might help me keep up with slang?

It can't hurt.

It's also worth watching for the contestants' creativity — expressed through their fun names and costumes. And a lot of people just watch because they think the show's contestants can be really funny.

How to do I watch it?

The new season begins on March 2 on Logo. The past seasons are also available on iTunes. Season two and six are good places to start thanks to their memorable queens and cast drama — what's nice about Drag Race is that it's relatively easy to pick up.

I think I have that channel.


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