clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

11 moments that took RuPaul’s Drag Race from scrappy underdog to pop culture behemoth

Nine years and more than 100 drag queens later, the show has become a glorious, unstoppable force.

The cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10: Aquaria, Asia O’Hara, Eureka O’Hara, Miz Cracker, Blair St. Clair, Mayhem Miller, The Vixen, Dusty Ray Bottoms, Monet XChange, Yuhua Hamasaki, Vanessa Mateo, Kalorie K. Williams, Kameron Michaels, and Monique Hear
The cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10(!), including fan faves Eureka O’Hara and Aquaria, has a lot to live up to.

When RuPaul’s Drag Race first hit TV in a burst of glitter and acid wit, it was an unprecedented, defiant shot of queer joy. But nine years and more than 100 drag queens later, it’s become a bona fide pop culture institution that shows zero signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Drag Race premiered on the small, queer-friendly network Logo in 2009 before making a leap in 2017 to the far more visible VH1 network for season nine, a progression that helps explain its general upward cultural trajectory. (Its landmark 10th season premieres Thursday night, just a week after the franchise’s third All Stars season wrapped.) Drag Race alums rack up fans and gigs once they’re off the show, with many appearing at the surreal spectacle that is RuPaul’s DragCon to meet and greet under the harsh lights of an enormous convention center.

For as much a behemoth as Drag Race has become, it started out as a scrappy, deliciously weird show that prized beauty and brains with a parity unlike that of any other reality competition show. Its queens, handpicked by host and supermodel of the world RuPaul, ripped into the competition (and sometimes one another) with gravity-defying wigs, ego-slicing shade, and lip syncs sizzling with so much fire that they threatened to burn down the runway.

So what made Drag Race the innovation that it was, and what’s kept it alive long enough to turn into an institution? We dove back into the archives and our memories to find the 11 moments that explain Drag Race’s success, defining nearly a decade of beautiful, genre-bending, deliriously smart TV.

Season 1: a contestant finds the strength to come out as HIV-positive

The first season of Drag Race was a strange, experimental, dubiously filtered creature. No one really knew what to expect from a reality competition full of drag queens, and it sometimes felt as though RuPaul and the powers that be were making it all up as they went.

One of the things that Ru and her producers wanted to do, though, was show the humanity behind these larger-than-life personalities, and Drag Race found that in its fourth episode with the MAC Viva Glam Challenge. All the queens were asked what makes them a MAC Viva Glam Woman, and Ongina revealed that she was living with HIV and had to reconcile the fear of the disease with the courage to not let that fear stifle her light and her life.

“I’m a Mac Viva Glam woman because like you and many others, I care,” Ongina said. “Educate, Donate & Celebrate, because life is a celebration!”

Ongina’s moment was a glimpse into the humanity of Drag Race and how it can connect us with people who we might otherwise not have the opportunity to.

Season 2: hello, hello, hello, Snatch Game!

After ironing out the kinks of its first season, Drag Race settled down in season two and introduced what quickly became the most anticipated challenge of any season: Snatch Game. Named for and modeled after Match Game — RuPaul is an unapologetic game show nerd — the challenge makes contestants hone a celebrity look and impression and crack irreverent jokes while staying on their toes.

The first Snatch Game shows that it’s a tricky challenge with scattered results — but it’s still fun as hell to watch the queens try on a new persona for size. (In season two, the underrated future All Star Tatianna won playing an oblivious Britney Spears blinking happily from underneath a fedora.) Impressions since have ranged from the obvious (Cher) to the unexpected (Bjork) to the brilliant (Little Edie), but a decent rule of thumb is that someone who can ace Snatch Game is someone who can win Drag Race.

Season two’s Snatch Game wasn’t exactly the best version of the challenge ever — an honor that belongs to season six, don’t @ us — but as the challenge’s debut, it belongs in the Drag Race hall of fame nonetheless.

Bonus round: the library is open

One of the highlights of each season is the “Reading Is Fundamental” mini challenge, which takes place in the workroom with the contestants out of drag and throwing on fabulous glasses to shade their fellow queens. RuPaul invites the queens to give their competition the most savage reads or eloquent insults they can come up with. Nothing — looks, brains, personality, etc. — is off limits. Growing up gay often times mean growing a thick skin and acerbic wit to combat ignorant bullies, and the reading challenge feels like the natural extension of that. To that end, please enjoy Jujubee’s read of Tyra’s lack of dental work in season two, which belongs in the savagery hall of fame.

Season 3: “I never needed a sugar daddy” becomes the rant heard ’round the Drag Race world

Drag Race is a reality competition where the male cast is asked to perform superhuman feats and receive brutal criticism while their genitalia is tucked and taped into crevices of their bodies. Naturally, in this irritable state, confrontations do occur. And no confrontation is more legendary than that of Shangela and Mimi Imfurst during Untucked, a bonus backstage look at the anxious queens awaiting the verdicts from the judges.

A little background: The challenge was outer space-inspired, and Mimi made a comment about not looking like the other “5,000 Judy Jetson hookers on the runway.” We are not up to the latest in futuristic prostitution trends, but apparently this was an insult to which Shangela took offense. Adding fuel to the fire, Mimi then accused Shangela of having a sugar daddy (to ostensibly pay for outfits Mimi deemed reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera sex worker). And then the most magical confrontation in all of Drag Race happened.

Shangela went off:

Time out, hold up. Hold up, sweetheart. Let’s get it together before you wanna read. I don’t have a sugar daddy, sweetheart. Everything that I’ve had, I’ve worked for, and I worked for to get and I’ve built myself. So you need to know that, 100 percent. I don’t have a sugar daddy, I’ve never had a sugar daddy. If I wanted a sugar daddy, yes, I probably can go out and get one, because I AM WHAT? SICKENING. You could never have a sugar daddy because you are NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL. Baby, everything I’ve had I worked for, and I’ve gotten myself. I built myself from the ground up, FUCKING BITCH!

Legend has it that if you say “Judy Jetson hooker” in the mirror three times, Shangela appears and throws a vodka drink at you.

Season 4: the show settles into a rhythm — and finds itself a villain

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that season four is when Drag Race figured out exactly what it wanted to be. And it found one of the show’s most loathsome villains in Phi Phi O’Hara, who displayed a deadly combination of over-earnestness about the show and a blazing lack of self-awareness. The result was a queen who was a completely ruthless competitor without ever realizing how she came off.

What truly set off Phi Phi was the presence of Willam, a savvy competitor with a dry sense of humor. Willam knew how to push Phi Phi’s buttons, and that she did, clowning the too-serious Phi Phi more times than one can count. But the real drama of the season came when Phi Phi had to lip sync for her life against Sharon Needles, another bitter rival whom Phi Phi infamously told to “go back to Party City, bitch.”

With the threat of elimination hanging over her head, Phi Phi unleashed on Willam backstage while the judges deliberated, uncorking an unhinged rant about fairness, rules, and talent while being completely oblivious to how wretched she was behaving (all while wearing a halo).

Adding to the tension, Phi Phi and Sharon “Party City” Needles still had to lip-sync. Then in a dramatic twist after the lip sync, RuPaul revealed that Willam broke the rules of competition and disqualified her instead (we would later find out it was because her husband visited her during the competition). After stress-vomiting onstage, Willam left the competition and Sharon and Phi Phi were both safe — but not before the show found itself a villain worth rooting against.

Season 5: “Lip-sync for your life” takes on a whole new meaning

Since season five featured some of the most memorable queens in the show’s history, it stands to reason that it also featured some of its best and most jaw-dropping lip syncs. On the one hand, we want to give the title of Most Game-Changing Lip Sync to season-long rivals Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese going up against each other, as was prophesied in the book of Reality Show Drama 101. But as long as we’re explaining the legacy of this show, we have to go with Roxxxy Andrews seamlessly whipping one wig off during “Whip My Hair” to reveal another waiting underneath, a move that’s been imitated on Drag Race many times since.

Though Roxxxy as a competitor mostly trafficked in bitter insecurity, this iconic moment snatched the wigs off every judge and set a standard for lip syncs that countless have others tried to beat, and sometimes even succeeded.

Season 6: teamwork makes the drag dream work

Picking a moment from season six was one of the harder things we’ve had to do, thanks to a sharp-as-acrylic-nails cast and some truly choice meltdowns.(Again: Check out this season’s Snatch Game if you haven’t, because only on Drag Race will Judge Judy and Anna Nicole Smith share a stage.) But as long as we’re talking about quintessential moments, we might as well talk about one of the best friendship storylines the show’s ever had.

Veteran queen Bianca Del Rio knew she had the crown the second she first sashayed into the workroom, especially because her standup comedy background made her unparalleled in the art of split-second dragging. She suffered no bullshit, but her security with herself and her place in the competition led her to become a mentor of sorts to Adore Delano, a promising young queen with a “don’t give a fuck” energy that snapped like bubblegum onscreen.

So while Bianca lending Adore a waist cincher doesn’t seem like a huge deal, it was a genuinely touching moment that underscored a common Drag Race refrain: While this might be a competition, sisterhood is forever.

Season 7: the Youth versus the “Bitter Old Lady Brigade”

After the high of season six, season seven was kind of an underwhelming bummer (and not just because it prematurely and somewhat inexplicably eliminated Katya, one of the strangest and wittiest queens the show’s ever had). But it’s also a crucial one so far as understanding Drag Race’s evolution goes, because this is the season in which Drag Race made an overt play to capture the Youth audience.

The end of the season saw a stark divide between queens at the beginning of their careers (Violet Chachki, Pearl) versus queens who, by their own snarky description, made up the “Bitter Old Lady Brigade” (Kennedy Davenport, Ginger Minj, Mrs. Kasha Davis, Jasmine Masters).

The 21-year-old Violet eventually pulled out the win, mostly thanks to her stunning runway looks, but the show pushed that youth-versus-experience narrative hard. (It’s not a coincidence that the first DragCon — an all-ages event swarming with teens — happened right before the season seven finale aired.) This holds especially true for 24-year-old Pearl, a low-energy beauty queen with a healthy Instagram following who sleepwalked her way to the top three. To understand just how confusing that success was, keep in mind that she once responded to RuPaul challenging her to step up and staring her down with an unblinking, “do I have something on my face?” and somehow came out alive.

Season 8: a deeply personal runway shows the power of drag as artistic expression

After the confusion of season seven, season eight came out swinging with comedy queens (that Empire challenge!) and shattering lip syncs (Chi Chi goddamn DeVayne!). But one competitor outshone the rest in the art of creating beautiful looks that, years later, are still seared into our brains.

What Kim Chi can do with makeup is nothing short of a miracle, and her imaginative runway looks kept her at the top of the season’s pack even though her endearing clumsiness didn’t do her any favors in performances. But she outdid herself with three beautiful, personalized looks for the Book Ball (a triple runway challenge) that doubled as her life story, with all the joy and heartbreak it entails.

Kim Chi in her drag hanbok.

As Kim Chi revealed during the season, her conservative Korean mother didn’t know she was gay, let alone a drag queen. So when she stepped out on the runway in a gorgeous twist on a traditional hanbok, inspired by her mother, the awed gasp from the judges as she shuffled down the runway was a perfectly understandable reflex.

The only way she could top it was with what she came out wearing next: a spectacular flower dress made of twisted book pages, as joyous as the hanbok was mournful. With these looks, Kim Chi told an entire story of longing and hope, proving just how powerful drag can be.

Bonus round: All Stars 2 perfects reality show drama

Drag Race’s first and third All Stars seasons were disappointments, but All Stars 2 was great enough for both of them. With a cast including Alyssa Edwards, Phi Phi, Katya, and Tatianna, the cast was talented as hell and knew exactly the game they were playing, and what the fans outside the show have come to expect from them.

What followed was a stellar, startlingly self-aware season of TV that took what everyone loved about the contestants the first time and cranked it up to 11. But a legendary lip sync can’t beat the moment when post-elimination shit-talking turned into a hilarious horror show, as the workroom mirror revealed itself to be a two-way mirror — with the eliminated queens glowering in all their glamorous fury behind it. If ever Drag Race had a chef’s-kiss moment, this was it.

Season 9: Sasha Velour wins by killing the lip sync reveal dead

This season, the first to air on VH1, took the Drag Race we knew and loved and gave it a high-gloss finish. There were still some choice moments that looked like the messy Drag Race of yore, like Aja reading Valentina with a “you’re perfect, you’re beautiful” speech dripping with disdain, or Valentina’s downfall when she asked to keep a mask on during a lip sync to hide the fact that she didn’t remember the words. For the most part, though, season nine was a production that smoothed the show’s rougher edges to make it a slicker version of what it used to be.

One change that worked far beyond maybe even the show’s own expectations was how it approached the finale. The end of Drag Race seasons had become letdowns, with the show attempting to avoid spoilers by taping multiple possible endings in front of a live audience, sucking all the energy out of the win. So for season nine, the show upended its structure, with RuPaul declaring that the top four would lip-sync against one another, bracket-style, in order to win the crown.

This is how season-long frontrunner Shea Coulee ended up losing to her friend Sasha Velour, a Brooklyn artist who had never lip-synced on the show before and ended up stunning the audience with two impeccable performances that were impossible to deny.

While she eventually won with Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” the performance that blew the roof off the place — and the one that knocked out Shea — was a passionate lip sync to Houston’s “So Emotional.” Complete with meticulously timed rose petal showers in a perfect twist of burlesque ingenuity, Sasha took what Roxxxy did in season five and made it her own in an unforgettable way.

For better and for worse, Sasha’s “So Emotional” has come to define what makes a great lip sync on Drag Race. On All Stars 3, nearly every lip sync involved a reveal, but they rarely landed anywhere near the level of Sasha’s. A reveal for the sake of it just can’t touch one that plays into the heart and soul of the song and shows a queen as her truest self — a lesson that, hopefully, season 10’s new queens will figure out sooner rather than later. After all, there’s just no substitution for real charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.