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RuPaul’s Drag Race helps turn queens into stars — and savvy marketers

Inside the flourishing world of drag queen merch.

RuPaul and fans at DragCon.
RuPaul at New York City’s DragCon in 2018.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Over the past decade, RuPaul has lorded over her eponymous reality TV competition, playing mentor, judge, and model for up-and-comers hoping to be crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar.”

While extolling the virtues of drag as a powerful tool for self-love and self-acceptance (“If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”) RuPaul has also shown the hundred-plus queens who have entered the pink “Werq Room” of RuPaul’s Drag Race that part of being a drag queen is selling yourself as a brand.

From the main stage, Ru has introduced judges and queens alike to her own doll, promoted her chocolate bars, reminded viewers to get her latest book, and hawked her many albums and singles, turning “Now available on iTunes” into a throwaway catchphrase. This version of drag-as-QVC spokesperson has become a guiding light for a newer generation of drag queens who see merchandising as an integral part of their budding careers.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, where drag queens compete for a cash prize of $100,000, has overhauled a once niche artistic (and activist) endeavor. The promise of being crowned by Ru after winning acting, singing, dancing, improv, and fashion weekly challenges has changed the way a new wave of drag queens view their own craft. As it offers up-and-comers a platform unlike any other that’s been available before — mixing pageantry and lip syncs with reality-TV-ready drama — Drag Race has further cemented the role of drag queen as a business-savvy figure.

Similarly, the rise in drag queen merch has created an entire cottage industry. It’s opened up new profitable opportunities for those practicing the art of drag. But it’s also played a role in the changing face of the mainstream fandom that the show and its queens now enjoy. Drag, which for decades had been confined to bars and cabarets, catering mostly to a 21-and-over queer population, is suddenly more accessible to a wider (and younger) audience who have come to interact with queens not across a stage but across a screen. Moreover, the presumption of immediacy that social media creates has made fans feel much closer to their favorite queens. The need to turn such digital interactions into more tangible connections has resulted in the explosion of drag queen merchandising.

For Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, who have been recapping the show since it first began airing back in 2009 and who will be releasing their book, Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, next year, the economy around drag has changed the relationship between queens and their fans. That you can now easily buy a varsity-style jacket or a patterned pair of socks featuring illustrations of your favorite queen has become “almost a requirement for queens,” Marquez told Vox. Merch, in much the way it functions for pop stars and sports icons alike, “is a way [for queens] to thank their fans for their support. And they appreciate it.”

But the explosion of this transactional vision of fandom is indicative of a broader shift in drag culture. “This level of merchandising in the drag world is absolutely new,” Fitzgerald noted. “But I think when you take a broader view and you look at drag as a form, as a way of making a living, this is on the scale of what’s expected of drag. That’s how you make a living: You work your skills to pay your bills. That’s the history of drag right there. So this isn’t brand new as an idea but it’s on a level I’ve never seen before.”

To visit Drag Queen Merch, the self-described “Drag Queen Store,” is to see an overabundance of branded items that speak to the unparalleled way in which fans clamor for products as proxies for their adoration of drag queens. The products there listed run from the obvious, like t-shirts emblazoned with signature catchphrases from the show (Trixie Mattel’s “Oh Honey,” Tatianna’s “Choices”), to the more unusual, like baby onesies featuring an image of drag provocateur Willam as Virgin Mary or blankets featuring Chicago staple (and bearded queen) Lucy Stoole.

Willam onesie
Drag Queen Merch

The site also serves as a mini art gallery for artists like Ryan Vincent, Christian Cimoroni, Chad Sell, and Micah Souza, who have become well-known for their takes on the queens of the show.

As drag race artist and comic book writer Terry Blas told Vox, his fan art of season one queen Ongina, which he shared with her on Myspace, led to various collaborations over the past decade. His original illustration became the art she used for an early tee she later sold. His subsequent collaborations with the likes of Jujubee, Kennedy Davenport (who can be seen wearing his design on an episode of All Stars 3) and Chi Chi DeVayne are proof of the way Drag Race fandom has been instrumental in uplifting and publicizing the queens on the show, creating a mini ecosystem of like-minded queer artists excited about one another’s work.

Drag queen merch was, in many ways, an outgrowth of fan art, which speaks to RuPaul’s Drag Race’s ability to make fans into active participants of the drag economy market it has created. To see the illustrations that make up the various tees and shoes and dolls and album covers is to get a glimpse into the creativity that drag inspires.

Increasingly, though, it’s a glimpse into the way fans are now not mere supporters of their queens (giving a fiver or a tenner after a great gig), but are essentially bankrolling their careers. Shangela, a drag queen from Paris, Texas, who’s savvily capitalized on her time on the show (she was most recently seen in A Star is Born), has seen firsthand just how fan demand has driven this turn toward branded apparel.

“Right after season three of Drag Race is when we started to understand that we had a fan base that wanted to support us through product and merchandising,” she told Vox. “That it would actually sell!” As with most other queens, her first forays into this kind of entrepreneurial realm were modest. Wanting to give her fans choices at different price levels ,she began selling rubber bracelets, t-shirts, and posters, many of them carrying her famous catchphrase (“Halleloo!”) as well as nodding to her iconic corn-inspired look on the show.

Those humble beginnings, where she and her assistant were in charge of ordering and shipping all the products, are no match for the kind of operation she now oversees. On her site, you can now get enamel pins, drawstring bags, fans, t-shirts, tank tops, DVDs, and, yes, even that infamous green popcorn-ful wig she’s so well-known for.

Halleloo Pin
Shangela

International fans can now order any of Shangela’s products with a mere click of a button. That’s the kind of scenario that seemed unthinkable when many of us began watching Drag Race on Logo a decade ago, but one which exemplifies the sweeping changes that the show has ushered in. BibleGirl, the CEO of Drag Queen Merch, says that apparel licensing offered her a way to take advantage of the ways Drag Race was changing drag. By tapping into the power of social media to sell her own merchandise, she was able to seize on a new source of income for drag queens — one that didn’t depend on booking fees at bars, which were suddenly creating an unequal playing field where queens who’d been on the show were unsurprisingly getting and demanding higher paychecks than local queens.

“The real game changer was when DragCon LA happened in 2015,” she told Vox. “What I thought was my merch for the weekend ended up selling out within the first five hours.” No longer a side hustle, merchandising became the main event at RuPaul and World of Wonder’s drag conventions, which take place on a biannual basis. Now attracting over 100,000 attendees in 2018 between Los Angeles and New York, and boasting over $8 million worth of sold merchandise last year, the bicoastal event has shown the economic power of a once-fringe art form. Both products and salespeople, drag queens now find themselves in the enviable position of being able to reach a new kind of market that continues to grow.

A merch booth at DragCon NYC 2018.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

But this sudden rise in drag merchandising has complicated the relationship between those artists who once championed the show and turned DragCon into a success, and who now find themselves being both clients and competitors of the queens they remain inspired by. Blas, who sells his own Drag Race art at several comic book conventions around the country, has seen the convivial feel of that first DragCon sour into a much less artist-friendly environment. In the early years of DragCon, Blas was successful in selling low-priced items geared at the mostly teen audience the show attracts. Posters and standees that went for $2 and $5 were easy sells for fans eager to get things signed by the queens all over the convention floor.

But perhaps noticing the success of such a strategy, savvy queens now try and maintain control of the entire DragCon experience. Many will offer photo ops with fans for a fee (some as low as $10, some as high as $60), though you can circumvent that by just buying merch. This kind of pricing structure encourages attendees to save up for those kinds of encounters rather than spend it on fan art being sold on the floor.

Controversial features like “Fast Passes” for meet-and-greets with certain girls last year further stressed how the monetization inherent in Drag Race’s vision of drag was causing a rift within its fandom. “I get it, but monetize your BRAND,” Reddit user Trixiespads told Mic last year when discussing the dispiriting message being sent by these tiered fan interactions at DragCon. Similarly, discussions on Reddit about exorbitant meet-and-greet prices further stress the way a queen’s worth becomes inextricably tied to the dollars you’re willing to shell out, and how canny decisions about what to charge end up reflecting the value you have of your fans.

There are just as many fans who laud queens for making coin so long as people are willing to pay for what they’re offering (“she totally could have made it 20 and nearly doubled her revenue,” one user wrote) as there are those who find queens who offer things for free or cheap as standing up for their fans (“I thought it was really admirable that she didn’t take advantage of that and tried to make herself accessible,” another wrote).

The conversation takes for granted the centrality of monetization in the current drag world. Nothing exemplifies that more than DragCon, which has been growing and growing over the past few years, exacerbating these very issues about who gets access and who gets to show themselves as being a fan.

“First DragCon, I did a small little corner booth by myself,” Shangela recalled. “In more recent years, it’s grown. I now have a giant booth with a nonprofit or corporate sponsor, with all different types of merch. People come for merch but they also want your picture, so you tie it together.”

These cons have also made clear the changing face of Drag Race fandom. As Fitzgerald and Marquez told Vox, their own online recaps of the show have let them see the way the show’s move from Logo to VH1 has broadened the show’s appeal. The comments on their recaps were almost exclusively written by gay men in those early, soft-focus-lensed seasons. More recently, with the show’s all-out embrace of social media (“Hashtag All Stars Four,” as RuPaul reminds his viewers), they’ve seen the audience skew younger and more female. It’s an insight Shangela echoed when describing her changing audience in her most recent stand-up tour, which she now books at theaters to accommodate a fourteen-and-over crowd.

All of this exemplifies the seismic impact RuPaul’s Drag Race has had on drag culture. There is no clearer barometer of drag’s newfound mainstream appeal than in its conflation of purchase power with fan devotion. In encouraging fans to become curators and collectors, flag-wavers and walking ads, this merch bolsters a new economy that benefits queer creators.

But it can also reduce fan interaction to transactional encounters. This is, of course, a larger question about what it means to consume and support art in a capitalist era where buying Funko Pops of Katya and Alaska or Bianca del Rio t-shirts is a gesture that’s supposed to say something about our taste choices or our allegiances, but which ultimately has us subscribe to a model wherein objects serve as substitutes for the real thing.

“The queens feel very close to their fans,” Marquez said. “[The fans] just feel like they know [the queens] and want to buy something from them.” That leap, Drag Race has taught us, is a logical one: you love something, you spend money on its merch. For if you can’t sell yourself, how in the hell you gonna sell somebody else?

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