I have no idea what took me so long to start watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Honestly, I’m sort of an idiot for waiting so long. I love reality TV, especially competitions. For years, I recapped Project Runway, ANTM, and The Bachelor right here on this very blog. This show was practically tailor made for me.
Then again, there are certain advantages to having delayed my viewing gratification: I have never binged a show with more gusto. I plowed through 10 seasons and 3 All-Stars in about four months. Do the math people. Suffice it to say, I didn’t “go out much” in those months.
The first season I watched was Season 10, which is ridiculous. I had no idea what was going on. When I first saw Michelle Visage, I thought she was a drag queen. (#oops.) In the beginning, I was like a 2-year-old in a doll store, pointing to all the queens and going, “Pretty!” and clapping my hands and saying, “Again! Again!” Eventually, after watching a few seasons, I began to fancy myself an expert, saying shit like: “Her waist needs to be cinched” and “Guess she can’t afford a lace-front wig” and “She’s painted for the back of the room.”
Strictly as a TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best of all reality TV worlds combined. We have these insanely talented people performing insanely challenging tasks. But we also spend enough time with them to really get to know them, almost like a Big Brother type deal. RuPaul herself is a master of marketing, so the show has that comforting, repetitive formula so essential to good reality TV: Every season we know we’re going to get a Snatch Game, and a Makeover Challenge, and a Drag Ball, and a reading challenge. . . because reading is what?! Fundamental!
But for a cisgender, middle class, middle-aged white lady like myself, the show is also an entry into a really rich subculture. Drag culture has its own language and its own rituals. I now know about “fish” (a misogynist term, for sure, but so built into the drag language, it’s divorced from its original meaning) and “reads” and “Drag Mothers” and “drag balls” and the (crucial) difference between “kiki” and “kai-kai.”
One thing I think about a lot when I watch Drag Race: Gay men are just the motherfucking bomb. Seriously. I think a lot about the generation of gay men we lost to AIDS and the incredible contributions to art, theater, design, and culture the world was deprived of. Seeing these queens do their thing, I’m in constant awe at the combination of beauty and creativity and humor and survival skills they all possess. I’m a fan of every queen to ever set foot on that show, but here are my 10 faves—and why.
- SHANNEL. A surprising and perhaps even controversial choice at number one, but what can I say, the heart wants what the heart wants. The wild thing is, Shannel was one of the last queens I met—I watched her two seasons (1 and All Stars 1) last—but I just fell for her, hard. I’m pretty sure my love was sealed when I watched her juggle, half naked, down the runway, pins flying in the air and between her legs, all while eye-sexing the judges. (I turned to my sister and said, “That’s literally the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”)
But more than that, I thought she got a supremely raw deal in Season 1 and my sense of that injustice intensified my loyalty to her. Shannel is an actual Vegas showgirl, which fits neatly into the many categories of drag I’ve learned about from the binge watch: There are showgirls or pageant queens, who tend to put a premium on glamour and appearance above all else (and who all basically subscribe to the “bigger the hair, the closer to god” theory of drag). There are the quick-witted comedy queens, who are particularly well-suited for this competition. There are the fashionistas, who fell in love with drag by reading the pages of Italian Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. There are the avant-garde queens, who see drag as art. There are the gothic queens, the body queens, the club kids queens, and probably a lot more categories I don’t know about, but you get the basic idea.
I tend to have a soft spot for the showgirls (see: Roxxxy Andrews at number 5) because they’re at a slight disadvantage on the show (you have to be seriously funny to survive on Drag Race—it also helps if you can act) and I find their commitment to excess and bling inspiring. The thing about Shannel is this: She’s notorious for having complained a lot during Season 1 that she should’ve won more challenges—but THE BITCH WAS RIGHT. She came into the show as a bit of a frontrunner, having already established herself as a very successful queen on the west coast. The judges, knowing how polished she was, seemed to be grading her on a higher curve. The fact that Shannel didn’t win both her makeover challenges—in one case, she elevated the look of adorably pocket-sized queen Ongina; in another, she took a bald, butch female MMA fighter and made her a glamazon—is a freaking travesty. And seriously? I would’ve just stopped the show, called it a day, and put a crown on her head after that juggling routine. I still have a lot of rage stored up against the judge Santino for arguing that Shannel didn’t have good taste. She’s a Vegas showgirl, Santino—you were expecting black pumps and a LBD? (Also Santino? The East Village in 1988 called. It wants its look back.)
Shannel got something of a redemption arc on All-Stars 1, where she was able to show off her amazing “character illusions” (her Lucille Ball is ON POINT), even if the judges still didn’t give her enough credit, claiming she hadn’t quite captured the essence of Lucy. I mean…
Some people think Chad Michaels—whose laconic stoner sweetness belies the heart of a “drag assassin” (her words)— carried her to the finale, but that’s nonsense. If anything, Shannel’s slightly control-freakish personality meant that she was the one taking charge on most of the challenges—lord knows she didn’t sit back and let Chad take the wheel. As she famously (in my house, at least) said during the celebrity girl group challenge: “I may not be a dancer or a choreographer but I know FIERCE.” Yes, my queen. Yes you do.
- BENDELACREME. Apparently DeLa is the favorite queen among straight women, so…guilty as charged? This brilliantly witty, kind-hearted, retro, “terminally delightful” queen is just a joy to watch. There were a few moments in particular that fueled my adoration for DeLa:
In her first Snatch Game, she played Dame Maggie Smith, brilliantly. When asked about what strange thing Chelsea Handler might put in her next flavored vodka she deadpanned, “A libation flavored with citrus. Can you imagine such a thing?” That, my friends, is a fucking perfect joke.
Then I heard DeLa’s backstory, which is touching beyond belief: Basically Ben created the character of DeLa to bring positivity and light into his world and to stave off bouts of depression after the death of his mother. He knows she’s a little obnoxious (hence the “terminal” part) but he also knows that inhabiting someone so optimistic and happy is good for his own spirit and soul.
I already adored DeLa after Season 6, but All-Stars 3 proved that I had stanned wisely. After slaying the competition week after week, she chose to leave on her own terms, eliminating herself and giving Morgan McMichaels—the irresistibly bitchy mean girl of the show—a second chance at glory. This was a controversial decision to some—a few people thought it was disrespectful to Ru, the show, and to the eventual winner. But it actually gave me a life lesson. If you’re in a situation that goes against your moral code, get out of it. Be true to yourself, even if it means breaking the rules. Thanks, DeLa!
- ALASKA. The crazy thing about Alaska is that I should find her voice—whiny, nasal, pitched at a constant Valley Girl’s kvetch—annoying. But I don’t. I actually love everything about Alaska, from her famous “hiyeeeeee!” greeting to her knock-knees on the runway to her trash-glam style. Alaska is the most quick-witted queen to ever be on the show (followed by Jinkx Monsoon, Bianca DelRio, BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, and Katya) and she’s also a Drag Race superfan—which means she steals from the best. In Season 5 she was perhaps still a bit unformed—and dealing with the enormous pressure of following in the footsteps of her then girlfriend, Sharon Needles, who had won the previous year—so she made a few missteps (dressing as a boy for an acting challenge, for one, although her Howdy Doody-meets-PeeWee Herman narrator character was adorable as hell.) By the time she got on All-Stars 2 the only thing that could bring her down was a coup of sorts by the other queens. She definitely got a little paranoid—the good-hearted Detox was never going to do that to her—but she acted like a brat for one episode and one episode alone. No biggie, it just made her more human. No one makes me laugh like Alaska (“I’m Dorothy, you’re Toto—GET IN THE BASKET!”) and I’m pretty much obsessed with her new RuPaul recapping podcast, Race Chaser.
- SASHA VELOUR. One of the curious things about watching Drag Race in a vacuum—that is, separate from the contemporaneous social media chatter—is you’re surprised to discover you’re out of step with the rest of the fans. Apparently, Shea Coulee was the hands-down fan favorite of Season 9, but I loved Sasha—who literally looks like the love child of Michael Stipe and Annie Lennox—from the start. Don’t get me wrong, Shea is the tits. But if there was one thing that dragged her down—no pun intended—it was this: While she was literally good at everything, she didn’t have that one particular thing that really distinguished her. Sasha, on the other hand, had a very specific point of view: She was an avant-garde queen, whose bald head and arched, cartoon-villain eyebrows announced immediately who she was. Again and again, Sasha slayed on the runway (although I agree that at times she was more editorial than drag). Of course, Sasha sealed her victory during the final, iconic “Lip-sync for your life” where she lifted her wig, revealing a cascade of rose petals. It was a ravishing performance. I follow Sasha on Instagram and I could seriously look at the queen all day. Living, breathing art.
- ROXXXY ANDREWS. One of the weird things about being a straight woman who watches Drag Race is it sort of recalibrates your sexual barometer. I like looking at Roxxxy as both a boy and a girl. (This is honestly true of all the queens I’ve picked so far.) Boy Roxxxy (actual name Michael Feliciano) is a particularly cute boy—caramel-skinned and pale-eyed and dimply, which no doubt adds to my appreciation of him in drag. Roxxxy, as mentioned above, is a pageant style queen and honestly the best (after Shannel) I’ve ever seen on the show. Her makeup, clothing, and hair are always insanely on point, always deliciously over-the-top, glammed for the gods, and unabashedly sexy. Roxxxy got something of a villain’s edit in S5, as she was a bit hard on the guileless underdog Jinkx Monsoon, but I even liked her then. (Roxxxy wasn’t that bad, and these competitions—which cut the contestants off from the world, ply them with alcohol, and ask leading questions in taped confessionals—are specifically designed to bring out the worst in people.) However, she really won me over on All Stars 2, where she did something virtually unprecedented on reality TV: She owned up to her own behavior! Instead of claiming that she was the victim of a bad edit—the last refuge of the reality TV scoundrel—she admitted that she had been a bit of bitch to Jinkx. “That’s not who I really am,” she said, and went on to prove it. Of all the queens on the show, Roxxxy might have the saddest backstory: Her mother literally left her and her sister on a bus stop bench when she was 5. Luckily, she was adopted by her doting grandmother, who emanates twinkly warmth. (An aside: It’s become common drag race sport to make “bus stop” jokes to Roxxxy’s face. Fuck that noise. If you’re making that joke, look at your life, look at your choices.) Any self-respecting Roxxxy fan would probably share the same favorite moments: her now iconic wig-under-wig reveal during the “Whip My Hair” lip sync in S5, her triumphant Liza-esque burlesque routine in the All-Stars 2 talent competition, and her so-bad-it’s-good “I’m Roxxxy Andrews and I’m here to make it clear….” lyrics on “Read You, Wrote You.” I also loved that she went from villainous queen in S5 to “queen so popular none of the other queens could bring themselves to vote her off” in All-Stars 2. Now that’s a redemption arc.
- LATRICE ROYALE. I want to be best friends with Latrice because I feel like I would never need drugs or alcohol or any anxiety-reducing medication again. That Latrice Royale belly laugh is all the therapy you need. Every year they vote for a “Miss Congeniality” (aka fan favorite) and Latrice’s S4 win was a no-brainer. But I’m pretty sure she would also win a “Favorite of the Fan Favorites” competition. When Manila paired with her in All Stars 1, she specifically said it was because she hoped some of Latrice’s likeability would rub off on her. (I like you, Manila! I really do!) The thing about Latrice is that, on top of being preternaturally warm and loveable, she’s damn good at the game. Her “So Much Better Than You” duet with Willam is one of the most polished musical performances I’ve ever seen on the show. Her “Get those nuts out of my face” reading in the acting challenge belongs in the sitcom catchphrase hall of fame. And this is a queen who knows how to self-mythologize. Say it with me: “She is large and in charge, chunky yet funky—she’s Latriiiiiiice Royale!” Also, Latrice Royale is responsible for my all-time favorite Lip Sync on the show. As she planted her feet and faux belted out a passionate and guttural “Natural Woman,” little Kenya Michaels flitted about the stage like a wood sprite on speed. Funniest shit I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, shontay Latrice stayed.
- WILLAM. I totally slept on Willam during Season 4. I just thought she was bitchy and I found her 1,000 yard stare a little creepy (turns out, she was high off her gourd). It wasn’t until I started listening to the podcast “Race Chaser” that I realized how brilliant (and sneakily kind) she is. I’ve now gone back and rewatched S4 and have concluded that she is one of the funniest, smartest, and most calculated queens to ever play the game. A seasoned Hollywood vet, Willam never forgot that she was playing a character on a reality TV show. Sometimes she would intentionally antagonize her opponents, because she knew it made for good TV. She never got overly emotional or overly invested in the drama, because she understood it was all a game. Her DGAF attitude drove her fellow queens nuts, especially the excitable Phi Phi, who was nearly apoplectic over Willam’s antics. Rightfully, the most iconic moment of S4 was the “tired ass showgirl” “go back to Party City!” exchange between Phi Phi and Sharon. But my second favorite exchange took place between Phi Phi and Willam on the backstage show, Untucked. After a worked up Phi Phi goes off for five minutes on Willam (“You should not BE HERE right now!”), Willam casually flips a blonde lock, stares Phi-Phi in the face, and deadpans, “Your tone seems very pointed right now.” Just once in my life I would like to be that cool.
- KATYA. Arguably the smartest queen to ever appear on the show (and certainly the most flexible), the “high class Russian hooker” Katya went on an interesting journey in her two seasons. In Season 7, she was amazing but didn’t seem to know it yet. A recovering addict, she had a crisis of confidence after the Snatch Game and literally broke down in the arms of fellow queen Miss Fame. It was wild to watch and just another reminder that no matter how smart, talented, cute, and funny you are, you can still be overwhelmed by insecurity. When she came back in All-Stars 2, she was in a much better headspace and it showed. In another “let a drag queen be your life coach” moment for me, she completely defied branding expert Marcus Lemonis when he shot down her “Katya’s Krisis Kontrol” spray in the Drag Fish Tank challenge. His rebuke would’ve sent me scrambling back to the drawing board, but Katya was confident in her product and her shtick and stuck to her guns, winning lavish praises from the judges. Respect. Also, did I mention she was smart? Watching Katya on Drag Race is a bit like watching one of those super-clever television shows like Bojack Horseman that has jokes within jokes. Case in point, the sharp-eyed u/ATUKO1 on Reddit just pointed out THIS:
Bow down, bitches.
- RAVEN. The best word I can use to describe Raven is beguiling. On the one hand, she’s an icy queen with an amazing sense of style and a permanent resting bitch face. On the other, she’s a mama’s boy who is fiercely loyal to her friends and only wants to make RuPaul proud. That dichotomy—cool girl meets secret softy—is what makes Raven so endlessly compelling. The penultimate episode of All-Stars 1, where she lip-synched against her best friend Jujubee, exhorting her to “lip sync for your motherfucking life” before they both broke down in tears on the runway, was honestly one of the most touching moments ever on the show. (This is why I’m a fan of All-Stars 1, a controversial opinion, I know: It emphasized the relationships between the queens, which I always love.) Bottom line: Raven just makes for great TV. I can’t keep my eyes off her when she’s on camera.
- SHARON NEEDLES/CHAD MICHAELS. DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE! I love both these queens, but what I really love is their unlikely oddball friendship. On the one hand, you have spooky Sharon, with her threadbare, ironically Republican tee-shirts, gothic drag, and full-on punk attitude. On the other, you have the dulcet-toned Chad, always a lady—as polite and demure and polished as a queen can possibly be. (Just once I want Chad to leave me a voicemail message and call me “Mama.” I would pay good money on the black market for that.) Indeed, the only thing those two crazy queens have in common is 2 percent body fat. But they found each other, mostly because “game knows game” as they say in the sports world. They were two of the smartest—and most talented—queens in S4 and they knew it. Their friendship—a kind of Junior League mother/rebellious daughter thing—provided one of my all-time favorite Drag Race moments. It was during the “DILFs I’d Like To Frock” challenge. Sharon had a very weird DILF, this kind of pumped up testosterone machine with a very out there sense of humor. I think he thought he was being playful, but he really was kind of aggressive. Anyway, he got in Chad’s face and, instead of backing down and running in terror (as I would’ve done), Chad stood up to him, which was a thing of beauty to behold. (This dude literally could’ve snapped Chad over his knee like a twig.) Then the roided-out dad said to Sharon, “Are you going to let this bitch talk to me like that?” to which Sharon replied, “Do NOT call my sister a bitch.” ❤️ To me, that’s what Drag Race is all about. The bonds among the queens. The families we choose. The places where we are allowed to truly be ourselves and let our glorious freak flags fly.
I choose them all.
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