As the drummer of an alt-rock band, I was deep in the closet – until I found RuPaul’s Drag Race

The gap between the joy of performing with his band Happyness and the struggle of everyday life without a clear identity was pushing Ash Kenazi to extremes. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ pulled together the disparate elements of his personality

Tuesday 01 October 2019 13:12
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At its heart, the show is about helping queer people to learn to love themselves
At its heart, the show is about helping queer people to learn to love themselves

Queer people often imagine their coming out story in terms of pre and post – an event or individual that shifts their relationship with their sexuality. For me, that was discovering RuPaul’s Drag Race.

My introduction to the show coincided with my first non-hetero Netflix and chill. It was the summer of 2016, and I had hit a brick wall. Up to that point, my life had been so full of action that I had never stopped to consider myself or my purpose. I knew I was a performer and craved attention, but I was unable to accept that I was gay. The gap between the joy of performing with my band Happyness and the struggle of everyday life without a clear identity was pushing me to extremes. RuPaul’s Drag Race pulled together the disparate elements of my personality and allowed me to come out as gay.

Drag Race is a reality based television show, somewhere between Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. Drag Queens compete to become the next drag superstar through a series of tasks and runway competitions judged by a celebrity panel, which includes the grand bitch herself RuPaul and other queer-friendly characters such as Michelle Visage and Ariana Grande (Shania Twain was a less astute choice). I was aware of the show, but hesitant to watch because I was worried about the consequences for my sexuality.

Thank god for the man who sat me down and said, “You need your gayducation, and it starts now.” It was an all-stars episode, “HERstory of the World”, in which queens were assigned female historical figures and lipsynced their way through the campest collection of ditties ever committed to television, including a eulogy to Princess Di (the true gay icon) and a reimagining of Marie Antoinette as a social media guru (#letthemeatcake). The second challenge was a stomp down the runway with queens presenting their version of “The Future of Drag”. This was not a simple tin-foil hat experiment, but rather a complete reconceptualisation of style and female physique. The thought and precision put into these alien queens showed gay culture and drag not as something to be feared, but as an act of defiance, a political statement and an embodiment of “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent”, aka C.U.N.T.

Aside from the more fabulous elements of drag race, it was the individuals’ stories that gave me reason to come out. These are not X Factor-style sympathy pleas, but lived experiences. Queens such as Katya Zamolodchikova or Latrice Royale laid bare their vulnerabilities and spoke a truth that I could relate to; the difficulties of coming to terms with their sexuality and using drag as an opportunity to reclaim a femininity that was unavailable to them in their formative years. Having spent so long trapped in my head and unable to speak my truth, I found it revolutionary to see humans lay themselves so physically and emotionally bare.

Drag Race forced me to leave my comfort zone and explore my lost identity. With the help of a bandmate and some very important women, I took the plunge. Dressed in a leopard-print tracksuit borrowed from my mother and a pair of dodgy heels from Claire’s Accessories, I chose End of the Road festival as the unveiling of my drag persona Ash Kenazi. It was important that I reveal my true self to the scene I had spent my twenties trying to fit in with. My lingering memory of that evening was the flexibility of my environment. It was as though my six-inch heels were carving out new territory. I had the freedom to move, speak, hold, release, dance, fall, laugh, cry, engage, ignore, bend, stretch in whichever direction I wanted. The world felt familiar to me for the first time.

Queer existence is a challenge in double living – being yourself in a world whose morality does not truly fit your identity. But in the world of drag, social norms become secondary to energy and passion. Once a queen has already deep throated a vegetable, fallen off the bar and set off a fire extinguisher, anything is possible.

The show is not immune to criticism. Accusations of racism and transphobia are levied against RuPaul, and drag queens constantly bemoan the changes to the scene as it gains popularity. I can’t deny these issues – there is more work to be done – but RuPaul’s Drag Race will always be my happy place, where the weight of the world is lifted by glamour and vulnerability. As it runs into its 12th season, and with a UK version launching tomorrow, I can only encourage you to jump on the hype. I’m not saying that drag is the answer. In fact, my drag persona is disruptive, expensive and comes with a large set of responsibilities. But watching Drag Race involves a necessary reflection on the self, on vulnerability and the strictures set upon you. What’s more, there are some sickening makeup and fashion tips.

At its heart, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a show about helping queer people learn to love themselves – and in the process, I have claimed back my femininity and learnt to love all the parts that make me. As RuPaul declares, “Drag did not save my life. It gave me life.” By discovering that the body I was given and the world I inhabit are ripe for distortion, I was able to take control of my identity. Or, to put it in drag terms, “Get up, look sickening and make them eat it!”

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK begins at 8pm on 3 October and will be exclusively available on BBC iPlayer

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