RuPaul's Drag Race UK review: A triumph that doesn’t f*** it up

As the pioneering franchise sissies that walk across the Atlantic, what could be more British than a drag queen called Cheryl Hole dressed up as 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II?

Louis Staples
Thursday 03 October 2019 21:03
Trailer for RuPaul's Drag Race UK

“Minging.” “I’m a bit of a chav.” “She’s a right trollop.” “I’m unique as f***, mate.” These are all British-isms that I never thought I’d hear during an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but the premiere of BBC3's UK version has changed the pioneering franchise forever.

“People of the United Kingdom, your queen has arrived,” says drag icon RuPaul Charles as Drag Race UK begins. It is the second international series filmed outside America, but the first to be fronted by host RuPaul or long-serving judge Michelle Visage who is currently mastering the rumba on Strictly Come Dancing.

Recently renewed for its 12th US season, with four All Stars seasons along the way, RuPaul’s franchise now has a lasting legacy: catapulting drag into the mainstream. It is understandable, though, that die-hard fans of the show would feel nervous at the prospect of Drag Race sissying that walk across the Atlantic. Can the BBC meet their high expectations?

Considering one of RuPaul’s mantras is “don’t f*** it up”, it seems that the BBC have listened carefully. Drag Race UK’s premiere is a triumph that captures the “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” which made the franchise a worldwide phenomenon. Immediately, the familiar presence of RuPaul and Visage (a self-confessed “British culture addict”) puts us at ease. Fellow judge Alan Carr joins them alongside guest judge Andrew Garfield, with the show replicating the structure and hyper-saturated aesthetic of its US counterpart.

In each episode of Drag Race, the queens are given a brief. Whether it’s a look to master, a group performance or a comedy routine, the losing queen is given her marching orders by Ru and told to “sashay away” (though not before lip-syncing for her life, of course). Yet what makes the Drag Race UK’s first episode so promising is that it completely nails the brief of a UK rebrand: to blend a successful US format with British cultural references.

During the premiere, we see drag incarnations of Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns and Amy Winehouse. There are also references to Coronation Street and even queen of clean (and memes) Kim Woodburn. And what could be more British than a drag queen called Cheryl Hole dressed up as 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II?

What makes Drag Race special, beyond the outrageous costumes, shady reads and irreverent one-liners, is the contestants. The show features queens of different ages from across the UK (excluding Scotland, which is a shame). We hear their fascinating stories, which started in places like Belfast, Leicester and West Bromwich, eventually drawing them towards drag. Sum Ting Wong says that her drag name is a “reclamation” of the racist names she used to be called as a child growing up in Birmingham. Divina Di Campo talks about her two decades of hustling up and down the UK on the drag scene, long before drag became mainstream.

At the beginning of the episode, RuPaul proclaims that Drag Race UK represents the “rich past and vibrant future of drag in the UK”. In the sanctuary of the workroom, we see friendships starting to blossom over conversations that cut across generational and geographical divides. With drag and the wider queer community still navigating its place between “old” and “new”, this is when Drag Race is at its most powerful.

Ultimately, Drag Race is a parody of reality shows like America’s Next Top Model, which dominated the previous TV era. Drag Race UK captures this campy subversion perfectly, breathing new life into a franchise which (“just between us girls”) was beginning to look overly polished and fatigued. The UK series tells us that the magic of the first six seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race where contestants weren’t hyper-aware that global fame and social media stardom awaited them can be RuCaptured.

Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win.

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