How RuPaul's Drag Race became a global phenomenon

How RuPaul's Drag Race became a global phenomenon

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The team behind RuPaul’s Drag Race UK explains how the show successfully crossed the Atlantic.

RuPaul’s Drag Race enjoyed a triumphant transatlantic transplant to BBC Three in the autumn. “Drag queens and TV are like peanut butter and jelly – the perfect combination,” argued the show’s creator, Fenton Bailey, to a full house at a lively RTS Futures event in November.

US production company World of Wonder, which Bailey founded with fellow film-maker Randy Barbato almost 30 years ago, makes RuPaul’s Drag Race in both countries. The duo first came across the drag artist performing in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1980s. “What we saw in that moment was that RuPaul was a star,” recalled Bailey.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has been on US television for a decade, winning numerous Emmy awards for the show and its host. It premiered on US gay pay-TV channel Logo in 2009, before moving to entertainment channel VH1 in 2017 and finding a mass audience.

Over the course of the series, artists compete to become the nation’s drag superstar. “Every gay bar in the [US] plays Drag Race at the same time and that’s part of how the show became so popular – you go, meet friends and watch the show. Its sports for gay people,” said UK and US showrunner Bruce McCoy.

“It’s been extraordinary to watch the journey of the show from targeted LGBT channels – such as Logo, and OutTV in Canada and the Netherlands – which initially picked up the show, and see the show grow,” said Sally Miles, who handled international distribution for the US version of RuPaul’s Drag Race and is now an executive producer on the UK series.

Bailey recalled the show’s early days in the US: “The first season was out of focus and very low-budget. Logo was a tiny network and I don’t think anyone thought to cancel us.”

But Miles had more faith in the show: “It always had potential – it was so accessible and relatable to a young 16- to 34-year-old audience. When we took it to Netflix, it demonstrated that this was an [entertainment] show for a broad audience.”

‘Drag queens and TV are like peanut butter and jelly – the perfect combination’

BBC entertainment commissioning editor Ruby Kuraishe agreed: “On first glance, it’s a subculture niche show; on second glance, everyone can relate to it; on third glance, it’s funny – why wouldn’t you do it?”

McCoy said: “People know the show and our job was to not fuck it up. It’s really the same show as we do in the States – it’s a comedy show masquerading as a reality show, with a lot of heart to it… but [we wanted to] add as much Britishness as possible.”

“We went in with the mindset of, ‘Let’s make it British’, but not to the point of blowing up the show. It’s a lot easier to put together a show that’s won Emmys, that people love and want to work on.”

Bailey made the point that Britain “has a great drag tradition, from Shakespeare to the [Royal] Vauxhall Tavern, which is where Randy and I saw Lily Savage. Drag is a universal language but it’s different in every culture… each version of the show should have its own character.” A version of the show has run in Thailand for two series, with Canada and Australia set to follow this year.

The UK show – with RuPaul as host and head judge – began its run on BBC Three in October. Guest judges included Michaela Coel and Twiggy, as well as regulars Graham Norton, Alan Carr and Michelle Visage, who is also a judge on the US programme.


The Vivienne, winner of the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race UK
(Credit: BBC)

It chalked up more than 6.5 million iPlayer requests by the time the series passed its halfway mark. BBC Three has commissioned a second run. “I commissioned a brand-new programme [for the UK] but it’s got 10 years’ experience behind it.… I’ve tailored it for us,” said Kuraishe. She continued: “I knew when we were filming that it was going to be a great show. So, the rest of it, for us, was just to sell it and build that frenzy.

“We had a lot of interest in Drag Race as soon as we announced it and my inbox was deluged by D-list celebrities wanting to be judges.”

BBC Three promoted RuPaul’s Drag Race UK at Manchester Pride, where contestants from the show made an eye-catching appearance last summer. “It felt like a brilliant way to release the queens, because… the programme is regional and diverse in every way,” said Kuraishe.

The lack of commercial breaks on the BBC has given the programme-­makers more freedom, allowing for more backstage chats between the contestants. “[A] scene can be as long as it needs to be, as opposed to eight minutes [maximum] because that’s [the gap] between commercials,” explained McCoy.

Navi Lamba, BBC Three head of social, suggested that it was the perfect fit for the online channel: “BBC Three’s mission has always been to help young people navigate their way in the world. [Drag Race] is showing usually under-­represented voices and showcasing them on a huge platform.”

The series was released on iPlayer at 8:00pm every Thursday, peak time for viewing on the platform. “Drag Race is ultimately event television,” said Lamba. Everyone who works on the social media content “truly understands the show. The fans have been watching the [US version of the] show so long that they would be able to sniff out a fraud.”

Report by Matthew Bell. The RTS Futures event ‘Start your engines: Bringing ­RuPaul’s Drag Race to the UK’ was held on 11 November at Tanner Warehouse in central London. It was chaired by TV critic and broadcaster Scott Bryan, and produced by Ed Gove and Jude Winstanley.


A lot more than entertainment

‘Growing up was really hard,’ said Owen Farrow, who appeared in the UK series as Divina de Campo. He was at school in the north of England when Section 28, which prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, was introduced by the Thatcher government in 1988, and which remained in force for 15 years.

‘All the gremlins in my head are from kids in the playground pushing and shoving me, and calling me a fag and throwing their drinks at me.… It did a lot of damage to people like me.

‘For most teachers, [homosexuality] could not be spoken about – so it just erased gay people completely,’ Farrow told his fellow competitors on the show.

The clip from RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, during which an emotional Farrow was in tears, was shown at the RTS Futures event. ‘[I] had no understanding as a gay person that there could be a different way of living.

‘Now, having been in schools and worked as a teacher, kids’ attitudes are completely different.

‘I had an incident where one girl called me a “faggot”. She stomped out and everybody else was outraged that she said that to me. To say the kids are different now is to completely underestimate where we are.

‘It made me feel that all those kids who were like me had hope – they weren’t going to have the same struggle.’