It’s probably hyperbolic to say that a show about crossdressing has singlehandedly got me through the first gloomy months of 2021, but it’s not far from the truth. This week saw the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’s second series, perhaps one of the greatest pieces of reality TV ever made (can you tell I’m a fan?).
Quite apart from lighting up Twitter each week with every twist and turn, despite the sheer volume of memeable moments, this show has helped a weary nation through one of the bleakest winters in memory. So eat your heart out Shakespeare, revise that speech Churchill, frankly shut up Boris, it’s the queens of Series 2 that are giving me most to feel patriotic about in 2021.
To back up a little, I only began watching any of the many flavours of Drag Race back in lockdown 2 (remember that?). Encouraged by a superfan friend, I binged so many seasons of the original American incarnation that I was about to start telling my students to ‘sashay away’ over Zoom. I think what got me so hooked so fast is the sheer ridiculous campery of the show.
As a longtime fan of that glitteriest of European events, the Eurovision Song Contest, is it any surprise that the combination of comedy, glamour, music and drama that drag provides pulled me right in? Added to all of this is the generous gloop of heart and soul that each season of the show brings; many of the queens sharing their stories and struggles with remarkable honesty.
A criticism often levelled at RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it has merely become a conveyor belt of rich and pretty queens who are all simply variations on a theme. I think this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of a show lasting for so long (the US version is on its 13th season) and becoming such a phenomenon. It’s also what made the UK version so refreshing for me. Quite apart from the fact that the UK is my home, the down to earth, rough and ready scrappiness of the new version stood out from the beginning.
This brings us to January 2021 and the beginning of UK Series 2, already a remarkable achievement as the show had to stop filming for eight months thanks to lockdown.
As I’m sure was the case for many, January 2021 wasn’t my brightest moment. Cancelled trips home for Christmas, working from home AGAIN, and bleak weather meant that a weekly dose of flamboyant shenanigans was more welcome than ever. From the first challenge of the first episode, where the queens had to pose for photos while being pelted with tennis balls, it has been a wonderfully wild ride.
A highlight came in Episode 5 when the queens, returning from lockdown, had to compete as girl groups representing the UK in the ‘RuRuvision Song Contest’ (see what they did there?). Rarely have I had such a euphoric reaction to an hour of television. The song that both groups recorded, “UK Hun?”, reached the Top 40 on the UK singles chart, and will be sung in gay bars across the world for years to come.
As for the iconic lyrics included in the immortal chorus?
Bing bang bong, sing sang song
Ding dang dong, UK hun?
I can tell you, as a Eurovision groupie, that this is a surprisingly accurate representation of some of the more ridiculous lyrics found in that contest, but is also sheer glorious nonsense.
Of course, at the very heart of the song is the refrain ‘UK Hun?’ For so much of this year I have, simply, not been ‘K hun. I don’t think many people have been. The queens of series 2 certainly were not at times.
The producers of the show asked the queens to record some of their experiences of lockdown for a documentary which provided some of the most accurate and affecting reflections I’ve yet seen. One queen, Veronica Green, talks about simply being unable to get up for days on end; the very opposite image of that presented on the runway. Sadly, Veronica was then unable to return to the competition thanks to contracting COVID-19; the sparkly world of drag coming into stark contrast with the reality of life in a pandemic.
Other affecting moments included contestants Ginny Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash (yes, really) having a heart to heart about non-binary gender identities, making accessible to a mass audience experiences which are so often marginalised or treated with suspicion. Frank discussions of childhood bullying, difficult parental relationships and body image issues also followed. These reflective moments make the campy highs of challenges involving, among other things, a recreation of famous soap opera Eastenders (rebranded Beastenders of course) and a remake of the musical Cats as ‘Rats: The Rusical’ all the more glorious.
The developing confidence and self-belief of all the contestants was a joy to watch. Bimini in particular captivated the nation, their campy high-fashion looks, and hilarious impression of British icon Katie Price, leading to instant icon status.
Watching the queens overcome personal obstacles, as well as the more ridiculous ones presented by the show itself, have helped me stay positive in recent weeks. The conversations with friends dissecting the show in minute detail have helped me feel connected. The honesty of contestants confronting each other and their personal challenges has earned them my love and gratitude. And yes, it’s just a campy reality show, but it also a vibrant showcase for human flourishing in all its creativity. In a time when so many of us feel so stifled and confined, that has been more glorious than ever for me to witness.
So fanks babes. Thanks to you all, I’m a little more K.
Sam is a British educator and sometime writer who’s based in Prague. You can read more of his musings on his blog Tales of Samwise.