In the second episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 5, the queens wrote, recorded and performed their own verses for “I’m in Love,” dedicated to their celebrity crushes. The second the challenge was announced it was Shea Couleé’s episode to win. And, dressed in a nude bodysuit dripping in rhinestones, an afro wig and African-inspired accessories (including what looked to be Ndebele-inspired neck-rings), for a runway theme about embracing your skin, it became a powerful hour full of pure black excellence (truly).
View this post on Instagram
“Love the Skin You’re In” is a concept that took a long time for me to come to terms with. I’ve been told that I’m too dark, too nappy, too femme to be considered beautiful. That’s why I wanted to fully embrace black beauty in this runway presentation. I also wanted to focus on my roots. I hope you like this recreation of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ but BLACK. Starring all the members of Maison Couleé. @kenziecoulee, @bambibankscoulee, @babycouleé, and introducing the NEWEST member of the Haus, my baby, @khloecoulee! Make sure you go and give her a follow! Photo: myself & @danpolyak Art/Edit: @kindasupermario Body suit/Airbrushing: @troycford Stoning: @michaelbrambila using @crystalsbypreciosa Hair: @nathanjuergensen Nails: @bbygirlnails
But, while this was all happening and we witnessed Mariah Paris Balenciaga’s powerful piece of performance art about systemic racism against black people last week, a moment from the episode posed the question for many: does the RuPaul’s Drag Race fandom have a problem with racism?
All stars 5 was recorded over a year ago and Mariah’s performance was most relevant at this time and political climate we are on, it was beautiful 🙁 pic.twitter.com/jhdTASeUl9— Ferneyy (@IStealYourWIFI) June 8, 2020
The way black and white queens are portrayed and welcomed by the Drag Race community is not the same
It’s no secret that there’s a difference in the way the RuPaul’s Drag Race fandom reacts to white queens, black queens and other queens of colour. Despite over half of the 149 contestants being people of colour, only two of the top ten most followed queens on Instagram are not white—Bianca Del Rio (1st) and Kim Chi (5th), according to a RuPaul’s Drag Race Instagram rich list. The most followed black queens are Naomi Smalls (12th), Y’vie Oddly (16th), Aja (18th), Shea Couleé (19th) and Shangela (20th), compare that to the most followed white queens—Trixie Mattel (2nd), Adore Delano (3rd), Katya Zamolodchikova (4th), Violet Chachki (6th) and Alyssa Edwards (7th).
Sure, it’s not Trixie’s or Adore’s fault that there isn’t a single black queen in the top 10 most followed queens from the show, but it speaks to a larger problem here. Despite RuPaul’s Drag Race featuring a vibrant and diverse cast of drag performers from various backgrounds and experiences, the fandom prefers a near all-white cast. This is made even worse by the fact that, prior to the tie between Trinity The Tuck and Monét X Change in All Stars 4, the All Stars Hall of Fame consisted of purely blonde white queens.
When Jaida Essence Hall won RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 earlier this year, the hashtag “#gigigoodewasrobbed” started to trend. Some fans believed that Jaida won because Gigi was nearly disqualified for originally making her at home music video in a studio. This week on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 5, fans argued that Shea won her lip sync against Alyssa Edwards only because Alyssa wasn’t giving it her all, implying that a black queen can only succeed if a white queen is disqualified or not performing at their best.
THE REACTION TO MIZ CRACKER’S EDIT ON RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE: ALL STARS 5 SAYS A LOT ABOUT THE FANDOM
In the beginning of this week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 5, Miz Cracker confesses that she struggled to sleep the night before. As she explained, clenching her pink woollen coat, she was riddled with guilt over the fact she couldn’t send Ongina home in the first episode and felt she should’ve been eliminated instead of being safe. In the Untucked episode before this scene plays out, Ongina tells the group she’s struggling with her self-confidence and is second-guessing whether she belongs on All Stars.
Given that context, Cracker’s comments feel like a manipulation tactic to weaken her competition at best, and a bully kicking someone who’s already down at its worst (which is how I personally saw it). Later on in the episode, the other queens admit that they all find Cracker difficult to work with and “egotistical,” which she disagrees with but shares that people often think of her that way. Then, in Untucked, Alexis Matteo calls her out on her fake niceties and the way she’s artificially trying to create an image of herself.
She discloses in her confessionals that being difficult to work with and not knowing why has been an issue she’s struggled with, stemming from her experience with anxiety. And, she apologises to Ongina… after the challenge during Untucked. But, in a recent Instagram post, Ongina clearly admits that she’s still hurt by Cracker’s comments and is yet to feel a proper apology.
“And to Miz Cracker, I just want to say that I hope next time you are surrounded by queens, whether it’s a local stage or a world stage like All Stars, if a queen is feeling nervous, unsure of themselves or losing confidence that you choose to uplift them instead of kicking them while they’re already on the ground,” she wrote. “We can make the choice to be genuine and sisterly even in a competition where $100K is on the line.”
When this episode aired, fans defended Cracker’s comments on the show. Many shared their own experiences and resonated with Cracker’s struggles to relate to others and how that’s exacerbated by their social anxiety, and blamed it on the “edit.” This reaction is a stark contrast to the way the black queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race have experienced a similar “villain edit.”
According to Pink News, The Vixen was frequently sent death threats and abuse for her Untucked fights with Aquaria and Eureka O’Hara on season 10, and quite frankly, still is to this day. When Valentina was eliminated on season 9 after infamously not knowing the words to Ariana Grande’s “Greedy,” Nina Bonina Brown, who lip synced against her, was sent online abuse and fans demanded she step down from the show and let Valentina continue in her place. Then, when Naomi Smalls sent Manila Luzan home in RuPaul’s Drag: All Stars 4, in perhaps the most shocking elimination but best lip sync performance that entire season, she was sent an onslaught of hate.
Silky Nutmeg Ganache experienced so much hate on her season that she was literally booed and bullied by the crowd at the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 Lip Sync For The Crown finale. And for many, like Britta Filter during her run on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12, this racially-charged online abuse is so bad that queens often have to retire from social media and are afraid of returning to the show and copping more abuse.
Each of these instances feature a white drag queen vs a black drag queen. Or, as certain members of the fandom continually see it: a white victim and a black “villain.” This interpretation stems from a larger issue of systemic racism against black people and aversive racist attitudes. Given the importance of black and POC trans trailblazers like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera to the queer community as a whole, it’s even more problematic.
This has me thinking: if Miz Cracker was black, would she have as many people defending her actions? If everyone on the show is saying she’s “difficult to work with” and “egotistical,” that’s not simply ‘an edit’—it’s indicative of her behaviour.
Last week, in the midst of the current Black Lives Matter protests against the systemic racism and police brutality against BIPOC communities, the official RuPaul’s Drag Race instagram made a public statement, albeit extremely belated, about the racism within its fandom.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag as an art form would be nothing without the contributions of our Black queens,” the post read. “Black Lives Matter. Period. We condemn racism in all of its forms, and are taking additional steps to be anti-racist specifically towards comments directed at our Black Queens.”
“If you post hateful, racist comments, you will be blocked. There is no room in this fandom for anything but positivity and encouragement for ALL of our queens.”
In response, Silky said that this post alone does “more than they know.”
“I found myself angry often because my whole life, I had to fight for every accomplishment including my run on Season 11,” they said. “I never imagined the amount of racism masked by ‘You were mean to Yvie’, ‘You picked up Miley’, or ‘Your drag wasn’t quality (even though that got me on the show and I brought my entire closet from home spending less than $500). Hopefully now, I can be seen for my entertainment value and talent that I have.”
But still, this has been long overdue. Like, 12 years overdue. I love RuPaul’s Drag Race— from the cattiness and the drama to the flawless fashion, catchphrases, lip sync performances and heartwarming moments. And, it’s a genuinely fun show that celebrates queer, black and minority voices. It’s time the fandom does the same. Treat these performers the same irrespective of their skin colour. And, as always, stan Shea Couleé.