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Four drag artists weigh in on RuPaul’s thoughtless H&M outburst

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‘The idea of polish, which really translates to money, plays into some of the biggest worries in our community right now’

Bing, bang, and indeed, bong. If, like me, those three exclamations have had you singing *that* song until you spiral into a glorious sleepless peril, then it’s likely you’re watching RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season two – a frond in the drag franchise that many would argue is better than the US version. And indeed, it is truly bloody fab: we stan tender-lentilled Bimini, Tayce has my blood-covered heart, Asttina leaves me jaw-dropped, and Lawrence’s buoys have got me soaking wet. 

But while the show is exactly the tonic we need right now – one of relief, gentle politics, and unbridled expression – it just can’t get it right. This isn’t on its contestants. If you watch carefully, a lot of their more radical edges make it to the final edit, as the immensely talented drag queens criticise Brexit, open up about being non-binary, and refuse to engage in capitalist competition centre-stage on the BBC. 

Instead, sadly, it’s the show’s host and namesake who’s not quite getting the memo. Namely, the one that detailed a global pandemic, and that all drag – all the way from Raf Simons and Mrs Prada’s high fashion creations, right through to straight-off-the-rack H&M – is valid.

It’s likely you know what I’m referring to right now. Returning to our screens after filming was halted in March and its queens were locked down like the rest of us, Ms Paul screamed at Mr Joe Black for wearing a pink, ruched number from the high street retailer on the runway. While the moment made for thrilling TV and spawned a lot of fab memays, this idea of ‘polish’ – which really translates to ‘money’ – plays into some of the biggest worries plaguing our community right now: that we can’t afford to look right. That we aren’t doing drag right. 

It’s news to no one that nightlife venues and live performance – the exact intersect at which drag exists – are in dire trouble. With little to no government support, no clue as to when or how these spaces will open up again, the loss of an entire year’s worth of gigs, and the likely closure of many venues with house performers like us, drag after the pandemic is going to look very, very different. 

At best, Ru’s outburst at the cheapness of Joe’s dress was tone-deaf. But really, this attitude highlights the slightly more grim ripple effect Drag Race can have on our wider community: one which decrees if you’re not wearing a custom look, you’re not doing drag properly. Combine this with the very real financial crisis countless drag performers and artists find themselves in the thick of, and you have a complicated, capitalist, and classist conundrum. 

In light of this, I reached out to some of the scene’s most iconic voices to get their take on H&M-gate. Here’s what they had to say. 

GINNY LEMON, DRAG ARTIST AND DRAG RACE SEASON TWO ALUMNUS

“To be honest I was shocked, I even took to Twitter, which is quite the thing for me to do. I was angry knowing what the girls were going through and the extreme amount of pressure lockdown has had on us, our mental health, and our bank balances – just like most people. 

To see my sisters back in the pressure cooker like that: seeing them boiled, boiled my piss. I adore Ru and the show, but coming for UK queens being too regional and wearing fucking H&M, I was like ‘bitch, what happened to you in lockdown?’ THIS IS BRITISH DRAG. We aren’t perfect, we can’t afford to splash all our money on frocks and frivolous crap when we have bills to pay and need to survive since having our income dashed away overnight. 

To me British drag is about expression, political and social activism, and engaging with your audience. After 2021 and all we’ve been through, I don’t give a shit what people look like – I just want to see people!”

CHIYO, PERFORMANCE ARTIST, DRAG KING, AND MR. GAY ENGLAND 2021 FINALIST

“No one needs me to sit here and explain how demanding haute couture from working-class, local performers in a worldwide pandemic is completely morally corrupt, and severely lacks compassion. And let’s face it: RuPaul completely popped off at one of the most glorified demographics the drag industry has to offer: A white, non-disabled, thin queen, who can take up space in the community as a gay man. 

If RuPaul deems it acceptable to completely lash out at Joe Black like this, it’s not too complex to figure out just how little respect he has for, say, a BIPOC, trans, ‘regional’ king like myself. 

Drag is just like any other industry in that it’s not immune from the perils of cis men and capitalism. So many ‘regional’ artists have been screaming about the financial disparities – and therefore transphobia, misogyny, racism, and classism – in drag for years. At this point, if people still cannot see how this entire industry has been commercialised to the point of austerity, it’s an active and deliberate ignorance.” 

SHAYSHAY, DRAG ARTIST AND CO-FOUNDER OF PAN-ASIAN CABARET COLLECTIVE THE BITTEN PEACH

“The requirement of drag performers to look ‘polished’, which is just a covert way of saying ‘expensive’, completely negates the joy that attracted me to drag in the first place. 

Drag has always been a DIY art form where artists make fashion out of trash – sometimes literally! Historically, the fashion world has always looked to drag performers and club kids for inspiration. And yet now, the commercialisation of drag has set an expectation for drag artists to wear high-fashion, custom pieces. While drag artists have always emulated opulence, they are now expected to display actual opulence with expensive looks. 

This is not to say that I don’t think a drag artist’s appearance is important – quite the contrary, I expect a drag artist to have an impactful look! But a high price is not a requirement for being impactful. Some of the best drag artists create looks from paper, paints, and ripped tights – like Charity Kase, Rodent, and Oedipussi Rex.”

FEARON, DESIGNER AND ARTIST

Drag Race has created an aesthetic box for drag to be commercialised and disseminated to the masses. There is value in this, but it’s dominance can be restrictive and is really frustrating – the fact that one TV show dominates the discourse around an *entire* queer art form feels wrong. 

Drag Race has an impact on everyone that does drag, but in very different ways. For those who aspire to be on the show I think there is definitely a pressure to be perceived as ‘polished’ – which feels like another word for ‘professional’ and I hate that. 

It deals in these weird, shifting, often hypocritical standards of what drag can or can’t be, standards that don’t allow for a wider spectrum of expression or perspective. But it’s the queers that are innovating out of necessity and passion for their art that can sometimes make the most interesting work.”