RuPaul’s Drag Race takes the UK by storm

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK finally got under way at the start of October, yet it’s still up for debate whether it’s just the US version with a British coat of paint.

Of course the actual format of the show remains relatively unchanged; most episodes consist of both a mini and main challenge, there’s a runway, and finally the bottom two lip sync to stay in the competition.

But obviously the characters and references are, well… British. Or sometimes a very American view of what it means to be British.

The queens themselves certainly give the show a different flavour. No longer are queens spouting off quotes from Mariah Carey – instead we get references to the queen of clean, Kim Woodburn.

Irish drag queen Maura Darragh said the UK queens just seem more relatable. “In America they all walk into the workroom like they’ve won the competition,” she said. “Their confidence is excessive and off-putting.” 

“Each queen on drag race UK just seems sure of themselves and what they can do and bring to the competition,” she added. 

While that may seem superficial, it does change the tone of the show substantially. Throughout the last few seasons of its US counterpart, the show has become increasingly self-referential. Sometimes infuriatingly so. 

The UK version is somewhat disconnected from that, and frankly it’s refreshing. That’s not to say the queens don’t reference the original show, but it’s not as obnoxious as before. 

“Nobody takes themselves too seriously; they’re there to work, win a competition but having fun along the way,” Darragh said.  

As mentioned earlier though, the show can often present a very shallow version of British culture. It’s likely this has less to do with the queens and more with production.

For example, the first two challenges centred on Queen Elizabeth and Downton Abbey. Both of these are of course British – almost obnoxiously so. And that’s the problem.

Going for the most obvious culture references is unoriginal and uninspired. But perhaps by getting them out of the way at the start, production will be forced to reach into the depths of Britain’s rich camp culture. 

That said, not everything has to be branded with a Union Jack. The challenges could prove to be very limiting if their restricted to always putting a British spin on it.

Perhaps the most notable change was the lack of prize money. US winners receive a substantial $100,000, whereas the winner of the UK version will only get a web show. Hardly the same.

More than likely that’s due to the fact that the UK version is aired on BBC Three. It’s not hard to imagine why a broadcaster which is funded by the British taxpayer might not want to give out huge amounts of money to a drag queen. 

Prize money aside, the UK version illustrates the mainstreaming of drag. With Drag Race Australia on the way, what was once a niche show is now becoming a worldwide franchise similar to X Factor or The Voice. 

Brendan Fernando Kelly Palenque 

Image Credit: BBC Three