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Beyond the Drag Race

To this point, mainstream audiences’ foremost reference to drag culture was RuPaul. HBO’s ‘We’re Here’ owes a debt to Ru—spiritually and literally—but it’s also expanding the idea of what drag entertainment can be.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Drag may be an art, but historically it’s also a form of nightlife. It came of age in bars and clubs, limiting its audience not just to members of the queer community but to those with the ability and inclination to see it after hours and in person. For decades, the average drag aficionado was urbane, a little tipsy, and most importantly, 21 and up.

Over the past 11 years, RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag into the daylight, a process both metaphorical and extremely literal. A few years ago, I attended the RuPaul-affiliated DragCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center, an event gathering thousands of Drag Race fans to attend panels and collect photo ops in a 48-hour sprint. There was some cognitive dissonance, not to mention amusement, in watching fully made-up queens soberly discuss their work under less-than-flattering fluorescent lights. But DragCon also showcased the full range of drag’s late-2010s audience: not just adults, but teenagers, young children, and their families, all milling around an all-ages venue at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. As at most drag events, there was a fair amount of raunch, but the overall effect was downright wholesome.

DragCon’s mere existence is a testament to how Drag Race has grown into a thriving cottage industry, with a full roster of spinoffs—All Stars; Secret Celebrity Drag Race; international editions in Thailand, Canada, and the U.K.—and even more satellites. Former contestants Willam and Shangela Laquifa Wadley had a scene-stealing, largely improvised turn in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born. In 2018, Netflix released Dancing Queen, a docu-series centered on Texas pageant queen Alyssa Edwards. Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio headlined her own globe-spanning comedy tour. The Drag Race economy may have hit a temporary speed bump as the pandemic forces performers onto platforms like Zoom and Instagram Live, but even without in-person gatherings, drag remains a cultural force.

The HBO series We’re Here both draws on and demonstrates drag’s new place in the zeitgeist. Now two-thirds through its six-episode season, We’re Here stars three alumni of RuPaul’s Drag Race—Shangela, Eureka O’Hara, and Bob the Drag Queen—assembled into a slo-mo-strutting supergroup. Every week, the trio descends on a new far-flung locale like space aliens from the planet Glamazon, ready to proclaim their presence to crowds of varying reception. (The remaining two-thirds of the AIDS-era slogan that gives the show its name are “we’re queer” and “get used to it.”) Like preachers in bedazzled bodysuits, they’re there to spread the word.

We now live in a world where drag queens walk the Oscars red carpet and have for several years. (To be fair, we also still live in a world where Drag Queen Story Hour has the power to reduce right-wing pundits to a state of apoplexy.) But We’re Here cements a different kind of mainstream legitimacy: the idea that drag is truly for everyone, as an audience member or even a performer. As the crew scopes out a venue in Branson, Missouri, the proprietor suspiciously states the theater limits itself to “family” fare, the clear implication being that drag is automatically disqualified. With infinite patience and just a slight edge of irritation, Bob replies, “We have families too.” Then Shangela starts twerking.

Co-created by entertainment lawyer Steve Warren and his partner, advertising executive Johnnie Ingram, We’re Here recycles the template of another widely celebrated series. (We’re Here is entirely directed and showrun by Peter LoGreco.) Like Netflix’s reimagining of Queer Eye, We’re Here drops its stars into locations that in no way resemble the queer community’s typical settings. The episodes take place in small towns that vary by region—Civil War battlefields, Ozark resort towns, New Mexico desert—but share an insular, rural, and conservative profile. Our heroes swoop in, adopt local residents as “drag daughters,” and help them put on a professional-caliber show.

On Drag Race, the competition plays out in a deliberately heightened context. Apart from the judges, virtually every person we see is a drag queen interacting with other drag queens. We’re Here shows drag where it actually exists, in the real world, and performs a telling role reversal. RuPaul is Drag Race’s grande dame, a mentor and role model who brings contestants under his wing while giving them a major platform. With We’re Here, the students have become the teachers. Bob, Shangela, and Eureka are now the mother hens, doling out the same advice and guidance they once received on national television: be yourself, practice self-love, embrace difference, and laugh.

The transition isn’t an entirely natural one. Shangela first made an impression as a sparring partner in one of the most classic reality catfights of Drag Race’s early seasons. (“You could NEVER have a sugar daddy, because you are NOT. THAT. KIND. OF. GIRL.”) Eureka, too, was something of a villain—or at least a controversial figure—in her original run. It takes some production to pivot from making an emotional mess to cleaning one up, and to their credit, the We’re Here cast is well aware of their shifting gears. “I was nervous at first,” Eureka told The Wrap. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not a psychologist, I’m gonna try to help these people and end up fucking them up.’”

Compared to 10 or even five years ago, though, audiences are now primed to see drag queens as spiritual guidance counselors as well as entertainers. After an hour spent in the trenches of self-help, Bob starts lip-syncing to her novelty catchphrase turned single, “Purse First,” a staple of the post–Drag Race promotional cycle. The number barely inspires a blink, let alone whiplash. It’s all part of the same package.

We’re Here’s central trio are all seasoned performers and exceptional screen presences, empowered by a premium-cable budget to make the most of their abilities. (The cast are assisted in their makeovers by a full crew of support staff, including production designers, backup dancers, hair stylists, and makeup artists.) But some of the most impressive work on the show happens offscreen in the form of casting. Through an unseen but extensive selection process, the producers have assembled a broad array of ready-made tearjerkers: a reformed homophobe trying to make amends to her bisexual daughter, a gay man who’s renounced his sexuality in the name of his religion, a small-town drag troupe without the resources to realize their vision. They’re smartly selected to showcase both the challenges and hidden diversity of small-town life.

The subjects of We’re Here go to show just how big a tent drag has become, and how widely it’s understood as less a material practice than a state of mind. These “drag daughters” include straight male allies, gay women, trans men, straight women, and drag’s traditional demographic of gay men. They get different rewards out of drag—catharsis, fun, a freedom of expression they can’t find in their everyday lives—and achieve those rewards in different ways. Some engage in choreographed dance routines that chart their emotional journey. Some dress up as men. Some learn to walk in heels and shake their ass.

What all these arcs have in common is an understanding of drag as a spiritual transformation, not just a physical one. It’s a thesis statement borne out by the performances, which turn the final 20 minutes of every episode into a raucous, moving concert film. But it’s also an idea that’s been put forward in many other places by many other voices over the years so gradually that We’re Here registers as standard comfort fare for well-meaning liberals and not a radical statement. It’s not such a long way from dressing up like Beyoncé for cash tips to helping a father set an example for his chronically ill young daughter. It just took us a while to see the connection.