It’s Not Reality TV. It’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.
RuPaul’s Drag Race goes beyond the typical immersion of reality TV shows — its viewers are fully involved in its very real, vibrant, and authentic community. As an audience, we are not just bystanders watching drama unfold. The show has articulated its own reality TV semantics through which it brings drag queens and fans together. The multiplicity of references to past seasons has successfully constructed a cultural capital specific to RuPaul’s Drag Race. The series’ ability to adapt its format, and yet remain loyal to its traditions, is what successfully engages its audience in the world of drag.
Reality TV shows follow a formulaic recipe, but the beauty of RuPaul’s Drag Race is its ability to play with its own conventions. After all, RuPaul runs the place. And when you make the rules, you can break them. Surrounded by a panel of judges and the best sidekick in Herstory, Michelle Visage, RuPaul’s ultimate authority determines who goes home after the bottom two contestants lip-sync for their place in the competition.
RuPaul proves time and time again that this ritual rests on his final judgement alone. But in season 3, he unexpectedly flips the script of the lip-sync competition and chooses to eliminate two queens at once. This rare decision only occurs again in season 8 when he decides neither contestant is passionate enough to stay. Likewise, in only four lip-syncs in Drag Race Herstory, RuPaul doesn’t eliminate any queen and gives them another chance. Despite being the most structured segment of the show, the lip-sync’s outcome reveals how RuPaul bends the rules in favor of the queens who prove how deserving they are. Instead of adhering to the rigid format of reality TV elimination, the competition rewards the queens that are in it to win it.
RuPaul’s Drag Race not only plays with reality TV tropes, but also pokes fun at their repetitive nature with RuPaul’s mantras:
While talk show hosts repeat, “We’ll be right back,” RuPaul says, “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.” His mottos frame each episode’s segment, and have become so automatic for viewers that they make video compilations of all the times he switches them up. Apart from these expressions, a lot of his catchphrases like, “May I call you Jiggly?” become jokes contestants repeat throughout the seasons. In fact, the show’s strength is the intricate references each season contributes to the Drag Race discourse. In season 5, Alyssa Edwards is made fun of for her “back rolls,” and the insult becomes an iconic quote for fans and drag-superstar-competitors alike.
Other quotes, like winner Bianca Del Rio’s, “Not today, Satan, not today,” are adopted into fans’ every-day-conversations. The more familiar you are with the series, the more literate you are with its structure, and the greater your cultural knowledge of Drag Race is. The show uses this familiarity to both immerse viewers in drag culture and make its lexicon more mainstream.
In addition to the inside jokes the community shares, RuPaul’s Drag Race rewards long-time audience members with classic challenges. You can’t be the next drag superstar if you can’t lip-sync for your life. But you also can’t win if you’re not familiar with the show’s staple challenges. Any fan of the show can be detected a mile away by their gleeful shrieks whenever the words “Snatch Game” are mentioned.
In this work-of-art challenge, a dragified version of Match Game, contestants impersonate celebrities ranging from Britney Spears to Mae West. And if you say, “The library is open,” a flock of drag queens will come flying at you to throw witty shade in the traditional drag practice of “reading.” Of course, no season would be complete without the makeover challenge, in which the contestants are asked to make older men into drag moms, athletes into drag sisters, and grooms into brides… to mention a few. Throughout the seasons, successful activities also become familiar elements of the Drag Race competition. In its fourth season, a new mini challenge asking contestants to take puppets representing them was fully integrated in the show. The queens use the puppets to imitate and tease each other’s personalities and habits, which makes them more relatable to the audience and reinforces the feeling of community. By featuring classic content, the competition’s format enriches each season and immerses viewers into the series’ history.
But the show doesn’t only follow traditions, it also breaks them. The key to RuPaul’s Drag Race and its tight-knit community links back to when the show broke away from its finale structure and started a new custom with its most significant ceremony: the Reunion Finale. In season 4, RuPaul revealed that the winner would only be announced during the “Reunited” episode in front of a live audience in Los Angeles. Fans could share their choice of the winning queen on social media, and the first Reunion Finale consequently trended five U.S. topics on Twitter. By delaying the announcement of the winning queen, the show underwent a shift that increased the fans’ participation. Beyond the viewers’ engagement, the main difference between RuPaul’s Drag Race and other reality TV shows is the level of involvement past queens have in each new season. Year after year, past winners come back to greet the new drag superstar while other contestants participate as hosts or are spotted in the audience. Although shows like America’s Next Top Model feature past winners as occasional guests, none bring contestants together to the same extent as Drag Race. Even the most infamous personalities on the show become a beloved fixture of RuPaul’s world. And that’s because Drag Race isn’t just about winning a competition. It’s about a community that embraces the unapologetic eleganza extravaganza of every individual.
Drawing inspiration from America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, Logo TV’s series goes beyond the traditional reality TV show formula. Instead, RuPaul’s Drag Race is explicitly self-aware and plays with the conventions and catchphrases that structure its episodes. The very format of RuPaul’s Drag Race reflects the intricate layers of its community, from inside jokes to cultural references. The show is authentic — not because it lacks scripting or editing — but because of how genuine the queens’ and fans’ investment is. RuPaul’s Drag Race has done more than provide a platform for drag queens, it has built a cultural legacy for them in Herstory.