A 29-year-old drag queen from Brooklyn, New York known as Sasha Velour is lip syncing to Whitney Houston’s So Emotional. She’s gliding across the stage; a graceful avant-garde, bald ballerina.
Arms clad in opera-length bronze gloves, Velour vogues alongside fellow queen Shea Couleé, sauntering her hips and moving her lips soundlessly. Then, she craned her neck and began tugging at her wig. Pantomiming a seizure, she grabbed each scarlet lock to unleash a cascade of rose petals—just as Houston’s ballad reached its dénouement.
Watch the performance:
It was the season 9 finale of VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. Nearly 9 million people watched as Velour won the coveted title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, making Drag Race history for the most-watched finale. It was, in the eternal words of Whitney Houston, “So emotional.”
When RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in February 2009, the show targeted a niche audience: an LGBT community already ensconced in the drag scene and queer culture, with its flair for pageantry and spectacular excess. For eight seasons it reigned supreme on Logo, Viacom’s LGBT-focused network.
After longtime show host RuPaul Charles won an Emmy last year for Best Reality Host, it seemed like an optimal time to bring queer storytelling to mainstream audiences—and Drag Race sashayed from Logo to VH1.
“Broadcasting the show on VH1 will allow more fans to experience the energy, heart, and talent these fierce queens bring to the stage every week,” said Pamela Post, Logo’s original programming senior vice president, in an interview with the Huffington Post in March, right before the season 9 premiere. Nearly 1 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode on VH1—a Drag Race record.
“We brought in a whole new set of audience that is loving the show,” said VH1, MTV and Logo President McCarthy on the program’s move to its new network. “From Martha & Snoop to Hip Hop Squares, VH1 is where pop culture comes to party.”
So far, the party hasn’t stopped. This season’s final episode was the most-viewed Drag Race finale ever, and swayed social media that day, trending across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In July, the show was nominated for eight Emmys.
— RuPaul’s Drag Race (@RuPaulsDragRace) July 13, 2017
Drag Race’s phenomenal success this year isn’t only a result of its move to VH1. As a megaphone for LGBT culture, Drag Race fills an urgent space in the cultural dialogue, exploring issues relevant to that community and dispersing that knowledge across a much broader spectrum.
“We educate people and bring them up to speed on what the gay rights movement has been all about, and in doing so, it sheds light on all human rights movements,” said RuPaul in an interview with Billboard. “On the surface, our show is light and fun…underneath the surface is a real political standpoint.”
This season of Drag Race addressed last year’s Orlando massacre, discrimination against trans and LGBT people in the drag community and larger population, and Chechnya’s horrific mass torture and murder of LGBT citizens. Contestants also discussed LGBT history—such as the decades-long AIDS epidemic and its impact on the LGBT community.
They touched on lighter topics, as well. One episode focused on New York’s underground “Club Kid” era in the 1980s and ‘90s, with contestants incorporating elements from that legendary scene into their drag costumes.
Watch a clip:
“There’s a great divide in our country and around the world,” said RuPaul in an interview with Variety. “The 20th century sensibility is clashing with 21st century forward thinking, and I think our show epitomizes 21st century forward thinking.” It does this by challenging the status quo, by showing viewers it’s okay to be different, to wear wigs, to go bald, to present as both a man and a woman.
Drag Race “challenges the matrix” of identity politics, as RuPaul told HuffPost. “Drag says, ‘I’m a shape-shifter, I do whatever the hell I want at any given time.’ And that is very, very political.”
Con-drag-ulations to the cast, crew and queens who brought this magical show to the forefront of mainstream entertainment—and the attention of the Emmy voting committee. As RuPaul would say, “Gentleman, start your engines, and may the best woman win.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race will return for its 10th season in March 2018 on VH1, and read more about Viacom’s Emmy nominations.