“I don’t want to see fucking H&M.” RuPaul shouted a menacing flame of fire behind her eyes. Joe Black from Drag Race UK season 2 was the receiver, and it became a Drag Race moment that could be immediately quoted for generations. But behind the simulated drama that makes up the reality TV show, there are the real problems behind the iconic moments of laughter and Twitter edits that aren’t well-spoken. The cost of participating in RuPaul’s drag races and succeeding is putting a price on a queen who isn’t currently in a position to spend endless thousands of dollars on runway looks. “You don’t need money to do a drag race, you just have to be clever and innovative,” has been the saying RuPaul and Michelle Visage have spit out over the years when judging the runways. But how true is that when franchises and Drag Race UK continue to raise the level of audiences, expectations and the resulting financial costs?
Another precedent was set when RuPaul created Joe Black’s H&M dress show and example. This was a dress for a challenge performance number, not a runway look. Previously in drag races, aside from minor criticism, the look worn in this section was very important. But this was a blast, and Joe Black endured scolding for changing clothes in a store-bought dress. It took the main stage with an extremely elaborate and detailed beach look with a lot of effort put into it, but that meant “I didn’t put in enough effort when I bought that cheap dress.”
To learn more about Drag Race’s financial pressures, we spoke with the queens of Drag Race UK season 3 to hear their opinions on the cost of the competition and what changes could be made to make it easier for everyone to appear in DRUK.
River Medway: ‘There’s a real classist problem with drag’
After being criticized for her runway standards and openly discussing her working-class background on the show, season 3 queen River Medway told me: I don’t know why. We are real people, and if we want to tell a real story, we have to show the mantis and everything. I sometimes see them [Drag Race production] I don’t want to talk about it. It was clearly mentioned in the broadcast, but it was not broadcast.”
“It is a gray area. If I had the money, I’d love to have every outfit custom made, but I literally couldn’t. I’m pretty sure I spent the least money on the show of all. Not everyone knows how much they’re spending, but you know who could afford it. And the good thing about them, I’m not bitter about it. But imagine you have a fancy fruit bowl made by a designer. It’s amazing. I had no resources. I had two friends who helped me with sewing. I paid the designer for 2 outfits and that’s all. All my jewelry is from eBay. It’s unfortunate because I know that it would have been a different show if some people had had my budget and resources.”
‘You don’t need money to drag, you need money to run a drag race’
The queen who felt the most financial pressure was Veronica Green, who participated in Seasons 2 and 3 of Drag Race UK in a very short time and didn’t have time to create more postseason coins due to the pandemic. There are big restrictions. The financial burden was high and there was a lot of pressure to do better than before. There is a fanbase anticipation that this glow-up transformation will be the second. Many people forget how fast the transition between season 2 and season 3 is. We are in the midst of a global pandemic.
People say she needs to wrap up her year, and she comes back like this. It took me only a few weeks to get the Drag Race UK ready with no money. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. I couldn’t put food on the table and my fiance supported me financially. It’s not that I’m attracted to my fashion, it’s that the fans make it, so I have to fit into a certain frame. I think sometimes some of us are falling behind the idea of having to look like a million dollars when we can’t afford to live on our own.
I thought for a moment whether it was classist for the drag race to approach the runway look a little more standard, and I asked working-class queen Veronica if she thought there were Queens who couldn’t even audition because of such expectations. Many queens do. I used to be an ordinary queen, but I learned to sew myself for season 2 and now I’m making a lot of things myself. Every year they want Drag Race to be number one, and I think that’s losing connection with real people. It is in some way parallel to itself.”
‘If I had known how, it wouldn’t have looked like it was in season 3’
Scarlett Harlett also told me about her experience competing in Drag Race UK without money, and I asked her what she thought could be changed to make it easier to compete on the show. “It’s hard. If I had known how, it wouldn’t have looked like it did in season 3! I’m not ashamed to say I’m a working-class guy and I didn’t have the money to get into this show. It’s a dress I don’t regret wearing, but it’s a funny moment, would it have been better to look cool? Totally. But you have to choose and choose what you can do. People say I’m so scared of wearing clothes that they make RuPaul laugh and make a huge amount of money to compensate. I don’t understand that you put pressure on it.
“It’s hard to set up a show without money. To be honest, you won’t let Drag Race UK disappoint.”
‘We’re seeing more POC queens affected by this and it’s definitely unfair’
I spoke with Salute Banks, a London-based drag artist who now lives in Leeds, to get the Queen’s point of view, who didn’t participate in Drag Race UK or didn’t apply because of financial issues. “Considering the exhibition application, I think it will definitely be delayed. I don’t think I would have applied without knowing that I had a lot of money saved up in advance. If I apply, I will only apply after I know I can show off my wig, runway look, and shoes.
“Obviously it’s unfair and more POC queens are being affected by it. I read an article by Freida Slaves that the talented POC and black queens of London couldn’t even apply. If you’re good at sewing and looking, you can’t afford to buy expensive runways, but if you’re poor and can’t sew like me, you’re screwed. London has so many talented POCs and black queens, but what did we see? Tayce, Vanity and Asttina? in three seasons? And Tia Kofi read all over her runway. It is unfair, hierarchical and inaccessible to many of us.”
‘The difference between the person who spends the most and the person who spends the least is crazy’
Charity Kase, who made all her looks on the show, was very enthusiastic when talking about the cost of preparing Drag Race UK. “You have to spend thousands of pounds in drag races. You can’t do a drag race for a few hundred pounds, that’s impossible. And if you’re lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family, it’s a lot easier for you. I can tell you the difference between those who wrote the most and those who wrote the least and that’s crazy. I’m not going to say the numbers because that’s not where I’m going to speak. But the difference is striking.”
If I had the money to order a fancy gown that inspired the shape of my koi fish, I would have spent a few days going to a stand-up comedy workshop or taking a choreography class instead of four days making my own. I had no choice but to make the costume myself. You can go to the designer and buy other people’s styles. You can buy other people’s taste. The harsh truth of it is that it makes a difference.”
How can Drag Race UK change to make it more accessible financially?
Talking to Charity Kase, she came up with two main ways Drag Race UK could level the financial arena. “I think the show should set budget limits so that high-income people don’t get undue advantage. Give us a budget or set a limit.” I brought Charity’s proposal to the other queens and everyone went crazy about it as an answer to an emerging question.
River Medway agreed with the proposal. I don’t have much money, so I have to be very creative and resourceful and think about different ways of doing things. Why do I have to go through this when there are people I don’t need? Even with all the money in the world, drag racing is stressful enough.” The fourth queen, Vanity Milan, said, “Yes, I give people a set cap or spending budget to help the queen who wants to go to the show but has no money.”
‘It will really challenge creativity, and in the end a drag race should be all about creativity’
When I spoke to Choriza May about the cost of competing in Drag Race UK, she referred to an article by Freida Slaves, citing the runway’s financial burden as to why the show wasn’t as diverse as expected. “The money issue is delaying Drag Race UK. Maybe if we could get a little help buying a look that would help a lot? We depend on our savings and our families. Shout at them because the show wouldn’t happen without them, because in a short time your friends have to make a lot of costumes for a much cheaper price than usual.”
When I referenced Charity’s idea of limiting the budget, Choriza said: Because, after all, Drag Race UK has to be about creativity. Once a week, the art look was hand-painted, so it wasn’t very expensive. It was one of my cheapest and most influential. It can be easier to invest the money when you have it and let someone else handle the design.”
Drag Race UK is currently one of the best and most progressive TV shows the country has to offer, it’s changing the lives of queers, and bringing Drag better to a new audience who’s never touched American cinema. They have the platform and talent to make this show exemplary. If you make some changes to make all the drags valid on the global stage as well as the club.
Tab contacted the BBC for the story, but declined to comment.
Suggested stories from this author:
Scarlett Harlett on the Drag Race UK press and how she wants to be the next Rylan
Choriza May and River Medway break the silence about RuPauls’ worst decision in drag racing history.
By the time I left, I didn’t want to go there: Charity Kase on her Drag Race UK tour
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