I have been cosplaying for over 10 years. At least 5 of those years, in my opinion, have been good. I also happen to love RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now, one would think there’s little intersection between drag and cosplay, but really, cosplay is drag for nerds and drag is a gateway for many to get into cosplay. Really, we’re doing similar things. Selling illusion and essence, punishing our bodies to fit impossible standards of beauty and expressing ourselves with fashion.
But cosplay and being surrounded by talented fashionable people means that the drag competition show for me is at times a conflicting mess of what I like most about drag and what I hate most about cosplay.
Let’s get a few things clear off the bat. I started cosplaying in the mid-2000s and I am a person of color. So, my brand of cosplay has always been detail oriented, mostly concerned about characterization and about having fun. I’ve never been a huge prop-smith (though I’m working on it) and I’ve never been one for giant builds like a Kamui Cosplay or the like. I much rather have bought a piece than immediately be clocked. As far as drag goes, well my favorite season is probably 7 and my favorite queens are ones that hold rather rigid standards of female impersonation like Trinity the Tuck and Katya. Not that I can’t appreciate more gender non-conforming queens or less fishy queens but when it comes down to taste, I’ll take a Brooke Lynn Hytes over a Scarlet Envy any day.
I started to give thought to how cosplay and drag intersected when watching Fashion Photo RuView with Aquaria (of season 10) and Raja (an immortal wine-drinking, pot-smoking alien goddess here to make us all better people) were discussing the runway looks of Season 11’s episode involving fringe (Willam’s favorite color). Raja clocked Yvie Oddly’s look which was a jellyfish-inspired number and Raja commented on her having seen this look before and it looked a little pedestrian for a look that was mostly body paint and a modded umbrella.
On the runway, Yvie got a lot of praise about bringing something to the runway that no one had seen before. And while I was reading the comments of mostly newer fans of Drag Race giving Raja a hard time for having an opinion, I couldn’t help but agree with my one of my favorite winners. It is pedestrian. I have seen this done before and I’ve seen this done before better. I’ve seen someone attach scrap fabric from Jo-Ann Fabrics to an umbrella: it isn’t high fashion. If a Pinterest Mom can do it for a last minute kid’s Halloween costume; a drag queen can certainly do it; and thus, it does not earn a great deal of praise to me.
This feeling of a lack of awe while watching Drag Race is not new. I remember feeling it while watching The Future of Drag episode of All-Stars Season 2. Phi Phi O’Hara decided that cosplay was a good way to bring back her fading celebrity and make her likable and when she entered All-Stars 2 as a “cosplayer” I mostly rolled my eyes. Her Riddler look was good but nothing I haven’t seen at convention and her looks were increasingly mall drag as far as I could tell. The Future of Drag runway though featured Phi Phi in a skin-tight suit and an over-sized gun. Now, I would be a contrarian if I didn’t admin that she did look cool.
And I was a little shocked about how she brought that prop with her. But again, it was nothing I have not seen from Plexi, Kamui or IBlue. It was cool but if you’ve seen a costume contest at a big convention, you’ve seen that look.
Now, let’s be honest, I couldn’t make that gun. I couldn’t pull off that look. I’m not bashing Phi Phi, I’m just saying my wig was not gone, I was not snatched, I was not gagged. It was a look, it was a look I’ve seen before for years now. That doesn’t make it any less artful or beautiful, just that it takes a little of the luster off the diamond from my point of view.
Another example of where cosplay knowledge meant that certain aspects of Drag Race were a little less than stellar was with Nina Bonina Brown. Nina was famed for being a makeup artist and could transform her face using makeup and paper.
Now, she’s talented and sickening in her own way but again, after years of being on the con circuit and seeing makeup tutorial after makeup tutorial…a paper peach does not rare talent make. After awhile, her gimmick wore thin for me, especially as other parts of her drag became repetitive: again I found myself agreeing with Raja and Manila when they said, we see what she can do and now a skull or a painted face is not enough. I, like the two immortal fashion goddesses, wanted more from her after seeing what Nina had to offer week after week.
Drag Race also echoes a lot of conversations said in the cosplay community: questions around whether you’re still a cosplayer if you don’t “make” your own costumes. The argument that if you don’t make every part of your costume thus invalidating your work is very real but I do think when it comes to Drag Race it’s a little different. I remember that talk on Season 9 with Farrah Moan and Kimora Blac being on one side of the “ugly girls make their own clothes” argument and Trinity and Shea and literally almost everyone else asserted that it is important to know how to sew to be a drag queen. I think once you make it to the show, you should know how to sew. But if you’re fine being a showgirl, I’m not here to judge. I know I don’t sew that well and you could not pay me to sew a dress from a pattern but that’s okay, that’s what online shopping is for. However, if I were to enter a cosplay contest, I would make as many pieces as possible.
This can be said about a lot of the looks on Drag Race for me. I particularly notice when bodices don’t fit because not all queens wear breastplates anymore or when boy body is showing because not all queens pad or cinch in their waists as aggressively as others. Makeup, too, catches my eye but in a funny way. I find that I bring more makeup skills from drag queens into cosplay. For instance, I started wearing a lot more highlighter to really catch the eye when appropriate. I also contour more and I’m more aware of blending my wigs with a nice line of concealer.
I’d be a liar if I didn’t mention that Drag Race inspires me. Seeing drag as the elevated and mainstream art form that it is makes me want to be better. Seeing costumes and wigs and makeup done so masterfully makes me want to be better. Seeing people living their authentic life in such an idealized and colorful skin makes me want to be my very best.
But when the judges fawn over looks and hair and trends that I’ve been seeing from my brothers and sisters in craft for decades, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. RuPaul is a beacon of excellence in drag but to see her so out of touch at times when it comes to fashion (just in regards to fashion in this post) is sort of tragic. She has to see some of the looks at conventions across America. She has to see Instagram. She has to be aware that fabric on an umbrella avant garde does not make.
I will never discredit the work the queens of Drag Race do. I will never knock the work my brothers and sisters in craft do. But being aware of the parts of the reality TV show that are a little less than gag-worthy after seeing so many talented people for so many years was an exercise worth going through.