Introducing the most iconic moments in ‘Drag Race’ history
As we dive into a new season of the show with screenings at Shoreditch House in London, David Levesley reflects on the biggest highlights
Thursday 17 November 2022 By David Levesley
RuPaul’s Drag Race has gone from being a scrappy parody of reality TV to one of the biggest names in the genre: a show that has defined modern concepts of queerness and changed the face of drag (in both cases for better and, indeed, sometimes for worse.)
Since first airing in 2009, there have been 180 American contestants, 232 international contestants, and 63 alumni returning for All Stars. There are so many seasons and so many moments that it can feel impossible to know where to begin in getting to know this televisual behemoth. But, in the name of brevity, we’ve rounded up eight of the show’s most important moments. If you just watch these, you might not get every reference – but you’ll at least get the vibe.
A note: the list skews heavily towards the US seasons. This is not because other seasons are bad at all, but simply – if you’re looking for moments that created the show we know today and RuPaul imports all over the world – America is truly hard to beat.
1. Ongina comes out as HIV positive
In its first season, Drag Race looked like the sort of thing you might actually see at your local drag bar, if your local drag bar had doused itself in Vaseline. It’s chaotic, it’s choppy, it’s camp, but Ongina – a frontrunner for much of the season – defined what the show can be for queer people when she came out as HIV positive on the runway. It established Drag Race as a place that explores modern queer issues, even if it doesn’t always do so sensitively.
2. Pandora Boxx’s Snatch Game
In season two, a parody of Match Game – an American equivalent to Blankety Blank – was introduced as a new challenge. In a week of pretty queens trying to do Pink or Britney, Pandora Boxx, a comedy queen from upstate New York, became one to watch in an instant thanks to her immaculate impression of Broadway hoofer Carol Channing. It established two things: that kitschiness has a place on Drag Race, and that Snatch Game must become a fixture of the show for every single season in every single territory for the rest of time.
3. The ‘Whip My Hair’ lip sync
Fans widely agree that seasons four, five and six of US Drag Race are – by and large – the show’s golden age. No season has ever had quite as many inbuilt dramas as season five, plus it had one of the show’s most iconic lip syncs – a regular fixture of each episode in which the bottom queens of the week perform a popular song and one is eliminated.
In this performance of Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair’, Roxxxy Andrews plays on one of RuPaul’s biggest bug bears – wigs coming off in lip syncs. For the briefest second, her lace front is coming off… only for her to whisk it away and reveal a second, pristine wig beneath. RuPaul’s shock is palpable, and yet nothing is set in stone. Then, right at the end, Roxxxy breaks down in tears and reveals how she was abandoned at a bus stop by her parents as a child. There’s no choice: it’s a double save. Absolutely electric television that has led to a dozen wig reveals, 100 emotional stories on the runway, and endless memes.
4. Violet Chachki’s two-in-one reveal
For many years a Drag Race queen didn’t have to own an expensive collection of gowns to compete: while sewing is a necessity, and style preferable, a capsule collection was a nice-to-have. When Violet Chachki entered season seven, however, they set a new standard of what a queen has to bring, and wear, to win (and win she did). In her first mini challenge, she wore a belted look that effortlessly transformed into a second, gorgeous look before everyone’s eyes. Two-in-one looks and couture-level glamour have since become staples of a show that, previously, never dared to ask this much of its competitors (and now runs the risk of being prohibitively expensive).
5. Read U Wrote U in All Stars 2
After a poorly received first punt at an All Stars format, Drag Race took years before its second attempt. But what a sequel. AS2 as its known is now seen as the gold standard of Drag Race: a perfect mix of talent, looks, comedy and drama. This list could be just moments from that season alone, but none has defined modern Drag Race, arguably, like the final challenge of the season: the first time rupaul asked the contestants to write verses for one of his previous songs. The four finalists produced four verses that have gone down in history – not all of them for the right reasons – and now songwriting, singing and girl band challenges have become staples of the show across the world. Some have come close to being as emblematic (take ‘UK Hun?’ from Drag Race UK season two for instance), but very few have lived up to the OG.
6. Valentina and the mask
Often, Drag Race makes it very clear who we are supposed to see as frontrunners, and who we’re supposed to see as filler. This railroading is clearer in some seasons than others, and can often be one of the show’s least appealing aspects. Sometimes, however, it has no choice but to go with the flow and eliminate someone everyone was rooting for. The platonic ideal of this is Valentina’s elimination in season nine: a queen so beloved that the other contestants openly railed against her flawlessness, the first time she was asked to lip sync she refused to remove the mask that was part of her runway look. When rupaul finally insisted she take it off, it was obvious Valentina did not know a single word. Out she went, and from that point on it was clear that lip syncs were, truly, a place where queens could make or break their run on the show.
7. Sasha Velour’s rose petals
Finales have evolved a great deal on Drag Race: for three seasons there was one recorded finale… until the winner was leaked. Then finales became live, with all the finalists being filmed as potential winners. It was only when the episode aired that the winner would learn they were successful. From seasons four to eight, the finale was a bit of a nonsense, endured only to see the crowning. But from season nine the format changed (it has since, again, changed). In this particular year, the top four were told their finale would be a live lip sync tournament, and fans all went in with the same mindset: the season’s frontrunner, Shea, would run away with it. What nobody expected was for the show’s subtlest competitor, Sasha Velour, to lean into her time as one of Brooklyn’s most exciting lip syncers. As Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’ came on, Shea’s by-the-numbers popstar performance was blown out the water by Sasha revealing cascades of rose petals from her gloves and, finally, from her wig. The crowd went wild, and for the first time in years everyone was surprised by a Drag Race winner.
8. Ben De La Creme’s lipstick
All Stars season three had a lot to live up to after season two, and in many ways it failed to deliver. One way it did, however, was in Ben De La Creme’s character arc: a beloved also-ran on season six, Ben De La Creme came back and steamrolled the competition every single episode. Late in the season Ben De La Creme lip synced against BeBe Zahara Benet, with the winner having to reveal – via a named lipstick – which of the remaining queens they’d be swapping out for a previously eliminated contestant. Ben hated the idea of being judge and executioner so much that, unbeknownst to anyone, they Tipp-Exed their own name onto the lipstick canister, eliminating themselves. Queens before Ben signed their own death warrants voluntarily – and queens since have copied her. But no one, not a soul, has ever managed the drama of this particular moment. And with drag queens? That’s a high bar indeed.
Shoreditch House currently hosts weekly screenings of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ season four, hosted by former contestant Starlet. Book your spot for the next one on the SHAPP.