Before the modern era of fandom, the dividing lines of youth subculture lay between punks, mods, hippies and their various subsections: now, youth subculture is dictated by which show is being obsessed over, which album glorified, and which internet pairing ‘shipped.’ At the centre of much of this discourse sits RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The top definition of ‘fandom’ on Urban Dictionary defines it as “an innocent word used for describing a cult of sleep-deprived people who obsess over one or multiple comics, books, TV shows, movies, video games, etc.”. When I was sixteen, I was a proud Harry Potter stan, taking to Wattpad to write Lily and James fanfiction. Word started to cotton on in the classroom, and I quickly changed my username to something rather cryptic: luckily, I no longer remember said username so I can’t relive these terrible metaphors. Nevertheless, I did manage an A in GCSE English Language, so perhaps my endeavours paid off.
The idea of the ‘fandom’ is a relatively new term, but the notion of “fangirling” or “being a fan” can be traced back to the 1950s. The post-war era of modernisation facilitated a divide between social groups, notably between those who could afford the shiny new labour-saving devices like washing machines, but even more notably, it created tthe concept of the “teenager”. This post-war period birthed and popularised rock n’ roll, and fan culture quickly started to develop: images of teenage girls chasing The Beatles in the first half of the 1960s often made front page news. Those Bealtlemaniacs were among the very first fangirls, and they laid the foundations for the “fandom” we see in modern-day youth internet culture.
Traditionally, fan culture has been aligned with music, but the global success of RuPaul’s Drag Race has largely reconstructed the idea of the “fandom”. RPDR transformed drag from a fairly contained section of LGBTQ+ subculture into the mainstream, and Drag Race alumni now rejoice, or in some cases despair, over their global fanbase. What was once a performance in a local drag bar quickly turned into a worldwide tour: merch, music, and a book deal for many alumni. Mere days after the Season 2 finale of Drag Race UK, fan favourite Bimini Bon Boulash announced a book deal, a new management agency and a modelling contract. Drag performers are no longer localised artists: they’re celebrities.
The RPDR fandom is infamous for being fairly obsessive: “stan” accounts have emerged for various Drag Race alumni, marking a divide between various subsections of Drag Race fans. It is no longer possible to neutrally consume RPDR: it increasingly denotes an all-encompassing obsession, whether that’s embodied through live-tweeting an episode or running a dedicated “stan” account. There’s even a section of the “Fandom” website dedicated to platforming RPDR-related facts and obsessions, named RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki.
Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, in particular, have experienced the obsession and, at times, the wrath of a global fanbase: they’ve made millions out of their comical friendship through various book deals, TV shows and podcasts. Various fan edits of endearing moments have materialised on YouTube, labelling the likes of ‘Trixie and Katya as “iconic for 6 minutes”, “Trixie and Katya moments that NEED JESUS”, and “Trixie and Katya being chaotic in interviews”. All Stars 2 infamously roused outrage amongst Katya stans as Alaska was crowned: the question of whether Katya was robbed has even made it to a poll on the Fandom page, and it’s a constant debate on Reddit streams.
Drag Race toxicity.
RPDR has encouraged fans not just to consume, but to obsess, promoting hashtags to encourage expressing opinion and fan allegiances in each and every episode: season thirteen alumnus Gottmik quickly developed a huge following after their combination of touching backstory, chaos, and genuineness formed a perfect concoction for many Drag Race fans. As Symone was crowned, #Gottmikwasrobbed quickly gained traction on Twitter, resurfacing debates about toxicity within the fandom, or rather, various ‘fandoms’ or subsections dedicated to ‘stanning’ certain queens.
Symone’s crowning similarly revived debates surrounding racial biases amongst Drag Race fans, many of whom screamed “robbery” when POC queens have taken the crown, notably in the cases of Symone and Jaida Essence Hall. Indeed, the queens with the largest fanbases are white, pointing to biases, be them subliminal or active, amongst fans: Trixie Mattel is currently listed as the wealthiest drag queen with a net worth of $10 million, and in the past, Bob The Drag Queen has pointed to racial biases amongst fans on Instagram that demonstrate white queens are more likely to be “celebrated” by the fandom through following. At present, only five queens boast over two million Instagram followers: Bianca Del Rio, Trixie, Katya, Adore Delano, and Plastique Tiara.
Non-binary and androgynous.
Drama is part and parcel of the Drag Race universe. In fact, many of those who watch Drag Race refuse to align themselves with the “fandom” on account of its toxicity. Somriddho says, “I have nothing against the drag queens who have been on the show. I’m just against the format. I think that I would feel more connected to the show if it featured non-binary and androgynous drag artists, too. I think because many audiences grew up with this show, they are very protective of it. They don’t like to hear any criticism of it.”
Emma continues: “A lot of the fandom appears to respond badly to criticism. Nothing can be said against RuPaul, or [anything] that highlights the fact that the show is still predominantly white, cis gay men. There has been some improved inclusivity in recent series, but it’s still severely lacking. It’s quite insular.”
Clearly, it is more accurate to talk of multiple RPDR “fandoms” rather than one, collective fandom. While sections of the show’s cult following have been plagued by toxicity, it’s clear that Drag Race is reconstructing what it means to be a fangirl in the modern age: though RPDR arguably fails to represent its true diversity, the reality is that drag is no longer the sole preserve of cis, gay men, celebrated through the laptop screens of young people of various genders and sexualities. In the words of Bimini Bon Boulash: that’s not a joke, just a fact.
Watch Rob Harkavy’s interview with RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 1 runner-up Divina de Campo here.