‘There’s a classism issue with drag’: Drag Race UK queens on the financial burden of competing
‘You have to come out looking like a million dollars when some of us can’t even feed ourselves’
“I don’t want to see any fucking H&M”, RuPaul bellowed – flames crackling menacingly behind her eyes. Drag Race UK season two’s Joe Black was on the receiving end, and it became an instantly quotable Drag Race moment for the ages. But behind the simulated dramatics of making a reality TV show, behind the laughs and the Twitter edits of the iconic moment, lies a real issue that isn’t being talked about like it should. The costs of what it takes to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and be successful is pricing queens out who aren’t currently in a position to spend endless thousands on runway looks. “You don’t need money to do Drag Race, just be crafty and innovative” is a line that’s been spouted by RuPaul and Michelle Visage for years when they judge the runways. But when the franchise and Drag Race UK keeps levelling up its audience, its expectations and the financial costs that come with it, how true really is that?
When RuPaul made a show and an example of Joe Black’s H&M dress, a different precedent was set. This wasn’t a runway look, this was a dress for a performance number in the challenge. Never before on Drag Race has what the looks worn in these sections mattered of any great importance, beyond minor critiques. But this was a huge deal, and Joe Black endured a chiding dressing down for wearing a shop bought dress for a number. Whilst being stood on the main stage in an extremely well made and detailed seaside look that a lot of effort had been put into, the implication was “you didn’t make enough effort when you bought that cheaper dress.”
To gain further perspective on the building financial pressure of Drag Race, I spoke to queens from Drag Race UK season three to get their thoughts on the costs of competing and what should change to make starring on DRUK more accessible for everyone.
River Medway: ‘There is a real classist issue with drag’
River Medway, a season three queen who received critiques on the standard of her runways and openly discussed her working class background on the show, told me the following: “There is a real classist issue with drag, and it is such a taboo topic but I’m not sure why. We’re real people, and if you want to tell real stories then you have to show that warts and all. I think that sometimes they [Drag Race production] want to not speak about that. I definitely mentioned it on the show, but it never got aired.”
“It’s a grey area. If I had the money I’d have loved to have every outfit custom made, but I literally could not. I’m pretty sure I spent the least on the show out of everyone. I don’t know how much everybody spends, but you can tell who was able to afford it. And good for them, I’m not bitter about it. But imagine if I had a gorgeous fruit bowl made by a designer – it could have been amazing. I didn’t have the resources. I had two friends that helped me out sewing. I paid for two outfits from designers and that was it. All my jewellery was from eBay. It’s just a shame because you know that if some people had my budget and my resources that it would have been a different show.”
‘You don’t need money to do drag, you do need money to do Drag Race’
One queen who has felt the financial pressure more than most is Veronica Green, who competed on season two and season three of Drag Race UK within a very short space of time, with no time to tour and make more post-season coin due to pandemic restrictions.“It’s a big financial burden, and there was a lot of pressure to do better than I did previously. There’s an expectation from the fan base that you have this glow up transformation the second time around. A lot of people forget how fast the turn around was between season two and season three – in the midst of a global pandemic.
“People were saying ‘she’s had a year to sort herself out, and she comes back looking like this’. I only had a few weeks, trying to be Drag Race UK ready with no money. I was on the verge of bankruptcy. I couldn’t put food on the table and my fiancé was supporting me financially. My fashion is not my drag – but the fans make it so that I have to fit into a certain mould. I think sometimes the rest of us get left behind in the notion that you have to come out looking like a million dollars when some of us can’t even feed ourselves.”
I have thought for a while about if Drag Race’s more more more approach to runway look standards is classist, and I asked Veronica as a working class queen if she felt that queens were being priced out of even auditioning because of that expectation. “So many queens do. I was an off the rack queen but taught myself to sew for season two, and I now make a lot of my own stuff. Each year they want Drag Race to top the last, and I think it’s losing that connection with the real people. It is becoming a parallel of itself in some ways.”
‘If I knew a way around it, I wouldn’t have looked like I did on season three’
Scarlett Harlett also shared with me about her experience going on Drag Race UK with no money, and I asked her what she thought could change to make competing on the show more accessible. “That’s tough, because if I knew a way around that I don’t think I would have looked like I looked on season three! I’ve not been shy about saying that I’m a working class person and I had no money going into this show. My infamous wet lettuce outfit was an outfit that I hired. I don’t regret wearing it, because it became a funny moment, but would I have preferred to look stunning? Absolutely. But you have to pick and choose what you can do. People don’t understand that walking in I was so petrified about my outfits that I put immense pressure on myself to make RuPaul laugh just to try and compensate.
“It’s difficult getting ready for the show with no money, I’ll be honest with you, but you’re never going to turn Drag Race UK down.”
‘We see more POC queens affected by this, and it’s definitely unfair’
Interested to get the perspective of queens who haven’t gone on Drag Race UK or even applied because of financial concerns, I spoke to Salute Banks – a London drag artist currently based in Leeds. “If I thought about applying for the show then it would put me off for sure. I don’t think I’d apply without knowing that I have a big amount of money saved up beforehand. If I were ever to apply, I’d only do it once I knew I could splash out on wigs, runway looks, shoes – because you’re expected to pull through.”
“It’s definitely unfair, and we see more POC queens affected by this. I read an article from Freida Slaves that said a lot of talented POC and Black queens from London just couldn’t even afford to apply. You can not afford to pay for expensive runways if you’re great at sewing and creating looks, but if you’re poor and can’t sew like me then you’re screwed. There are so many talented POC and Black queens in London, but we’ve seen, what? Tayce, Vanity and Asttina? In three seasons? And Tia Kofi – who was read for all of her runways. It’s unfair, classist and inaccessible for so many of us.”
‘The difference between who spent the most compared to who spent the least is insane’
Charity Kase, who created all of her looks that we saw on the show, was very passionate when speaking to me about the costs of getting ready for Drag Race UK. “You have to go into Drag Race with thousands and thousands of pounds to spend. You can’t do Drag Race on a couple of hundred pounds, it’s impossible. And if you’re lucky enough to be born into a family with money then that makes things a hell of a lot easier for you. I can tell you the difference between some of the people who spent the most compared to who spent the least and it is insane. I’m not going to say the numbers, because it’s not my place to say. But the difference is shocking.”
“If I had the money to order the gorgeous gown that inspired my koi fish look, rather than having to spend four days making it myself, I could have used them days to go and do a stand-up comedy workshop, or take choreo classes. I could only afford to make my costumes myself. You can go to a designer and buy other people’s style. You can buy other people’s taste. The harsh truth of it is that it does make a difference.”
How can Drag Race UK change to become more financially accessible?
When speaking to Charity Kase, she came up with two main ways for Drag Race UK to level the financial playing field. “In my opinion, the show should set a budget limitation so that the people who have more of an income are not at an unfair advantage. Either give us a budget, or set a limit.” I raised Charity’s suggestion to the other queens, and all were enthusiastic to it as an answer to a rising issue.
River Medway agreed with the suggestion and said “People are quick to say it’s not about how much money you have, but to an extent, it is. Because I don’t have a lot of money, I have to be very creative and resourceful and think about different ways to do things. Why should I have to go through that when there are people that don’t have to? Even if you have all the money in the world, Drag Race is stressful enough.” Fourth place queen Vanity Milan said “Yep, give people a set limit or a spending budget to help queens that would love to go on the show but don’t have the money to do so.”
‘That would really challenge the creativity, and at the end of the day Drag Race should be about creativity’
When I spoke to Choriza May about the costs of competing on Drag Race UK, she also referenced Freida Slaves’ article and cited the financial burden of runways being the reason why the show isn’t as diverse as it should be. “The money issue is something that is holding Drag Race UK back. Maybe if we could get a little help to buy the looks that would help a lot? We rely on our savings and family. In such a short amount of time my friends have to make me so many outfits at a much cheaper price than they normally would charge, so shout out to them because the show wouldn’t happen without them.”
When I mentioned Charity’s idea of a budget limitation, Choriza had this to say: “That would really challenge the creativity. Because, at the end of the day, Drag Race UK should be about creativity. My week one art look wasn’t very expensive because I hand painted it myself. It was one of my cheapest and most impactful. When you have the money it can be easier to throw some money into it and let someone else take care of the designing.”
Drag Race UK is one of the best and most progressive TV shows this country has to offer right now, and it is changing the lives of queer people and making drag more well known to new audiences who have never dabbled in the American one. They have the platform and the talent to make this show exemplary – if they make some changes to make sure that all drag gets to be valid on the global stage and not just in the club.
The Tab reached out to the BBC for this story, but they declined to comment.