The path to drag superstardom is narrow and those who find it are few. But those that do are sickening, no?
I hope I don’t need to tell you about the existence of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," the Emmy-winning reality competition show hosted by the supermodel of the world herself, drag queen RuPaul Charles. The gist, if you need it: A group of drag artists compete in a series of performance, fashion and makeup challenges for the right to call themselves "America’s next drag superstar."
"Drag Race" started out as a niche almost-parody of shows like "America’s Next Top Model" on LGBT cable network Logo. The franchise grew in popularity over the years until it moved to VH1; now, it gets referenced everywhere from "The Simpsons" to "Saturday Night Live" and attracts high-profile guest judges like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj.
The show’s 12th season is currently airing. So, if you want to get caught up while you’re social distancing at home, you have 11 seasons of wig-snatching drama, plus all-stars seasons, international versions and spin-offs.
Phew. Here’s how to start. A few minor, unavoidable spoilers follow. The various seasons are available to stream or purchase on several platforms, including Hulu and Amazon Prime.
» RELATED: Trixie Mattel in Austin: ‘Drag Race’ star talks Dolly Parton and doubts
I believe in the power of a personal recommendation. Start your "Drag Race" journey like I did: with Season 6.
Don’t worry that you won’t know what’s going on — in fact, that’s the perfect reason to start here. As long as you know the basics (RuPaul, drag queens, competition), you’ll be good. By the show’s sixth season, a lot of the rough-but-charming edges had been smoothed out like a good cheek contour.
Season 6 has a strong cast, some of whom have gone to achieve a modicum of mainstream or internet fame, including wisecracking clown Bianca Del Rio, punky singer Adore Delano, Aussie bombshell Courtney Act and campy cabaret queen BenDeLaCreme.
Any references to previous seasons are nonessential here, and you’ll get a crash course on recurring elements, like the race’s makeover and sewing challenges. Plus, Season 6 has some all-time greats when it comes to the pivotal "lip sync for your life." That’s how RuPaul decides to eliminate one of two bottom-placing queens each week, with a head-to-head lip sync battle royale to a popular song (or one of RuPaul’s songs, probably when they use up the rest of the budget). They are ... invigorating.
Tuck in with Seasons 1-5
Now that you know what a death drop and a wig reveal are, it’s time for your intermediate studies. As a standard-bearer of camp, "Drag Race" is a very self-referential show. Catchphrases from any given season become part of the fan lexicon — and truth be told, the lingo seeps into popular memes and the LGBT community at large. Contestants return in future seasons. It’s also important to know that A) most of the competing queens are also huge fans of the show, and B) RuPaul is a marketing genius. The show is its own biggest fan. Besides you. Soon.
You can bop around, but I would recommend watching in mostly chronological order. Starting with Season 2, each season has a companion "Untucked" series, where the queens drink cocktails backstage and spill the tea. If you’re not watching "Untucked," you’re only getting half of the story. (Really, that’s the actual tagline for the show.)
» RELATED: Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme want to make Austin’s Christmas campy
The first season looks like it was filmed through a layer of Vaseline in 1988, even though it premiered in 2009. It’s fun to watch this scrappy piece of outsider art build to a dramatic and creative high point over just a few years. These early days feature the most organic reality show drama, and thus some of the best catchphrases (many unprintable here). By the fourth and fifth seasons, "Drag Race" had gained some popularity, and you start to understand why the show is basically sports for many of its fans.
What to watch for: The first drag ball challenge in Season 1 (featuring the "delicious Miss Mandarin"). The first "Snatch Game" celebrity impersonation challenge in Season 2. The eminently quotable "sugar daddy" tirade in Season 3’s "Untucked." Season 4 is packed — a shocking disqualification, the infamous "Party City" fight and then perhaps the best lip sync of all time, to Natalie Cole’s "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)." Season 5 might be the show’s most rewarding — a wig reveal, several shade-drenched rivalries, a double elimination (or in the parlance of the show, a "double sashay").
Queens of note: regal Bebe Zahara Benet and unhinged Tammie Brown in Season 1; mean-girl makeup goddess Raven and lip sync assassin Jujubee in Season 2; runway stomper Raja, campy Manila Luzon and "Nancy Drew of drag" Shangela in Season 3; spooky lady Sharon Needles, feisty Phi Phi O’Hara and queen of queens Latrice Royale in Season 4; and underdog Jinkx Monsoon, space alien Alaska and walking, talking, dancing catchphrase Alyssa Edwards in Season 5.
Glue down your wig for Seasons 7-11
The proverbial machine becomes self-aware here; the show got big enough for contestants to get profiles in the New York Times and GQ. The show aired on VH1 starting with Season 9. Teens on the internet caught on, propelling the most popular queens to the million-follower mark on social media. Season 9 is the best of this bunch; Season 7 is an uneven watch but the talent is out of this world.
What to watch for: Anything Katya says and does in Season 7; the "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going" lip sync in Season 8; the "Linda Evangelista" rant, a gag-worthy moment of nerve to an Ariana Grande lip sync and a viral rose petal stunt in Season 9; the world’s best Melania Trump impersonation in Season 10; and the first-ever "Drag Race" romance plot in Season 11.
Queens of note: faux-Russian gymnast Katya, uber-confident couture queen Violet Chachki and life-size doll Trixie Mattel in Season 7; steamroller Bob the Drag Queen, cosmetics genius Kim Chi and Austinite Cynthia Lee Fontaine in Season 8; Chicago powerhouse Shea Coulee, Brooklyn gender-bender Sasha Velour, pageant winner Trinity "The Tuck" Taylor, ebullient trailblazer Peppermint and controversial fan-favorite Valentina in Season 9 (told you it was good); club kid diva Aquaria and Kansas City hoot Monique Heart in Season 10; and freaky contortionist Yvie Oddly, Canadian ballerina Brook Lynn Hytes and loudmouth Vanessa Vanjie Mateo in Season 11.
» RELATED: ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ queens take over Austin Motel
Pad it out
The four seasons of "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars" are not optional. Watch them after all the main seasons, or slot them between regular seasons in the order they aired. Featuring return contestants duking it out for a spot in the "‘Drag Race Hall of Fame," "All Stars" seasons operate like continuations of the main seasons and are just as good. Depending on whom you ask — me, you are asking me — Season 2 of "All Stars" is the best "Drag Race" has ever been.
I’d also recommend queuing up the debut season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K." after you’re done stateside; it aired just last year. RuPaul and fellow judge Michelle Visage jump across the pond and put drag queens on the BBC. What’s not to like? Storyline-wise, it also replicates some of the best tricks that Season 5 of the U.S. version had up its gown.
For more international savoir faire, there are two seasons of "Drag Race Thailand" and two seasons of "The Switch" in Chile, as well as upcoming Canadian and Australian versions of "Drag Race," all official parts of the franchise. (I admit that I have not gotten to the Thai and Chilean shows.)
There are lesser drag children in the family, if you’re so hooked you can’t help yourself. An ill-fated "RuPaul’s Drag U" spin-off and a couple holiday specials among them. There’s even "RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race" airing later this year, which is exactly what is sounds like.
Like we’ve mentioned, "Drag Race" has become a cultural phenomenon, with glittery tendrils stuck in all spheres of media. A select few parts of the extended Ru-niverse, if you feel so inclined:
• "Unhnnn," a massively popular YouTube comedy series starring Season 7 faves Trixie Mattel and Katya (they also had a shortlived Viceland TV show, "The Trixie & Katya Show").
• Everyone has a podcast these days, even drag queens, including Alaska and Season 4’s Willam with "Race Chaser" and Bob the Drag Queen and Season 10’ s Monet X Change with "Sibling Rivalry."
• A few queens have made the foray into mainstream TV and movie projects, notably early season provocateurs Shangela and Willam, who played supporting parts in 2018’s "A Star Is Born"; Sasha Velour, whose "NightGowns" docuseries premiered on Quibi last week; and Edwards’ "Dancing Queen" series on Netflix.