I’ll never forget when I first saw the previews for RuPaul’s Drag Race back in 2009. As a baby queer addicted to reality television, I was absolutely gagged. I thought to myself, “It couldn’t be possible that drag queens were being given their very own cable reality television show.” And yet, here we were. A full sixty-minute episode dedicated entirely to the art and craft of drag.
In the early years of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show didn’t have a big budget, and it showed. The camera quality is often the butt of jokes on Reddit, with some suggesting that Vaseline was smeared on the lens to add a soft glow. Queens from previous seasons have talked at length about the upward trajectory of the grand prize: from $20,000 the first year, to last season’s prize of a one-year supply of Anastasia Beverly Hills cosmetics and $100,000 cash. But what RuPaul’s Drag Race lacked in production value, it served up in heart and pure queer campiness. The format followed that of its popular reality television predecessor, America’s Next Top Model where queens were scouted from across North America to compete for the chance to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar.”
Nine years after Ru graced our television screens, the format of RuPaul’s Drag Race doesn’t diverge much from other reality TV shows—in each episode, contestants still compete in challenges. However, it’s typically the final fifteen minutes of the show that has folks “living.” This is thanks, in large part, to the particular moment when Ru calls upon two queens to, ahem, “lip sync for your life,” and save themselves from elimination. It’s easily one of the most dramatic segments on reality television.
In a re-cap on LogoTV via Entertainment Weekly, Drag Race executive producer Tom Campbell explained that the idea for the “lip sync for your life” challenge was inspired by the short-lived World of Wonder reality show ¡Viva Hollywood!. While brainstorming for the concept, Campbell explains that Fenton Bailey, RuPaul and himself wanted the ending to follow ¡Viva Hollywood!, but it needed more of a drag queen kick. So they asked themselves:
What do drag queens do? They lip sync. And we gasped and said, ’They don’t just lip sync. They lip sync for their lives.’ And it was just crazy from there.
Tom Campbell, Entertainment Weekly
OK, but before we launch into this any further, we need to get into our drag herstory for a minute. Some historians speculate that Shakespeare coined the term “drag” to describe the event of cross-dressing. Back then, audiences widely viewed drag as an important part of a theatrical performance and the practice was largely socially acceptable. Since then, the perception of drag has changed due to its ever-increasing presence in mainstream culture. Now, within the queer community, the debate has evolved into who can participate in drag and its culture. Typically performed by gay men and transgender folks, now, more than ever, women, non-binary and genderqueer folks are taking to the stage. Regardless of who is participating, one thing is for certain: drag has always been about fucking with entrenched gender norms.
Enter lip syncing, which through drag, has become embedded into the fabric of queer communities including Ball culture. Within Ball culture lies a tight-knit community that strives to support and uphold one another through the sociopolitical struggles of that many queer, trans, people of colour communities face day in and day out. In the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning directed by Jennie Livingston, we’re given a good insight into the Harlem Ball scene of the late eighties. Featuring vogue and runway legends Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, and Venus Xtravaganza, the film gave viewers an inside look into the New York drag scene and specifically highlighted the stories of African American and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women who found a home (and chosen family) in the ball community. In Paris is Burning, shown how “houses” are formed, what it takes for a “mother” to become the “head” of the drag house and which queens she selects to bring under her wing.
While it’s been just over 25 years since the film was released, the message it showcases (and the light it shines on how specific individuals, namely queer, trans, people of colour are constantly under attack) remains vital in a contemporary context. At its core, Ball culture has helped provide a safe haven for these folks to participate in and practise their art form, free of judgement or repercussions. While some drag fans might believe that lip syncing relies on beauty and poise, performers like Sasha Velour, have broken down those assumptions with single performances. Lest we forget Velour’s season nine Drag Race winning performance against Shea Coulee where she snatched her wig off to cascade a flurry of rose petals at the most dramatic point of Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.”
For many performers, lip syncing is an avenue to further the narrative on serious political issues such as class; race and racism; wealth; gender orientation; and beauty standards that some folks may be uncomfortable confronting without the eleganza and illusion of drag. While some might say otherwise, lip syncing and all of its nuances within drag can be a political statement for many marginalized folks. Take performances by New York queen Charlene’s performance of “I’m Still a Guy” and Dottie Dangerfield’s performance of “Do It Like a Dude,” both provide critical commentary on the relationship between gender identity and physical presentation as it exists in drag.
In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, Sasha Velour described the way she approaches her performances as the following: “I like for my performances to have meaning on many different levels; costuming, emotions, in my face, and then kind of visual stage pictures that explore the kind of emotions of the story of the song in really beautiful visual art ways.”
While drag seems to be having its moment—largely due to the massive and inescapable influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race—it’s important to realize that a performer’s lip sync is more than just a elimination in a television show. RuPaul’s Drag Race, and particularly, the lip sync portion of the show, has become a crucial platform for drag performers to tell their stories, often, without using their own voice. For a lot of queer folks who participate in the drag community, the lip sync is about an escape from gender roles. It’s about creating a medium for oneself to express themselves without judgement or fear. It’s complex and emotional and very, very real. So the next time you head out to your local drag bar, please remember to tip your queens. They’ll be sure to treat you kindly for the rest of the evening!