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Drag Race season 15: The exploitation of queer performers and drag queens

By Regina Joseph

Regina Joseph.

Tallahassee, FL – For the last couple of months, I have binge-watched hundreds of hours of YouTube content related to RuPaul's Drag Race. I find myself emotional watching drag queens lip sync to Demi Lovato’s, Sorry Not Sorry. It is excellent television. Seeing talented queer people, especially those of color, grace the screen moves one. Even Shangela's epic read of Mimi Imfurst brings me to tears. That read is absolute poetry.

Going down the rabbit hole of Drag Race-related content, I found a video about Drag Race’s contracts between the show and the contestants.

I’ve also been following a Jacksonville drag performer, Izzy “The Izzmaculate” A’Mon, who has been outspoken about the follies of Drag Race. Their statuses have inspired this article. I asked her what she thought about Drag Race, and she replied, “[I] want to start by saying I feel that Drag Race has done amazing things when it comes to giving visibility to the queer and drag community; it would be foolish to say otherwise. However, things could be improved.”

What I learned absolutely shocked me – even though it isn’t shocking. It’s a familiar tale in the 1% society – stealing the labor power of those who work and exploiting LGBT people.

Behind the beautifully beaten faces, the shimmer and chiffon, death-defying death drops, there is a dark side to this television show. The show has been accused of low pay for participants and creating a monopolization of drag, meaning that viewers conflate drag performance as a whole with Drag Race. This further limits viewers' understanding of drag and implies that there is only one type of drag performance or one way to do drag. Additionally, those participating in drag shows outside RuPaul's Drag Race are not given proper credit or recognition. This exploitation of queer performers needs to be addressed if drag will be adequately appreciated and respected within our society. It's terrible already that reactionaries are committing terrorist acts against drag shows; the last thing we need is further exploitation of our community by mega-corporations like Paramount (the newest season is on MTV) and RuPaul.

As the 15th season of RuPaul's Drag Race begins, it's time to take a closer look at the show's impact on the world of drag performers. Let's delve deeper.

What is drag?

First, let's start with a very brief, incomplete history of drag. Drag is an art form that has been around since the early 1800s. It is a form of performance art that often involves dressing up in exaggerated clothing and makeup to exaggerate physical features and gender identity. Drag is rooted in queer culture and has historically been used to express creativity and affirm community.

Drag has been a powerful form of expression for the LGBTQ community and has been used to challenge gender norms, create community, and fight for social justice. It has also become more mainstream recently, with drag queens and kings performing in nightclubs, television shows, and more, including children book reading (known as Drag Queen Story Hour – which has been the target of hate crimes and terrible legislation – but that is a whole other article).

Drag has also allowed LGBTQ people of color to celebrate and express their identities in a society where they are often not accepted. While drag is a source of pride and liberation for many LGBTQ people, it also carries its challenges, including discrimination and exploitation.

When primarily white pageants were racist to African American queens, performers like Crystal LaBeija were instrumental in creating new spaces for African Americans and Latino people – see the 1968 film The Queen. Films such as Paris is Burning, released in 1990, brought the vibrant world of drag and queer culture to the mainstream, highlighting the lives and struggles of its performers.

Paris is Burning was the first of its kind and is credited with inspiring many of today’s drag queens. Its influence is seen in popular shows such as Drag Race, which brings drag performance into the limelight and has made drag more accessible to a broader audience. Despite the success of drag on television, the entertainment industry's exploitation of queer performers and drag queens persists.

What is Drag Race? RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality television show created by famous drag queen RuPaul Charles-mononymous, known as just RuPaul. The show follows RuPaul's search for “America’s next drag superstar.” The show features RuPaul and a panel of judges evaluating performances from drag queens who compete in various challenges that involve singing, dancing, makeup artistry and fashion design while also bringing on their drag style and charisma.

The format of each season typically involves multiple elimination rounds and an overall winner being crowned at the end of the season. The show has become a major hit and is credited with increasing mainstream awareness of drag and queer culture. It has been praised for its inclusiveness, though there have been some criticisms of transphobia.

For example, RuPaul himself said, “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” This statement was criticized by fans and members of the LGBTQ community, who rightfully felt it was exclusionary.

However, despite this controversy, many trans women competed on the show, including All Stars Season 6 winner Kylie Sonique Love – the first transgender person to come out on reality TV. The first openly trans man on the show, Gotmikk, appeared in season 13. I would argue that this is very positive and increases the awareness of drag and queer culture. However, this representation comes at the expense of queer performers and drag queens.

Financial exploitation

The contestants are not only judged on their performances, but they are also subject to the harsh contracts they must sign to be on the show. YouTuber BussyQueen provided a very detailed breakdown of the contract. The agreement includes language allowing the production to use what’s filmed on television and in advertising and that there is “no expectation of privacy.”

Additionally, cast members are paid $400 per episode for their first season, and their pay can increase by 5% for future seasons. According to Reality Blurred, “if an eliminated queen is only shown in a flashback or the ‘previously on RuPaul’s Drag Race’ segment, they’re not paid for that episode.”

Contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race are expected to come in looking their best, which often requires a lot of money. According to Vice, contestants can spend anywhere from $4000 to $20,000 of their own money to prepare for the show.

Furthermore, these performers must also pay for their costuming, makeup, travel expenses, and more. This has led to an unfortunate situation where some drag performers have been taken advantage of and left with little to no compensation for their work on the show.

I asked A’Mon what she thought about this: “As the show gains more popularity, focus is put more on people that look good on camera. Is this a bad thing? As a working queen who hasn't been on TV, it can be very difficult to be held to those standards because people see it on TV. Drag Race is motivated to encourage queens to essentially go into debt for this once-in-a-lifetime (unless you look at those contracts) opportunity causing performers to show up in bigger and bigger costumes every year. Every look needs to have its own wig, jewelry, nails, and shoe and the show has actually gone out of its way to call out performers for reusing elements on the show.”

The financial strain of competing on Drag Race can be immense, especially for those who have yet to establish fan bases. While being on the show can open many doors, it can also put contestants into debt if they fail to win or secure post-show sponsorships.

The show's first season started with a cash prize of $20,000, and over time the prize increased, with season 15’s award at $200,000.

Interestingly, this kind of financial investment into drag is a relatively modern concept. According to a 2021 Vice article, drag queens wore vintage clothing until the 80s and the 90s. Drag performers were socially and financially marginalized, making accessing quality materials or resources for their costumes difficult. As Fitzgerald and Marquez put it, “trans women and queer men couldn’t walk into a department store and buy dresses. It was easier and safer to look for a size 13 pump in a used store than to go into the ladies section. The underground aspect of drag defined the aesthetic for a very long time.”

Adore Delano sues

The realities of financial exploitation don't end there. Adore Delano, a former contestant in RuPaul’s Drag Race, sued Producers Entertainment Group, his former management, for allegedly stealing millions of dollars.

Delano claims that he was forced to sign an overly restrictive contract that prevented him from talking publicly about his experience on the show. He also claims that he was not given any privacy and was filmed at all times without his consent. Furthermore, Delano claims that WOW refused to pay him for his work despite having made millions of dollars in profits from its syndication, merchandise, tours and music.

YouTuber BussyQueen has exposed the shadiness of the contract. The contract signed with World of Wonder and Viacom gives the company’s total control over them and the content they create, which is a significant disadvantage to the performers. It's a clear case of exploitation and a monopoly of drag that goes against the essence of what drag is supposed to be – a form of creative expression celebrated by the community and meant to lift queer people.

This is the show using the image of queens for the benefit of RuPaul and the megacorporation Paramount. Low pay makes it difficult for queer performers to make a living off of drag without playing ball with RuPaul, World of Wonder, and its management. As a result, there is leveraging or bargaining power at the point at which they will negotiate. The contract states the split rate is to be negotiated in good faith between the producer and the contestant by industry standards.

RuPaul owns you

In addition to the contractual obligations, it has recently come to light that RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants are also bound by a provision that requires them to use their Instagram profiles to promote the show. The contract requires that the performers “grant the Producer a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, irrevocable, sub licensable license to reproduce, transmit, display and distribute your name, image, and likeness in and in connection with the Series.” This means that for as long as the show is on air or as long as the producers wish, they can use contestants' names, images and likenesses without providing compensation or royalty payments. This can even extend to using images posted on contestants’ Instagram profiles. Furthermore, contestants must ask producers for permission to appear in non-WOW media.

On the one hand, Drag Race has created a platform for many talented performers who might not have had an opportunity otherwise. On the other hand, it has restricted how these performers can express themselves and has enabled an atmosphere of exploitation and control.

This control over the public life of queer performers is exploitative and monopolizes further drag culture by giving the producer an additional platform to push their show. By controlling what the queens post on their Instagram profiles and using those posts to promote their brand, they are creating an atmosphere where drag becomes synonymous with RuPaul's Drag Race and its associated merchandise. This restricts the potential for drag to grow and develop outside of the show's influence, preventing independent performers from finding success in their own right.

As A’Mon puts it, “ Drag Race showcases a specific type of drag. With the exception of a recent runway done by Victoria Scone – Drag Race's first AFAB queen – there has never been a drag king on the show. Until the most recent season of Drag Race UK there had not been a bearded queen on an English-speaking iteration of the show. These are very common forms of drag that are not being highlighted; therefore, fans of the show don't know they exist and don't know how to respond to them when they encounter them in their local scene.”

In addition, the producer could exercise their rights to require you to appear in a future show season up to four years after your final episode airs. And they are not obligated to pay you any additional compensation or royalties for this participation. This provision gives the producers an extreme amount of control over the lives of queer performers and drags queens. It restricts their ability to develop as independent artists, forcing them to rely on the show for success.

According to BussyQueen, a clause in RuPaul's Drag Race contract states that the show's producers may force a queen to appear in an episode no later than four years after the initial exhibition of the final episode in the immediately preceding cycle. This means a season 14 cast member may receive a call up to four years after that season's finale, requiring them to appear in a future season.

Bussy explains that each subsequent participation in a future cycle resets the four-year clock.

As Bussy pointed out, signing this non-disclosure agreement could mean they just signed away for the next 20 years of their life.

RuPaul's Drag Race is one of the most successful television shows in the world, and it’s clear to see why. The show is entertaining and showcases some of the most talented drag queens worldwide. However, its success has led to the creation of a franchise with an array of spin-off series and international editions.

From its initial success, various international editions have sprung up in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Thailand, Canada, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, the Philippines, Belgium, Sweden, Mexico, Germany, and Brazil. In addition to these installments, international “vs. the World” competitions have been hosted in the UK and Canada.

The creation of these spin-off series has allowed RuPaul and his production company, World of Wonder (WOW), to create a monopoly on drag culture. This includes other properties such as YouTube shows Fashion Photo Review, UNHhhh, and Pit Stop. Not to mention DragCon. As a result, RuPaul and WOW are now the sole proprietors of drag culture, dictating what is accepted as ‘drag’ or ‘good drag’ through their platforms. This monopolization of drag culture gives them control over the industry, allowing them to exploit queer performers and drag queens for their benefit.

Because of the platform provided by RuPaul's Drag Race, many performers have no choice but to try out for the show if they want to be successful. If someone can cut the show, immense pressure can lead to burnout or mental health issues.

Finally, even after a queen leaves the show, they are still subject to the strict NDA, meaning they cannot talk about their experience on the show without risk of legal repercussions. The NDA also stipulates that contestants can face financial penalties or disqualification from the competition if contestants break it. This lack of freedom and accountability leads to further questions about the exploitation of queer performers and drag queens in RuPaul’s Drag Race.

This exploitation needs to be addressed, so that drag queens and queer performers can express themselves without being taken advantage of. Companies prioritize profit over people in today's capitalist society, exploiting queer performers and drag queens.

We need a better society where artists are not exploited. It doesn't just end with Drag Race. For example, HBO Max canceled dozens of cartoons with no notice. Overnight, cartoonists had no jobs and lost access to wages and benefits. Those creators do not even own the rights to their own images.

There must be consequences for those companies who fail to abide by basic workers’ rights; otherwise, there will continue to be exploitative practices taking place within the industry. I won't argue for a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants union, but the show would not be a multi-million success without the drag queens.

Perhaps, through organized worker power, there can be steps taken toward economic justice for all involved with RuPaul's Drag Race; financially compensating drag queens fairly for their work and ensuring proper contracts are in place to protect them.

RuPaul's Drag Race is a particular instance in the general scheme that is capitalism. These political systems affect our lives because that is how our society is currently organized. Everything we consume, every way we work, and every day we live are because of a profit-driven system, including even the things we watch eating Ben Jerry's in pajamas.

Another world is possible

In Cuba, there is a state-sponsored pageant for drag queens and transgender performers called Miss Transgender Star. Cuba has recently passed inclusive LGBT legalization that legalizes same-sex unions, gay adoption, and provisions against gender violence.

It’s surprising to some that Cuba has such a progressive attitude toward the LGBT community. As one LGBT blog, Dallas Voice, stated, “When I think of enlightened and progressive countries regarding LGBT rights, Cuba has never ranked very high on the list. But it looks like I need to rethink my attitude.” The fact that LGBTQ people aren’t even aware of Cuba’s LGBT support is propaganda of the 1%

There have been errors in the way that Cuba treated LGBTQ people. However, there has been a push by the government to rectify those errors. Since 2007, Cuba has commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia. It runs for two weeks. Feel free to look for more information about Mariela Castro Espín—the lesbian daughter of Fidel Castro and noted transgender theorist – who has been instrumental to this push for LGBTQ liberation.

This contrasts with Florida, where gender-affirming care for transgender adults is no longer covered by Medicaid. In Texas, there is talk of legislation to ban drag shows. In North Carolina, vandals destroyed electrical substations in response to an 18+ drag show.

Even in Tallahassee, where I reside, a Florida man has been arrested by the FBI in connection with a mass shooting threat against LGBTQ people at Florida State University. FSU has yet to make a statement.

Under capitalism, the 1% will parade drag queens and celebrate themselves for the most basic LGBTQ representation while at the same time allowing legislative and physical attacks against LGBTQ people.

What's next?

I won't judge anyone for watching Drag Race (I will be watching pirated versions). However, as viewers of RuPaul's Drag Race, it is our responsibility to be more informed about the exploitation of drag queens that has taken place. We need to look beyond the glamour and glitter of the show and become more aware of how drag performers are taken advantage of.

We should look for inspiration from countries like Cuba. We need to be involved in political work that addresses the issues that LGBTQ people face.

We should support local drag artists and performers, who are often overlooked and underpaid. It is also essential to learn more about the history of drag and how people of color have helped to push gender performance and drag to the forefront (e.g., voguing and vernacular).

Additionally, we must call attention to specific issues surrounding Drag Race, such as lack of privacy, economic exploitation, and contractual obligations. We need to support labor and workers' rights as a whole.

Ultimately, we must remember that RuPaul's Drag Race is a television show with real consequences for its contestants. We must demand better treatment for queer performers, from more transparent contracts to fair compensation for their work.

Regina Joseph (she/her) is a Tallahassee activist with over ten years of political work under her belt. She also watches too much TV. Izzy A’Mon (she/they) is a Jacksonville drag performer. You can follow her on social media platforms @theizzyamon.

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