Drag Race to the Bottom

Drag Race to the Bottom

The so-called drag golden age is really a gilded age, where the runaway success of a few is made possible at the expense of the many.

RuPaul rings the NASDAQ closing bell in 2014. (Monica Schipper/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

On the morning of May 10, 2022, standing in front of stock tickers for some of the world’s most valuable companies, drag queen Monét X Change proclaimed: “On behalf of RuPaul, World of Wonder, and queer people far and near, it’s time to ring the bell, honey!” On cue, seven winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race—the hit reality competition TV series, which had just finished its fourteenth season—reached across a logo-strewn podium to announce the daily opening of the world’s second-largest stock exchange. “We represent what scholars will one day call the drag revolution,” Shea Couleé, the winner of one of Drag Race’s many spinoff shows, added. “I want to thank NASDAQ.”

I started watching Drag Race early in my first year of college. The Emmy Award–winning program puts its drag queen contestants through a gauntlet of challenges, from walking the runway and writing original songs to impersonating celebrities and making costumes from scratch. The competing artists’ ingenuity and glamour drew me to the form with a ravenous hunger. I began attending local drag shows and, soon after, performing in drag myself, first for other students and then in bars in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Prague.

Drag Race has led more people than ever to appreciate art that plays with gender expression, myself included. Drag’s unique flexibility allows performers from across the globe to combine breathtaking looks with lip syncs, stand-up comedy, circus arts, experimental fashion, live music, and endless other art forms. But even as a fan of the show, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Drag Race’s influence was not entirely benevolent. While some Drag Race alumni leverage their success to pay off student loans or buy a home, others leave the competition with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Unlike most other reality programs, Drag Race contestants must self-fund the plethora of cosmetics, costumes, wigs, and props needed to compete on the show. As one contestant, Kameron Michaels, recounted, “I spent more coming into this competition than I did as the down payment on my house.” 

As Drag Race’s rewards reach new heights—the winner of the most recent season of the spinoff RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars won a cool $200,000, ten times the size of the cash prize for the first season—work for most drag artists remains so precarious that they frequently take on several other jobs to stay afloat. The so-called drag golden age is really a gilded age, where the runaway success of a few is made possible at the expense of the many. And if economic insecurity wasn’t enough, local performers increasingly face threats of extremist violence from the right. Even the most diehard d...