Every year, a group of drag queens act, dance, sew, sing and lip sync their way to the grand finale. It’s a competition that’s both entertaining and eye-opening on so many levels.
Oh yes, you got that right. I’m talking about RuPaul’s Drag Race: Due to land on our shores in just a few month’s time and a shining example of inclusivity at its finest.
Let me start by saying that I used to hate the show. Coming from a small community in Greece and having very little exposure to the world of drag, I made my judgement based on the viral videos, memes and tweets circulating the net. I had an impression of a show that promoted gay people bullying each other, being nasty and spiteful, all in the name of entertainment.
But today, I would proudly say that its given me a much broader perspective of the world. I see that I had been judging a book by its cover. Ironically, the complete antithesis of the behaviour that the show aims to disrupt.
What started as an experiment ten years ago has now turned into a cultural phenomenon, a mainstream reality TV show that won 14 Emmy nominations in 2019. Its success is testament to the power of what it communicates, and I see a lot of positives that brands could take a leaf from.
1 – It shows, rather than tells, and it inspires in doing so
Whilst ‘snatching’ the crown of America’s Next Drag Superstar is the main objective of the show, it also provides a platform for contestants to share their stories: Bullying, loss of loved ones, drug abuse, addiction, racism and gender discrimination are all part of our reality and by sharing these stories in a positive light they turn from personal problems into sources of empowerment for viewers.
There are many reasons why the show has been so successful, but telling the truth and inspiring a whole new generation of LBGTQIA+ people, as well as the broader public, is definitely one of its strongest points. In doing so, it has also managed to bring an art form that had been dismissed and mocked for many decades to the world’s attention. The show has challenged stereotypes such as drag artists being “clowns” and “cross-dressers”, highlighting the truth that they are a group of people who can be admired and related to. But more importantly, the show has done wonders for pride within the LBGTQIA+ community.
It’s not new news that storytelling, whether enabling stories from collaborators – in this case, the queens – or creating your own, has incredible power. For example, it wasn’t until I was exposed to others’ stories and struggles that I truly recognised the value of being open to vulnerability. But where RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) excels where many others fail is that it moves viewers by showing rather than telling. They present an unequivocal argument by shining a light on the positive human values that underpin us all.
2 – It’s a non-judgemental platform where self-expression is invited
Unlike many other reality shows, here participants are playing on a remarkably equal ground. There is no age, height, weight, race or any other restrictions to enter.
Society often puts people in boxes according to set standards. As a drag show, RPDR manages to smash all stereotypes, proving what we consider one thing or another is nothing but personal perspective – and often far from the truth. It has helped me to appreciate that beauty comes in so many different forms, to not judge someone for standing out but rather to try and see all the ways that I can relate with them.
It’s these stories, i.e. the ‘reality’ part of the show, that makes it so inclusive, accepting and welcoming to the wider LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a lesson that whoever you are and wherever you come from, your voice matters and can have an impact on other people’s lives.
This core ethos is woven through a huge community of fans, and RPDR have done a marvellous job of creating platforms that freely celebrate individuality, for example, their global DragCon events.
In society there’s a huge opportunity and demand for spaces where self-expression is encouraged and supported, and this is certainly an area where brands could step forward.
3 – It knows what it is, and it’s not afraid to say it
What I love about RPDR is that it has a powerful point of view and takes a stand on things important to both the LGBTQIA+ community and the wider society. It’s this unfiltered opinion that makes it feel less censored than other reality TV shows.
RPDR tackles a broad range of topics, from the first black president, gay marriage, the Orlando nightclub shooting, climate change and more recently the Trump administration’s agenda – all things that matter to their audience group in a significant way. No matter the topic, contestants are given the opportunity to share their views and lead the discussion. For example, Season 4 saw contestants talking politics and how they believe things can change, while the most recent Season 10 had them design clothes for a dystopian future where Alaska will become a summer destination and people have migrated to Mars.
These topics inspire endless discussions amongst the contestants. By delivering them to viewers in an entertaining way, the arguments become relevant and engaging where they could be repetitive and boring. Sometimes the contestants agree, and sometimes they come to the realisation that even amongst themselves they’ve fallen into the trap of being exclusionary and labelling. Ultimately, viewers recognise that when an issue is visible and vocalised, it can be tackled in a positive way.
Brands could benefit from this approach. There’s a case to be braver about showcasing ‘strong’ perspectives, so long as it’s truly relevant and posed with integrity. Inviting opinion and sparking healthy debate shows respect for the audience. Not only will it display that the brand has their finger on the pulse, it’ll strengthen respect back in turn. And not just this; demonstrating a point of view on a range of issues that touch the audience shows a thoughtful, multi-dimensional personality that people will willingly engage with.
4 – It’s committed to consistency
An important component of the show’s success has undoubtedly been its consistency across seasons: Whilst each season introduces new challenges and themes, there are always some that remain the same as its founding pillars. The audience know what to expect, whilst being entertained by surprises along the way.
It’s this consistency which has steadily grown their fan base over the past decade. This includes their targeting and is a prime example of the halo effect that results from being focused from the start and playing the long game. RPDR started on a local LGBTQIA+ TV channel, but today touches millions.
If a brand wants to make a real difference to a specific sector of society, they’d do well to avoid trying to be everything to everyone. The more relevant brands are to their target audience, and the more responsive to current affairs and the world around, the more people will appreciate it and become the brand’s own ambassadors. Showing commitment for years and not just in one-off bursts of activity is the only way to gain credibility and trust.
Love and acceptance prevail in a turbulent world
In a highly polarised society, with people divided and tensions high, it’s impressive that a show representing love and unity thrives: Evidence of our craving for inclusivity, acceptance, respect and the opportunity for a platform to speak our minds without fear.
Whilst it’s a TV show with an objective to bring in revenue, it has managed to do so by focusing on the intention to act as a platform for love and acceptance first and foremost, rather than placing the goal to attract viewer numbers above all else.
The show’s recipe for success reveals many approaches that brands could benefit from taking on to improve their inclusivity in ways that would be much appreciated, and there’s no clearer evidence that doing good is good for business.