It’s been a week to forget for the royal family, but you can be sure one queen will be tuning in to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK with the rest of us as the BBC Three series trends on social media.
The Vivienne, a 28-year-old drag queen from Liverpool walking in the high-heeled footsteps of Lily Savage, stormed to success on the show back in 2019 with a mix of wit, charm and star quality.
For decades Savage was the only drag queen to feature regularly on the BBC, but these days new episodes of Drag Race UK drop onto iPlayer every Thursday. Vivienne puts a lot of the progress made in the public conversation around trans rights and LGBTQ+ issues down to the success of the show.
“If you just look at the social change, just look at TV, for example. Since Drag Race started, what, 13 years ago, it’s come over here and you can see the change,” she tells The Big Issue. “This is just a small example of how showing things on TV can then open more doors for the drag industry, for LGBTQ+, trans rights… It’s such an amazing thing.”
For the uninitiated, each episode of Drag Race sees top drag queens showcase their acting, singing, dancing, fashion and comedy skills to compete for the crown. It’s as filthy, funny and downright fun as any cabaret show, but beamed directly into the TV sets and living rooms of people who might not otherwise get the experience.
Alongside regular hosts and judges Michelle Visage and RuPaul Charles sit national treasures and TV icons. Graham Norton, Alan Carr, Dawn French, Lorraine Kelly, Maya Jama and Liz Hurley are just a handful to feature so far this season. And that visibility is having an impact, says The Vivienne.
“For years drag was a massive taboo, it was thought of as some sort of, you know, sexual lifestyle that people were trying to push. No, in fact, it’s just entertainment. And now people can see it for what it is. We’re not trying to sell anything. We’re just trying to give people a good old time.
“So I think if drag can become a norm then talking about finances, talking about your body, talking about addiction [can become a norm too]. I think the more we talk about it, the more we’re honest with it, the better.”
You know, worse is gonna come from not talking about an issue than there is in actually being open and honest
Honesty and openness are big parts of Drag Race UK. Contestants might bury themselves under make up and haute couture when they compete but they bare their souls backstage. No TV competition would be complete without hearing the story of the central “characters”, it’s true. But each queen on Drag Race has battled demons in a way few outside the LGBTQ+ community have, flying in the face of society’s long-standing expectations to be comfortable with who they are. It’s rarely been easy, but age and experience help, Viv says.
“I just think as I’ve got a bit older I just think well, what’s the point in not talking about it? You know, worse is gonna come from not talking about an issue than there is in actually being open and honest.
“I think we’re in such a good place now, we’re talking about body positivity. You know, 10, 15 years ago, that was a taboo subject, you just didn’t talk about it.
“But now body positivity is such an everyday thing and term, I think being money positive as well is a great way to live.”
Money troubles and debt are dark clouds over her past and one of the reasons she teamed up with credit rating agency Experian, The Big Issue’s partners for the ongoing Financial Health series. If she can help young people and the UK by being a more visible figure for LGBTQ+ people, then why not use that prominence to help people with financial trouble too?
Fans still message her regularly to talk about the issues she raised in season one, and she’s still in touch with the cast, “still in the group chat”, she says, and “talking every day”. There were tours planned before the pandemic put an end to live performances and, for a while, the filming of season two.
“You can’t help but feel sorry for them that their season has landed smack bang in a pandemic. You know, we season one girls were really lucky to get about six, seven months of touring, before we went on lockdown, and we’ve still got loads more tours in the future.
“But I just can’t imagine, you know, wanting to be on Drag Race for most of your life, getting on drag race, and then boom, a pandemic.
“When you’re in Drag Race and you’re filming and you’re so in the game. Those four walls are your life for what, four weeks, and to then have to stop, get your head out of that competition mode, wait for seven months, go back and get back into that headspace. It must have been insane for them. And you know, well done to them for carrying it off.”
At the time of writing, contestants have been whittled down from 13 to a final four. So does she have a favourite?
“My favourite changed, I think, probably twice a week up until now. I didn’t have a solid favourite. But Bimini [Bom Boulash, a stage name, of course] for me is just such a worthy winner.
“You know, I kind of look at them on the show and they’re the only person who’s not really had an argument with anyone, they’re such an intelligent person with such a fabulous aesthetic.
“They’ve grown and grown and grown every episode. And I’ve just fallen in love with them. I think they’re great.
“And I think they’ve done the UK proud. And I can’t wait to see what they do after it.”
If they’re anything like season one’s cast, they’ll be touring the country becoming regular TV features, fresh faces, voices and experiences to texture the cultural landscape. Such openness and honesty is core not just to helping people through their own issues, but in helping society face up to its contradictions and social tensions.
Because, as Ru Paul episode-ending catchphrase says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Amen to that.
The Vivienne is working with Experian to help people take control of their finances and improve their credit score with Experian Boost.
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