If you think lip-syncing is easy, you probably haven’t done it for your life. Just ask the many drag queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
When faced with elimination, these queens battle bleached-white tooth and manicured nail for their spot in the competition. Every syllable, flourish and split needs to count.
There’s a desperation to stay and a need to leave a lasting impression. Vying to become America’s next drag superstar won’t kill you, of course, but it could kill your career. And in front of drag’s most prominent living icon, isn’t that the highest stake of all?
“Our girls go directly from the club onto a national and international stage,” RuPaul, 55, told The Post. “You’re not getting some rehearsed … version of the gay experience. You’re getting it straight up, raw, unfiltered.”
Long before Jimmy Fallon grabbed a mic or Spike produced its own “Lip Sync Battle,” “Drag Race” — and drag as an art form in general — were there. Now, given its moment in the sun, we can see how little credit drag has historically received for its impact on pop culture.
“Drag has always been thought of as the stepchild of show business or even of the gay-rights movement, and [now] these girls are at the forefront of gay culture and of pop culture,” RuPaul said.
Drag itself is nothing new. Before there was “Drag Race,” it thrived in nightlife — at clubs, on glittering stages and on street corners — before entering other aspects of life.
There was Divine, a legendary comedy queen whose look inspired Ursula, the evil sea witch from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” There was pre-“Race” Ru, a true supermodel of the world and Billboard-charting dance artist. And don’t forget about Lady Bunny and the iconic subjects of the drag-queen documentary “Paris is Burning.”
Drag has always influenced mainstream pop culture, but because of its underground roots, people stole from it without credit. Things have improved for this next generation of young queens, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a ways to go.
“On new shows they use phrases like ‘throwing shade’ … and it’s kind of funny,” said Alaska, 31, a runner-up in Season 5 of “Drag Race” and a contestant on the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” which debuts Aug. 25. “You wouldn’t see a drag queen on any of those shows unless it was as a punchline … we are nameless and faceless.”
The 21st-century lexicon — “yas,” “shade,” “sickening” — would be difficult to recognize without drag’s influences, particularly from queer people of color in the 1980s and ’90s. Words like “reading,” for instance, have little to do with actual literature: “Paris is Burning” used that phrase in its slang context, in which you “read” someone and tell them how you really feel about them.
And vocabulary is not the only place where drag has made an impact.
“I went to my 24-hour CVS last night and I looked at Katy Perry’s new ad for CoverGirl and I thought she was me,” said Adore Delano, 26, a Season 6 runner-up and “All Star” contestant. “A lot of these celebrities don’t know but like, girl, it’s bleeding into the system.”
Watch any episode of “Drag Race” and you’ll see the artistry in progress. Marvel at their perfectly drawn eyebrows and puckered lips. Get lost in the splashy sea of sequins, wigs, caked-on foundation and, yeah, a lot of duct tape. But like any drag queen, “Drag Race” is about more than looks.
“Throughout the history of the gay-rights movement, drag queens have always been at the forefront,” RuPaul said. “We threw the first brick at Stonewall and this show gives us the chance to not only tell our history, but to inform young people about the rich cultural heritage that their brothers and sisters before them have created.”
There’s an overarching authenticity that runs deeply through the show: Over the course of the series, there have been 100 contestants of all shapes, ages and races, each able to speak to the portion of the queer community they represent.
Some have come out as transgender and genderqueer; others have revealed the harsh realities of abandonment and prison. Some are living with HIV, others recovering from addiction.
On Season 4 in 2012, Chad Michaels spoke out on the importance of marriage equality. While talking about his longtime partner, he choked up thinking about the lack of access or say in any important medical decisions in an emergency.
“There’s a lot of things I could have said about gay marriage at that point, but I wanted to hit a nerve,” Michaels, 45, who later went on to win “All Stars” Season 1, said.
Because “Drag Race” doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or overtly political, it paints the most realistic depiction of the queer community currently on television. Airing on Logo, a channel devoted to programming for LGBTQ+ audiences, the show is about owning who you are and shrugging off those who tell you differently.
There are — well, were — other examples of TV shows that spoke to the community: HBO’s “Looking” looked at life as a white, gay man in San Francisco; “Will & Grace” brought gay men onto prime time; and “The Ellen Show,” “Queer As Folk,” “The L Word” and others aimed to represent various viewers.
But “Drag Race” does have the edge on other series because of its format: reality show. The queens aren’t scripted, which adds another layer of authenticity.
“‘Drag Race’ is giving visibility to our community,” Alaska said. “It’s on TV and you can see RuPaul, who is a black, queer, powerful figure who has run this empire for years, and I think that’s an amazing thing.”
That authenticity, however, is not without criticism. In earlier seasons, Ru had messages titled “She-Mail” delivered to her queens. Some online found that offensive to the trans community, who fight everyday to secure their identity, and view “she-male” as a derogatory term.
But drag, as Ru says, isn’t about securing identity. It’s about making fun of the social construct of it.
“You can’t explain irony to people, and drag has always been about irony,” he said. “If you have to explain a joke, then it loses its funniness. If I have to explain so much, then the person you’re explaining it to isn’t ready to hear it.”
If there’s one thing that’s not up for debate, it’s that this show is beloved — or, as Alaska called it, a “phenomenon” like “Star Trek.” Its appeal spreads beyond gay men; many straight women latch on to the series. Michelle Visage, a longtime judge, is one of the show’s biggest fans.
“The word is just getting out at how amazing and how life-changing this show truly is,” Visage said. “This amazing art craft has gone far too long for not being recognized and validated.”
Some may say that’s why drag took so long be noticed by the mainstream: It was never meant to be recognized or validated. Drag doesn’t seek out acceptance from “the man” — unless that man is dressed like a woman and goes by the name RuPaul.