As viewers were still savoring and/or critiquing the most recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 — as for criticism, there was the voguing terminology and some who felt Scarlett Envy was robbed of a lip sync win — in Thailand, Drag Race fans were preparing for a big night. It was Thailand’s season two finale, with high expectations as the show’s top three included two queens who had previously been eliminated, and for the first time ever, two queens who were transgender. One Angele Anang was crowned the winner, making her the first trans woman to win a season of Drag Race in the show’s herstory.
Drag Race Thailand is the superior franchise. Ok maybe that’s a take, but there are quite a few things about the series that it’s older sister can learn from it, first and foremost, the inclusivity of contestants. Ru’s Drag Race has a rough history when it comes to inclusivity. We all know it. And, for what it’s worth, there have been some steps toward addressing it, including casting queens like Sonique in the Holi-Slay Special and Gia Gunn in All Stars 4. But Thailand, hosted by Art Arya and Pangina Heals, shows a much wider acceptance of who gets to participate in the art form.
The show made headlines when, in a casting special, they considered a cis woman to compete in season two. While she didn’t make it, Anang and Kandy Zyanide, two trans women, did. They followed Meannie Minaj, a trans woman who appeared in season one of the show. Both Anang and Zyanide would make it to the top three of season two.
But another aspect of Thailand that seems refreshing is its focus on the talent. Though this may be a result of how young the show still is, there seems to be very little usage of plot devices simply for the sake of narrative; changes to the show all seem to have real effects on the competition. Case in point: when Arya decided to bring back two of the queens for the first time on Thailand, a well worn trick Stateside that rarely changes anything, both of the newly-revived competitors brought a fire to the game — quite literally as one of them set herself aflame on the runway for the gag of all gags. And both, Zyanide and Kana Warrior, who were those chosen to return, ended up in the final three.
But it’s more than just that: neither Arya nor Heals are inclined to suffer fools quietly. On multiple occasions, queens have attempted to phone-in lip syncs once they wound up in the bottom two. Arya does not hesitate to either send both queens home, or even force them to start the entire thing over again. And when, out of spite, a contestant ratted on someone else for past wrongdoings as she was being sent home, getting the other queen disqualified in the process, Heals had no problem dressing her down in front of the entire cast for the sore loser she was. And of course, they bundle this all with the love and care of drag mothers who truly want the best for their children.
But one of the most remarkable things about Drag Race Thailand — though it may seem like a small thing to some — is the final challenge. In both seasons of the show, the finalists put on their own number, coordinating their own music, lights, choreography, looks, and songs. It is a challenge in creating and executing a vision, as well as communicating that vision to the teams that have been assigned to assist them. In season one, finalist Année Maywong combined her ballroom dancing training with Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” for a stand out performance.
While this may seem superfluous, the reality is that this is how these queens make their bread and butter, or hope to at least. It’s quite remarkable that in 11 seasons of Drag Race in the States, performance queens have not been able to wholly show us who they are as a part of the competition. Integrating it into the show seems like a no-brainer, essentially giving fans a preview of what they might could expect from a performance on a tour stop.
But maybe that’s the difference in the two shows. Over time, it has become clear that RuPaul’s Drag Race has been crafting drag queens for Hollywood, or the fashion elite. The show has effectively turned into a finishing school to lead competitors along a path to see them possibly become the newest iteration of the show’s namesake. And while that is certainly admirable and a certain type of performance, for those of us who are looking for the queens that are going to bring us energy and choreography on the stage, as well as looks, there’s always Thailand.