RuPaul’s Drag Race is obviously a very divisive show when it comes to opinion — as with anything that large. It’s been facing some rightful criticism for its handling of trans contestants (read: mostly exclusion) in an art form they’ve helped to create. But it’s also done something else. The show has become a finishing school for drag performers, shaping them into Hollywood ready, cameo-prone literal celebrities, ripe for the casting. And through how widespread it is, the show has also shaped drag queens watching, in similar ways. Along the way, sometimes the art of performance is discounted, looked to as some last-ditch effort. But shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race: Live, currently on at the Flamingo Las Vegas, underscore that these queens are truly stage performers.
Directed by RuPaul Charles and Jamal Sims, the choreographer behind more than a few Ru numbers as well as the documentary When the Beat Drops and many other projects, Drag Race: Live is styled as an actual live episode of the show. Though the cast will change throughout the dates, the week of Out’s viewing hosted Asia O’Hara in the role of host, with the likes of Derrick Berry, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, Kameron Michaels, Yvie Oddly, and Naomi Smalls as contestants. Accompanied by their very own Vegas Pit Crew, the girls truly put on a show.
Though we certainly saw glimpses of it on her season of Drag Race, O’Hara truly shined in her role as host. Though there was undoubtedly a lot pre-written, there was also some audience engagement and the queen’s comedic timing was truly second to none. As was the show’s overall pacing for the most part. And as for the performances, the girls did what they needed to do!
The thing about Drag Race is that lip syncs are essentially a punishment. Fuck up a challenge? Ok now lip sync for your life to a song selected for you, with no staging, and prove to me why you should stay. The possibility for creative expression in this format is basically nil — Drag Race Thailand's final challenge is a notable exception. At Drag Race: Live, the lip syncs were the focus, and understandably built around not only the queen’s respective brands.
Though an avid Drag Race fan and follower might know Vanjie as a stand-out dancer, it’s apparently not common knowledge. Multiple attendees remarked on the performer’s dancing which was leaned into heavily throughout the hour and a half long performance. But similarly, sections built around Smalls were impeccably styled, and centered fashion, while Oddly brought the quirky, artsy-fartsy kitsch that we have come to know and love.
Drag Race: Live is by no means the only venue in which you can see these girls on stage, doing what, for most of them is their bread and butter, lip syncing their lives away, in a stage production that matches their talents — there’s a whole cottage industry of tours that have cropped and a few of the queens (Sasha Velour and now Violet Chachki are just two of many) have built their own. But, the show does underscore that if you consider yourself a true fan of drag, and more specifically the contestants of Drag Race, if you’re only watching what happens on television you’re only getting half the story!