RuPaul’s Drag Race has become less of a reality show and more of an industry – and it is expanding at the rate of WeWork. As well as the original US series, there is the spinoff All Stars, in which fan-favourite former competitors get to try again, meaning Drag Race barely takes a break from the air. There is Untucked, the DragCon conventions – a live circuit for old participants. And now there is Drag Race UK (BBC Three), the second in a wave of international editions, after Thailand, to be followed by Australia and Canada. To misquote Dolly Parton: it makes a lot of money to look this cheap.
In many ways, a British Drag Race or something of the sort has been a long time coming. There is a rich history of drag as mainstream entertainment in the UK, particularly in working-class culture, and bawdy humour is integral to our national identity (even Bake Off, the softest of shows, rose to prominence on a wave of double entendres). So it should work. On the other hand, one of the defining characteristics of the original Drag Race is its surprising earnestness, which seems at odds with most UK drag I have seen. British drag is more original, experimental and accepting of quirks. Like many, I was concerned that Drag Race might find those qualities lost in translation.
For the most part, they have pruned and tucked so you can barely see the stitches. Any fears that it might have been polished for a non-British audience are quickly allayed when we meet the first contestant, Baga Chipz, from West Bromwich, who demonstrates that while Britons and Americans may share a common language, they do very different things with it. The words “gobshite”, “minge” and “trollop” flutter through the air like confetti. Another contestant, Vinegar Strokes, must gently explain the origins of her name to Ru; she makes her entrance quoting Kat Slater’s infamous “I became a total slag” line from EastEnders. The Vivienne does an impression of Kim Woodburn of How Clean Is Your House? fame. I felt a tingling of patriotism. If Number 10 could bottle this, our sorely divided nation might be in with a chance.
The mini challenge introduces the 10 contestants, and compared to the show’s glossy sheen across the pond, they are a pleasingly rough-and-ready bunch. They are asked to pose with their own severed head in a photoshoot so budget they make Ru operate the camera. A big difference is that there are no branded prizes, and there is no big prize of $100,000. This is the BBC, after all. There is a promise of the overall winner going to Hollywood to make their own original series, but that sounds like the kind of thing an unscrupulous agent might offer a starlet in the 1930s. Be sure to take a chaperone, is all I would say.
The traditional rivalries are put in place early on – young v old, loud v quiet, traditional v punk – but so far, no one is trotting out the reality TV maxim of: “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win.” It is all very cordial. Having maintained the Drag Race tradition of baffling mini-challenge winners, the maxi challenge gets right down to it and asks for two catwalk looks: Queen Elizabeth Realness, and Queen of Your Hometown. If anyone has ever wondered how one might demonstrate the spirit of Wiltshire with only homemade outfits and heavy makeup, you are in for a treat. I can’t tell you what they wore (the preview came with more spoiler warnings than an episode of Game of Thrones) but it is worth the wait to find out how Leicester might survive its sartorial interpretation.
RuPaul and his longtime BFF Michelle Visage shore up the judging panel, with the help of Alan Carr and Andrew Garfield, who mostly gets into the smutty spirit but occasionally forgets he is on Drag Race and not Inside the Actor’s Studio (nerves, he declares, are “a wonderful tailwind”). Birmingham’s Sum Ting Wong (“a reclamation of those little micro-aggressive racist digs”) and Crystal, the obligatory “edgy” queen from east London, are my early favourites, but only a fool would pick a winner so soon.
For those of us who have stuck with Drag Race for the last decade, this new incarnation could be the shake-up that was needed. One of its recent problems has been how self-referential it has become. With contestants discussing old seasons and dressing up as former contestants, its world was shrinking. This opens it up. Yes, it is less slick, and Britons aren’t very good at those reality TV recap interviews to camera. Most of them sound like they are reading pre-prepared answers on Blind Date. But it is more theatrical, and less pageanty, and promises to be a very British Drag Race after all.
• This article was amended on 4 October 2019 to clarify the sequence of international editions of Drag Race – Thailand was first.