The most successful drag queen in American history ends every episode of his long-running reality-TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, in the same way. “Remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” he asks, beaming at the queens who’ve survived another week in the competition. “Can I get an amen up in here?”
The simplicity and earnestness of the declaration may strike those unfamiliar with the Logo show as hollow, more like a catchphrase than a mantra, but this rhetoric of self-love as a form of self-care has always been essential in the world of drag. The composer Jerry Herman captured the therapeutic value of the tradition in a song from the 1983 Broadway hit La Cage Aux Folles. In the tender number “A Little More Mascara,” the character Albin sings about the palliative power of turning into the star performer Zaza: “To make depression disappear / I screw some rhinestones on my ear / And put my brooches and tiara / And a little more mascara on.” More recent drag narratives—from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kinky Boots—have carried the same undertones of self-empowerment.
Though RuPaul also subscribes to this idea of self-care as a natural outgrowth of drag, his show differs crucially from its film and theater predecessors. When Zaza hustles out her highest drag as her spirit starts to sag, she does so in the solitude of her own dressing room—away from her partner and the world around her. But when RuPaul’s queens face the long vanity mirror that flanks the pink workroom where they get ready, they often discuss their personal experiences with body image, self-esteem, prior prison convictions, and homelessness—in front of the camera and thus with the entire world. In other words, the reality-TV format of RuPaul’s Drag Race turns what are typically private, confidence-boosting anthems into communal moments for public consumption.