Two decades into the 21st century, drag queens are kind of mainstream. At least closer than they’ve ever been before, as evidenced by the continuing success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
It used to be that the term “drag queen” was thrown around as an insult. A way to denigrate someone who was, well, different. These days, drag queens embrace it.
“I think reclaiming the word just takes the power from the person who’s using it against you,” said JujuBee (Airline Inthyrath). “And when you use these words that are used against you, they don’t know what to do. Yes, words hurt, but once you can reclaim then, that’s taking the power and that’s owning it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in ‘Dragnificent!’”
JujuBee and three other former “Drag Race” contestants — Alexis Michelle (Alex Michaels), BeBe Zahara Benet (Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa) and Thorgy Thor (Shane Galligan) — join forces in the new TLC series, which is nothing like RuPaul’s show.
“This show is better because I can’t be eliminated again,” joked Thorgy Thor.
“Drag Race” is a competition. “You’re there to win and win a lot of money, honey,” said BeBe, the “Drag Race” Season 1 winner. “But this show, it’s really about celebrating others, touching others, bringing light, bringing love, and using our art form to do that.”
“It’s about having fun — putting a smile on peoples’ faces,” said Thorgy Thor.
It is — quite obviously — a carbon-copy of “Queer Eye.” And the drag queens acknowledge their debt to that show, in which five gay men help one person per episode with fashion, food, grooming, interior design and, um, culture (whatever that means), generally improving the person’s life.
In “Dragnificent,” the four drag queens specialize in fashion (JujuBee), music and entertainment (Thorgy Thor), event planning (BeBe) and makeup and body image (Alexis Michelle), and they help one woman per episode as she prepares for a big event like a wedding or a college reunion.
“What we’ve done in our careers is bring entertainment and levity,” said Alexis Michelle. “And I think what is surprising, perhaps, is you’ll get to see a deeper side of us and really that we are people.”
They’re loud, outgoing, enthusiastic and rather overwhelming — but they’re also sweet, kind and supportive. In Sunday’s premiere episode, they help Emily, a bride who is struggling. Not that she doesn’t want to get married, but she’s a large woman/professional wrestler who can’t see herself walking down the aisle in a white dress. And it becomes clear as Emily is trying them on that the problem isn’t the dresses, it’s Emily.
“It’s more than a makeover show because you could take a makeover off,” said JujuBee. “It’s a transformation. … We are using our drag superpowers to help people look and feel great.”
“Inward and outward,” added Thorgy Thor.
BeBe said they find it easy to identify with each of their subjects. “And it’s just so touching. People need love. People need us to be their cheerleaders. And they need to be celebrated.”
And the women they help in each episode aren’t used to being celebrated. They’re dealing with issues about their physical appearance — including one bride who has a birthmark that covers half her body — and the drag queens share their own enthusiasm and fearlessness.
“Every time I get up in the morning and I stare at the mirror, I always try to validate myself,” BeBe said. “I always try to be my own best cheerleader. I tell myself I belong. I have a purpose. … So when you go out to the world and it’s nasty to you, there’s always that voice that reminds you that you’re special and you should take some time to celebrate yourself.”
“I used to think of myself very poorly. I thought I was ugly and stupid and all that,” said JujuBee. “Those were things that I learned to think about myself, and anything that you learn can be unlearned. … We teach what we’ve done with ourselves because, I mean, look at us! We’re fabulous!”
And they’re hoping “Dragnificent” can help more than just one person at a time. That it can not only entertain viewers, but also support them. After appearing on “Drag Race,” “Drag Race All-Stars” and the TLC special that launched “Dragnificent” — “Drag Me Down the Aisle,” which aired in May 2019 — Thorgy Thor said she’s gotten “so many emails” from people who tell her she’s changed their lives.
“I feel proud about making people feel good about themselves, putting a smile on people’s faces, being entertainers. So I think what we’re doing is fantastic. It’s dragtastic!”
It’s also humanizing for a group of people who are so often dehumanized. And, by extension, it does the same for anyone who doesn’t fit the definition of “normal.”
“There could be that little boy in small-town USA, population 500, who feels like an alien,” said JujuBee. “Who sees us living our true lives and being the loving people that we are. And that can be inspiring. This could save a child.”
But the drag queens aren’t entirely mainstream, even in their own show. “Some people get nervous, honey,” BeBe said. “They don’t know what to do with us.”
In Sunday’s premiere, the bride asks them not to wear drag to her Catholic wedding, and they readily agree. But they do show up and perform in drag at the reception, and the bride, groom and their guests respond enthusiastically.
“Drag queens — I just don’t get it,” says the father of the bride. “But, man, they were a hell of a lot of fun.”
See? Progress is being made.
The premiere of “Dragnificent” airs Sunday on TLC — 8:58 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV; 11:58 p.m. on Comcast. A second episode airs Monday in the series’ regular timeslot — 8 p.m. Dish and DirecTV; 11 p.m. Comcast.