Credit: Courtesy VH1, Francesca Roh/Xtra
RuPaul's Drag Race
13 min

A beginner’s guide to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Don’t know your Snatch Games from your Shangelas? We’re here to help

So you want to get into RuPaul’s Drag Race, but you have no idea where to start. Welcome! My name is Kevin, and I like to call myself a Drag Race herstorian. You’ll learn what I mean by that soon enough.

Come, come, listen and learn. RuPaul’s Drag Race, once a scrappy upstart TV show watched largely by just gay men, is a cultural phenomenon these days. I’ve often joked that it’s LGBTQ2 people’s favourite sport, but New York Magazine took it even further with a recent cover story, calling it the new national pastime in America.

It’s hardly an American phenomenon, though. With queens constantly on world tours, different international editions launching (including one right here in Canada!) and alumni finding their way into national commercial campaigns and Best Picture nominations, Drag Race is no longer just a small fraction of the culture. Drag Race is making the culture.

But how best to find your way into RuPaul’s golden empire? Getting into Drag Race this late can be a daunting expedition. So for your travels, I’ve prepared a beginner’s guide, including a dictionary of important terms, some frequently asked questions and more. Enjoy!

Glossary of Important Terms

Drag Race lingo can sound as foreign as a different language to an unfamiliar ear. The following is a sampling of the words and phrases you’ll need to know most when diving into the world of RuPaul and her girls.

💄 A beat, otherwise known as face or mug, is a queen’s chosen makeup application. This can be used to both elevate (commenting on a signature makeup look, complimenting something more out of the box) and dismiss (“Go fix your mug,” as Season 2 contestant Morgan McMichaels once memorably spat at another queen).

💄 A queen’s body is not necessarily just about their physical shape as a person. Using padding and wearing specific types of garments, queens can present different kinds of silhouettes. The most commonly praised are the curvy, especially with a well-shaped rear, and the fishy, which is the slang term used for presenting traditionally feminine.

💄 C.U.N.T. is not a slur, in Drag Race lexicon, but an acronym. The four letters stand for Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent, the four qualities that RuPaul looks for in a potential winner. It’s widely understood that you can’t win Drag Race without all four, although you could find many a fan who would disagree with you on that with regard to a particular winner or two.

💄 Herstory is personally one of my favorite bits of Drag Race lingo. It refers specifically to the history of the show—you’ll often hear RuPaul declare that something in particular is being done “for the first time in Drag Race herstory.” See also: All Stars 2’s excellent “Herstory of the World” lip sync performance, which broadened the definition to reflect women’s involvement throughout world history.

💄 At the end of nearly every episode, two queens will participate in a Lip Sync for Your Life: a thunderdome-esque battle between contestants trying to survive to the next episode [or something like this]. They lip sync and (usually) dance to a popular song, trying to impress Ru and upstage their competition. In All Stars seasons, this is instead a Lip Sync for Your Legacy, in which the winning queens of a given challenge face off for a cash prize of $10,000—and the right to send another queen home.

💄 The library challenge, otherwise known as Reading Is Fundamental, is a mini-challenge, in which the queens are tasked with coming up with their best bitchy bon mots about each other. The name and concept of the challenge are a tribute to Dorian Corey, who explained the concepts of reading and its sister shade in the documentary Paris Is Burning.

💄 One of the more popular concepts on the show, as well as the title of a Ru single, is realness. Off the show, this has a lot of different definitions; on the show, it’s most often brought out when describing a particular drag look that aims to authentically replicate another look. For example, in Season 5, the final four queens were tasked with putting together an outfit that exhibited “executive realness,” another reference to Paris Is Burning and ball culture. The contestants presented looks that they believed would befit a real-life CEO.

💄 Perhaps the most signature challenge, Snatch Game, is a parody of the real-life Match Game. In the Snatch Game, the queens must impersonate a celebrity—usually a woman, but not exclusively—and go for big, broad comedic moments. It has produced some of the best and worst performances in show herstory.

💄 The word runway is versatile on this show: it refers to the physical stage the queens walk on, the categories that they’re challenged with to serve different drag looks and the looks themselves. If you hear someone talk about a contestant’s “runway,” they’re referring to a specific look.

💄Untucked is the 30-minute after show that follows nearly every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (with the exception of Season 1, not All Stars). Chronologically, it takes place between the runway presentation and the Lip Sync for Your Life, and features the queens relaxing with drinks and hashing out the drama of the episode.

Frequently Asked Questions 🙋

How many seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race air a year?

It used to be just one, but the advent of All Stars—a very successful second season revived the side franchise after All Stars 1 was widely considered a failure—has prompted US network VH1 to air order two full seasons a year. With RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and Drag Race Canada on the way, Canadian viewers will have no less than four seasons to watch over the next year.

Do the queens keep working after the show?

Oh, very much so, yes. You can see the queens on tour, in local bars and online in different web series effectively year-round. Drag Race is just the start of the race, to paraphrase All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel.

How many queens have appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race?

As of now, the count is about 140 queens.

Where did Drag Race air before VH1?

Sister Viacom network Logo was the primary home for Drag Race for the first eight regular seasons of its life, only moving to VH1 for Season 9.

Do queens need to win challenges to go far on the show?

The answer to this has fluctuated somewhat over the years. Only one queen has ever made it into the finale without a single win: Jujubee, in Season 2. It used to be that whoever won the most challenges consistently also won the crown at the end of the season, but three winners since the show moved to VH1—Sasha Velour, Trixie Mattel, and most recently Yvie Oddly—have not. You can read more about the latter’s standard-breaking win here.

Starter Kit

I’ve previously written a launch kit for first-time Drag Race viewers that includes five episodes from different seasons of the show. If you’re looking for something simpler, though, I’d recommend starting with a Snatch Game episode—Season 7 and All Stars 2 are both great one —or a season premiere—my favourites are Season 5’s and, once again, All Stars 2’s.

If you’re looking to go ahead and whole-hog commit to a season, Seasons 3 and 6 tend to be the best for new viewers. I’d also throw Season 9 in there, with the caveat that the first half of Season 9 is much slower than the back half.

You can, of course, just start watching fresh with the new episodes come UK or All Stars 5. But to really know your herstory—you know what that means now!—it’s best to look back before moving forward.