Americans often think that British people are just like them — after all, Brits speak the same language, used to be our colonial overlords, and also have a divisive leader with an awful blond haircut. As such, U.S. viewers may think that they’ll be able to just tune into RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K. and totally understand what’s going on — and they would be as wrong as if they dared to show their index and middle fingers to say “two, please.” (Oh, you silly American, that is the British equivalent of flipping the bird.)
So in order to help Stateside viewers navigate Drag Race’s trip across the Atlantic, here’s what you need to know about the U.K. and its drag scene, so that you’ll know what the bloody hell you’re talking about when the show premieres on Logo tonight.
Drag in the U.K.
As you might glean from the contestant with the chest hair or another who confesses to never having used fake boobs before, drag is a little bit different for the queen’s subjects. England has a much longer history of men dressing as women, going back to Shakespeare’s day, and is generally more accepting of drag in general. Just think about how many times the Monty Python guys dressed up as women to get a laugh.
Drag is a popular form of pub entertainment not just in drag bars, but for the whole family. In the U.K. they would call it “end of the pier” entertainment, sort of working-class diversions that aren’t meant to be art or to be taken too seriously. The quintessential English drag act is Lily Savage, a comedian and entertainer who was wildly popular way back in the ’90s. (Good luck trying to understand a word she says.)
U.K. queens tend to be much more used to doing jokes and singing their own songs, and less reliant on lip-syncing than queens in the U.S. Without the “pageant system” that is popular in parts of the States, English drag often eschews the sort of female impersonation and big-haired, rhinestone-dripping glamour you see from people like Kennedy Davenport. That’s why no one really seems to care if a queen has chest hair, a flat chest, or, in some cases, even a beard.
Drag Race in the U.K.
RuPaul’s signature show is already quite popular, and you will see that there are just as many self-referential jokes in this series as there are in its Yankee counterpart. Fans here are just as rabid as in the U.S., but because it airs on Netflix they haven’t had the opportunity to watch the show live in gay bars … until now!
The BBC Factor
Drag Race U.K. airs on BBC Three, which is not so much a channel as a streaming service with delusions of grandeur. Yes, that means that Drag Race U.K. is only available online, but being on the BBC, it will get tons of attention in a country that still basically has only five channels. Fleabag started on BBC Three, and look how that turned out!
The BBC is a publicly funded enterprise, and as such is notoriously stingy, and there are certain restrictions about what its shows can and can’t do. Much like PBS, there are no commercials (which might make slicing it up for ads on Logo a little awkward), but they also can’t have any product placement or partnerships. That means no Jewels for Queens, no Anastasia Beverly Hills, no Al and Chuck dot travel (RIP), and no Interior Illusions Lounge.
The (Lack of) Prizes
Because the BBC is stingy and can’t get someone to sponsor a prize, the winner of Drag Race U.K. only gets “a trip to Los Angeles to star in their own show made by the producers of Drag Race.” It’s safe to assume that the winner will be paid for that series, but probably not the $100,000 that the U.S. winner gets. Also, the winner each week gets a RuPeter Badge. (English-to-American translation: “badge” means a button you pin on a jacket.) This is a spoof of the Blue Peter badge, which is given out to guests and viewers of the show Blue Peter, which is like the BBC’s Sesame Street. Yeah, this is a joke that only tried-and-true Brits will get. Sorry, Uncle Sam.
The New Judges
You already know Ru and Michelle. (Quick aside: Contrary to what Michelle may lead you to believe, British people don’t actually universally love her, she’s just … kinda here a lot.) You’ll need to meet the Ross and Carson of the U.K.: Alan Carr and Graham Norton. Alan Carr is a gay comedian who hosted the talk show Alan Carr Chatty Man for seven seasons. Here he is interviewing Nicki Minaj! He’s also a fixture on panel shows, which are a strange British creation where comedians sit around and do funny things for no apparent reason. He’s especially good on 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, which is a game show only funny people can play. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.
Graham Norton is like the Jay Leno of the U.K. except gay, Irish, and actually funny. He started his career in drag doing a show where he played Mother Teresa. A veteran talk-show host, he tried to make it in America in 2004 with a short-lived show on Comedy Central. When he returned to the U.K. he started hosting the BBC’s Friday-night talk show and has been there ever since. Yes, there are only enough famous people in the U.K. for them to have a celebrity chat show once a week.
The Drag Names
One of the queens is named Cheryl Hole, which is not just cheeky because of the word hole; it’s also a take on Cheryl Cole, who was a judge on The X Factor. (They tried to bring her to the U.S. for X Factor, but she got fired because no one could understand her accent, which is as thick as the Rock’s biceps.) Another queen known on the show as Crystal had to change her name from Crystal Beth, for somewhat obvious reasons. Baga Chipz is a great name for a queen, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means a container of French fries. What you call a bag of chips, Brits call a packet of crisps. (Even worse than a confusing name, Baga has already come under fire for supporting former prime minister Theresa May and making racist statements in the past.)
The regional accents in Britain are a lot stronger and carry more connotations than those in the U.S. In general, the harder it is for an American to understand an accent, the farther north the person is from. The north of the island is something like the south of America, generally more rural and conservative. Also know that a couple of the queens are from Essex, which is the New Jersey of England. Strangely enough, people from Essex have the same sense of tacky glamour as those from Jersey. Some things are universal.
A Tuppence is a two-pence coin. It also means vagina. Don’t say I never taught you nuffin, gov’nah.