13 Differences Between UK and US Drag Race
Just like busses, you wait for six months and then two come along at once. Ok not quite as bad as that, British busses are far less frequent. Drag Race series’ however? Well, they defy logic. After the pandemic forced all filming worldwide to come to a screeching halt, the end of RuPaul’s Drag race season 12 was filmed via zoom last year, a nauseatingly familiar sight.
Soon after, however, Drag Race All Stars season 5 started, then Canada’s Drag Race season 1 as well as Drag Race Holland and Secret Celebrity Drag Race somewhere in between, all with varying degrees of success. For most people, however, it’s all about the full fat main series and its naughtier, dirtier little sister – Drag Race UK.
So, now we have Drag Race season 13 and UK Drag Race season 2 running simultaneously. Just like an Arriva coach and a TFL double decker, they are quite different beasts… so here are 13 reasons why:
1 – Network – One is on Netflix/World Of Wonder, the other is produced by the BBC. This might not seem like a big deal but the difference in channels means a lot. The main change is that there is no prize money. The BBC isn’t allowed to dish out taxpayers hard earned cash, whereas in the US version they win $100k for the series and sometimes up to $10k for just a maxi challenge win. UK contestants win a US produced web series as the grand prize and an episode victory nabs them…a badge.
2 – Format – After 13 seasons, you have to mix a show up a bit in order to keep people interested. By this standard, watching US season 13 and UK season 2 simultaneously, the differences are clear. The format is back to basics for the UK version with RuPaul explaining things that have been taken as read in the US version for years. On the BBC they are expecting a new audience whereas in the US they shake things up on the regs to keep it fresh for viewers who’ve been watching for well over a decade.
3 – Sophistication – There’s a poise and class in the US version that they have honed over the years that the UK contestants don’t really go for. The level of nuance is palpable in the US and a flawless performance is what gets them through. In the UK, drag is a different beast and they don’t have the social media presence, established drag culture or the money to produce what the Americans can achieve. It’s much more down to earth and when some queens trying to emulate their US sister, they never quite hit the mark. Is there any point in trying to replicate a different kind of drag? This takes years of training and a lot of money that the UK queens simply don’t have.
4 – Humour – You can’t beat a good bit of British humour. As Baga Chips proved, that quintessential G.S.O.H. is second to none. Drag has been around for a LONG time in the UK so the smutty archaic toilet gags are alive and well in the UK version that some of the US queens might balk at. RuPaul clearly likes the British crude LOLs and Anglophile Michelle Visage was a big part of the show even getting made.
5 – New vs Old – Lily Savage famously remarked that she didn’t like RuPaul’s Drag Race as the emphasis was too much on beauty, looks and pageantry. While that’s changed somewhat over the years with more alternative queens competing, the UK version embraces the drag history eschewing that polished style for a more down to earth vibe. US drag ethos is more based in pageants, sitcoms and Americana while British drag originates from ‘working men’s clubs’, the ultra camp and the grotesque.
6 – Style – The differences here are a lot more subtle and it’s almost like the judges allow a different look in the UK version. There is almost an expectation that looks will be less polished so judge accordingly when we get the feeling such things wouldn’t be let slide on the main stage of Drag Race US. The US judges must look for a different set of ideals when critiquing the UK queens and vice versa.
7 – Judges – RuPaul found his UK forever judges in Graham Norton and Alan Carr (could it have been anyone else) but the calibre of UK guest judges proves that UK celebs want in on the action. Some British viewers would be hard pressed to name all the stars making a cameo in the US version but with legends like Dawn French, Cheryl and Liz Hurley behind the desk in London, there’s no danger of that here.
8 – RuPaul Charles – The UK version is lucky enough to have RuPaul herself leading the judging panel and Michelle Visage by his side. It was the only show outside the main US versions that was graced with Mama Ru’s presence. Now we have the ‘Down Under’ version in full swing with its own plethora of cultural differences no doubt. In the UK version you get a different, softer version of Ru we find. She laughs easily at the British kookiness and holds the viewer’s hands with all the lingo.
9 – Socials – After 13 seasons it not surprising that the new US queens are wise to the game. Catchphrases, merchandising opportunities and a vast hike in follower numbers across their social media platforms is par for the course. Racers on Drag Race US often have a huge social media presence already by affiliation with previous contestants, a phenomenon that hasn’t reached the UK scene as of yet with queens only famous on a local level. In the US, merch is already produced before the show has even aired whereas in the UK, only Baga Chips managed to coin a catchphrase in season one.
10 – Regional accents – The awesome thing about the casting on Drag Race UK is that they certainly aren’t London-centric, taking queens from all over the sovereign nations. While Americans sometimes struggle with regional British accents, the aural melting pot on display here is commendable and exciting. Of course you get different accents on the US version, but rarely are they so varied and pronounced.
11 – Culture – For each imprint of the Drag Race brand, they commendably tailor the show for the local audience rather than a global one. The luck with the US/UK ‘special relationship’ is that we’ve grown up with a mix of American and English culture. The UK is geared far more towards royalty and history thematically, giving it a uniqueness (nerve and talent) that you can only get in good ol Blighty. The US version is much more broad reaching culture-wise and after 13 seasons they have to keep things fresh, branching out further each time.
12 – Boy Looks – We are now always treated to a ‘Meet The Queens’ episode before each main series starts in order to get a preview of what styles and looks the contestants are going to be turning. What we don’t get is a gander at what they look like out of drag. There is something of a difference once we do see the cast members in their boy clothes. There’s a polished look in the Americans that belies a financial privilege that potentially isn’t present with the British queens and only goes to prove that for the UK, drag is an art and not something that is financially viable…yet.
13 – The Finale – Putting on a show is what drag s all about and the finale episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race have been a celebration of artistic performances, mind-blowing inventiveness and breathtaking costumes. A live show is the epitome of what a finale is all about but in the current climate it’s just not possible. It could have been possible to put on a big drag show at the Palladium for the UKDR season 1 finale but they didn’t. So for now, there is a glaring difference between the US and UK finales, one big fuck off live extravaganza… and we can’t wait for the British one to be allowed to happen.
RuPaul’s Drag Race – Season 13 airs weekly on VH1 (US) and Netflix (UK). RuPaul’s Drag Race UK – Season 2 airs weekly on WOW Presents (US) and BBC iPlayer (UK). Sam Dowler is the co-host of the acclaimed United Queendom Podcast