Like wishing for snow in the dead of summer, right now we’re about as far from a new season of Drag Race as we can be, even though we know both Season 8 and a new All-Stars Season are already shot and in the can!
In the past year I’ve watched every season of Drag Race except for the storied and hard-to-obtain first, and I’ve noticed some trends. Specifically, 10 skills that are positive indications of a queen’s potential success as supported by the data of every main challenge ever performed on the show.
Will these skills get you surely to safety every week? No – there’s always something that only vaguely relies on these traits, whether that’s a parade float boat to sink you or a magazine concept to tear you down. Yet, if you’re killing it in these 10 categories all season long, you’ll probably survive even turning yourself into a Presidential candidate or Hello Kitty character. Plus, what deadly challenge used every one of these ten skills?
Of course, what do I know? Last time I was in drag as a woman was as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and that was almost 20 years ago.
The Criteria: For the purpose of this post, the seven seasons I evaluated were Season 2-7 and All-Stars. I did not specifically evaluate final runways for the potential of a sewing challenge unless that happened to be the main challenge.
1. Singing (7x, or 1x a season)
There’s no way to sail through a season without being able to carry a tune, but we’ve seen many singers succeed without being Jinx Monsoon. This is typically a once-a-season challenge and the fact of the matter is everyone is physically able to sing – so why not come with this skill prepared to knock off some tuneless queens?
What to do? First, find your damn voice. Whether that means hitting karaoke, joining a choir, or taking lessons, singing is the first step to singing. Second, listen to yourself. You do not want your recorded voice to be a surprise. If you hear yourself doing something awful, better to fix it now.
Bonus points: If you fear this is your weak spot, focus on scales and spitting back intervals. Lucian grills queens who can’t deal with an occasional melodic jump, and every interval has an easy-to-remember song to match (4ths – “Here Comes the Bride,” 5ths – “Star Wars,” etc). If you can kinda sing each interval on its own, you’ll be more ready to spit back whatever you get taught on the show.
2. Impersonation (12x, or 1.5x a season)
I have two words for you: Snatch Game. Ru changes up many elements of the show, but this one has been a mainstay ever since its debut in Season 2 – and, final-three contenders tend to distinguish themselves as great snatchers. Even beyond the Snatch Game, you are frequently called upon to impersonate other famous people or queens.
What to do? When it comes to Snatch Game, you need to have multiple famous personas on lockdown – and skip right over those trademarked characters, because they always get shot down. Once you have the look and the mannerisms, make it funny.
Bonus points: Impersonations are about taking one or two signature things and hammering them hard – not just a catch phrase, but some element of physicality. Try impersonating a star you don’t know too well. Then, replay every prior Snatch Game and give answers in character, but don’t rehearse – just try it off the top of your head. Run out of material? Watch some original Match Game!
3. Know Your Ru (16x, or 2x a season)
Drag Race is nothing if not recursive. Most seasons include a bit that heavily references either Ru’s music, Ru’s history, or past seasons of the show. We’ve had cross-genre cover songs, parodies, and even a imitation runway. It’s your job to know your herstory, and that includes drag and civil rights herstory, too!
What to do? Download Ru’s complete discography and put it on repeat. Pick up a bio of her life. And, re-watch prior seasons – including Untucked.
Bonus points: Pick a Ru look you could execute with what you’ve packed. Keep a cheat sheet of the one most comedic or obvious tell of each past contestant (even the early exits).
4. Makeup (18x, or 2.5x a season)
Clearly you can paint if you’re on Drag Race, yet this goes beyond creating your own perfect face. Without fail, there is both a challenge involving making someone else up as you and a mini-challenge about putting your makeup on under some difficult condition (time constraints, lack of visibility or motion, etc). That means you must go through face-making bootcamp on your own before the show.
What to do? Practice making others up in your own drag look. Try it on your sister, your neighbor, and your dad. And, practice altering your own look – try your wigs without forehead shading or your nose with more contour.
Bonus points: Get minimal. What suggests your drag using the least time, effort, and makeup material? How would you execute that on someone truly the opposite you – whether that’s a different race, or different bone structure. Also? Watch ALL of James St. James’s transformations series on YouTube – and there are DOZENS of them – and try some of the looks on yourself.
5. Dancing (21x, or 3x a season)
We can’t all be Alyssa Edwards (and that’s a good thing), but to be America’s Next Drag Superstar you’ve got to have a little bit of rhythm. More than that, you have to be able to move your body how you’re told. At minimum, you’re going to need to do some dancing in a RuPaul music video at some point, and you might wind up in a ballet.
What to do? Take lessons. Take lessons. Take lessons. Or, at least, do some damn Zumba. This is one area where you cannot afford to skimp in your preparation, because half-assing dance steps is a surefire path to a lip sync on this show. You don’t just need to know how to do steps, you have to have a framework for how to move your body.
Bonus points: Learn choreography from your favorite music videos via YouTube tutorials. This will help you get into the groove of picking up steps, plus you might learn something you can use.
6. Reading & Writing (28x, or 4x a season)
We’re not talking about 1st grade skills here. You have to be able to read another queen to filfth, as well as write your own material including parodies, speeches, and even the occasional political platform. It’s fine if you’re not a creative force, but you have to be able to capture your voice an aesthetic on the page in pretty short order.
What to do? For reading, just work on mocking your own friends – even if you really mean it, you can tell them you’re practicing. You have to fine-tune the reads to be just mean enough to still be funny. As for writing, just do it – get a marble notebook and give yourself a longhand assignment every day, and then read it back to yourself.
Bonus points: Video your reading of past queens and put it up on YouTube. There’s no more surefire way to have people tear apart your comedy than offering yourself up to the YouTube commentariate.
7. Sewing (24x, or 3.5x a season plus runways)
If there is one thing true to all seasons, it’s that you need to sew in some capacity to survive both the first and final weeks of the show. Whether it’s apocalyptic coutour or the Glitter Ball, Drag Race comes with some assembly required. This goes beyond taking a sewing class and knowing how to stitch a seam. The ladies are challenged time and again to make garments from scratch for themselves and others, and in those weeks their Runway counts for a lot. Yet, we’ve had some non-sewers like Sharon and Adore get all the way to the finals.
Plus, you’re guaranteed to be a little underprepared for at least one runway, and the queens who have been able to whip up a quick addition have always gone far if they have the other skills to back it up.
What to do? Working from patterns and understanding how to structure certain garment types (a catsuit, a hoop skirt) and materials (velvet, tulle, paper) pays off in spades. Don’t just study the theories – make the damn things! For your prep to really pay off, pack a paper pattern or two of dresses you’ve been able to knock off at home – or, at least, commit the sketch to memory. (Caveat: I don’t know if the producers would let you walk into the workroom with patterns packed.)
Bonus points: Fashion history. There’s a reason a queen like Raja or even Violet slays the runway so consistently, and that’s a knowledge and acknowledgement of the fashion that came before. Also: found fashion! Put yourself through a thrift store supermarket sweep, or try to make clothing from a free Craigslist couch. This sort of fashion improvisation happens every season.
8. Comedy (32x, or 4.5x a season)
Comedy is both less and more frequently used than these other skills. Yes, there is generally just one straight-up comedy challenge, and another “be funny” piece of theatre. However, the inability to be funny always lands queens in the hot seat. Every single final three queen from Season 2 onward has had the ability to be funny. You can’t survive without it.
What to do? You can’t be funny in a vacuum. Try taking an improv class, or just write a few jokes every day. Also – pen a parody version of a Ru song, for good measure.
Bonus points? Find your local comedy open mic and volunteer for a spot. Once you’ve bombed once, you know what it feels like – and you won’t be trying for the first time with your crown on the line.
9. Acting (36x, or 5x a season)
Is all Drag acting? It depends. Some queens play more of a character while others are more themselves in a wig than out of it. Even if the former queens have the edge over the latter ones, everyone can stand to rehearse this skill. Remember – we’ve seen many experienced actors blow it on Drag Race, while ingénues like Dida Ritz have slayed. If you can carry yourself and read a line with more than one inflection you’ll at least make it to the middle of the pack.
What to do? Here’s an area where I have a lot of experience, and my first suggestion is this: read everything out loud. Even if you know how your character feels and looks, you need to get the damn words out of your mouth. Practice reading dialog in a favorite book with different inflections, trying to subvert the meaning from your common assumption. For example, read the Cat in the Hat with the Cat as a sinister terrorist, then again with him as your overexcited camp counselor.
Bonus points: Do some acting. There are plenty of community theatres and Fringe Fests in the world. Give it a try.
10. Memorization (48x, or 7x a season!)
Really? This is my final and most important skill. Hell yes.
If you look across multiple seasons, one skill that fells a lot of queens both early and late is an inability to hit their marks and nail their lines. This goes beyond the acting, dancing, reading, or writing challenges – it’s about being able to rapidly synthesize information and interpret it without the page in front of you. That goes for everything from lip syncs to comedy routines to dance steps to speeches about why you should be America’s next drag superstar.
What to do? This is a hard skill to measurably improve, but there are ways. Memorizing monologues and dialog can help, but so can karaoke without looking at the screen. Anything that affirms your ability to get off-book and fast is going to help you in this category. Better to get nine words out of 10 and make it then to still be looking at the book come show time – that’s the stuff bad actor’s nightmares are made of.
Bonus points: Pick up a script book from an era of TV or film you don’t know well and practice getting off-book on 2-3 minute scenes in under 2hrs. Screen actors don’t typically learn their scripts like a play, they receive “sides” each day of the isolated scenes they must perform, then get one or two runs through them before shooting. That’s pretty similar to how you’ll be learning on Drag Race. If you can score a Soap Opera script, even better – they may be hammy actors, but damn do they learn fast!
In case of emergency: Lip Sync For Your Life
That’s all great if all goes well, but what about when it doesn’t? You have to be ready to lip sync for your life to stay to play another week.. But, how do you get prepared?
What to do? There’s no way to know what songs Ru will pull out of her purse, so you have to prepare another way. Whether that’s practicing little pieces of choreography, working up different approaches to different genres, or just practicing your splits, you have to go into a LSFYL with a plan or you’ll be the one to sashay. When all else fails, just karaoke – but, instead of focusing on the singing, focus on the selling.
Bonus Points: Seriously, get ready to do a split or a cartwheel, they count for a lot. Yet, we’ve seen aerobic girls felled by a strong performance. Try doing a song standing in one spot and selling it with your face Latrice-style. If you can do both, you are a double-threat!
One Challenge, Ten Skills (Well, actually, 11)
What was the single challenge that relied on all ten of these skills? It just happened this year! Season Seven, Episode Four was called “Spoof! (There It Is).” It involved recording (singing) spoof versions (comedy and reading/writing) of Ru Paul hit songs (know your Ru) and then lip syncing (!) to the recording (memorization) while dancing (dancing) and while dressed for the part (sewing). In each case, queens got into character (acting), and in one they aped the three queens that originated the song (makeup and impersonation).