What I learned auditioning for Rupaul’s Drag Race
Recently Monica Beverly Hillz, a contestant on Season 5 of Rupaul’s Drag Race revealed that she was not only a drag performer, but also identifies as a transgender woman. This is unprecedented in the five years that Drag Race has been on the LOGO network. Hillz is the first to come out during the show, and to have this written into the story line as if she were hiding a “secret” which was holding her back in the competition. I identify personally with Monica in a way.
For the last three years RuPaul’s Drag Race has occupied my mind as a potential and even ideal pulpit from which my worldwide tele-trans-evangelist ministry would be birthed. In terms of popularity and visibility, RuPaul’s Drag Race offers a unique platform and the power to speak to a broad demographic, including more mainstream audiences and queers alike. Being transracial, transcultural and transgender, I know I was born to be a leader and a storyteller, that I am destined to help usher in a new era of understanding and unity across all cultures ways of being. And believing this, it seemed perfectly divine that RuPaul, my lifelong idol second only to Whitney Houston, was now holding my golden microphone right there in her motherly and manicured man-hands!
Some may question this context for my holy aspirations, citing that Drag Race is in some ways just another flashy, trashy reality TV show. But I would counter that there can be no underestimating the power of representation, and to its great credit, the show does represent all sorts of otherness to a broad primetime viewership in the US and around the world. Straight, cisgender, and LGBT people alike recognize the name RuPaul as synonymous with one of the first successfully mainstream-permeating queer personalities ever, the first drag queen supermodel star of the world! And because of that, they tune in. Stamping RuPaul’s famous name onto even the most crazy, creepy and cracked-out queens featured on the show becomes equal to instant access for them, a free pass out of America’s dark clubs and alleyways and into its living rooms and hearts, all via iconic association. Brand recognition!
So of course I quickly latched onto the idea that this show would be my vehicle to fame, trusting that once the golden microphone was in my hands I could do with it as I pleased, namely to spout my queer gospel all the world over! But one slight complication arose. This was a competition for drag queens, which I was and still am, but as the fourth season rolled around, I was beginning to cross the threshold into becoming something more, into becoming a woman, the trans-goddess that had been glowing through me all along! I was still an unstoppable performer and had lost none of my lust for the showgirl stage, and I believed I could still have this in the bag, but a shadow of doubt had begun to loom.
Historical digression: the term drag queen has traditionally applied only to self-identified men who dress as women for the sake of performance, often implying an exaggeration of stereotypically feminine mannerisms and dress, even to a comical degree. Transgender is a general term that can be applied to a variety of individuals whose behavior deviate’s from conventional binary gender roles assigned at birth or traditionally held by society. While many may use the word, transgender, as an identifier that most accurately matches their internal gender, there are many other intersections that fall under the transgender umbrella as well: cross dresser, transvestite, androgynous, gender-queer, transsexuals and even drag kings and drag queens! The men in Drag Race retain the ability—at least to some degree or within at least some contexts—to be socially recognized as men. Their maleness is intact underneath the costumes and their associated privilege has not been fully or permanently revoked by society. The wig is removable. As time has gone on and the queer community has evolved, however, the term ‘drag’ has had to expand in kind.
Drag is now more than ever an inclusive community that allows anyone, from traditional drag queens to drag kings, transsexuals, celebrity impersonators, transgender people and a huge variety of other gender nonconformists to take the stage and claim the classification for themselves with a good old lip-sync and boogie. I love Drag Race for showcasing some of this diversity and depth, but my doubts arose when I began to notice a pattern of restrictions on how contestants were identifying themselves. It shocked me to realize how much dramatic emphasis the show places on tired, bygone binaries of gender. Out of drag, the contestants must at least claim to be real men, even if they are unable to act or dress convincingly like cis men, and—problematically—even if they do not feel like men. By now we know that not all of the queens on Drag Race do really feel like men, as we have seen multiple characters “come out” as transgender after their stints on the show (Sonique Love, Carmen Carrera, Kenya Michaels). Nor would many people be surprised if a few of the other contestants with doubtable boy-personas were to admit to a trans or non-binary-male self-identification (Raja Gemini).
Last year about this time I was contacted by RuPaul’s Drag Race Casting and asked if I would submit an audition tape for Season 5. I was reticent, having become somewhat disillusioned by the show’s apparent stance on the non-representation of the transgender community. But I could not deny the itch of my nagging ambition! I had been dreaming of this platform for years! Less than six months before I received that email from the casting staff, I had begun the first phases of hormone treatments, and was excited and confident about starting my permanent transition from male to female. As I sat reading those few sentences that proved RuPaul was still interested in me, that proved I was worthy and that I had a shot, I felt myself standing at a terrible crossroads.
On the one hand, I could abandon an old dream and continue my beautiful transition, taking hormones every day and continuing to pursue my blossoming career working for a queer advocacy non-profit…Or, and I could hardly contain the brainstorm of glamorous images and possibilities, I could take a different course to the same end-goal. I could say what I needed to say in order to get on the show, and then later, just like others had, I could come out as trans and resume my advocacy work. I could halt my transition and throw away my brand new Driver’s License for which I’d finally been brave enough to be photographed in full female presentation. I could retake the photo looking like the little boy in my 16-year-old permit. I could snatch back my glorious curls I’d been growing out for more than two years and hide them under a hat. I could wipe off the make-up and take of the clothes and shoes that make me feel like me. I could say my name is Nathan, and I could introduce Precious as something else, something separate, a character, rather than the truth, that she is my core, my essence, that she is me. I could do all that, and maybe, just maybe, the stars would align and I would be one of the lucky few who get that magical “free pass” to stardom, a RuPaul stamp of approval.
The allure was irresistible, easily outweighing a few more months of a discomfort I’d felt all my life. After all, I had grown up watching Ru on Geraldo and dreamed of being that beautiful blonde black beauty with curly hair, that postmodern Marilyn Monroe. My inner turmoil was not abated, but my spirit was eager. I sought professional council from my boss, my coworkers, my colleagues at the University of Chicago and some of my closest of friends. They all had the same resounding question, echoing my own hesitations: Why? Each of them spoke about my work in the transgender community and the real impact I was having there, as well as the building recognition I was getting as a trans girl working her way through the non-profit world. They asked why I would even bother with Drag Race instead of continuing on my important path. I spoke honestly and passionately about my 100% investment in my work and advocacy career, about supporting and bettering the transgender community, but explained my yearning for a national platform. And part of me just knew that if I did make it on the show, I would be a hit!
So I did it. I found time out of my 40+ hour work week and weekend performances to create a ten minute show-stopping audition video spectacle! I poured as much of my passion and soul into it as I could while still being cautious, knowing that anything I said or did could and would be used against me by the show’s drama-loving editors. I dredged up Nathan and all the baggage of my painful past that comes with him, I smiled for the camera, and I did my best to slouch my shoulders and pump my fists like a genuine grade-A bro. I submitted myself to these mild tortures, and within a month I found out that I had not made the show.
Needless to say, my confidence and my spirit were shaken, but I had stomped through many mightier storms than that and have always risen a Phoenix from the ashes! It took no time at all to realize that this whole struggling saga could be a beautiful and useful teaching moment for so many of the trans and queer youth I mentor every day, starting important conversations about perseverance and integrity, about how even within our queer subculture, we often find ourselves aligning with benchmarks set by ambiguous, ambivalent bigwigs calling the shots from above. This was a lesson about how precariously we can teeter between reality and our dreams, between our selves and the selves we’d like to be.
I have since shared the audition video and my story with countless students, friends and artistic collaborators, and I have taken great strength in their support and congratulations, despite my not making it onto the show last year. Even beyond that, I have been awakened to the glorious reality that I am an artist and a star in my own right, different from but not less than RuPaul. My career and life as a creator and performer and advocate has only begun to blossom, and I thrill at all the amazing projects and platforms I will yet build for myself to stand upon. I have branded myself with my own stamp of approval, for I really am Precious, in name and in the reality of my self-love!
You can check out my full audition video here: