Content warning: this article discusses blackface and racism directed towards First Nations people.
As the admittedly chaotic debut season of Drag Race Down Under shuffles along into week five, this week’s episode brought us highs, lows, ‘yeast spread’, and uncomfortable revelations about Australia’s problem with racism – the handling of the latter leaving fans divided.
The overarching topic of discussion from this week’s episode is that the show finally got around to addressing something that fans have been discussing since before the season even began to air – contestant Scarlet Adams’ history of racist and culturally appropriative performances, including blackface and parodies of Aboriginal people, photos of which were recently leaked online.
The ugly truth about Aussie drag
It’s during a werkroom scene as the queens are doing their makeup that the topic is first broached, when the recently returned Art Simone innocently asks the room “Has anyone ever done anything in drag that they regret?” (which we’re sure wasn’t prompted by the producers). After some joking responses, Adams offers up her admission to performing in blackface (“as well as a lot of other queens”) and her regrets, which is met by shocked looks and prompts some big questions. Lebanese-Australian queen Etcetera Etcetera is the voice of reason in the (very white) room, holding Scarlet to account and advising that she should be showing she’s sorry through her actions, not only her words.
Later, on the main stage, RuPaul addresses Scarlet directly about the leaked blackface photos, giving her the opportunity to respond. Scarlet expresses regret for the mistakes she made as a “dumb, ignorant teenager” and apologises to RuPaul and everybody else hurt. RuPaul chooses to not go down the path of “cancelling” and prays that this is a lesson in “humility and accountability”.
Photograph: Stan | That's (not) a wrap?
It's an embarrassing and exposing situation for Australia’s debut on the international platform of Drag Race. The handling feels uncomfortable and incomplete, even with Ru’s response offering a degree of pseudo-psychological absolution for Adams. It is no white person’s place (including this writer’s) to say whether the way this was dealt with was good enough, and maybe the show’s format isn’t best placed to unpack all the issues surrounding the particular incident or the greater racism problem in Australia and certain drag scenes – but it does feel like the situation is just largely framed as character development for Scarlet. It's a crying shame that there were no First Nations contestants still present to be part of the conversation (not that first-eliminated queen Jojo Zaho should have been under duress to comment if she had been there). If the cast were more representative of the diversity we see in Australian and New Zealand drag the discussion would have been inherently more nuanced and representative of voices who have an actual stake in racism being allowed airtime – whether that's on a drag stage, or as a convenient character arc on a TV screen. But as the cast stands, the overwhelming whiteness also points to another truth about the local entertainment industry.
After the episode aired, Scarlet posted an apology video to her Instagram, outlining the steps she has taken so far to rectify her past actions and explaining that she contractually obliged to not address “things that happened on the show” before they aired. Especially after she was recently snapped in a questionable costume in which she appeared to frame herself as a victim, it will be interesting to watch what further steps are taken.
Reading is fund-Art-mental
Aside from the elephant in the room, there was a lot to love about this episode. We got to see the queens throw shade when the library opened for a reading mini-challenge (Art Simone came out the shadiest of them all, scoring her first win all season after calling the whole cast a “bunch of bottoms”, as well as some clever-er cuts), and we heard Ru utter the words “Ya’ll ain’t here to fuck spiders are ya?”.
Photograph: Supplied/Stan | Elektra tops the class.
This week we also had a special guest and a guest judge who were actually in the room and working the room, in British-New-Zealander infomercial hostess Suzanne Paul and actor Rena Owen (known best for her leading role in Once Were Warriors). The runways were all absolute toots under the thoroughly dinky-di theme ‘Finest Sheila in the Bush’, and we got a lip sync song that 'Absolutely Everybody' has actually been waiting to hear. The main challenge? Well, we got a mixed drag bag when the queens were asked to create their own infomercials for a “yeast spread”. The editing is once again, not seamless, and it's almost suspicious that we didn't see any of the backroom banter as the judges deliberated – that would be an Untucked episode we'd pay to see.
Nice, different, unusual
If there was one saving grace of this episode however, it would have to be Art Simone’s runway: an Art-fully executed tribute to Kath and Kim’s high maintenance housewife, Kath Day-Knight. From the pimped-out Driza-Bone coat and genuine Akubra hat with dangling corks (which mechanically parted for a face reveal a-la Billie Porter’s lampshade hat), down to the embellished koala jumper, tight blonde perm, speed dealer sunnies and movements evoking some classic Kath moments – this presentation said “look at moiye”. Drag excellence. This is how you bring a character to the runway (Karen, take note). And it was nice to see Ru and Michelle know (and love) the local reference. From Maxi’s ode to Picnic at Hanging Rock, to Etcetera’s very art-student layered presentation, to Karen’s sparkly fire ranger, to Kita’s surprisingly gorgeous butterfly gown – every runway brought something nice, different – unusual. Scarlet does a tribute to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a reference surely overdue by now. Scarlet shares a commonality with the classic Aussie film: they’re both shiny on the surface, but when you scratch below the paint job, there’s some deeply problematic takes on race (remember the ping pong ball scene?). The film’s iconic status and all the things it does get right are enough to keep it relevant, it remains to be seen if the same can be said of Scarlet, and perhaps the whole Antipodean franchise.
Photograph: Supplied/Stan | It appears that Art left the gumnut babies at home today.
The bird and the roach
Meanwhile, with Elektra Shock’s gothic take on the theme, a tribute to the native huia bird, it felt like she was saying, “Right, I am the dark horse of this competition”. With a painted on hairstyle, this is the best she’s looked on the runway. With a strong, self-aware and genuinely hilarious infomercial to back it up (and what we saw of her kind and consensual manner with the pit crew, to boot), Elektra is the winner of the episode. And you know what? She deserves it.
Elsewhere in the main challenge, the line between crude humour and plain filthy is ridden hard. Scarlet has a close call with the bottom with humour that seems to take aim at the female anatomy – because it's not like drag queens making fun of vaginas is a tired, misogynistic trope – but ultimately Sydney queens Etcetera and Maxi end up in the bottom. Ru thinks Etcetera is taking the piss with her “piss” jar (but more filth-attuned Aussies may disagree), and Maxi knew she was dreamin’ if she thought her muddled “Hornbag” was truly “sex in a jar”. They lip sync to Vanessa Amorosi’s Sydney 2000 Olympics anthem ‘Absolutely Everybody’, the first song that feels like something that would actually go off at a local drag show. As Jojo would say, it’s tighter than a fish's arsehole. Etcetera pulls out big moves and serves more splits than a milk bar, but Maxi’s microphone gag saves her. And we wonder, how has no one in any other season thought to yank a bedazzled fake microphone from their sleeve? Put away the Mortein, this is what it takes to kill a cockroach, apparently.
The glamour bug scuttles away, having brought the nonbinary finery and trans representation to the competition. Her stardom can only grow from here. She seals the deal by dropping a toilet humour inspired video to YouTube in the episode’s wake. It features a bunch of performance talent from Sydney’s Inner West and you can watch it here. Now, we can’t help but wonder, who will be practically narrating the whole show without their quippy remarks?
RuPaul's Drag Race Viewing Party review: Ginger's
Ginger's might not be the most prominent venue on Sydney's LGBTQIA strip, tucked quietly away on the first floor of the Oxford Hotel, but it might just be putting on the best Drag Race viewing party in the city right now. Its cabaret lounge layout means it's already perfectly suited to the task, and thanks to a recent $20,000 upgrade to its audio-visual gear, the picture and sound quality of the screening are second to none. With its collection of booths, small tables, banquets and bar stools spread across its raked levels, it can pack in a surprisingly large number of patrons without compromising anyone's view of the action, and its tap-to-order buttons offering table service means you can keep the cocktails comin' without having to disturb fellow Drag Race stans on your way to the bar. Hosted by local drag stars Tora Hymen and Felicity Frockaccino, the vibe is fun, cheeky, and all about having a great time. But the biggest selling point has to be that Drag Race Down Under royalty Coco Jumbo and Maxi Sheild headline Ginger's after the screening. Ask nicely, and you can even grab a selfie with these living legends before they take the stage.