An hour before the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race season three aired on US cable network Logo TV, Raja turned up for her gig at Micky’s, a popular gay bar in West Hollywood. Months had passed since filming had finished on the series, and despite knowing she was the winner, baby, little else in her life had changed.
It was January 2011, and the US reality competition was still very much in its infancy. While today (global pandemics aside) queens are booked up for a whirlwind of international tours as soon as their casting on the show is announced – global rights deals giving the cultural phenomena a vast and lucrative international audience – back then, things were more low key. She might have pocketed $75,000 in prize money, but after filming finished, Raja went back to working as a makeup artist, doing drag on the side as before.
Having been booked to perform at a screening of the season premier at Micky’s, she arrived unsure of what to expect by way of a reception. “I came on in my entrance outfit – a black catsuit with an eyeball hat – and nobody gave a flying fuck,” she says.
It was only after her victory was announced (the news was leaked online by Perez Hilton) that the phone started ringing. The 10-stop tour of US cities that followed was like nothing she had experienced. Seeing a queue around the block waiting for her to perform in New York gave her an inkling of what was to come. A few months later she was booked up for shows and appearances for over a year in advance.
“Still,” Raja says, “if you see what the girls appearing on the show now are making compared to what we made at that time, it’s a dramatic change. They can charge $6,000 to $10,000 for an appearance. But for us it was new ground; we were able to have fun without the same pressures.”
By the time Sasha Velour took the top spot in 2017’s season 9, things had escalated. The first season to be aired on VH1, Drag Race – and the industry it helped to create – was booming. As soon as the year’s cast was announced, Sasha said goodbye to selling her merchandise from the back of her minivan. Her regular show upsized to a venue with 10 times the capacity she had been working to before and she had bookings to perform around the world. “The opportunities and the audience,” she says, “the sheer number of people who knew about what I was doing – changed overnight.”
Post-Perez, even the finalists were kept in the dark about who the winner would be until the last minute. Sasha watched her victory be announced live on TV from a New York hotel with the rest of the cast before being rushed to her crowning at a club round the corner.
“Not to sound like Lady Gaga,” she says, “but from then it was another plane, next gig, take a bus. It was another four months before things stopped for a while and there was time to think about what might come next.”
What struck Sasha as time went on was how much the skills she had honed before her time on the show prepared her for everything that came after. Winning the show came with a $100,000 prize and unrivalled exposure, but she still designed her own work; her partner – Johnny – continued as stage manager. “The smoke and mirrors of it all makes it look like a big glow up that comes with the opportunity,” she says, “but actually all that shifts are the number of opportunities for you to take. There’s no infrastructure there to help you.” Yet, she says,
“non-stop touring is the dream of any drag artist, getting to both perform and see drag scenes around the world in queer spaces” and it broadened her understanding of drag.
Alaska Thunderfuck remembers that time pretty well, although, if she is honest, it’s all a little hazy. A runner-up on season 5, and the winner of All Stars 2 (where queens return for another shot at the crown), she describes what happened after her appearances as “a crazy party train wreck”.
“As soon as the cast was announced I was making more money than I ever had doing drag,” she says from Los Angeles, “and there’s a lot that comes with that. My relationship with Sharon [Needles, winner of season 4] went to shit, suddenly everywhere you go the answer is yes: free drinks? drugs? boys? All of a sudden, every door is open, and we didn’t have the tools or discipline, so we went in all those doors.”
Before winning Drag Race season 5 in 2013, Jinkx’s Monsoon’s career in Seattle had hit its stride: regular shows were supplemented by theatre work and a part-time janitor gig. “Importantly, though, drag was always something I did with my tribe,” the 32-year-old explains from Portland, Oregon. “I went from being part of a community and performing with friends to being guest star in a different city every night.” It quickly became a lonely experience, disconnected from the things that had made doing drag fun.
“After winning came two years of putting an insane amount of pressure on myself every time I had to perform, which drove me crazy,” says Jinkx. “I felt I had to hit this high standard for myself every time. I lost touch with what I found exciting about drag in the first place and went into a depression.”
Jinkx has spoken to every previous winner about the experience of clinching the crown, and believes each has grappled with similar emotions. And, in Jinkx’s eyes, those feelings are heightened if you are presented as the underdog who succeeds against the odds. You go from being supported as the relatable weirdo to queen bee.
“I feel like the drag race fanbase turned on me after I won,” Jinkx says. Some said winning had changed Jinkx; others that they weren’t good enough to have taken the top spot in the first place. “All the attention was on me, and it felt like none of it was positive. It could well be only three people in the world were actually talking about me that way, but that’s somehow what I saw.”
As the status of the show has rapidly increased, so too have the opportunities available to its winners. Alaska has released three studio albums and was cast in a Sharknado film; Trinity The Tuck played Lady Gaga in Taylor Swift’s 2019 music video for You Need to Calm Down, an experience she describes as “unbelievable”.
For Bob the Drag Queen, winner of season 8, making the most of the platform Drag Race offered felt particularly important. “I always wanted to stay true to myself,” she says, sat next to her crown in her New York basement. “I’ve always been a very political person, I didn’t want to become something I didn’t believe in.” Alongside performing, releasing music and a 2020 HBO documentary series, We’re Here, Bob’s weekly podcast, Sibling Rivalry, cohosted with her best friend and fellow drag queen Monét X Change, has become a treasured outlet. “We talk race relations, gender politics, about what’s actually happening here in America … Winning Drag Race, has allowed me to amplify that.”
Of course, this year’s winner – and all the contestants – will miss out on their money-spinning, fan-securing victory laps. That’s a major challenge facing the queens of season 12, say all these winners: putting on a show is what drag queens do best. And with another series of All Stars starting to air in June, they will have to find innovative ways to stay relevant in an increasingly saturated market.
Sasha hopes this won’t hurt this crop’s prospects too much: she didn’t release her first solo show until 18 months after winning. Her belief is the best way to build and sustain a career is to take your time, produce your own work, and build an audience outside of the fandom. “New ways of creating nightlife online are emerging for the season 12 queens to take advantage of she says, “and when clubs and theatres can open again they’ll be welcomed.”
Win or lose this year, Alaska reckons post-lockdown all the contestants could have successful careers ahead of them. It’s foolish, she says, to go into RuPaul’s Drag Race thinking it’s a golden ticket for the rest of your life: the show is just a starting point, even if the departure is delayed a little. For the winner, she says, all the doors she opened will still be there waiting for this year’s victor. “And if you don’t win, whatever, at least you get to do All Stars.”
The Drag Race season 12 finale will be available on Netflix from 8am on 30 May
• This article was amended on 29 May 2020 to correct the name of Sasha Velour’s partner from Jonny to Johnny.