I like a good reality show—being fully honest, I even like the bad train-wreck-y ones and enjoy them as a guilty pleasure. They are a window into the greater social fabric we live in, and give me cultural references so I can stay au courant with trends and ideas that impact and influence my clients. Yes, I justify my watching reality tv as “work-related activity.” I think I started this back in 2001 when I was living in a fourplex and discovered that my neighbours and I were all clandestinely watching “Temptation Island,” a reality tv show where couples are tempted into infidelity. Total junk food for the brain. I had a neighbour who was testing the waters to see if she should be ashamed of herself for watching the show and suggested that I might watch it as “research on human relationships.” Thank you, Jill, for giving me permission to indulge in guilty-pleasure-tv watching.
While these reality shows can be divided many ways—beauty pageants, makeover shows, physical competitions, skills-based competitions—RuPaul’s Drag Race seems to have the best elements of each category. In the Drag Race, drag queens compete in drag-related challenges for prizes or advantages in the competition; each episode culminating with a runway show in which the “ladies” craft their own looks based on a theme. RuPaul and his judging panel then name a winner for that week and pick two queens who will face off in a final lip sync to a catchy drag anthem. The queen who sparkles the most gets to stay another week, while the other is told to “sashay away.” At first glance, it’s quite light and fluffy and one can easily be caught in the headlights of THAT MANY SEQUINS.
What I like most about the show, however, are the consistent underlying messages that are about love and good mental health. RuPaul ends each show by looking at the remaining contestants and saying, “Remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” And he says it with so much conviction that this platitude actually comes together to mean something. This focus on loving ourselves seems particularly apt for drag queens who often grow up as gay boys who are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying, as well as depression and suicidal thoughts. This greater message about self-esteem also rings true with a much wider audience by stressing that it is when we love ourselves, we will be more loving to others. So as opposed to focusing on, “how can I find my soul mate” (à la the Bachelor series and plenty of other reality shows), he’s making more of a “charity begins at home,” kind of statement where the key to happiness in life is being kind and loving toward yourself so that you can extend it BEYOND yourself. Not selfish or diva-like at all, really, even when it’s said by someone who probably spent 5 hours in hair and make-up.
RuPaul’s interactions with contestants are similarly positive and affirming by focusing on the contestants’ competence, rather than on merely being nice to avoid hurt feelings. When coming to the queens’ work tables, RuPaul is similar to Project Runway’s Tim Gunn whose trademark directive is, “Make it work!.” However, in contrast to Tim’s smile combined with an awkward look and a statement about what a “great person” the contestant is (code for: “hot mess”), RuPaul more often than not provides concrete guidance, especially when it is clearly needed. Ru further emphasizes that the looks come together less out of the fabric, wigs and make-up, and more out of conviction and the fierceness within.
With RuPaul’s other reality show, RuPaul’s Drag U., contestants are ordinary women who have somehow lost their sense of who they once were. They come to Drag U. to be schooled by drag queens on how to reconnect with themselves, and to find their inner diva. RuPaul offers no plastic surgery, crazy diet plans, complete new wardrobes, and gives contestants only 2 days to pull together an over the top drag queen look, with the help of their drag professor (of course!). The winner of that competition is the woman who earns the highest Drag Point Average—a score that is a combination of Drag transformation, Performance of a lip sync, and Attitude adjustment. Most of the messaging centers around the attitude adjustment, and that the strength of the drag persona can be brought into other areas of a woman’s life, not just when she’s in five inch heels and a wig that is twice that height. Although the irony that everywhere women are being measured and valued by their appearance and now they are being schooled and judged by men in dresses does not escape me. However, the point isn’t that women would actually spend the rest of their lives trying to look like this:
(Can you imagine getting dressed like this to go to the gym, then work out, and then put it back together? I mean REALLY?). Rather, the take home message is that at our core, we all have a strong, confident inner voice that we can tap into to help us face challenges and face life when we are feeling defeated.
RuPaul’s words can be interpreted in a variety of ways when you read them, but what gets me is the genuine and authentic feeling behind the words he delivers. These subtle distinctions are often hard to fully articulate, but this inner feeling of their authenticity gives me a clue that what RuPaul has to say isn’t just a line of glitter-body-painted-schmaltz.
Through my training, I’ve learned the importance of paying attention to those subtle distinctions in feelings, and to use those subtleties as information to help make important decisions. This is often a thrust in my therapeutic work with clients—learning how to pay attention to those feelings even if you don’t have words to describe them at first. JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR FINGER ON IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT IMPORTANT, PEOPLE! I believe people are always trying to do their very best, but when we can’t hear our own inner voices clearly—maybe because there’s so much other noise rattling around in our heads about judgment and guilt and shame and the way that person looked at me in the grocery store checkout line—it’s hard to make decisions that are based on loving ourselves, or valuing ourselves, or feeling more fabulous more of the time. When we listen to ourselves more closely, we tend to make decisions we feel better about—no matter what the outcome. We tend to feel better because we recognized our own values and beliefs in that close listening, and we then made a decision that’s more in line with who we really are.
I encourage everyone to take a page out of RuPaul’s book (wait, he actually has 2 books!). By listening to (or finding!) your inner voice, you will be better able to love yourself. This will help you make decisions that you can feel good about, which is good not only for you but for those you love. Five hours in hair and make-up is optional.