A lover of drag and self-care, Nicki spends her free time searching for deeper meaning and life lessons in the unlikeliest of places.
When RuPaul’s Drag Race burst onto the scene in 2009, drag culture found a new platform in the mainstream. After the first few episodes aired, many people, myself included, got excited at the prospect of sassy queens, sparkly gowns, and death drops. What I didn’t see coming was the drag reality tv show teaching me some important (and much-needed) life lessons.
When you scratch the surface of the eleganza, sound bites, and wiggery, you quickly find that these queens have gone through it and have learned more than just a few life lessons along the way. Many of the queens on the show have struggled with childhood trauma, bullying, and never feeling accepted by their families and communities. This type of hardship can either break you or it can make you dig deep, look inwards, and heal. That’s what many of these queens have done, and their journeys have inspired a lot of fans to do the same.
There’s a saying that hurt people hurt people. Well, I’m a firm believer that healed people heal too. Seeing drag queens go through the healing process and step into their light is a reminder that we all have wounds to heal and bushels to step out from under.
This list is a compilation of five pearls of wisdom from the show that have helped me on my personal path to healing, growing, and being absolutely fabulous. I hope it helps you too, squirrel friends.
#1 At Some Point, You Have to Step Out of the Shadow of Other Peoples’ Opinions
Sadly, many of the queens have struggled with not being accepted by friends, family, and the general public for being LGBTQ+ or for doing drag. The weight of not feeling accepted or liked is a heavy one to carry, and quite frankly, not your cross to bear. It’s a well-known fact that most of the time peoples’ reaction to you is a reflection of their relationship with themselves. Time and time again, drag race contestants have come on the show hoping to be liked by the public and have found themselves on the receiving end of hate. This hate often comes from the queen being too preoccupied with being liked to be their true authentic self. Other times it has literally nothing to do with them and everything to do with the mindset of the fanbase.
The lesson here is to develop the courage to be disliked. You’re not for everyone, nor should you be. Learning to like yourself takes time, but as you nurture your relationship with yourself, the opinions of others start to matter less and less. Of course, this isn’t an invitation to be horrible to people. It’s nice to be nice. But it is a friendly reminder that when you like yourself and you’re happy with how you’re treating those around you, the words and opinions of others don’t hold the same weight. If someone takes a disliking to you or bad-mouths you but you know in your heart that your behavior towards them hasn’t warranted it, let it go.
“It’s very easy to look at the world and think, this is all so cruel and so mean. It’s important to not become bitter from it.” –RuPaul Charles
Anger often represents self-recognition. For the person who dislikes you, you are unintentionally holding a mirror up to them and exposing something about themselves that they don’t want to see. In the wise words of Kylie Sonique Love, the first trans winner of US RPDR, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to that matters”. Carrying the weight of being liked by everyone and the hurt of being disliked is heavy. Put it down and choose to like yourself instead. It’s a longer, harder process, but your freedom is worth the effort.
#2 Winning Really Isn’t Everything
Time and time again, we see drag race contestants come on the show with a laser focus. They have their eyes on the prize and winning really is everything. With $100,000 on the line, I don’t blame them, but sometimes in life not winning can do more for us. RPDR is a platform for queens to introduce themselves to the world and create a following. While the prize money is important, many of the most successful queens from the franchise weren’t winners.
There’s a psychological effect known as the “Pratfall effect” (also known as the “blemishing effect”). The Pratfall Effect is the idea that highly competent people are more likable and relatable when they make a few blunders every now and then. As we’ve already covered, being liked really isn’t the be-all and end-all, but learning to let go of perfectionism is. Trying to be perfect and putting “success” before everything else can be damaging. Learning to be vulnerable and accepting that you’re a human who makes mistakes will not only allow you to connect on a deeper level with those around you, but it may also open up a whole new path for you.
“Success is something between you and yourself. I think only you know where you've come from and how far you wanna go” –RuPaul Charles
Take Alaska who won All Stars Season 2. She outperformed her competitors and snatched the crown, but left the show feeling like she missed out on some of the joy of the experience. Perfectionism is a toxic trait, learning to be okay with your mistakes while always striving for better is a much healthier, more enjoyable way to get success. Success comes in many different forms, make sure that the success you’re striving for is what’s going to make you a better, happier person. Never mind anything else. Drag race legend (and lovely fourth alternate) Alyssa Edwards once said, “Don’t get bitter, just get better”. Shift your perspective and avoid getting tunnel vision when it comes to winning and success. If you don’t get the result you hoped for, keep working, hunty.
#3 Racism Exists and Representation Matters
The Drag Race fanbase has earned a bit of a reputation as being racist against certain BIPOC queens. While some fans might deny this claim, the fact remains that black queens receive a lot more hate online and tend to have fewer followers than their white sisters. If you are a fan of the show and you’re thinking to yourself “But I’m not a racist”, think about the queens you follow on social media. Who do you stan? In 2018, Bob The Drag Queen pointed out on Twitter that the only black queen from the franchise with over a million followers was RuPaul herself, while a host of white queens including Violet Chachki, Trixie Mattel, and Katya had reached the one-million marker.
Since then, several queens of color, including Bob The Drag Queen, Naomi Smalls, and Kim Chi have reached a million followers, but there is still a clear disparity between the number of followers for white queens and BIPOC queens.
So what’s the lesson here? It’s simple, representation matters. In the same way that white fans seem to favor white drag queens, culture and society favors “the norm”. The systems around us were made with a specific demographic in mind, keeping those who don’t fit that mold at a disadvantage. Without more representation and exposure to different backgrounds, cultures, and skin colors, BIPOC people will always feel underrepresented in their jobs and feel forced to fit into a box that wasn’t made for them. If white drag fans don’t rate black queens because they “don’t get” the fashion or culture, then they need more exposure to it.
In the same way that wider representation in RPDR equals a more diverse fan base and more inclusive culture, representation in our companies, government offices, and other public positions is the only way to create a society that accommodates everyone and we all get a fair shot.
“Racism has nothing to do with race. It is the ego’s way of making you feel ‘better than’.” –RuPaul Charles
#4 Your Inner Saboteur Is Your Worst Enemy
The idea that humans have a proclivity for self-sabotage is by no means a new one. However, watching a show like RPDR and seeing queens become consumed with imposter syndrome, not feeling good enough, or anger because they aren’t performing the way they expected to, is a stark reminder that sometimes we really are our own worst enemies. When we grow up with shame or feeling like we’re “bad” or doing something wrong, it becomes hard for us as adults to accept that we belong or deserve love, success, and happiness.
There have been many queens who have appeared on the show and come across as angry, or even incompetent. They haven’t performed well, and have lashed out at other queens or judges on the show. Rajah O’Hara is a perfect example of this. On Season 11, Rajah placed ninth overall and received a lot of hate from the fanbase for her angry reactions to not doing well in challenges. She was accused of being hostile and left the show as one of the most hated from her season. When Rajah appeared on All Stars Season 6, we were able to see firsthand what happens when we heal, put our demons to bed, and stop letting our inner saboteur stand in our way. Rajah became a frontrunner in the show, a fan favorite, and a symbol of hope for anyone out there who has missed out on opportunities because they have let their past hurts dictate how far they can go in their future.
So what’s the life lesson here? Kylie Sonique Love said it best when she reminded Rajah, and the world, that we can’t let that hurt inner child make our grownup decisions. This lesson may just be the most powerful from the show. Life is hard, nobody gets out of it alive. We all end up with battle scars and trauma from our childhood, anger and resentment from past ills, and unhealthy behavior patterns. When we begin to recognize those patterns, heal and forgive those who caused us hurt, and start to parent that inner child rather than let it rule our adult life, that’s when true healing begins. In Season 11, Rajah was dealing with inner turmoil. She felt angry and frustrated. When she received negative criticism from the judges, her first reaction was to let that hurt inner child unleash that anger on the people around her (namely Scarlett Envy). What we saw in All Stars Season Six was a new and improved Rajah who was able to sit with those feelings of inadequacy and frustration and turn that emotion into the drive to go out and do better.
We aren’t defined by our past and the problems we face in life are often no more than new pathways. If you’re feeling like an imposter, or you’re struggling to break certain negative patterns that are affecting your ability to reach your goals, you aren’t alone. Become the parent to that inner child, nurture it, validate those feelings, and then learn to recognize when the hurt inner child is doing the talking. Our perception of ourselves is really the biggest barrier we’ll ever come across. Once we realize that we are much more than the idea we have of ourselves in our heads, just like Rajah, we’ll free ourselves from those constraints and shine in a way only free people can.
“[The] Biggest obstacle I ever faced was my own limited perception of myself.” –RuPaul Charles
#5 Anxiety Can Be an Addiction
Some people say that anxiety stems from shame. It’s the idea that who you are or what you’re doing is wrong and the rush of panic you feel is your brain somehow trying to “fix” you. Whether you subscribe to this notion or not, there’s no doubt that anxiety sufferers are more often than not trying to fix problems that don’t exist.
In Season 7 of the show, Katya is suffering from anxiety. As the challenge looms, she becomes visibly stuck in a negative thought loop and is consumed with self-doubt and a fear of failure. In a conversation with Ru, former addict Katya opens up about her anxiety to which Ru replies “You’re addicted to the anxiety”. RuPaul is often slammed for simplifying complex psychological ideas, but for many, this synopsis hit home.
Anxiety can be addictive. Your body craves the adrenaline rush that comes with those feelings of panic, your mind revels in the chance to feed your deepest insecurities, and when something you’ve been anxious about comes true, you get the satisfaction of being right. Even if the outcome is detrimental to you.
This pattern is so strong, that many of us will create crises in our lives because the cycle of anxiety is a familiar feeling that distracts us from actually living our lives and possibly failing. This perpetuates the cycle. I create an issue in my life, I fall into a cycle of anxiety, I avoid actually being present in my own life and dealing with the real thing I’m scared of. This real fear could be failure, being held accountable for past actions, or being vulnerable.
So what’s the solution? We are rarely upset over the thing we think we’re upset about. Almost all emotional or anxious reactions are a response to a deeper fear of being ourselves, living our authentic lives, or opening up about our own weaknesses. Not all anxiety is bad, sometimes anxiety is our brain preparing us for potentially dangerous or negative situations. It’s a flight or fight response that was once essential to our survival. Learning to distinguish between “healthy” anxiety and negative anxiety loops will allow us to break the cycle.
Look at your own behavior patterns. Are you creating stressful situations in your life and then falling into a negative thought pattern? This could be a sign that you are addicted to anxiety. Like Katya in her return to All Stars 2, we all have the power to catch those negative, anxious thoughts, address them and say “not today, Satan”. It’s not an easy road, but understanding why your mind is repeating certain thoughts and behaviors will allow you to break the spell. Thoughts become things, if you can learn to control your thought process, you can take back control of your life.
“That is the key to navigating this life—don’t take it too seriously. That’s when the party begins.” –RuPaul Charles
We tend to watch reality TV shows to decompress and shut off our brains, not for free therapy. Having said that, there are lessons and inspirational stories everywhere we go in life. A lot of drag queens on the show have gone through hardship, their larger-than-life personas often mask a hurt child who has suffered from feelings of shame, rejection, and anger. When we are able to recognize and empathize with their demons, we are much more likely to treat our own inner demons with the empathy and love that they deserve. Mistakes and growth are part of the human condition. We make mistakes, we self-sabotage, but underneath it all, with love and acceptance, we heal and are reborn. When you’re able to heal, you allow those around you to do the same. And what better world to live in than one full of healed souls and fabulous drag queens. Can I get an amen?