As we walk up a driveway to a lavish, secluded mansion in Okura, I can imagine it as the location of a new season of The Bachelor; with its gleaming surfaces and regal entranceway, the awkward introductions and quiet tension of that show would seem right at home here. However, when two drag queens drop their Burgerfuel and spring up to greet us at the door, clad in just their underwear, it's clear there's something much more colourful going on here.

That's how we meet Kita Mean and Anita Wigl'it, the hosts of House of Drag, TVNZ's new drag competition series. The glamorous queens say they're embarrassed to be caught during a break - but they don't seem it. They're on form immediately, firing jokes back and forth as they welcome us into the mansion.

Inside looks like a bomb went off in Look Sharp party store; there is colour strewn everywhere in the form of feathers, glitter, makeup, items of clothing and other bits and pieces. The contestants are busy working on a challenge where they must construct a costume out of trash. Spread into different rooms of the labyrinthine house are drag artists in various states of readiness – some have their makeup fully done while they're furiously sewing together outfits, while others are already strutting around in artfully created looks.

The crew hovers as the contestants work away, capturing moments of laughter and light shade-throwing. (In another room lies the Shade Cam, which is where really juicy stuff is saved for individual interviews). There's a clear sense of camaraderie in the house, as some contestants share materials or seek fashion advice from others. Producers explain that's down to the small size of New Zealand's drag community – some of the contestants were friends or performed together before coming on the show.

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But apparently the house isn't always this jovial. Anita says she thought the smallness of New Zealand's drag community would cultivate a supportive atmosphere in the house. She wasn't entirely wrong – but some fierce personalities surprised her.

"You would think that with [drag] being such a niche thing, especially as part of the gay community as well, that it would all be, 'We're going to support each other and we all love each other, we're all friends,'" she says. "But actually there were quite some strong rivalries.

"It was amazing how, in a short period of time, people develop such strong opinions about each other. It was very interesting to see the drama unfold."

House Of Drag

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Posted by TVNZ OnDemand on Saturday, 10 November 2018

The structure of the competition itself creates inevitable tension and rivalries; the winner of each challenge must choose the bottom two. It's then up to Kita and Anita to decide who gets eliminated.

"The moments that stuck out for me would really be the raw emotions that you see on people," says Anita. "Even though people were friends and they were all enjoying themselves, the competition really was the reason they were there. With high levels of competitiveness, there's always going to be drama, and people were playing quite tactfully."

Kita and Anita are the owners of Caluzzi on Karangahape Rd, a drag and cabaret bar, and they also host regular competition events such as Drag Wars. Both say more and more people have been paying attention to drag as an art form over the past few years, in no small part thanks to reality TV phenomenon RuPaul's Drag Race – the 10th season of which just clocked the show's highest-ever ratings, without even counting those who stream it on Netflix globally. The effects of that are noticeable on a local scale, right down to Kita and Anita's work at Caluzzi.

"You'd get mostly corporate functions and hen's parties, that was the extent of what we got, and you'd get the occasional birthday - maybe a homosexual birthday," says Kita. "And now we're getting young girls having their sweet 16th birthdays."

Kita and Anita say more and more people are paying attention to drag in 2018. Photo / Tom Hollow
Kita and Anita say more and more people are paying attention to drag in 2018. Photo / Tom Hollow

But where RuPaul has fallen short on inclusivity – earlier this year saying he "probably" wouldn't allow a transgender woman on Drag Race – House of Drag is working harder. Two of the contestants on House of Drag identify as trans; Trinity Ice, 28, a regular performer at Family Bar and Caluzzi, and Hugo GRRRL, a trans man who performs as a drag king.

"Some people, historically and probably today, have started off doing drag maybe because they feel inside they're a different person and they want to pursue and explore that area, so people have transitioned through the drag phase," Anita says.

"Drag these days is so different; a girl can be a drag king, or hyper-drag, where they dress up as a drag queen as well, and every gender in between boy and girl is a spectrum now. I think anyone and everyone wants to give it a go, and who are we to say that this person can't be on the show because of their gender identity?"

Anita says she sees House of Drag as an "evolutionary" moment in New Zealand television history – and she looks forward to our country's reaction.

"Typically, you look at New Zealand, it's always just the man in the singlet, in the gumboots, in the Swanndri, and I feel as time's gone on ... the images have evolved," she says. "Because I live in Auckland and I work in the gay community on K Rd, I'm used to that colour, and I think I have to stop myself from thinking that the whole of New Zealand isn't as used to what I see on the daily.

"I think it's going to cause quite a stir, not necessarily a good stir – it makes people uncomfortable sometimes because they're confused and they don't really understand it," she says. "They don't really know how to accept it or if they want to accept it. But I think that's always really good for a TV show because as long as people are talking about it, they're having a strong reaction."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Kita Mean and Anita Wingl'it
What: House of Drag
When: First two episodes available now; continues weekly on Thursdays
Where: TVNZ On Demand