The Queen is in Auckland. Not the Queen of England and New Zealand, but RuPaul, the drag-queen megastar, creator and host of cultural phenomenon RuPaul's Drag Race. The award-winning TV show, which pits contestants against each other for the title of "America's next drag superstar", has spawned 13 seasons, five All Star editions and a slew of international versions, including in Thailand, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.
RuPaul's fortnight in managed isolation is now over and it has been confirmed that he has chosen to shoot the Australian version of his show here because of Covid-19 restrictions across the ditch.
News of his presence in the Queen City made international headlines. But when he first came to the city to perform in 1998, there was little fanfare and only about 30 people showed up. It's hard to imagine there was ever a time that this cultural icon couldn't fill even a small Auckland venue.
Despite the tiny crowd, he was the consummate professional, and with his signature blonde wig and long legs, he strutted down the catwalk as if performing to a full audience at Spark Arena. I'm glad the experience didn't stop him from returning to Aotearoa and bringing with him the groundbreaking show that has won multiple Emmy awards and made him an international star.
I was in my late twenties when I saw the 1.93m entertainer perform. I had been a fan since he released his first hit single, Supermodel, in 1992. As a gay boy growing up in small-town Taranaki before social media was even an idea, I latched on to anything that was a positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community. We mostly saw ourselves in mainstream media as worthy of shame or deserving mocking. Heck, the only drag queen I saw on TV before RuPaul was Klinger on M*A*S*H!
RuPaul was one of the first public figures who spread a message of tolerance and allowed young gay men such as me and others around the world to truly accept ourselves and not feel ashamed of who we are. He continues to make a difference. For 13 years, RuPaul's Drag Race, which chronicles the triumphs and struggles of its LGBTQ+ contestants, has been embraced and celebrated by not only queer audiences but also mainstream and straight audiences worldwide.
It's also politically influential, with each episode of season 12, which screened last year, ending with contestants holding placards encouraging viewers in the US to vote during one of the most important elections in the country's history.
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The influence of RuPaul and other queer pioneers has helped local groups such as Fafswag to thrive. Made up of Māori and Pacific queer and trans artists, Fafswag is a New Zealand crew formed seven years ago that has adapted the ball culture of 1980s New York, as seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning and the TV series Pose, and given it its own Pacific flair.
The original New York Vogue Balls, at which queens in "houses" competed against each other in vogue and dance battles, were a necessity for drag queens of colour to have a place to express themselves and were mostly held in underground venues.
Three decades on, Fafswag members have taken this culture and are using it to proudly express themselves as confident Polynesian trans and queer youth. The difference is that rather than being underground, Vogue Balls are held at public venues in the main centres. Fafswag has been lined up for the Auckland Arts Festival in March, has produced its own documentary, and last year won the prestigious Arts Foundation Laureate Award.
Without RuPaul and the Drag Race platform's ability to catapult our culture to the mainstream consciousness, it would have been harder for groups such as Fafswag to be successful. Let's hope that during his stay, RuPaul can mingle with the local LGBTQ+ community to see first-hand the difference the pioneering efforts of him and his ilk have made to our culture.