BBC News

How RuPaul's Drag Race UK faced Covid challenge

By Steve Holden
Newsbeat reporter

Related Topics
  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightBBC Three

Wearing blood-red shoulder pads, piercing red contact lenses, and dripping in jewels, Cherry Valentine's drag is a world away from the day job as a mental health nurse.

"It was a weird contrast to go from competing in the Olympics of drag… to the heart of a global pandemic."

As one of the 12 queens in series two of Drag Race UK, Cherry says things became a "whole different ballgame" when filming was shut down because of the pandemic.

Production on the BBC Three show began in early 2020, but was halted in March at the time of the first national lockdown.

"It was devastating for the entire cast," says fellow queen Veronica Green.

"We didn't know if it was going to finish. We'd had this amazing opportunity come our way and it was dead in its tracks."

image copyrightBBC Three
image captionCherry Valentine, Veronica Green and A'Whora

"The show stopped. Life stopped, and anything we had coming up was just gone," says self-confessed fashion queen A'Whora.

It left the queens in a weird drag limbo-land, wondering when - and if - filming would ever start up again.

Like millions of others, many of them suddenly found themselves out of work with no income.

"I went through a horrible time with the lockdowns. All my work disappeared and I didn't have a single gig," says Veronica, who's a professional singer, as well as a drag queen.

"I've never been so broke in my life," says Tayce, from Newport. "I was never rich doing drag but I was comfortable.

"It was such a long break with no job and no money. We were just festering at home and then stressing about potentially coming back to the show."

The season two queens

  • Tayce, 26 - Newport
  • Tia Kofi, 30 - London
  • Veronica Green, 34 - Rochdale
  • Sister Sister, 32 - Liverpool
  • Ginny Lemon, 31 - Worcestershire
  • A'Whora, 23 - Nottinghamshire
  • Bimini Bon Boulash, 26 - Norfolk
  • Joe Black, 30 - Brighton
  • Cherry Valentine, 26 - Darlington
  • Lawrence Chaney, 23 - Glasgow
  • Ellie Diamond, 22 - Dundee
  • Asttina Mandella, 27 - London

Bimini Bon Boulash, who describes herself as "London's bendiest queen" says it was difficult because she feels her industry "was thrown to the side".

"I know a lot of other performers who got jobs in other fields. I think we were quite lucky because we all knew we were filming a show. But a lot of performance friends didn't have that."

image copyrightBBC Three
image captionTayce, Bimini Bon Boulash and Sister Sister

With coronavirus precautions in place, production eventually resumed in October, meaning it's a been a frantic couple of months for the editors to bring us the full season.

"It became a passion project and we all had to finish it," according to Liverpool's Sister Sister.

"When I tell you there were obstacles, there were massive hurdles we overcame. It's incredible we actually got to put our stamp on it and get it done and dusted. I'm so ready to see it now."

From drag to drive-thru

Whether the queens were eliminated before the break in filming or whether they returned to the competition, the hiatus directly impacted on them all.

Some were left with out of work and others were on furlough, like Dundee's Ellie Diamond, who works at a fast food drive-thru.

When restaurants re-opened, the 22-year-old was working full time as everyone craved a burger and fries.

"I was definitely thankful and privileged to be able to earn some money when the money wasn't there for a lot of people," says the 22-year-old - who's six foot four OUT OF DRAG.

  • Everything you need to know about Season Two of Drag Race UK
  • Was this the most political season of Drag Race so far?
  • The Frock Destroyers on making music in lockdown

The day job didn't stop her from channelling her Drag Race energy though.

"It doesn't matter if I'm on a stage or I'm taking orders in the drive-thru, life is a performance and all you've got to do is find your spotlight."

image copyrightBBC Three
image captionEllie Diamond, Asttina Mandella and Ginny Lemon

As a successful backing dancer for acts including Little Mix, London's Asttina Mandela used the downtime for some self-reflection and a chance to recharge.

"There was time to rest in the hiatus, We could focus on ourselves. It was almost a blessing in disguise in a way. There was time to heal because sometimes we don't give ourselves a break."

She thinks people are gagging for this season because it will give them an hour a week where they can "completely forget about the world'.

'Fancy a slice'

As the first season of Drag Race UK proved, the British queens brought a distinctive brand of humour, self-deprecation and patriotism to the competition.

Baga Chipz can barely go five minutes without someone shouting 'much betta' at her, and as the lockdown drags on, Cheryl Hole's infamous 'here's to another week of me being mediocre' meme pops up every Monday on the socials.

Primed and ready to take the catchphrase crown this season is Ginny Lemon with her signature introduction: 'Fancy a slice?'.

"I love a catchphrase me," says Ginny, a non-binary queen who is a vision in yellow - like a plastic Jif lemon come to life.

"I'm delighted people are already saying it. Anything that sticks like chewing gum to the shoe is good for me. You can shout it at me all your life. But if I look miserable… beware."

She says the stage is a place to "tear up and let all our pent up energy out" so it's been "disheartening and terrifying" to have that at home.

The same goes for Joe Black, a staple of the Brighton drag scene. She remembers how surreal it was stepping into the workroom for the first time.

"It felt massive," says Joe. "It's the most ominous pink room I've ever been in. There were points I felt like I was watching television and had tapped into some secret camera."

image copyrightBBC Three
image captionJoe Black, Lawrence Chaney and Tia Kofi

Lawrence Chaney, from Glasgow, remembers seeing RuPaul for the first time and thinking "what a fabulous cardboard cut out" before snapping back to reality.

"It genuinely lived up to my expectations and I couldn't stop staring at Ru."

Every queen is looking forward to the show, but many of them are desperate to get back to what they do best - performing at drag shows. But with venues, pubs and night clubs shut, that's not possible any time soon.

"These venues are what gave me my start," says London-based Tia Kofi.

"I wouldn't be on Drag Race without them and I'm just focussed on the day when we can get back to them, interact with them audiences and offer a home for LGBTQ+ people across the UK."

Most drag queens will tell you that live audiences are their lifeblood.

"I am gagging to get back," says Glasgow's Lawrence. "I just miss being able to go into a bar club and tell people my fart jokes."

Follow Newsbeat on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays - or listen back here.

Related Topics

More on this story

  • Drag Race UK: The Frock Destroyers on making music in lockdown