A flock of drag queens dressed like the Spice Girls stand together on a stage, awaiting final judgement on their performance in an annual competition to win a coveted crown. A villainous blonde in a beehive wig sneers at them. A proud trollop in a neon pink micro skirt wonders aloud if she should take her top off. A shirtless hunk watches from the wings. Finally, the bejeweled diadem lands on the head of a surprise winner and everyone applauds.
“Cut!” calls the director.
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Anyone familiar with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will be forgiven for thinking this is a scene from the upcoming season of the perennially Emmy-winning reality competition show. There certainly are several “Drag Race” luminaries on the stage, including Season 7’s Ginger Minj, Season 9’s Peppermint, Season 11’s Brooke Lynn Hytes, and Season 12’s Jan.
But instead of the familiar “Drag Race” soundstage, these queens are standing in the middle of the same massive town square backlot set used on the Marvel Studios series “WandaVision.” An Emmy-winning comedy director, Don Scardino (“30 Rock,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), is at the helm. A towering crane holds a complicated lighting ring above them. Dozens of extras populate the area. And, crucially, there is not a panel of judges waiting to appraise the queens’ performance and send one of them home.
Nope, this is the set of “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas,” the first-ever feature length drag queen holiday movie.
“It’s the same group of people,” Ginger tells Variety later during a break in shooting. “But it’s a totally different project.”
The holiday movie features no less than 20 former “Drag Race” queens, as well as RuPaul as the titular villain, ruthless fashion editrix Hannah Contour. It marks the most elaborate effort yet by “Drag Race” production company World of Wonder and MTV Entertainment Studios to not just capitalize on the popularity of the show, but expand the possibilities for the growing roster of “Drag Race” alumni beyond just the series.
“We see drag queens as legitimate entertainers that can be working way beyond the stage of ‘Drag Race’ and in all iterations of entertainment,” says executive producer and World of Wonder co-founder Randy Barbato. “I think that we’re just scraping the surface.”
Barbato says “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas” came about during a phone conversation in early spring of 2021 with MTV Entertainment Group president and CEO Chris McCarthy “about doing a big broad comedy with with the queens, and the next thing we knew, we were up and running.” He pauses. “I’m exaggerating a little bit, but not much.”
By April, screenwriting team Connor Wright and Christina Friel — who cut their teeth on the scripted podcast “Gay Future,” presented as a long-lost YA novel written by Mike Pence in college about a dystopian future in which everyone is gay — were tapped to put together a script in just over a month. They knew immediately that they wanted to make a loving sendup of holiday movies. (“Christmas already is kind of gay,” says Wright. “It already feels like drag.”) And they also knew they wanted to evoke “RuPaul’s Drag Race” but not lean too far into the show.
The story they cooked up follows Olivia (a non-drag, cisgender woman played by Krysta Rodriguez), an ambitious reporter who works for the aforementioned Hannah Contour. Hannah tasks Olivia with traveling to the quaint small town of Tuckahoe to investigate their annual Winter Ball, a series of competitions that culminate in the aforementioned crown. Olivia discovers a camp-tastic idyll inhabited by women played by a roster of drag queens from almost every season of “Drag Race.”
The decision to have the queens’ characters be women, and not drag queens, allows the film’s holiday satire to feel paradoxically more drag-y. For example, the Winter Ball’s reigning champion (i.e., the town harridan) is named Delia Von Whitewoman (played by Season 9’s Jaymes Mansfield), while Jan plays Jane McBeige, the town postal worker who suffers from a chronic lack of personality. (Anyone familiar with Jan’s ebullient “Drag Race” persona will appreciate both the irony of the casting and Jan’s perfection in the role.)
Courtesy of VH1
On paper, “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas” could seem like merely an extended version of the acting challenges on “Drag Race,” in which the queens lampoon a popular genre, like the “RuPaulmark Channel” challenge from Season 13. But the movie is at once sillier and more grounded that those sketches, allowing the queens to showcase the fuller breadth of what they can accomplish.
“I’m glad that we’re getting opportunities like this to show the world drag is not just a joke,” says Ginger. “Drag is not just funny. Drag is also a really, really honed craft.”
As with so many “Drag Race” alums, Ginger Minj’s life completely changed after appearing on the show. Ginger remembers falling asleep in the Salt Lake City airport on a long layover right as Season 7 had started to air, and waking up to a line of people waiting to say hello.
“I never intended drag to be my career,” says Ginger. “I thought it would act for a while and then become a drama teacher somewhere. And that was my whole life goal. I think that I would have been successful without the drag element. But I don’t think I would have been as fulfilled.”
Peppermint also credits “Drag Race” for jump-starting her career, which includes becoming the first trans woman to originate a role on Broadway, as part of the cast of the Go-Gos queer musical “Head Over Heels.”
“I went to college to study musical theater performance, and so these are the tools that I had in my belt, but I didn’t have access to as many things as I do now,” she says. “My platform is so much bigger.”
For decades, if your name wasn’t RuPaul, virtually all drag queens made their vast majority of their money either performing in their local gay bars and clubs or competing in drag pageants. Those venues certainly fostered a vibrant community of grass-roots support, but it was also inherently limiting for where the queens could take their talents.
“That was kind of all you could really do with it,” says Brooke Lynn. “I love [drag]. But I also don’t want to be performing in a bar for the rest of my life.” Around Season 4 and 5 of “Drag Race,” Brooke Lynn noticed a marked boost in the careers of queens who’d been on the show. “I was starting to see these [‘Drag Race’] queens get booked worldwide and getting paid a lot more money than we were getting paid at the bars and the clubs.”
Barbato is deeply gratified by how much “Drag Race” has improved the opportunities for drag performers, but he also sees the show’s good fortune within the democratizing explosion of social media.
“To be a successful drag queen, you need to be successful at branding who you are and being the author of your own career,” he says. “And I think the media landscape now really complements that in many ways.”
The popularity of “Drag Race” performers only reinforced the power of the show. When Viacom moved it from Logo to VH1 in 2017, the show exploded, and afforded World of Wonder the opportunity to aggressively expand the brand worldwide. Next year, on top of Season 14 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” at least eight international “Drag Race” spin-off series are in various stages of production in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Thailand, the Philippines, Canada, the U.K., and Australia and New Zealand — not to mention U.S. spin-offs “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” and “RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race.”
And now World of Wonder is stepping beyond the “Drag Race” brand entirely. When “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas” premieres Thursday night on VH1, it will follow the special presentation of “Queen of the Universe,” World of Wonder’s new singing competition series for Paramount Plus that stars a roster of international drag queens delivering live vocals and a judging panel that includes Vanessa Williams, Leona Lewis, “Drag Race” judge Michelle Visage, and “Drag Race All Stars” winner Trixie Mattel.
Courtesy of HBO
That’s just World of Wonder’s slate. The HBO docuseries “We’re Here” follows “Drag Race” alums Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara as they travel through various (largely conservative) small towns in the U.S. and mount a drag show that showcases local talent. HBO Max’s drag competition series, “Legendary,” celebrates the origins of modern drag ball culture — which was captured with heart-wrenching feeling in FX’s Emmy-winning scripted series “Pose” — and co-starred Peppermint and fellow “Drag Race” alum Jiggly Caliente (performing with her non-drag name Bianca Castro). “Drag Race” Season 9 winner Sasha Velour headlined her own short-form docuseries “NightGowns” for the now-defunct Quibi that chronicled her eponymous live drag show. And the 2018 blockbuster “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper opened in a drag bar and featured Shangela and fellow “Drag Race” alum Willem.
Drag’s proliferation into the mainstream isn’t all champagne and cocktails, however. Stepping from the local gay bar into a sudden national spotlight also means confronting a more cutthroat side of the business.
“I didn’t fuck with contracts before, none of us did,” says Brooke Lynn. “You see a lot of time the girls signing shady contracts with agencies or, like, getting locked into these deals that do not benefit them.” (Brooke Lynn doesn’t mention it, but the “Drag Race” contract itself has become rather notorious among hardcore fans.)
And while drag is the most popular it’s ever been, it still remains, at its core, an outsider art — with the stigmas that can carry.
“There are people who I know who are fabulous designers, seamstresses, singers, visual artists, graphic artists, hairstylists, makeup artists, and musicians — but that they do drag, it brings them down a peg,” says Peppermint. “They’re no longer considered a musician, they’re a drag queen who plays the drums.”
Barbato hopes films like “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas” — which, he says, is the first of many — will begin to dismantle that mindset, and help drag performers find far, er, broader opportunities.
“It’s larger commitment to this whole community of artists who we believe should be working more in Hollywood,” he says.
For her part, Jan — who effectively hopped from Season 12 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to Season 6 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” to “The Bitch Who Stole Christmas” over the course of just two years — is optimistic about where drag will take her career.
“I see limitless opportunity for not only myself,” she says, “but for so many drag performers around the world.”
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