As Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired, the question on all our minds was, “How did they film during a global pandemic?”
The program took a week off from its normal episode schedule to present the hourlong special RuPaul’s Drag Race: Corona Can’t Keep a Good Queen Down. The special explores the lives of the cast throughout the pandemic, leading up to the filming itself.
I entered it more curious about how filming happened than wanting to relive the early months of the lockdown. The special presents the story of filming in phases categorized by weeks before filming, starting in January 2020 when queens across America were called upon to send in their audition tapes for season 13. We see the queens discuss how bright their 2020 was going to be and how it all shortly disappeared as the threat of the coronavirus grew. It presented the reality most people faced and it wasn’t the most pleasurable thing to relive. There was so much uncertainty in the world during that time, and being put back in that period was somewhat triggering.
While watching the documentary, I found myself getting emotional at times. We see these people’s entire lives get swept up and thrown away. But we also watched them innovate with their art and embody the resilience of the queer community. In other words, taking the worst case scenario and turning it into something magical.
That passion for queer art is what drove the entire filming process. These queens had been out of work for almost five months with little to no income and had to go through intensive health screenings, all in the name of filming a TV show that would put them on an international platform they couldn’t even use because of the pandemic.
One part the documentary even highlighted was the pressure in preparing for the show. As seasons of Drag Race have gone on, the pressure to show up with extravagant garments has grown. In a world where fabric stores weren’t open, wig production was on a shortage and the mail system faced massive delays, it’s safe to say that preparing for the show was not easy.
We also got to see all safety precautions put in place to ensure the safety of cast and crew. The special disclosed they had multiple hand sanitizer stations, 30 gallons of sanitizer, 5,000 masks, innumerable temperature checks and 2,591 COVID-19 tests administered. We watched queens film confessionals with a storyboard producer asking them questions through Zoom, cameras staying six to 10 feet away from the queens and crew members wearing masks and face shields.
The most heartwarming part was hearing the queens talk about actually being together. RuPaul’s Drag Race fosters a competitive environment; while natural friendships do form, this level of closeness among queens was not normal for the show. We see the queens celebrate being able to be near and hug each other and spend time with people in their profession. Unless they had roommates who were also drag artists, most of them hadn’t been around other drag performers since March 2020. They talked about how thankful they were to be near each other and just talk. It even seemed as if RuPaul was happy to talk to other people. It was heartwarming, but it also showed the reality of the loneliness many are facing during the pandemic.
While the special didn’t really discuss the gritty details of how it was filmed, it truly highlighted the roots of drag and queer resilience. These queens were going to find a way to showcase their art no matter what and truly proved that the virus cannot keep a good queen down.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article’s photo caption mistakenly referred to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ as ‘Drag Queen’ instead of ’Drag Race.’ This caption has been updated.