Any loyal RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers who tuned into the ninth season of the reality drag competition when it made its VH1 debut last month may have been surprised when Ru spent the entire first episode out of drag.
With Lady Gaga as a guest judge, fans might have expected Ru and her team to really pull out all the stops and have Ru in full "Glamazon" mode. But there was Ru, no hair, no tape, no face, no hips, no sequins.
Fans immediately noticed — and they didn't stay silent.
Then episode two aired, and painted brows were really raised.
RuPaul's face, while painted for the gods, was slightly less divine than usual. And it didn’t stop there: her hair was a bit flat, her padding — the shape that made her Supermodel of the World — was off.
For the first time in 11 seasons (counting the two All Stars), RuPaul did not look as immaculate as she always had.
Again, viewers weren't shy in voicing their concern.
Die-hard fans knew the reason, and Reddit chatter started to filter its way to Twitter. The tea was lukewarm: Mathu Andersen, RuPaul’s long-time collaborator and makeup artist, had quit the show right as filming for season nine began. Adding even more confusion to the mystery, Andersen had also deleted all of his social media accounts during filming.
Everyone and their drag mother has a different take on what exactly happened when Andersen left the show.
Most reports claim that Andersen was on set for episode one, had a huge blowout fight with RuPaul, and quit, never to be heard from again. The specifics of this altercation vary, and some of them are truly outrageous. One source close to the show claims that "Ru was complaining about some hair Mathu had done, so Mathu took the wig off her head, went to the sink and filled it up with water, and then plopped it back down on her head and was like 'HOW DO YOU LIKE IT NOW?'"
Others claim that Andersen’s reasons for leaving are more personal, that the makeup artist was suffering from health issues and completely withdrew from public and professional life, leaving Ru’s face an unwitting casualty. (Mic reached out to Andersen for comment and will update the story when we hear back.)
Whatever the reason for Andersen’s abrupt departure, most queens agree that the difference between Andersen’s work and whoever took over for him before Raven (a season two finalist and Drag Race favorite) was hired as RuPaul’s replacement makeup artist and Delta Work (season three) began styling Ru’s wigs is drastic.
Drag queen Severely Mame — who styles wigs for NYC notables like Ladyfag and Stephanie Stone — agreed that the difference now that Andersen is gone is shocking.
When it comes to RuPaul’s hair, Mame doesn’t think anyone can come close to Andersen's wig styling perfection. "Delta's work is very different from Mathu's," Mame said. "I don't think it would be noticed by the un-queer eye, but queens have been studying this show for nine seasons. There's a distinct lack of the personality that Mathu's hair had, which is what makes it his hair, I guess."
She continued: "We've seen RuPaul's face done by Mathu Andersen for what, 30 years? Raven is doing a great job, it's just wild to not see the RuPaul face that Mathu built. I think people are mistaking different for bad. God bless Raven for taking on the task that is the makeup of an icon, but let's be real: it makes sense she is doing it she totally changed the face of drag. The literal face. Every drag queen, myself included, has stolen something — or a lot of things — from Raven's makeup!"
Mame raises a salient point: While casual viewers might not notice these changes to RuPaul’s face, hair and body (ody ody), fans are speaking out because the makeup on Drag Race is studied so intensely and replicated by queens around the world.
Drag Race is, for better or worse, the standard of contemporary drag, and RuPaul, the most famous drag queen in the world, has had someone else creating her image for the entirety of the show. Now that that person isn't there, we might be seeing a new, slightly less polished, version of that look, and that face is what baby drag queens all over the world are going to imitate.
"Watching the first [few] episodes this season, I sensed something was off — like when you enter a room and suspect furniture has been rearranged," British journalist Shon Faye said in an interview. "RuPaul herself looks unfinished, wigs are out of place; hairlines are terrible. It's ironic that the show has democratized drag and now it's quite literally lost a lot of its shine."
It’s shocking to see such a change in RuPaul’s face because mainstream drag is held to different standards now than it was before the show started airing.
Contemporary drag exists in a world of YouTube tutorials, FaceTune, plastic surgery and HDTV. While queens have been doing incredible things with makeup for decades, we’ve never been able to see the cracks in the facade as closely as we do now, because any hastily painted face can look good in a dive bar at 3 a.m. after a few drinks.
In the real world of gay bars and after hours parties, drag is more than anything about performance. But Drag Race has brought this punk art form out from the clubs into direct sunlight, and it's evolving, becoming more polished, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Brooklyn queen Aja, who is currently competing on season nine, had her makeup skills read by both the judges and her fellow queens in a recent episode. The show even went as far as to show her FaceTuned Instagram photos on screen, an unprecedented move.
Drag Race has always featured both well-rounded queens alongside queens who have a particular set of skills, but now it seems like drag queens — if they want to make it on TV, at least — must be flawless in every aspect.
Aja felt that the criticism spoke volumes about the changing standards of drag. "It is becoming less about creativity and having fun and more about being beautiful and having flawless skin," she shares. "That's just counterproductive to what drag is as a whole, since drag is more aligned with embracing things about yourself that may not be viewed as beautiful by society."
That standard is a double-edged sword for both newbie queens and more experienced ones. Standards filter their way down from TV into real life, are we going to expect that new queens just starting out are going to be incredibly polished? If they aren't, are they going to be able to book gigs?
Unrealistic beauty standards affect everyone, and now those standards created by Drag Race are coming back to haunt the empress of drag herself.
The more mainstream drag gets, the less true it is to its punk roots. The polish may make it more palatable to non-queer consumers — and let’s face it, why move from Logo to VH1 unless you’re trying to widen your audience — but it takes this queer art rooted in raucous, dirty, badly lit artificial glamor into the harsh, fluorescent glare of capitalism.