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10 Things Cosplayers Can Learn from RuPaul’s Drag Race

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No, this isn’t about how to dance in ten-inch heels under boiling stage lights, or how to contour your face sharply enough to cut glass. Drag and cosplay can learn a lot from each other: both are bombastic, skill- and performance-based art forms, and involve twirling across a stage lip-synching to pop hits while trying to pretend you’re comfortable in a metal corset that may or may not have just punctured a vital organ.

There’s no bigger name in drag than Mother Ru herself, and by her grace, we were presented with a smash hit reality show chronicling the trials and tribulations of queens battling it out for America’s crown. Just as she shares her wisdom with the show’s superstar hopefuls, cosplayers can take a note or three from the show’s example.

1. Get the Fame and Get the Power

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Pictured: Ru’s Tuesday look.

Should Ru speak the word, the show’s contestants must star in an interpretive ballet chronicling her life. She sips top-shelf vodka, is doted on by the Pit Crew with giant feathered fans, and casts a critical eye on the contestants’ performances. The queen assigned to play Ru as a blossoming young prima donna didn’t seem motivated enough. The lip-sync stage catches the scent of its next victim.

Now, being a popular cosplayer might not grant you minions that you can make dance at your whims, and it might not grant you personal climate-control assistants, and it definitely won’t get you good liquor. Or even decent liquor. But you might get a free con badge, sometimes, and a Mike’s Hard Lemonade if you crash the right room party.

What’s there to learn from this? Do cosplay for the love of it, because you’re sure as hell not doing it for the money.

2. There Are No Race or Body Rules for Being a Good Cosplayer (So Stop Pretending There Are)

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Classy enough to emerge from season four’s disastrous Snatch Game unscathed.

Here we arrive at one of the nastiest undercurrents plaguing the cosplay community. Judging cosplayers by their body type, race, or other personal attributes is not only common for those in and out of the cosplay community, but is also bafflingly deemed constructive criticism. No matter if you’ve hand-embroidered a whale-bone corset over the course of seven months, if you don’t fit the narrow mold of acceptability in your looks, you’re doomed to eternal anonymous online shit-flinging. The problem has certainly improved over time – the mid-2000s were a dark period for everyone – but it still hasn’t entirely been slapped out of the community’s mouth.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, for all its wig-pulling, mascara-running drama and nasty in-fighting, has never failed to present a full range of body types and races in its competitive lineup – all queens with immense talent, immense popularity, and who can (and often do) out-compete all their opponents on a regular basis. The elegant and polished Latrice Royale’s fourth-place ranking left season four viewers howling for justice, and she remains one of the most popular and fondly-remembered queens in the show’s history. Moreover, these queens are praised for who they are, and what they have accomplished with their talents – not what they have accomplished despite their “shortcomings”. It’s a lesson that the cosplay community should take to heart.

3. A Big Personality and Good Humor Can Enhance Any Costume

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Patron saint of all clueless newbies.

How much does humor and personality count in drag and cosplay both? Let Shangela serve as an example to all cosplayers who can’t sew in a straight line and don’t have a clue how to apply makeup. Despite these massive shortcomings, her comedy skill and drama-stirring ways scored her a contestant spot in not one, but two seasons, and had her finish season three in a respectable sixth place. She walked the runways in dresses with threads still hanging and unfinished hems, and her makeup skills evoked those of a determined but desperately clueless middle-schooler, but Ru clearly saw something in her determination and larger-than-life personality. (Or at least saw that her shit-stirring would make for good TV.)

Anyone can put together a good costume and look – whether handmade or bought. What really elevates a queen or a cosplay into something that people remember is the personality.

4. Flashing Your Ass Repeatedly on National TV Can Only Carry You So Far

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Shoe-shopping and bottoming: her lifestyle determined her deathstyle.

Oh, Willam. Your designer looks, catty charms, and predilection for flashing the camera got you so close to the finals, but not quite close enough – and it certainly didn’t give you carte blanche to let your husband into the queens’ hotel to rail you on a regular basis. No amount of bomb-ass booty or snark could prevent her expulsion in a vomit-scented haze, and there’s definitely a cautionary tale there for cosplayers. No matter how on-point your cosplay is (and no matter how much underboob you’re rocking in that Kill La Kill number), repeated rule-breaking and bad behavior will wear people’s patience until there’s nothing left to give.

Also, try not to puke in front of the judges.

5. Don’t Just Accept Your Limitations – Improve and Destroy Them

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“I will show you versatility when Santino wins a sewing competition and Visage wears a fucking turtleneck!”

We’ve bid goodbye to far too many talented queens who’ve pigeonholed themselves into a corner – how many times have you heard the phrase, “I’m not a comedy queen, I’m a pageant queen”? Sure, not every queen has the biting wit or razor-sharp timing of Bianca Del Rio, but that doesn’t mean you’re free to simply stare blankly at the camera during comedy-based challenges, and bitch endlessly about the show not catering to your talents on confession cam. (Especially if those “talents” are just namedropping designers you’re wearing and spending thousands on a pair of shoes.) When queens are critiqued by the judges as relying too heavily on a certain look or style, most simply make excuses, and are summarily dismissed for not making the effort to improve.

This is exactly the kind of self-defeating attitude that holds too many cosplayers back. Don’t just say that you’re “bad at wig-styling” or “can’t make props.” If you just lie back and accept that you’re “bad” at something you don’t immediately excel at, there’s no way that you’re ever going to get better and grow your cosplay skills. So take risks, and work at your shortcomings – and don’t whine about how comedy is beneath you just because a comedy queen destroyed you on the runway. Just crack a joke about Ru’s age every so often and you’ll be golden.


6. Help Your Fellow Cosplayers, or Karma Will Catch Up

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Spare cinchers for all!

Bianca Del Rio, beneath your grouchy old lady mask and shade-flinging ways beats a compassionate heart. For all your griping about your fellow contestants, you still took the time to help them cobble together outfits when they were panicking and under the wire, and loaned them pieces from your very own wardrobe to save them from the chopping block. And, for your charity to your fellow queens (along with your distinguished seamstress skills and snarky mouth), you made it to the final three – and even beat out Aussie legend Courtney Act for the crown. Any experienced queen can put together an outfit and an entertaining act for the stage, but Bianca set herself apart from the race with her (grumpily-given) kindness.

Phi Phi O’Hara, beneath your heinous bitch exterior and horrifyingly sociopathic methods to sabotage your fellow contestants and your former best friend beats the heart of…well, actually, whether or not you have a heart in the conscience sense is up for debate, though I’m sure you have at least a rudimentary reptilian circulatory system. She excuses her Saturday morning cartoon villain antics as her being “hungry to win,” but it clearly didn’t impress Ru, and she lost the crown to Sharon Needles, “Party City” herself. Was that third-place finish really worth going down in infamy as one of the series’ most hated contestants?

The bottom line for cosplayers is, lending a helping hand to your fellow costumed friends will always end better than trying to throw them under the bus for your own personal benefit. (Or, in Mimi Imfurst’s case, throwing them into the air while they scream in terror.) Karma’s a bitch, and the eyes of Ru are always watching.

7. Solid Improv Skills Can and Will Save You From Disaster

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Admit it: you’d probably never heard of Gray Gardens before this.

The Snatch Game episode is the highlight of every season. Queens pick and dress as a celebrity, and do rapid-fire improv in a parody of Match Game. Here, you’ll see which queens actually watch the show, and which queens think it’s just a time to play dress-up. You’ll have legendary performances like Jinkx Monsoon’s Little Edie, Ben DeLaCreme’s Maggie Smith, and Chad Michaels’ Cher, and performances that were legendary in the sense that they were painfully embarrassing to watch (Kenya Michaels’ baffling, farting, drug-addict Beyonc? and Alyssa Edwards’ dull and sloppy Katy Perry).

In cosplay, taking what the world throws at you is essential – whether it’s having a snappy comeback for hecklers at your photoshoot, or thinking fast and saving your costume on the go with duct tape, hot glue, and idiot determination. Not only will you save yourself from disaster, but you might wind up being the hero that drags the whole performance out of the fire: consider Jinkx’s swooping save on a joke lost to Ivy Winters’ poorly-thought-out Marilyn Monroe. Think fast, stay calm, and arm yourself with a staple-gun and a joke or two.

8. Throwing Shade Helps No One (and Makes You Look Like an Ass)

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Shade not if you are not ready to be shaded back.

Season five was a shady time for all involved. If Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese weren’t sniping at each other over catty personal bullshit, it was the Mean Girls trio of Rolaskatox (Roxxxy Andrews, Alaska, and Detox) zeroing in on their designated victim Jinkx Monsoon. After Alyssa and Coco were finally eliminated in a cloud of perfume and Dorito dust, Roxxxy elected to let it all hang loose and spent most of her screentime viciously hurling shade at Jinkx for daring to be the comedy queen that Roxxxy’s pageant heart so despised. Jinkx wound up winning the season’s crown and remains a fan darling, and Roxxxy…well, the internet wasn’t terribly pleased with her, to put it lightly. Roxxxy was a talented contestant, but her nasty attitude and constant screeds against comedy queens killed her chances of having those talents recognized, and has made her go down in Drag Race history as a nasty, bitter bully.

Shade and good-natured ribbing is often as much a part of cosplay as it is drag. By all means, help your fellow cosplayers with advice and constructive criticism…when they ask for it, and when it’s appropriate. And for goodness’ sake, don’t be a hypocrite about it – I’m looking at you, Gia “I hate messy queens but can’t glue my own eyelashes on straight” Gunn. Learn from these queens, and don’t let shade be what you’re remembered for.

9. You Can Be Flawless…and Still Not Take Home the Gold

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There are cosplayers out there who would happily risk jail time for an opportunity to steal those wings.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has had some legendary talents competing for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar: Carmen Carrera, Raja Gemini, Chad Michaels, Courtney Act, and the list goes on. All put forth amazing showings and some breathtaking looks, and truly lived up to their larger-than-life status…oh, and Raja’s the only one who took a crown.

In the words of Captain Picard, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” Was he referring to the high-stakes worlds of drag and cosplay? Yes. (No.) If you don’t win cosplay competitions, don’t get stopped in the halls, or don’t get likes on your photoshoot pics, don’t take it personally, and don’t let it ruin your love for dressing up in silly costumes with your friends. Keep your chin up, and someday you’ll be the belle of the nerd ball – or you’ll at least have fun while trying.

10. You’ve Got Talent, But Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously.

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“WE ARE DRAG QUEENS IN A DRAG QUEEN COMPETITION! THE ONLY THING WORSE IS FUCKING PRISON!”

Drag and cosplay are professions and dreams both for many, and so it’s no surprise that it can be taken as serious business. However, beating yourself up for the tiniest missteps and losses, having anxiety attacks at the thought of finishing a costume late, glowering at the unwashed masses who dare to be having a good time in their amateur cosplays – none of this is going to help you be a better costumer, but it sure as hell will help you burn out on the hobby altogether in five years or less. You can build your talent as a cosplayer while still having fun, and this is the best way for you to really build a love for the hobby that will last for years to come.

We who have watched all learned something from Drag Race, whether it’s how to make a dress armed with nothing but candy and Saran wrap, or if it’s just a few choice reads you’re saving for when someone really pisses you off. Has it taught you anything you’ve used in your cosplay career?

Previously by R.K. Stein:
9 Secondary Anime Characters Who Save the Day More Often Than the Hero
The 5 Greatest Things We Experienced at PAX East 2015…and 3 Drawbacks

About Author

I can only play rhythm games with my feet and my main source of nutrients derives from seasonal candy. When not surfing the adrenaline rush of hurling my controller through the TV screen, I enjoy anime/manga and cosplay. I spend most of my free time being rejected by my cats.