Merchandising Queens

Curator's Note

RuPaul’s Drag Race equates drag with pop stardom. I’ve previously built this argument around the show’s recording challenges. RuPaul elevates contestants with the skills to produce original music and a distinct brand. This reinforces her own trajectory as drag’s first major-label signeeDrag Race tethers drag stardom to pop celebrity through merchandising. Scholars like myself and Hunter Hargraves have observed that Drag Race relies on sponsorship and favors contestants willing to commodify queer existence as RuPaul did for MAC Cosmetics as its first spokesmodel. But that brand partnership allowed the company to publicize its AIDS fund and extend Supermodel of the World’s promotional cycle as it struggled to connect with radio and retail due to the music business’s entrenched homophobia.

Drag Race contestants face similar challenges. While many alum are recording artists, no one has major-label representation and must be canny to extend their market reach. This reality informs Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova’s recommendation that cast members have merchandise ready before their seasons air. RuPaul and her children engage in music merchandising, a performative practice in which recording artists use the creation and sale of branded products as a tactic against wage inequality. Drag Race supergroup the AAA Girls embody music merchandising’s spectrum of participation. Though they formed for an American Apparel campaign at a precarious time in the clothier’s ethically murky history, they used it promote their own merchandise and launch their career.




Jennifer Lynn Jones's picture

Slim Satire

Thanks so much for this, Alyx! Glad to finally know the source of the AAA Girls. I also appreciate your notation of how the show commodifies queer culture. I’m astounded at the marshaling of satire here, but how slim it really winds up being considering how the queens so closely mirror the typical cis female American Apparel ad models. This echoes for me in the incorporation for Ru Girls into major couturier campaigns, like Milk with Marc Jacobs. Though touted as radical, these bodies reflect those already most visible in fashion. Curious how you see this to relate to success in queens’ musical careers as well?


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