Lately I’ve been getting my life advice from a reality TV show based around grown men insulting each other’s wigs.
In my real life, I can’t walk in heels or apply make-up, and I’m camera shy. My mother took most existing photos of me, and I have my eyes shut in all of them. But alongside its message of gender fluidity, RuPaul’s Drag Race is teaching me about thriving in my creative life.
The show is a competition where drag queens from across the United States compete in various performance challenges, and are ‘eliminated’ one by one. While they work towards their goal of being America’s next drag superstar, they talk, argue, grow, and are encouraged by the wise and insightful Mama Ru.
Here are the top ten lessons I’ve learnt from RuPaul’s Drag Race:
1. Being yourself is a skill you can learn
I always used to be confused by advice to ‘be yourself’. If feeling horrifically self-conscious was part of who I was, wasn’t I being myself already?
But as I’m learning from watching the show, being yourself stems from being able to stand actually seeing yourself, which comes from the slow process of accepting yourself. Because lots of the contestants have had to recover from being bullied and rejected, they have some hot tips on how to do this. Bob the Drag Queen says to start with one tooth, if that’s all you can find to love about yourself, and work from there.
When RuPaul told a contestant to ‘Remember who the hell you are,’ I felt it to the core. In a world crammed with messages about what success looks like, it’s easy to shame ourselves and our creative work. When I heard this statement, I began to consciously reintegrate into my story both my past and things I used to hide about myself.
2. Share yourself
Showing people who you are is a struggle on the show for both introverts and people with big personalities. The introverts want to control how others see them, and sometimes they haven’t practiced the social skill of self-disclosure. The people with big personalities have a fear of annoying and dominating others, which can tempt them to disconnect under pressure.
I relate to both of these tendencies, so watching them play out in the contestants was eye opening.
I’ve heard people say that vulnerability is strength, and the contestants demonstrate that. The key is to do it without defensiveness. Self-deprecation and criticism of others are two classic ways that creative people defend their work. But neither is charming. They make us feel better for a minute, but the ache remains. Let’s not.
3. Limitations can promote creativity
Back home where they come from, the contestants own the stage, and can do what they’re already good at. Not on the show. The challenges are ridiculous. Sometimes the contestants are only allowed to make outfits out of recycling or books. And as you can imagine, the results are often extraordinary.
I find this in my creative life. Sometimes the most inspiring thing is to get back to the paper and pencil, or only write in the second person, or play the tune you can hear in your head using pots and pans. If you keep going through the frustration, solutions often bob to the surface. And then they can be put to use in other areas as well.
4. The power of feedback
The show is designed to put contestants to the test, and personal growth is rewarded. A lot of the time, it’s grow or go home.
Feedback is a rich source of data to structure growth around. The contestants get a lot of feedback on the show, from judges and each other. Some resist it, and some transform through it. It can also derail people who don’t know themselves well enough to be able to pick what to take on.
Creatively, feedback is a risky business that is a vital part of making good work. It involves being able to manage your ego reactions. It also requires that you choose carefully who to listen to.
5. Connect with the audience
I used to be terrified of public speaking, even though I frequently signed up for it by choosing to perform my poetry. Fear made it hard to be present; the adrenalin drove the moment by so fast that I couldn’t learn from it. It usually worked out okay because my connection with my work was strong, and that came across. But the drain on my energy wasn’t sustainable.
I started to consciously grow my performance skills. Here’s a thought I learnt to use to replace the terrified ones: I share my work with the people who hunger for it. And: The audience wants me to succeed so they can get what they came for.
It is interesting to see similar ideas reflected in the words of contestants. And it’s mesmerising to watch this in action when two queens lip-sync battle. There’s no room for doubting the connection. There is only faith. That’s where I want to get to.
6. Everyone has fans
I love this fact: every single contestant, whatever their life span on the show or the standard of their performance, has fans. They came with fans and they leave with more. Everyone is someone’s favourite.
I learnt this first from community poetry performances. If you have ten people in the show, whether they’re up there for the first time or totally masterful, each one will strike a note in the heart of someone in that audience.
It’s common for contestants to talk about a stranger on the street coming up and thanking them for the inspiration and hope they provide. Your creative work can also be out there touching people’s lives (as long as you let it).
7. Sort your skillset
One common mistake contestants make is to come on to the show without one of the basic skillsets that are inevitably called on, like constructing an outfit, memorising words, or blocking eyebrows.
So it is with creativity. If you know something may be called on in your creative endeavours, learn the basics. To get to ‘great’ takes heaps of work; to get to ‘functional’ often doesn’t. You can usually get to ‘okay’ much faster than you think.
I once wanted to write a monologue for a performance we were doing, without any theatre experience. I literally looked it up on the internet and followed the instructions.
If you really truly can’t do even the way people have worked out is easiest to do it, find your own version. Kim Chi may struggle to learn steps but her gestures carry complete commitment, and for her that turns out to be enough.
8. Learn to manage yourself
This is all the stuff that supports your creativity.
It’s your professionalism. It’s the social skills that allow you to connect with like-minded people (and this show really demonstrates that instead of finishing last, nice guys rise). It’s about getting out of your head, getting out of your own way, and committing to the moment. It’s about knowing what you want and keeping your eyes on the prize, despite discrimination that I’ve been privileged enough to never experience.
Perhaps most usefully for me as a female whose sense of being a big gender fail affected my self-esteem, it’s about how you hold yourself and how you talk about yourself. The other person takes on the image of myself I give them. What am I offering to the other person?
What image of your creativity are you encouraging others to take on?
9. Sustain yourself
RuPaul has stamina. I want what he’s got. As he tells one contestant, ‘You have to be able to sustain yourself.’
If I want to be creative over the long term, I need excellent and committed self-care. To stay present, I also need to be able to stay secure, which means being able to actively heal and transform myself. It means grieving without self-destruction, rebuilding when I break, and holding the sense of the long game in my mind at all times.
10. Creativity is magic
My favourite contestants are the ones whose invented characters, costumes and stories start to populate my imagination. Think of Kim Chi – in a show that is all about choreography and performance, her visionary creativity can even redeem not being able to dance.
Creativity is a power that we sometimes take for granted, lean on, exploit, undervalue, or hide. We’re so used to it that we forget how rare it really is.
But other people need it. They recognise and respond to our creative magic - especially when we help out by connecting to it ourselves, wholeheartedly.