Drag Race stars share the things they wish they’d known before competing on the show

A composite image of RuPaul's Drag Race UK stars Krystal Versace (left) and Ella Vaday (centre) with Canada's Drag Race winner Priyanka (right)

As season five of Drag Race UK shifts into gear, two former winners and one finalist across the franchise have told PinkNews the things they wished they’d known before competing on the world’s biggest drag programmes.

Drag Race UK season three runner-up Ella Vaday has heartfelt advice for all performers who are cast on future seasons. “Take your thermals and a nice woolly jumper with you. You won’t regret it,” she urges.

Yes, apparently, the werk room is freezing cold, which might explain why those breastplate nipples are always so firm.

There are some positives to the icy studio temperatures, though: “It was great, because your makeup doesn’t run,” Ella laughs.

This year alone, 135 drag performers have walked through the Drag Race werk room doors across 12 international editions of the franchise. That’s more competitors – and more seasons – than any other year in its 14-year history.

And there are still one or two more seasons to come before 2023 is over. 

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For contestants, the stress of Drag Race comes in three distinct veins: the prep beforehand – often carried out at breakneck speed – the intense scrutiny of singing, dancing, lip-syncing and serving during the competition, and the pressure to succeed in the outside world following the season finale.

It all takes a toll.

Former Drag Race alumni who have been through those particular neon-lit trenches, wearing high heels and even higher wigs, know exactly how exhausting the process can be. 

Priyanka won the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race in 2020, drawing in viewers with her jubilant approach to drag and willingness to give every challenge 100 per cent. For the actor and musician, the key to success was unlocking her vulnerable side.

Canada's Drag Race winner Priyanka in her handover look – a red dress with four arms.
Priyanka won the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. (Getty/Santiago Felipe)

“I was shocked that when you are truly open and your heart is open, your mind is open and you finally trust yourself, that’s when you start getting the good sh*t,” she says.

A round of therapy before queens apply for the show could serve them well, she suggests. “I wish I knew that I needed to find myself before I got in there,” Priyaka admits. “Some girls go in there and they’re not themselves, then they get eliminated first.

Drag Race won’t fix all your problems. You got to fix your problems, then go to Drag Race.”

Once your brain is clear and your trauma has healed (before RuPaul drags it all back up again over a Tic Tac), then it’s time to apply. According to Krystal Versace, winner of Drag Race UK season three, that should be a simple process, and one that doesn’t leave you penniless.

“Don’t try to put on a front just because you think you’re gonna get on this TV show,” the queen advises. “That’s not how it works. Just stick to what you do best, show what you have.

“For example, I didn’t spend any money on my audition tape. A lot of girls are here spending thousands. Girl, chill out, just do your thing. All they want to see is you and that’s it.”

Drag Race UK S3 winner Krystal Versace performing.
Krystal Versace advises contestants to stick to what they do best. (Getty/Santiago Felipe)

Spending thousands on an audition tape, then tens of thousands on runway looks, makes Drag Race a risky investment. As Priyanka warns, you might not even “hit it” with the audience.

“Some girls hit it, some girls don’t,” she says. “That’s also the tough thing – you can’t plan if you’re gonna hit it or not, if you’re gonna be a fan favourite.”

Becoming an overnight TV star and watching fans react in real time, is “the tough bit”, Vaday says.

“You’re not only critiqued on the show by the panel, you then receive critiques from the whole world, and nothing can ever prepare you for that.”

Ella Vaday in a purple leopard skin leotard for her FITTI workout programme.
Watching fans react is the hard bit, says Ella Vaday. (Supplied)

While that experience is impossible to plan for, Ella has some reassuring words. “They’ve [the queens] already filmed it months ago, they’ve probably evolved since then. So, just be true to who you are, and enjoy the experience. It’s stressful, but it’s really fun.”

After the dust and glitter has settled, the focus is on how to capitalise on the experience. Some of Drag Race’s biggest stars and fan favourites are queens who went home relatively early, but used the show as a springboard – think Jasmine Masters, Kelly Mantle, and, of course, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo.

Priyanka says that queens should examine what they really want from the competition, and use their new-found platform to get it. 

“If you just want to be famous, if that’s your main goal, it’s not going to happen,” she declares. “But if you want to be an artist and if you want to release art that makes people feel something, that is what will get you famous.

So, keep releasing projects, keep entertaining people, keep making the TikToks, keep being online and talking to people.

“Content,” she adds, “is king” – or queen.

Once queens have worked out their authentic niche and explored how to use their platform to promote it, the rest is about “sticking to your guns,” Versace thinks.

A promotional image of RuPaul from Drag Race UK season 5.
RuPaul has seen 135 drag performers in werk rooms so far this year. (BBC)

“I’ve always stuck to my brand,” adds the queen who is all about the mug. She knows it, and her followers know it.

“I elaborate with it so much, and I go from a woman to an alien and I play around so much. I’m a creative, but [I] also [stick] to my brand and [stick] to what I do best.”

It’s easy for queens to “get lost” in the noise and hype post-Drag Race, Versace adds. “A lot of people forget what their brand is because they’re too busy looking over their shoulder and comparing themselves to other girls. They end up muting their own light and their own talent, then they blend in with everyone else.”

Her key advice? “Don’t doubt what you do, because if you do it well, when you stick to it, you’ll be the only one doing it. Do the damn thing, and it stands out.”

Drag Race UK season five continues on BBC Three and iPlayer on Thursday night (5 October) at 10pm. Other seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race can be streamed on WOW Presents Plus.