How should brands work with UK’s Drag Race queens?
A view from Martin Davies

How should brands work with UK’s Drag Race queens?

Ahead of the final episode of RuPaul's Drag Race UK season two, Outvertising asks: 'Who is going to front the next H&M campaign?'

The season two finale of RuPaul's Drag Race UK is on tonight (18 March). If you've been living under a rock, the show is a reality competition that searches for the next drag superstar. After huge success in US, the UK version is now also a massive hit over here on BBC Three – introducing its stars to a larger audience than the drag brunches and cabaret fringe theatres that fill their diaries. 

Contestants Bimini Bon-Boulash and Tayce have both made it through to the final and now boast about half a million followers each on Instagram. The BBC offers no cash prize like its American counterpart – so it’s with merch lines, tours and brand deals that the show’s queens look to make gains from their exposure.

Season one's queens gave us Cheryl Hole fronting a Christmas campaign for Virgin Media, Baga Chipz promoting Romana pizza for Pizza Express and Davina De Campo helping job seekers in a BT campaign.

Now, we’re not against queens getting their bag. And as Outvertising we exist to encourage advertisers to centre authentic queer stories in campaigns to fully reflect the real world out there. And we’d encourage brand owners and their agencies to absolutely consider the season two alumni for their campaigns. But before you do, here’s a few pointers to help you.

Show that you know

Drag isn’t decoration for your campaign. You need to show that you’re a fan to earn the respect of the community.  

Season two certainly gave us some moments that lend themselves to brand deals. First, the gag of the season, Asttina winning the first challenge wearing an Asos jacket, followed by Joe Black getting sent home for the second time after wearing an H&M dress after a severe dressing down from mother Ru. Surely it’s only a matter of time before H&M and Asos secure these queens for campaigns?

The only badge Tia Kofi achieved was that of “Baroness Basic”, gifted to her by fellow queens in an early challenge. She ran with it and brought out a range of basic merch. Could we see Tia front a Sainsbury’s Basics range? Or a no-frills airline? I do think.

Go full drag or go home

With brands from restaurants to telcos dragging up, how can you stand out? The answer, embrace all forms of drag. 

RuPaul himself was under fire from the LGBT+ community in 2018 when he stated he probably wouldn't allow a transgender woman who had undergone gender-confirmation surgery to compete on the reality show, which then sparked the hashtag #AllDragIsValid.

Of the general population, 40% feel that the advertising industry does not accurately portray people of different gender identities (Simpson Carpenter cited Outvertising Guide). This year in the UK, the show cast two non-binary contestants, Ginny Lemon and favourite-to-win Bimini Bon Boulash who viewers saw having a heart-to-heart about their shared experiences.

We’re not saying don’t work with recognised talent, we absolutely encourage it. But look to platform overlooked drag and you’ll stand out for embracing the community wholeheartedly. Not merely borrowing drag as decoration. Queer performers who most likely wouldn’t be offered the platform of Drag Race include

  • Chiyo Gomes: Mr Gay England’s first trans finalist and drag artist
  • TeTe Bang: a cis womxn, “drag queen superstar, DJ and international show off”
  • Danny Ash: a queer man and self-styled “multi-talented showman, aerialist, stripper, boylesquer, dragster, comedian and clown”.

Don't take the best and ignore the rest

Drag is a vibrant and wonderful slice of queer culture. But drag should not be your starting point. You should be making an active choice to centre authentic queer stories.

Think about how you can tell authentic queer stories that exist around your brand story. One standout example is the Starbucks’ "What's your name" campaign – where Starbucks learned that trans people were testing out their chosen name with their coffee order and subsequently centred on this in their campaign.

If you’re going to borrow from queer culture to enhance your campaign, be respectful and lend your support to all that’s behind that red wig and silver dress.

The mental health of LGBT+ people has been disproportionately affected over lockdown, with 69% experiencing depressive symptoms. They have been deprived of queer spaces that are hugely important to a community that can’t always rely on their family for acceptance.

What can you do to support the queer community authentically long-term? If you’re Rightmove, can you also help end LGBT+ homelessness? If you’re an alcohol brand, can you help to make the night-time economy safer for LGBT+ people? Can both work together even to protect queer spaces from closure?

Get queer planners and creatives on the account 

Get your own house in order. Are you lifting up queer talent in your own organisation? According to Stonewall’s LGBT+ in Britain – Work Report 2018, more than a third (35%) of LGBT+ staff have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination. And if you’re spending energy hiding who you are, you’re not spending it on the work. How can you help support your queer employees and contractors?

Get the work right by collaborating with the queer community on the work. As the not-for-profit LGBT+ advertising and marketing advocacy group in 2020 we published the Outvertising Guide – a comprehensive guide to producing LGBT+ inclusive advertising aimed at a mainstream audience.

And lastly, while we’re no RuPaul, at Outvertising we’re lifting up queer talent too. We just launched season two of our Mentoring Programme and are here to help LGBT+ talent, either new to or looking to join the industry, thrive. If that sounds like you, then sign on up (no drag audition tape necessary). So calling all mentees: applications are now open and will close on Friday 30 April 2021 at midnight. 

Martin Davies is founder of strategy consultancy Smarty Pants and a volunteer at Outvertising – a not-for-profit LGBT+ advertising and marketing, advocacy group