The first time I clocked a deceitful edit in RuPaul’s Drag Race was my second viewing of the show’s sixth season. During preparation for that season’s iteration of Snatch Game, a challenge in which the queens impersonate a celebrity, RuPaul cast doubt on competitor BenDeLaCreme’s plan to portray Dame Maggie Smith. Three shots follow: first, Ben looks at RuPaul while audio from one of Ben’s confessionals plays over it (“Ru does not seem into my idea.”); next, a shot of Ben’s wig on a foam head while the audio continues (“I’m shaken–my confidence is definitely shaken, but, I–”); finally, it cuts to the confessional itself where a puffy-eyed Ben is speechless, either just finished crying or just about to start.
Except that last part isn’t true, because, later in the episode, Ben talks about his adolescent struggles with body image and his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. “I just–”, he begins to describe the loss in voiceover, and then it cuts to a much longer shot of Ben speechless in the same confessional from earlier. It’s clear in this longer shot that Ben is stumbling over his explanation of how he felt when his mother died, not Ru’s lack of enthusiasm for his Maggie Smith impression, especially since he actually won Snatch Game. The editors had blatantly cut footage of Ben crying as he recalled his grief and moved it earlier in the episode to make it look like Ru had shaken Ben to his core.
Ever since, I’ve been completely sceptical of the Drag Race edit.
“Don’t blame the edit” is a mantra of the show’s producers, used constantly to deflect criticism and smear former competitors who dare to complain as sore losers. RuPaul used it as the title of an episode of her podcast What’s the Tee? dedicated to “explaining” why only whiny bitches question the edit and has even made mocking comments about it on the show. When asked to comment on Phi Phi O’Hara’s allegations of a villain edit in the second season of Drag Race All Stars, competition judge Michelle Visage disingenuously compared it to her portrayal as the bitchy judge:
“I don’t know what a “villain edit” is. I could say the same thing, that they edit me to be a “villain”, but at the end of the day, I say what I say. Nobody puts words in my mouth… there’s been a lot of times I’ve sat on that panel and looked like a monster for the things that I’ve said. But I said it, I can’t blame Ru for it.”
But there’s abundant evidence the show does put words in people’s mouths by clipping dialogue or cobbling it together with other pieces of dialogue. Obviously, the show’s producers and regular cast have a vested interest in defending the validity of the edit, so they don’t have to take responsibility for the negative effects it often has on competitors. I’m not surprised that people who make a reality show are self-interested and deceitful. But the credulity that fans and even critics show toward the edit is baffling. I think most of us know reality television isn’t “real”, but I don’t think we always understand the way it’s not real and the extent to which events are manufactured.
None of this is unique to Drag Race. The responsible viewer of pretty much any reality show should not take its events seriously enough to form strong judgements about the real people who appear on them, because the “people” on the screen are not even close to the same in real life. They’re semi-fictional characters constructed out of editing in a story that didn’t really happen. American Idol auditions are often edited together from separate auditions that competitors do for producers and the judges, which is why an auditionee’s guitar appears to change colour in one episode from season thirteen. Keeping Up with the Kardashians is full of staged reshoots of pivotal life events, including at least one of Kim’s proposals. But even as production shenanigans have been more widely broadcast by former Drag Race competitors (e.g. Phi Phi O’Hara and Darienne Lake), people have been reluctant to accept that Drag Race, like most reality shows, is more than willing to sacrifice people’s careers and even safety on the altar of high ratings.
I suspect there’s a number of reasons why that’s the case. Many people see strong social, moral and political value in Drag Race and probably don’t want to admit it’s ethically compromised in any way because they fear it will detract from its positive effects. I’m sure lots of people don’t want to admit that they’re ethically compromised in any way for indulging in unkind or hateful behaviour towards former competitors on the basis of things they “did” or “said” on the show. Others just don’t want to think too hard about their entertainment, even when it affects their disposition towards reality. I don’t really know how to reach those people, and I’m not gonna try. But I also think it’s likely that most people, even obsessive fans and ostensible professionals paid to write about the show, don’t really understand the power of the editing room. Since it seems the Drag Race juggernaut will never stop and more and more drag queens are at risk of the kind of horrible shit some of the queens have had to put up with, I thought I’d take a crack at convincing those people not to take the events of the show so seriously that they feel the need to threaten to throw acid in competitors’ faces.
I love Drag Race, but I always try to keep my feelings about the show and about the real people who compete on it at a distance. I think it’s too dangerous not to, and so I want to break down how these stories and characters are put together to really drive home how little reality shows reflect reality.
Part 1 – Casting
This is kind of obvious, but it’s the first step in the process and I think it’s important to keep in mind through the other sections. Drag Race’s producers cast queens in part on their expected usefulness at producing drama. I don’t just mean “drama” in the social sense, but in the artistic sense: conflicts, storylines, revelations, etc. Before the queens even arrive on set, the producers are plotting out storylines for them and assigning them character archetypes.
Sometimes it’s the most blatant thing in the world, as when bitter former friends and arch-rivals Coco Montrese and Alyssa Edwards were cast in season five, but sometimes it’s subtler, like casting queens with big age differences to create generational conflict. The drama can be internal too: things like Katya’s drug addiction or Nina Bo’nina Brown’s ostracisation from the Atlanta drag community obviously played a part in the decision to cast them.
Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel put it best in an interview with AOL Build: “Being chosen for a reality TV show is not a compliment.” You don’t get cast on Drag Race, especially this late in the game, unless you have personal issues, or at least a Marmite personality, that the producers can manipulate to their own advantage.
Part 2 – Recording
The next step in the process is to record video and audio. The production of the show is kept pretty opaque to maintain the illusion, but you can get a pretty good picture from some statements, a bit of common sense and a passing familiarity with filmmaking.
Drag Race is a multi-camera show, which means there’s at least two cameras on set at a given time, though I’d wager there’s a minimum of six. Each episode takes two days to shoot, and each shoot lasts around twelve hours. That covers the action of the episode – there’s also the confessionals, which might be shot intermittently throughout the day, at the end of each day or in a batch at the end of each week, according to various sources. I know for a fact they’re not recorded all at once because confessionals in the early seasons would show the queens wearing different clothes in different confessionals, resulting in editing fails like this classic cobbling together of confessionals in season three where Shangela’s outfit and hair change supposedly mid-sentence. For the last several seasons, the queens have been made to wear the same look in all their confessionals, which makes the seams harder to find, but not invisible: just look at the sad saga of Laganja Estranja’s hair curl, which varies from deep and well-defined to high but flat to limp and defeated in different confessionals. If there’s at least six cameras on set shooting for around twelve hours a day, plus an hour or so of confessional footage per queen per episode, then raw footage is produced at a rate of between 75 and 85 hours of footage per day, or 150-170 hours per episode, depending on the number of queens left in the competition.
There’s substantially more sound: every queen has a mic pack recording their voice throughout the two-day shoot, producing 24 hours per queen per episode, for a total of anywhere from 100 to 340 hours of audio per episode just from the queens’ mic packs. In season nine’s crew makeover episode, you can see the cameras have shotgun mics mounted on their sides and there’s at least some boom mics involved, so we can add 24 hours of audio per camera per episode (144 hours), plus at least a few hours per boom mic. Then there’s something like an hour of audio per confessional. And that’s just the microphones I know exist! I’ve never noticed any stationary mics hidden around the set, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
And I’ve only covered the queens, really. I can’t really say how long RuPaul himself is on-camera per day, but there’s audio for that too, and for each of the judges, and for any other guests. And that’s just audio recorded during the shoot. Not with the queens so much, but the producers might have RuPaul or the judges come back to record dialogue after production is wrapped, e.g. to give them better lines for the runway commentary, which is often given off-screen.
So, that’s over a thousand hours of video and several thousands of hours of audio per season, and we haven’t even started talking about music, or sound effects like the high notes and “rattlesnake” noises that play when queens are being shady to each other. To put that in context, the entirety of both Drag Race and Drag Race All Stars is just over 100 hours at time of writing. Before we even think about what kind of footage are the producers getting, and how they get it, it’s worth sitting with those figures: from thousands of hours of footage, covering at least a few weeks of the queens’ lives, we get what? Eleven hours of television? Maybe sixteen if you include the companion show Untucked? We see less than 1% of what’s recorded, and the queens are only recorded for 50% of their time in the competition. We don’t see what happens off-set, which is how you end up with stuff like season five competitors Roxxxy Andrews, Alaska and Detox suddenly walking into the work room one day as their infamous clique, “Rolaskatox”.
As for what we do see, well, that’s manipulated too. The runway is shot twice, once with the runway music and one without so the judges can make their comments, and it’s reasonable to conclude that other reshoots happen. Towards the end of season eight’s “Bitch Perfect” challenge, Cynthia Lee Fontaine accidentally kicks off one of her shoes, hitting an overhead light, but when the queens pose at the end of the performance, you can very briefly see Cynthia with both her shoes on. Season four competitor Willam accused the producers of letting season four winner Sharon Needles redo her entrance, while refusing to let Willam do the same.
There’s also plenty of evidence, both on and off the show, that producers push queens to talk about specific topics. On the show, it’s their failures that expose their manipulations, such as their many unsuccessful attempts to make season seven finalist Pearl talk about a childhood trauma she didn’t want to disclose, including the first iteration of the now-annual “speech to your younger self” given during the final runway. Off the show, lots of queens have made casual reference to the producers telling them to ask this or that queen about their family or when they knew they were gay or other obvious prompts for emotional conversations. It’s worth keeping in mind too that the producers complete the whole shoot before editing, but start planning the final edit as they shoot, so even though unexpected developments might force them to deviate from their original vision for the season, nothing can really throw a wrench in their ability to control the story. If a queen makes a major revelation, or relationships form or disintegrate suddenly, or pretty much anything happens that wasn’t part of the producers’ initial plans, it will be absorbed into their plans for the rest of the shoot within an hour. If they don’t want to make it part of the story, they’ll edit around it (easy enough when you show less than 1% of what happens), and if they want to make it part of the story, they’ll make sure it’s brought up again and again.
None of this is unique to Drag Race by any means, and I’m not trying to attack something I know means so much to so many. Drag Race means a lot to me. I’ve been affected as much as any fan by the queens’ conversations about trauma, mental illness, sexuality and other heavy topics. But I’ve also been affected by how overtly fictional art addresses those issues, because it doesn’t really matter whether it’s “fake” or “real”, what matters is that it’s well-made. Drag Race is a really good TV show that uses its raw materials as well as or better than other shows of its kind.
But we need to be able to separate our enjoyment of Drag Race from any feelings we might have toward the queens in real life. Anyone who’s ever been impressed with a queen on Drag Race but underwhelmed by their other work, or vice-versa, knows this. Trixie Mattel is one of my favourite drag queens. I love her YouTube series UNHHH with fellow season seven alum Katya, I like UNHHH’s TV adaptation The Trixie & Katya Show, and I adore her country album Two Birds. I recently saw her live show Now with Moving Parts in Dublin, and it was terrific. But I didn’t care for her that much when she first competed on Drag Race. Some great drag queens are terrible Drag Race competitors.
If we can understand that distinction when it comes to their talent, we should be able to understand it in every area. And it’s really important that we do, because once you’ve filmed a dozen people for a month, shooting twelve hours a day, you can make them do or say pretty much whatever you want in editing.
Part 3 – Editing
Finally, we come to the edit itself: thousands of hours of recordings transformed into a narrative for broadcast. Editing is important in any kind of video production, but it’s the backbone of reality TV in particular because reality doesn’t have a narrative structure the way a script does. People don’t have character arcs, events don’t happen when it’s convenient and, though people die, life doesn’t end. Half of apocalypticism is just human beings crying out for a neat conclusion to a world they know will persist when they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
Editing a TV show is a fairly simple process, but it takes quite a while, and a lot of it is tedious and repetitive, which is why most TV shows (news and talk shows excepted) aren’t shot and edited on a week-to-week basis. Scripted shows with long seasons like soaps and network dramas have an overlap between shooting, editing and broadcast, with the editing of the first episode begun as soon as it’s done shooting, probably a month or less before broadcast. After that, the gap between the shooting, editing of an episode and its airing will grow bigger. When I was on work placement at an Irish soap in mid-December, they were editing for late February/early March and shooting weeks ahead of the edit.
Drag Race and other unscripted competition shows don’t do that. Everything is shot in a few intense weeks, then edited afterwards. Here’s a simplified step-by-step breakdown of that process:
Step 1: All the footage is organised into folders, generally logged by date.
Step 2: The footage is imported into an editing program and reviewed by the editors to find anything that can’t be used for technical reasons (e.g. something was blocking the frame, or there was a problem with the focus). Most of this would have already been noted during the shoot and reshot, but the editors will want to find anything that was missed so they can cut it. Everything left at that point is sorted into more folders.
Step 3: The footage is reviewed again to find footage that could be used in the edit. Some of that will become the main action in each episode, some of that will be B-roll with no narrative purpose (e.g. wide shots of the queens at work), some of that will be reaction shots, etc. Boring footage or footage that’s irrelevant to the producer’s plan for the season will be cut. For example, competitor Chi Chi DeVayne injured her hand during rehearsals for the All Stars 3 talent show challenge, which likely influenced challenge winner BenDeLaCreme’s decision to save her from elimination at the end of the episode. But the injury isn’t referenced in the episode, even though her bandaged fingers are visible during her performance. Presumably the producers wanted to paint Ben’s decision to eliminate the other bottom queen in a certain light (shady), so footage about Chi Chi’s injury was cut. Everything left at this point is sorted into even more folders.
Step 4: The producers and editors work out a structure for each episode’s edit, something like a storyboard.
Step 5: The remaining footage is about what they want it to be about, but they have everything that happens from multiple angles, so the editors need to pick the best footage. This is partly about quality, but mostly about preserving visual coherence across the cut. For example, if two people are talking, and one of them is facing left to talk to them in their shot, then the answering shot of the other person needs to show them facing right, and a wide shot of both needs to show them on the left and right too. This is called the 180 degree rule, and I could show you it in almost any film ever made, but here’s an example from Light Sleepers, just as a visual reference. This is a basic rule of film that’s rarely violated since it messes with the audience’s spatial reasoning, and since Drag Race isn’t an avant-garde experiment in fucking with our expectations of visual composition, it follows the 180 degree rule, and other fundamentals of film.
The editors will try out lots of different combinations of shots to cut their footage down to a trim forty-to-sixty minutes, depending on the episode. Most of the editing in this phase will be elliptical editing, or editing that compresses time. The queens spend hours on everything they do, and the editors need to convey that in twenty or thirty minutes, so we get what’s essentially a montage of activity, with our brains filling in that time passes in the cut. Most elliptical editing is benign, but it can be used manipulatively, like when Max needed to sit down after wearing her corset too tight and “spontaneously” burst into song. It’s a bizarre moment, until you read Max’s version of events:
“The head production assistant always told us whenever we were on that main stage, if we felt faint or anything, to let them know, to make a motion or a movement to summon them over there. It wasn’t even during one of my critiques. I remember looking at Jaidynn, and she just smiled at me. I was like, ‘Help.’ I started taking the corset off a little bit because it was digging into my hip bone. I asked the guy to come over, and I got a glass of water, and we stopped for a moment. While I was sitting down on the stage, RuPaul asked me to sing a couple lines from ‘Over the Rainbow,’ and we laughed, and I sang something from ‘A Star is Born’ because she’s sitting down on the front of the stage in that movie. I thought it was appropriate to do it that way, and then we giggled about it and we recuperated and we resumed filming and with the critiques. I didn’t even think it was something that was going to be featured. There have been maintenance moments with other girls with their shoes or their corsets or this or that. I look like a cuckoo. And the way that they had Ru looking down at me all concerned while I was singing … it’s not exactly what happened.”
Of course, most of the way the edit manipulates our feelings isn’t quite so underhanded – all art manipulates our feelings, that’s just what art does, and most editing on Drag Race isn’t dramatic or noteworthy, it’s just how editing works. Someone says something shady and someone else (who could be on the opposite side of the room, at a different point in the day) reacts to it, bam, they heard the shady comment and that was their reaction. You put one piece of footage before another, and our brain makes the connection. Max sings on the step, then RuPaul has an unnerved expression, bam, RuPaul is unnerved by Max’s singing. Charlie Brooker showed how effective this simple power of association can be in a segment on his show Screenwipe, cutting clips of the same conversation to make himself look like a stud, a bore and a creep.
More than any of the conspiracies against queens, rumoured or known, it’s this very banal editing that does the most to affect how we feel about the people on the show. If someone made a shady comment, and then it cuts to everyone laughing, we don’t think they’re a villain, we think they’re a joker just having a good time with their pals. And that’s just fine, because you have to transform just a load of stuff happening into a story somehow. It’s a necessary method of conveying information to the audience. There’s no “true” edit of Drag Race, because 99% of it has to be left out to make it a TV show, as defenders of the edit so love to point out. But I’m not saying viewers need to turn sleuth and try to figure out what “really” happened. You just shouldn’t take the edit as reality in the first place, any of the edit, whether it’s close to the truth or the furthest thing from it. Especially because video editing’s power to deceive has nothing on the sorcery of sound editing.
Step 6: When the video editors put together the episode, they don’t concern themselves too much with the audio, because it’s a primarily visual medium. They lock in the video edit and send it on to the sound editors with a rough sound edit that the sound editors then clean up. They have multiples of every audio track, and they pick the best one. They put in foley, which are environmental sounds that weren’t actually recorded in the environment, e.g. glass breaking or a door opening. And they make sure all the audio in a given scene sounds like it was recorded in the same environment, cleaning up background noise and reducing echo. They also make people say stuff they never said.
The only time you can be sure a queen actually said anything they said in Drag Race is when you see an unbroken shot of the words coming out of their mouth. If it’s voiceover, that sentence could literally be composed from audio of dozens of sentences from dozen of different days, cut together and made to sound like a single sentence. I’ve watched a professional sound editor at work, and those people can do anything they want. They can alter pitch and tone and volume, pretty much anything. Watch the edit of Shangela I linked earlier with your eyes closed – if you didn’t know in advance, there’s no way the average viewer would notice that’s two pieces of dialogue stuck together. Since they started making the queens wear the same outfit in all their confessionals (and probably banned high-maintenance haircuts like Laganja’s), the likelihood of anyone noticing again is pretty slim.
Step 7: Once the sound editor is happy with the episode, they send it back to the video editors, and if the video editors are happy, they send it to the producers, and if the producers are happy, they send it to the network, and if the network is happy, they schedule it for broadcast. If anyone in that chain is not happy, they send it back along the chain with notes, and the edit is adjusted and then it’s sent back and forth until everyone is happy, and then it’s scheduled for broadcast. The footage has been transformed into an episode of television. The real people are now characters, and this period in their lives is now a story. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.
Step 8: The episode is broadcast, and the audience reacts. How we react is up to us.