Day 6

RuPaul took drag mainstream. Now this Toronto drag queen says it's time to diversify the look

The reality TV competition was a cult-hit for years after it started on LGBT network Logo in 2009. But, when it hit Netflix, its reach exploded and found legions of fans outside the LGBT community. That's a good thing, says drag queen Halal Bae, but the show's work isn't done yet.

'It's not about a [cisgender] man becoming a woman. It's about anything,' says drag queen Halal Bae

Halal Bae is a Toronto-based drag queen. She says that RuPaul's Drag Race should embrace different types of drag. (Submitted)

With her Freddie Mercury moustache, the Toronto drag queen known as Halal Bae subverts the gender binary at the city's west-end queer bars most weekends.

The Arab Muslim activist queen, with a hairy chest and arms, doesn't look like anyone you might see on season 11 of the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race when it premieres Thursday.

"RuPaul's Drag Race really has a very finite view of what drag is," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Since its 2009 premiere on a small, American LGBT network, Halal Bae says the Emmy-winning show has portrayed a singular version of drag: glamourous, feminine, and "looking fish" — drag slang for passing as a woman.

When it jumped to VH1 — and also landed on Netflix around the world — it brought drag closer to the mainstream. The new season features a bevy of big-name celebrity judges, including Miley Cyrus and Joel McHale.

Halal Bae tells Day 6 she grew up in a Muslim household where gender and sexual diversity was frowned upon. (Submitted)

That's a good thing, says Halal Bae, who appreciates that the show is gaining fans outside the LGBT community — but there's more to drag than big gowns and "looking fish."

"It's an expression of deconstructing gender, breaking that binary down, making it an art form for anybody — be you trans, non-binary, [or] a bio-queen," she said.

Mainstream, but tamed

Halal Bae credits VH1 for raising the show's profile by giving it — and its contestants — a larger platform.

"It's something that the straight community has now taken a look at and [they're] starting to recognize it as an art form," Halal Bae said.

But with that larger platform comes some concessions. According to Halal Bae, the show is now less "queer."

"Anything that is explicitly very gay ... has been sort of muted; some of the acts have been muted," she said. "So, it's a double-edged sword in that way."

Last year, RuPaul Charles was criticized for comments he made about trans contestants. Speaking to the Guardian, he said it would be unlikely to see transgender contestants who had transitioned on the show.

The show's creator implied that they would have an unfair advantage, saying "You can identify as a woman and say you're transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body."

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program winners, from left, Carson Kressley, Michelle Visage, RuPaul, and Ross Mathews pose in the press room during the 70th Emmy Awards. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Charles later walked back the comments and apologized. The cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 4 included Gia Gunn, a trans woman drag queen.

Still, Halal Bae took issue with Charles's comments.

"It's not about a [cisgender] man becoming a woman. It's about anything … drag is so diverse," Halal Bae told Day 6.

Mode of self-expression

For Halal Bae, who keeps her drag persona separate from her personal and professional life, drag is an opportunity to share her experiences growing up Muslim in a household where sexual and gender diversity was "frowned upon."

That culture is expressed in her looks: with flowing locks, outfits inspired by north African attire, and tattoo-like face markings worn by Egyptian women.

Those looks will be on display Thursday when RuPaul's Drag Race season 11 premieres on OutTV in Canada and Halal Bae takes the stage at Toronto's The Beaver to guide fans through the latest episode.

She will be hosting a drag race night — a common scene at bars across the country these days — complete with colourful commentary.

And when the show's only Canadian contestant, Brooke Lynn Hytes of Toronto, hits the screen, she'll fill the venue with shouts of "yas queen."

"She moved away from Toronto about three or so years ago to pursue that dream of becoming a drag superstar," Halal Bae recalled.

"It's definitely a great triumph and I hope she goes far."

To hear the full interview with Halal Bae, download our podcast or click 'listen' at the top of this page.