By David Goldberg
Over the last seven years, RuPaul’s Drag Race has evolved from a fringe alternative to Project Runway into a cultural institution, with this fall’s All Stars season pulling in record-breaking ratings week after week. While appearances on the show have always been a guaranteed career boon to contestants, the rise of some canny superstars in recent seasons has unleashed new possibilities for drag queens seeking to become brands. Former racers now tour the world, record albums, and sell merchandise at Rupaul’s Drag Con. This shift from screen queens to celebrities began with the arrival of delightful anarchist Sharon Needles in season four, and exploded with season six’s liberated libra Adore Delano and comedy powerhouse Bianca Del Rio.
With a voice like asphalt, the fashion sense of Barbra Streisand, and a needle-sharp wit, Del Rio dominated her season by trashing her fellow queens—and RuPaul herself—with the fervor of Lisa Lampanelli at a roast. Since winning, Bianca—known out of drag as Roy Haylock—has become the show’s first touring stand-up to produce a televised comedy special on Logo earlier this year. When he announced the Fractured Atlas crowdfunding effort for his feature film, Hurricane Bianca, it seemed that Del Rio was breaking through to the next media stratosphere, proving that RuPaul’s understudies could one day match their mentor’s popularity and perhaps even exceed it.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Bianca isn’t the vehicle that Del Rio deserves. Rather than equip himself with a script that plays to his strengths, Haylock goes for a bland fish-out-of-water comedy that mutes the magic of his own drag. When nebbish teacher Richard Martinez gets offered a job in a generic small town in Texas, he shows up ready to change his students’ lives. But after getting run out of school by a homophobic principal (Rachel Dratch) and a classroom full of vicious students, Richard decides to get revenge via his drag alter ego. Once Haylock finally transforms into Bianca and begins serving up bullet-speed barbs, the drab picture picks up. But why did we have to wait?
It’s no secret that drag queens know how to chew scenery. And they can certainly work on a tight budget. So when supernova personalities like Del Rio, Willam Belli, Shangela, and Alyssa Edwards are boxed in by pedestrian dialogue and a quiet plot, you can practically feel their frustration. Rather than force them into a turgid script, writer/director Matt Kugelman should have let the queens run wild, in the style of Borat or Billy on the Street. Del Rio could savage everyday Americans in front of the camera, while her gaggle of girlfriends could dance, drink, and kiki in her tour bus.
If the queens of Drag Race are ready for a real narrative, then they’ll need to work on their acting. Why is Haylock (who has worked for years to embody the drag identity of his fantasies) slumming it as a lame civilian for half of the movie? The Bianca Del Rio persona is known too well by millions of Americans, so a plot featuring her fictional civilian alter ego is just confusing. And when the character of Richard finally discovers his power as Bianca, he doesn’t enter a fabulous drag fantasy world worthy of the silver screen. Instead, he just catches up with a drag empire we already know.
But considering Hurricane Bianca’s microscopic budget, it’s still a remarkable effort—and a delight to see a gaggle of gay celebrities gather around the burgeoning drag icon. Del Rio has ambitions for a sequel, Hurricane Bianca 2: From Russia with Hate. Here’s hoping she really gets to let loose.
As they attack the recording industry, conquer the Internet, and book bigger stages around the world, the talented showgirls of Drag Race will inevitably demand to be seen in cinemas. Hopefully they’ll be able to command Hollywood budgets worthy of their feminine fantasies, and find scripts worthy of their personalities. However flawed the effort was, Bianca Del Rio broke ground with Hurricane Bianca, paving the way to Hollywood for her sisters. With larger-than-life superheroes dominating the silver screen today, can the golden age of drag cinema be far behind?
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.