One of my favorite aspects of the drag queen reality show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is that the system works. A lot of viewers believe a (completely believable) conspiracy that the show’s winners are predetermined & cherry picked for success (yet another theory that supports my contention that drag & pro wrestling are essentially the same thing), but I don’t really care if that’s true. My favorite contestants on the show are generally the queens crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar (except maybe in the recent case of Kim Chi), which is good enough for me, no matter what mechanism produces that result. I was curious, then, when I discovered a documentary on Jinkx Monsoon, the winner of season 4, lurking on Amazon Prime, as they were my favorite contestant on their season of the show. Truth be told, Drag Becomes Him is an interesting doc whether or not you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with any regularity. It’s essentially a portrait of an artist who happens to make it big in a crowded field of similar talents. Although ostensibly a vanity project, the film has very little vanity as it mostly shows drag performer Jinkx Monsoon in various stages of undress & overwhelming stress. It’s a low-key document of a significant time in the unglamorous life of a performer embedded in one of America’s most glamorous & most underappreciated art forms. And even as a standalone film divorced from Monsoon’s celebrity, Drag Becomes Him still commands an interesting, unique vision & narrative, a surprising feat for a film obviously crowdfunded & cheaply made.
Jinkx Monsoon states nakedly, both in a figurative & a literal sense, that they desire “to be known as an artist, not just a female impersonator”. A Seattle queen from a very artsy, performance-based scene (as opposed to the appearance-obsessed world of “pageant queens”), Monsoon has a kind of put-on, Old Hollywood demeanor that makes it difficult to differentiate between performer & character. A theater kid type who’s always “on”, Monsoon might be a bit much to have around as close friend, but they’re a joy to watch onscreen & seem to be very sweetly sincere in an art scene that seems prone to very jaded personalities. The film is structured around Jinkx explaining the basics of drag as an art form as they slowly apply makeup & accessories, making that awkward transition from looking like a Buffalo Bill-type psychopath while in half drag to becoming a larger than life persona. Simultaneously, a narrative emerges of both Monsoon’s personal life in a broken home & their professional career from performing at the age of 15 to cutting their teeth at local clubs to becoming an enterprise with several dedicated employees. Drag Becomes Him has the benefit of a wealth of footage from every stage of Monsoon’s career, but the way it juggles all of those narratives without seeming overburdened or reading like an A-B linear Wikipedia article points to a surprisingly adept team in terms of directing & editing. This is a small scale, low stakes documentary, but it’s one done exceedingly well.
One thing I did not expect form Drag Becomes Him was how wild Jinkx Monsoon would come across in their personal life. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they were kind of pigeonholed as a relatively tame personality in contrast with their competitors. Here, Jinkx does sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as convincingly as any queen, getting stoned & partying in celebration in a newfound high point of their career (and deservedly so). The film has a completely different tone from Drag Race, skewing kinder & more gently sincere, but it does traffic in the same unapologetically gay headspace. The way it openly leers at masculine bodies is refreshing, since this kind of content can often be phonily de-sexed in order to put a wider audience at ease. Still, Monsoon’s life is far from one continuous, glamorous party and the film finds humor & fascination with the inconveniences of the logistics of drag: the indignity & discomfort of tucking, the machinations of taking a piss while buried under layers of clothing, typing while wearing cartoonishly long nails, etc. The only aspect of Monsoon’s life the film skips over is the narcolepsy revealed during their reign on television, which seems like a curious detail to avoid. Everything else is laid bare.
I don’t think you have to be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race to enjoy Drag Becomes Him. The film carves out its own space entirely separate from the show’s very particular camp aesthetic. I was especially surprised by how it establishes a sort of digital pastel look all of its own that both serves its subject’s personality & helps distinguish the film as a work of art. I do think, however, that you’d be hard pressed to finish the doc without being at least somewhat a fan of Monsoon. They bare so much of their vulnerabilities as a real-life personality & their artistic sensibilities as a drag performer that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling intimately connected. I entered Drag Becomes Him as a previous convert to all things Monsoon & I left as an even bigger, more dedicated fan. Jinkx is a talented artist & Drag Becomes Him makes a convincing, intimate case for how significant their art form can be.