US: How RuPaul’s Drag Race went from cult favorite to inspirational teenage dream

A throng of breathless teens craned for a look at their idol, or at the very least, a glimpse of her hair as she whipped around a corner. Some of them had been lining up for hours to take selfies, buy her branded merch, and, most importantly, get 30 seconds of face time with someone who means the entire world to them.

That someone, as it so happens, was a drag queen named Naomi Smalls, who stands 7 feet tall in heels and sports eyelashes so long and bedazzled I could see them sparkling from three booths away. Everyone screamed as she got to the front of her line, inspiring her to fluff her hair and flash a bright smile that indicated she was ready for her close-up. She turned to the first people in line — two teenage girls who only barely reached her chest — and wrapped her arms around them. Each of the girls tried (and failed) to keep from sobbing through the picture.

This was the spirit of DragCon, a sprawling shrine to all things drag but especially toalums of the reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which wrapped its ninth season on June 23 by crowning Brooklyn queen Sasha Velour as America’s Next Drag SuperstarThe first ever DragCon in 2015 attracted about 15,000 attendees for a weekend of panels, pictures, and painstaking choices over which queen’s shirt they should buy (i.e., which queen deserved their allegiance). The third annual edition attracted triple that first audience this April, as some 45,000 people swarmed the Los Angeles Convention Center with the kind of frantic enthusiasm usually reserved for boy band photo calls.

Then again, to many of these Drag Race fans, that’s exactly what DragCon is: a place where anyone and everyone can come within 6 feet of their most beloved icons.

But when I went to the first DragCon, I was struck by how many of these screaming, sobbing teens — many of them the cis girl teens you might otherwise expect to fight for an autograph from a Harry Styles rather than a Naomi Smalls — swarmed the floor. I knew Drag Race was popular, but I didn’t realize how much it had traveled beyond its initial cult audience of queer men and women already ensconced in drag culture to reach this younger, hungry generation of fans.

For the most part, these kids just wanted advice.

After RuPaul’s keynote (the final event of the con), one 19-year-old girl summoned the courage to go up in front of hundreds of fellow fans and ask her idol, through so many sobs we could barely understand her, “How do you wake up in the morning and tell yourself you’re beautiful?” Read more via Vox