Author Raja, left, Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon at DragCon L.A.
Author Raja, left, Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon at DragCon L.A.
Hector Franco

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 3 Winner Raja on How Drag Transcended a TV Game Show

The fourth annual RuPaul's DragCon Los Angeles is finis. I am resting and reflecting, having bathed myself in CBD bath salts and coconut-oiled my rough hide while sipping chilled goblets of sauvignon blanc, and languidly toking on yellow American Spirits and hand-rolled joints. Speaking of joints, every single one in my body aches, as if I’ve been running from several zombie attacks. Speaking of zombie attacks, I was caught in one this weekend. Really huggable, mostly sweet, Drag Race fan zombies. Speaking of fans, I am so grateful for them. I'm a lucky person to have attracted, inspired and befriended such a beautiful tribe.

It is seven seasons after my win on RuPaul's Drag Race. I was 37 years old when I competed on this magnificent game show. I never expected this to be one of my claims to fame. Seven years later I have to pinch myself when I realize any of my accomplishments. My family returned to the United States from Indonesia in the early ’80s when I was 9 years old, and American television was my immediate second love affair. Barbie was the first. I wasn't allowed to play with Barbies, but really, who needed her when there were the classic old Hollywood films, music videos, reruns of all the great sitcoms and game shows. I have so many great television moments I’ve drilled into my dreams. I mean, who would I be today without Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Rerun pop-locking on What’s Happenin’, the beautiful detectives of Charlie’s Angels? I loved talk shows too, all of them, day or night. Johnny Carson, Oprah, Phil Donahue, David Letterman — they are all genius gods.

Game shows were satisfying in a different way. They involved real people, competing on colorful sets, in various ways. Some involved dating strangers, some were word games. Some had dares that challenged physically and emotionally. They all had a reward at the end. You worked hard as a competitor to get all the cash and prizes, and your friends and family would see you on TV. I loved that concept, but mostly I was turned on to the idea of being on TV ... winning.

Television introduced me to drag, but I already knew men dressed as women sometimes. I remember seeing lady-boy prostitutes in a section of Jakarta my father had shown me when I was very young. Perhaps he wanted to scare me a little so that I wouldn’t be them one day. Or maybe he wanted to see that I was not afraid. I was curious and intrigued. Parents know their children, and my father loved me deeply. I now have the feeling he did it for both reasons.

Raja, left, and Manila inspire a new generation at DragCon L.A.
Raja, left, and Manila inspire a new generation at DragCon L.A.
Frankie Ro

But television showed me glamorous versions of the drag lifestyle. I saw drag celebrity impersonators on Oprah and became obsessed with a lip-sync competition called Puttin’ on the Hits. TV in the ’90s introduced me to Club Kids, transsexuals and music. Soul Train and MTV opened up the world of music, fashion, rock stars, dancers and legends. Music videos were my bible, because the actual Bible was boring. This is how I wanted my life to be: a beautifully edited, razzle-dazzle fashion moment with a powerful smash hit as a soundtrack. If life could only be as cool and gorgeous as a music video, I was willing to take any version of it, even if it meant to live fast and die young as a jet-setting Concorde flight kind of deity in a jaw-dropping look that everyone worshipped.

I wanted to be on television, really, really badly.

Decades later, I found myself sitting at booth 457 (or was it 547? who knows?) in the South Hall in the Los Angeles Convention Center in drag, taking it all in with my friend and former competitor Manila Luzon. We signed autographs to and for people who love us, mostly strangers who came to meet us, be close to us and pay respect to us as artists. There was a queue of adoring fans waiting patiently, some for hours, to meet us. They were young and old, every spectrum of gender identity, every hue of skin blended like a gouache palette. All sorts of humans, in colorful costume and character, swimming like koi among one another in a space created for them.

Everyone is a little queer and this was the space to be if you even slightly indentified. It was a place to show power and prowess, a time to pretend or live out a truth. Some came from long distances from around the globe, their stamped passports not nearly as big a bragging right as a (very expensive) signed photo and selfie from Miss Vanjie herself. Or that moment they locked eyes with Valentina as she waved hello to everyone en route to pee, in one of the many gender-neutral toilets. For many, it was a version of heaven on earth.

But for some of the "angels" they came to see, the truth is, corsets were digging into ribs, tucked genitals ached, wigs suctioned and stretched the skin on sweaty skulls, and feet were screaming and steaming. Most queens are gregarious even when they don't feel good. For the fans. As for myself, I dressed comfortably and suckled on a teat of boxed wine I kept very close. That wasn’t my belly you saw at my waist, it was a bladder full of booze. I managed to be as comfortable as I could be and have fun. But it was a long couple of days.

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 3 Winner Raja on How Drag Transcended a TV Game Show
Courtesy Sutan Amrull

Still, I was grateful. I was there because I participated on Drag Race. I was there because I'm great at what I do and as a result I have the planet as playground. I was there representing as one of the few (game show) winners and I was also representing Los Angeles, the city I am so fortunate to have lived in, doing and being inspired by the nightlife here. It never got the focus NYC did, but we were like, “Who cares, let's party!”  The show helped change that, putting our city on the map for drag and thus performance in general. And they came from every corner, crevice and culture to see this "Local Queen," as my T-shirt read. To see all of us.

Television has been my obsession and the gateway into my career, the one I dreamed of my entire life. My birthday is in exactly a month. At age 44 I am living a dream, and the amount of appreciation and love I have in my heart could never be measured. There couldn’t be a threat that could have kept me away this year. Especially none of the violence and looming danger. [Editor's note: Security was tightened at this year's DragCon after season 2 winner Tyra Sanchez made online threats via her Facebook stating, "Fair warning: DO NOT attend RuPaul’s DragCon on May 12, 2018. Don’t say I didn’t warn you'].  I had to be there to give my respect to the process that paved golden roads for me. If anything actually came to tragic fruition from the macabre, cryptic social media posts of a former “winner,” let me go down with the ones I love. Beautiful fans, strutting together, lovers of actual art and color. I survived my social anxieties because they were there to cushion and heal.

Thank you so very much to RuPaul but mostly the fans. And thank you to television, from the bottom of my heart.

Sutan Amrull aka "Raja" can be seen regularly on the WOW Presents Plus TV show Fashion Photo RuView.

See L.A. Weekly's photos of DragCon L.A. 2018 here.

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