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The Art, the Artist, and RuPaul's Drag Race

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

by Rich Giptar

“By editing Joey Gugliemelli out of Drag Race but retaining Joe Exotic, Netflix shows it isn’t following a moral code, but trying to do whatever will get the most viewer support”

There can’t be a better example of de-platforming an abuser before their career even starts than the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Contestant Joey Gugliemelli - drag name: Sherry Pie - was almost completely edited out of the show after he confirmed multiple allegations that he catfished and abused friends while pretending to be a casting director online.

Gugliemelli was introduced in the first episode of Drag Race season twelve, which broadcast on the same day the allegations of his abuse became public knowledge. By the second episode he had released a public statement on his Facebook page saying “how sorry [he was] that [he] caused such trauma and pain’ and that ‘what [he] did was wrong and truly cruel.

Other queens and fans were quick to denounce Gugliemelli and encourage the show’s editors and streaming sites to act on the allegations. When the news first broke, in her podcast with fellow Drag Race winner Monet X Change, Bob the Drag Queen said, “I think at the beginning of every episode they should be like…Sherry Pie, we are aware of the allegations, we disavow that and he has been disqualified.

By episode two the show had done exactly that. It had also edited footage so all of Gugliemelli’s confessionals were removed and he rarely spoke or was shown on screen as himself rather than his drag persona. What made the omission of Gugliemelli more awkward for viewers is that he was a good contestant. He had an exceptional run in the show, winning challenges in two of the first five episodes he was in, only the fifth queen ever to do so. He also made it to the final four top queens before being disqualified and omitted from the finale, which is filmed after the season airs.

Image: Finlanditalo

It was the first time a TV show had taken such action, perhaps setting a precedent for how reality shows should handle problematic contestants in the future. Although leaving in Sherry and cutting Gugliemelli was sometimes jarring to watch, it also seemed to draw a clear line between the performer (or ‘the artist’) and the drag persona (or ‘the art’), and make a judgement that the two could be separated morally and creatively.

In an art form like drag, art and artist are more entwined than most. By removing his own screen time but keeping in Gugliemelli’s performances as his drag character, did they do the right thing?

Make or Break

Drag Race is more about art than the average non-viewer would think. One of the things that makes it endlessly compelling is that it has all the unexpected frankness of a reality show, but contestants are skilled professional performers displaying their art in challenges and on the runway.

Before the show aired. drag was a niche art form. RuPaul was therefore able to source contestants who were talented and at the top of their game. For people unable to experience drag in real life, Drag Race was their first exposure to this new art form. This fact in itself is problematic because all the things the show fails to represent about drag (e.g. drag kings) misleads people whose only access to drag is the show. However, this monopoly also gives it the power to make or break a queen. While small-town girls have been made into global stars by the show, Gugliemelli experienced that power in the opposite way. His exclusion will be the main thing Gugliemelli will be remembered for.

In judging whether this was the right way of handling his history, survivors’ voices should be centred, and not all of them agree. While some were grateful for the show’s decision, others wanted Gugliemelli’s appearance to be unedited to highlight how friendly and normal abusers can appear. A few pointed out that if it was left unedited some viewers would inevitably begin to like and sympathise with Gugliemelli, despite knowing what he had done. As it was, many watchers found themselves forgetting Gugliemelli was in the show at all and it was a surprise to see his character popping up in final performances. When he did appear, as in Louis Theroux’s Jimmy Saville documentary, it was a disconcerting reminder that what’s presented in media can offer a dangerously false impression of someone’s true personality.

On the other hand, some complained that editing Gugliemelli out of the show skewed other queens’ storylines. For example, while the original edit showed both Gugliemelli and Brita Filter picking on a younger queen, after the re-edits Brita was cast as the sole villain and received hate and abuse online.

Yet these complaints about the show being censored or overly-manufactured because of Gugliemelli’s omission are hardly valid, as it’s always been heavily edited to push certain narratives. Fans have continually voiced their frustration at editing skewing queens’ personalities and performances. Notoriously this happened in season 11 when beloved queen Shuga Cain was given hardly any screen time and, many viewers felt, pushed out of the show unfairly.

Viewer Guilt

Thinking of the show as it was originally going to air as a pure, unbiased version of events is wrong; producers and editors create ‘story lines’ and ‘character arcs’ for contestants. They construct villains, redemptions and frontrunners. Every season some queens are given limited screen time and all of Gugliemelli’s confessionals being cut allowed other queens precious time to get their personality across and build a fan base. It was clear from the editing of the first episode that Gugliemelli was being pushed to be a frontrunner, and possibly a mother figure to other queens. Cutting him out completely was the closest we got to a totally unbiased depiction.

Although unappealing, it’s possible to condemn Gugliemelli’s actions but enjoy his art in a way that doesn’t benefit him. If you find yourself liking his entrance look or finding his acting funny while watching the show it doesn’t make you a bad person. Despite this, many viewers felt guilty; either conditioning ourselves to feel revulsion every time Gugliemelli was on screen or experiencing dissonance when we actually enjoyed his art. Understanding how both editing and performance ability affects our view of a queen’s character - while reflecting that this isn’t the truth - could be the biggest tangible upside to this debacle.

Image: Promo, 'Tiger King' (Netflix)

While this was unfolding, another popular Netflix show shot a different gay predator to cult status. Joe Exotic of Tiger King is currently in prison for attempted murder for hire, and the documentary about him also portrayed uncomfortable revelations about his previous relationships.

He met two of his husbands, John Finlay and Travis Maldonaldo, when they were teenagers, and gave them expensive gifts and drugs during courtship. Finlay claimed Joe was controlling and one of his employees, Josh Dial, suggested Joe bankrolled Maldonaldo’s crystal meth addiction to keep him in the relationship. This addiction could have been part of the reason Maldonaldo later accidentally shot himself. Recently one of Joe’s former workers has also said he injected other colleagues with ketamine and animal tranquiliser.

Joe Exotic isn’t producing any kind of art. While Gugliemelli’s actions tarnish the performance art that he creates, for Joe his misogynistic and megalomaniac personality is the show.

This implies that Netflix isn’t following a moral code in broadcasting an edited Drag Race, but rather trying to do whatever will get the most viewer support. As the LGBTQ+ community has faced oppression and discrimination, Netflix has predicted they would be less willing to accept a predator being given a platform. Meanwhile, they’ve judged the wider public will have no such qualms.

Instead of debating to what extent art from a corrupt artist should be censored, maybe all we can hope for is that any judgement made is done with the genuine wish to make content that is less harmful, rather than considering what will get the most views. Hopefully, the result of all the pain caused by Gugliemelli’s casting will be that the LGBTQ+ community’s refusal to promote a predator becomes an example to the wider media world


Rich Giptar is a writer living in the South East who enjoys anything that can be consumed through a screen. They tweet and promote online short fiction @RichGiptar


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