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RuPaul, Patron Saint of New York’s Gay Bars

During Drag Race season, New York’s gay bars have the atmosphere of a sports bar in the run up to the Super Bowl.

It’s quiet at happy hour on a recent Friday at Metropolitan, the Williamsburg dive The Village Voice once called the city’s “best working class gay bar.” At just 6 o’clock, the only people in the bar are a few regulars trading thoughts on Rosie O’Donnell, and the bartender, Pietro, who is clad in a Gary Numan sweatshirt and a New York Islanders hat. Pietro has been tending bar here “forever,” which is about 15 years at this point. His mom lives around the corner. She used to stop by on Fridays, but doesn’t anymore because of the crowds.

At some point in the ten years it’s been on the air, raucous bar screenings of RuPaul’s Drag Race—the hit reality show where drag queens compete for drag icon RuPaul’s approval—became a staple of city nightlife, a regular feature on Mondays, then Thursdays and now Fridays. Suddenly gay bars became used to the rhythms and cash flows of sports bars, catering to a crowd that shows up for appointment television. Metropolitan is one of many bars that host viewing parties, with a few queens holding court during commercials and performing right after. For two hours, the homey dive becomes a much younger, much straighter place.

“The straights come to the gay bars to watch it, and the gays go to the straight bars,” explains Pietro, who can remember the beginning of RuPaul viewing parties here, back in 2009, when the show was less scripted, less polished, less everything it is now. Now, it’s a franchise. Currently, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, where past seasons favorites and villains square off to become part of the Drag Race hall of fame, is on the air. The previous All Stars season featured so many twists (including one queen voting herself out of the competition) that shocks are now expected.

“It used to be better,” Pietro says, emphasizing “better” with such a perfect mix of love and grievance that you immediately agree.

A large screen near the back is set up with a small dais in front and three rows of seating expectantly lined up to face it. As I’m sitting at the bar talking to Pietro about hockey, both of us still enjoying the emptiness, four people breeze through and head straight for the screen, securing their seats in front. A few more come in soon after and fill up the rows, sending emissaries to get drinks for their groups.

“I watched my first-ever Drag Race here last winter,” a member of the group in front says. “It was an experience.” People heckle the screen, they give feedback. The group thinks everyone is mediocre this season, but that’s what makes it so fun. They can shit-talk without discrimination. Usually, the host of the Metropolitan party is Thorgy Thor, a fan favorite who competed in both Season 8 and the third All Stars season. As emcee, Thorgy offers expert analysis during commercial breaks, but she has been busy on tour this season, so tonight it’s Ragamuffin and Kandy Muse, local queens who bring their own glamour and commentary.

The regular seasons now air almost back to back with All Stars, which means there are five months of RuPaul—a season almost as long as the NBA’s. In fact, it’s more and more like a sport to the people who come to Metropolitan regularly. They discuss stats and strategy and grumble about unworthy winners. Metropolitan’s manager, Steven, marvels at all the straight women who have opinions about what makes good drag. To them, RuPaul, herself, when she’s walking the runway, is what drag should always be: very polished, very femme. There isn’t a lot of room for mistakes, for going without a wig or showing a few seams.

As more gay bars fall victim to socio-economic pressure (Advocate reported 43 last year as dead or dying), the gay bar identity crisis The New York Times reported on in 2017 is ongoing. Having an exclusively queer space is more complicated in an era of hookup apps, rising city rents and, frankly, straight people consuming more queer culture. The RuPaul brand has proven to be a lucrative lure and bars now compete against each other to capture the captive audience. While some places just turn the TV to VH1, others offer performances to entice people to stick around or capitalize on the allure of Drag Race contestants, like Thorgy, as hosts. Therapy, a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, touts several Drag Race contestants as previous “queens-in-residence,” including two winners, Bianca del Rio and Bob the Drag Queen. At Metropolitan, my apparent interest in RuPaul yields a business card from someone who tells me he runs another gay bar in Manhattan, in case I’m interested in going sometime.

Drag Race is like the gay Super Bowl,” says Steven. “No, the Super Bowl is the gay Super Bowl,” Pietro corrects. They laugh, and Steven softly sighs. “RuPaul’s getting that check,” he says with respect. Whenever anything to do with RuPaul happens in the bar, whether it’s a viewing or a performance by a queen from the show, the whole bar changes. Nancy, the diligent bouncer, makes sure no 17-year-olds get in, because there are plenty that try.

I ask Nancy the average age of the crowd on a Drag Race night. “Why, do you work at VH1?” (I try not to take this as a read, but it does feel like the library is open, as Ru would say.) “It’s all ages,” she says. “But lots and lots of people born in the ‘90s, she says pointedly.

It’s 7:45 p.m., 15 minutes to air time, and Ragamuffin and Kandy Muse have yet to arrive. Steven’s not worried, though—they’re on what he calls “drag time.” “They’re always in a cab,” he says. “Always texting me, ‘I’m in a cab.’ Well, you’ve been in a cab for an hour, and you live in Bushwick. What roads are you taking?”

At 7:55 p.m., the duo materialize. Both look ethereal—Ragamuffin’s long hair whipping her shoulders as she speaks, Kandy’s strong eyebrows arching in response. When the show begins, the sound in the room climbs a few octaves—people are yelling, laughing, shouting “Bitch!” when it’s warranted. Legendary ‘80s club kid and perennial nightlife fixture Lady Bunny has a cameo during this week’s episode, and I hear someone inform his younger friends, “Oh, she’s funny.”

The episode comes to a climax, on cue, with a dramatic lip sync to Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” that gets everyone in the bar dancing in place a little. Steven predicted to me that everyone would leave immediately once the show was over, and because he has been right about everything up to now, I’m anticipating it. But the bar stays packed, going off script. It’s Friday night, after all.

Pictured above at Metropolitan: hosts Daphne Always and Ragamuffin.

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Jen Vafidis is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Gawker, and Men's Journal.