Rupaul’s Drag Race, the reality show seeking “America’s next drag superstar,” swirls the clichés of its genre into a giddy extravaganza that still tests real talent. Unlike most of the competitions it winkingly borrows from, the VH1 show defies ratings gravity and has broken through in its ninth season.
Drag Race, which wraps up the season on June 23, both makes light of reality TV and takes its craft with deadly seriousness. It’s a balance that can be struck only by the most agile of performers–and one that feels refreshing. The show, with its quippy lip-synchers and a host, drag legend RuPaul, with high standards and acid wit, is top-notch escapism. But given that the contestants have gravitated to drag to break free from a world that doesn’t understand them, the show also provides solace to viewers who feel lost on their side of the cultural divide. To all, it provides a lesson in keeping your chin held high (and your wig glued on) when choosing your circumstances is impossible, but making the best of them is an art.
This appears in the July 03, 2017 issue of TIME.