Royal Cobras – Russia’s first televised drag race is on fire5 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Russia
In a previous article written on the Haus of Tina drag group, we explored the blossoming drag scene in Moscow. Since the publication of this article, there has been a major development in the Russian drag scene, through the premier of Russia’s first Youtube-televised drag show – Royal Cobras

Created and hosted by Russian influencer Nastya Ivleeva, the high production show includes guest judges and a grand prize of 1 million Roubles (12,400 Euros). Since the premiere of the first episode last month, the show has made waves within both the Russian LGBT+ and communities and in Russian society, and despite criticism from state officials, the show remains online for all to see.

Who are Nastya and the Cobras?

Nastya Ivleeva – the creator of the show – is already a well-known name in Russia with over 19 million followers on Instagram and a recent collaboration with McDonald’s, that saw her promoted throughout the country. Thus it came as a surprise for many when Ivleeva announced the creation of her drag competition, as not only was it a rather controversial project for such a mainstream celebrity to undertake, but it was also the first time that Ivleeva had associated herself with the drag and LGBT+ communities. 

For the show itself, 30 drag queens from all over Russia competed, with each episode seeing 3 head-to-head lip-syncing rounds before the top 3 compete in one final battle. Although it has been dubbed a ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race rip-off’ by some media outlets, the layout of the show is markedly different from the American franchise, with a key difference being that the live audience decides the winners of each round. Whilst this feature has been criticised by some of the show’s attendees for giving an unfair advantage to the queens who are based in Moscow – and are thus more likely to be popular with the local crowd – it allows for audience interaction, which has always been a key aspect of drag performance.

Guest judges: queer icons and presidential candidates

Another aspect of the show that has grabbed people’s attention is the guest judges invited to participate by Ivleeva. Alexander Gudkov – the guest judge for the first episode – is perhaps the most obvious choice for the show, being one of Russia’s few openly queer celebrities. 

However, it was Ksenia Sobchak’s guest judging on the second episode that caused the biggest stir in Russian media. Already a controversial figure for challenging Vladimir Putin during presidential elections in 2018, Sobchak’s stint on the show saw her perform her own lip-sync with Ivleeva, which resulted in the pair grinding on each other and kissing in front of the audience. 

This was not the first time Sobchak gained criticism for kissing another woman on stage, the act caused drama on both sides of the spectrum, with some LGBT activists claiming it to be a t.A.T.u-esque fetishizing of lesbianism to gain attention, and conservative critics deeming it ‘unpleasant to watch’. Regardless of the intention of the kiss itself, Sobchak’s political background brought renewed controversy to the show, which was already approaching the idea of political subversion.

Community response

Whilst Ivleeva’s show is undoubtedly making an important contribution to the Russian drag community, the response from the LGBT+ communities have been mixed. Although drag is inherently rooted within queer culture, some activists have criticised Ivleeva’s silence on the issues faced by the queer community in Russia, such as blatant homophobia and the government’s anti-gay propaganda laws. Furthermore, Ivleeva has been accused of capitalising off of the gay community – which she herself does not identify as a part of – and making the entire show about herself, as opposed to the queens themselves. 

Whilst it is fairly easy to agree with this criticism (Ivleeva is the central figure in all the shows’ musical numbers, after all), the silence on queer issues can at least be partially explained by Russia’s strict homophobic laws. Even though Royal Cobras carries an 18+ warning to adhere to the propaganda laws, the video itself is not age-restricted on YouTube, meaning that proof of age is not actually required to watch. 

Furthermore, Ivleeva’s Instagram – which contains content from the show – does not carry this 18+ warning, meaning that the show and the star’s social media accounts could very quickly be shut down if they cross too far over the line of what is deemed acceptable. Some fans have defended Ivleeva on these grounds, stating that drag being fundamentally queer already makes the show a protest in itself, and anything more would simply put the show’s cast in danger.

Surprisingly, the state response to the show has not been as harsh as many anticipated. Although facing some backlash from officials for showing ‘non-traditional sexual relations’, as far as the media is concerned, neither Ivleeva nor any of the showrunners have faced challenges from the state, and the show continues to air as planned. Whether this is down to Ivleeva’s generally non-threatening position to the Kremlin (she has after all never once identified as an activist or political opposition figure), or because of the show’s silence on certain queer issues, the show certainly makes for an interesting study on what is deemed acceptable in Putin’s Russia. 

Only time will tell the eventual fate of Ivleeva and her Cobras, but as of now, the show is available to watch on Ivleeva’s YouTube channel, and can also be accessed through the show’s Instagram page

Featured image: Royal Cobras / Wonderzine
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