Earlier this week, in a late-afternoon moment depleted of caffeine and total social awareness, I replied to an emailed comment from a straight Slate editor with the phrase, “Don’t throw shade if you aren’t willing to spill the tea.” In my diminished state, I had lapsed into a genre of gay slang derived from drag culture that I have long used at home and among friends, but usually not at work, for the simple reason that you want to be understood quickly and easily at a fast-moving web magazine. Ever the good sport, though, this editor replied, “I love that metaphor! What does it mean?”
Well, in the interest of teaching a man to fish and all that, I’m going to direct his attention and yours to a brilliant and unlikely new show on Bravo, your go-to gay network (at least when RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t playing on Logo). It’s called Fashion Queens, and it is the most unapologetically, even impenetrably queer show that I have ever seen on television. Watching this half-hour Sunday night kiki (gossipy get-together) is a master-class not just in the finer points of reading (artfully critiquing) the week’s fashion triumphs and tragedies, but in a living and ever-evolving queer dialect that can leave even me, an initiate, delightfully confounded.
Fashion Queens is unlikely because it so openly risks leaving unschooled viewers at sea. Hosts Derek J, Miss Lawrence (both deliciously gender-bending gay hairstylists from the South), and Bevy Smith (a female media personaility) take their seats against a backdrop decorated with flashy wigs and stiletto heels and proceed to critique various photos and clips of both real celebrities and, shall we say, Bravo-exclusive stars in segments like “The Reading Room,” “Giving Me Wife,” and the weekly “Gag Award.” They do all this in a quick-fire queer dialect that rarely pauses for remedial translation. Though they are no doubt ratcheting up their kiki for the camera, this is clearly how the hosts speak in their daily lives, at least to some extent. Viewers are welcome to join in if they can, but don’t expect subtitles.
To give you a taste of the lingo you’ll learn if you wade into Fashion Queens, I’ll share a few of the choice phrases I’ve discovered (and stolen) so far. My favorite is this distinction: “Are you reading for filth or are you reading for leisure?” Once we’ve entered the show’s “Reading Room” segment, Bevy asks Derek J and Miss Lawrence this question to determine if the sartorial critiques they are about to level are offered in the interest of utter verbal destruction (filth) or as a lighter critical cat-stretch (leisure). Another gem is their novel use of the word “moment,” as in, “She’s giving me editorial assistant realness with that J. Crew moment.” (That self-referential sentence is my own invention.) The Queens’ description of an article of clothing as a “moment” ingeniously transforms a simple object into something performative and temporal.
If Fashion Queens has any downside, it’s the specter of queer/black minstrelsy that occasionally hovers over the highly stylized proceedings. But when compared to an empire like Drag Race—a show that, this current season in particular, has bet its success on co-opting, simplifying, and relentlessly repeating drag slang for its own finely tuned branding and social media purposes—the thrilling opacity and linguistic inventiveness of Queens seems almost subversive. The pleasure of this show comes not from being made to feel part of the club. It comes from eavesdropping on a group of master queer wordsmiths at werque.