Reality TV: Alyssa Edwards breaks away from the drag pack
‘Dancing Queen’ could be the moment she shines as a teacher and as Justin Johnson
Johnson works best when he can play off someone like his quick-witted drag-sisters but in this series he can only play off himself
With RuPaul’s Drag Race finally conquering the mainstream one Emmy at a time and now that both Shangela and Willam are on the big-screen working their angles in their A Star is Born cameos, it feels like it won’t be long before Joe Duffy punctuates a Liveline link with a hearty “YAASS QWEEN!”
The pop culture world has dragged itself up and over the past few years there has been a certain legitimacy afforded to these hard-working Ru girls by the cultural establishment. They have clawed their way into the public consciousness and are not going to leave without some serious weave-pulling.
It’s therefore no surprise that Netflix (the erstwhile home of Drag Race) have slapped down their cheque-book to secure a fan-favourite for their own spin-off show, the enterprising diva Alyssa Edwards aka Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson. Johnson, whilst in and out of drag as Alyssa, was one of the unforgettable stars of season five of the show.
It’s a familiar story of loneliness and the craving for the comfort of family
A mix of confidence, charisma and an almost guileless, accidental wit, she tongue-popped her way out of the series only to bounce up again, minus her back rolls, in All Stars season two, as quotable and clueless as ever but with an added Joan Crawford-style steeliness.
Although, let’s not get it twisted. Dancing Queen is not a behind-the-scenes look at Alyssa. Instead it’s a docu-series that mostly focuses on Justin’s work as a choreographer in the Beyond Belief dance school in Texas, which he has been running for fourteen years.
It’s a glimpse behind the perfectly made-up mug, concentrating on Justin’s life off the road, an opportunity to see under the wig and for Johnson to be truly untouched and honest.
There is a bruising, bittersweet tone to the series that sees him buying his first home and trying to embrace the dating scene. It’s a familiar story of loneliness and the craving for the comfort of family.
He discusses how most of his own family members were lost in the clutches of addiction, which fostered his independence and need to succeed. Among the most touching of these moments are when he visits his old home and vividly describes being allowed to paint the exterior of it bright pink (much to the chagrin of his ultra-masculine father) or the day that his mother told him that he might be gay.
It’s not all tears and trauma though. There’s some dancing in between. The conceit of the show is that Johnson must split his troupe into a team of mini and teen dancers to compete in a contest in LA. It gives Justin the chance to assume the position of judge as he sits on a throne scrutinising the kids dance moves with bug-eyed intensity.
How can someone so fabulous be a man?
Most of the children auditioning are a collection of terrifying back-flipping JonBenet Ramseys, a worrying blur of giant bows and heavy lipstick. It is only grimacing, determined Athena with her decidedly imprecise, aggressive moves that elicits a genuine reaction from Johnson unveiling the true teacher behind the showman.
As with all reality telly competitions the sob stories unfold with the tiny children bursting to tell the world how poor they are or that they are suffering with bipolar disorder as their helicopter mothers whirr at the sidelines.
As Alyssa, Johnson is used to staring down vicious drag queens of a night, so the tantrums of the ferocious dance moms have no effect on him as he dismisses their screaming when the judging is over with a wave of his hand.
Johnson works best when he can play off someone like his quick-witted drag-sisters but in this series he can only play off himself, literally, as the commentary is split between his dual identities, with Alyssa chipping in on certain moments to add some sparkling repartee.
Gazing at herself in wonderment with the gauzy, camera filter as misty as any old Hollywood classic, she coos “How can someone so fabulous be a man?” Alyssa will always manage to steal the spotlight but with Dancing Queen, it could finally be Justin Johnson’s time to shine.