JBC vs. CDR

For Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Canada’s Drag Race (CDR) should have been a dream come true. He was raised in a tiny town in Alberta and had no previous major television credits to his name. The 36-year-old actor and model — whose biggest credit was playing a manipulative reality TV producer on Lifetime’s UnREAL — was chosen to sit among its panel of judges. The openly gay and biracial Bowyer-Chapman already was familiar to CDR fans the world over having appeared a handful of times as a guest judge on VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. “There’s something about drag that I’ve always been so enamored by,” he said. “Drag is magic.”

But the dream quickly turned into a glittery nightmare. In a recent interview, Bowyer-Chapman discussed his exit from the program where he alleged racism from the CDR producers, as well as a toxic fanbase that prompted his abrupt exit from the program. Bowyer-Chapman had served as one of the permanent judges in the first season of the series, a spin-off of the popular American show, RPDR. He exited the job prior to Season 2 following a campaign of online blowback for his comments as a judge although he cited “scheduling conflicts” as the official reason for his departure. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Bowyer-Chapman explained that American producers convinced him to accept the job as a judge on the Canadian show, but that the toxic work environment drove him to leave.

Upon arriving on the Canadian set, Bowyer-Chapman encountered a new group of local producers, and very different attitudes about his involvement. “I came into CDR with a false sense of security because I had built trust with the producers of the American show,” he said. “But this was a different set of producers. And I think they were trying to create something impactful and prove themselves along the way. There were many instances where I should have paid attention to my intuition and spoken up. And I didn’t.”

The problems began almost immediately when a “white, gay, male showrunner” pulled Bowyer-Chapman aside and told him just before he was to meet the queens for the first time that he was the “man-candy for the queens to drool over.” Apparently, all the judges had signed very ironclad contracts stating they would not fraternize with any of the contestants or the crew off-set. They were to have no personal relationships, dialogue, or contact with the queens whatsoever other than when they were filming. Bowyer-Chapman said in his introduction to the drag contestants, “the queens were flirting with me and being suggestive in some ways. My walls went up immediately. I realized there were different expectations being put on me that were not being placed on the rest of the cast, and nobody was going to protect me.”

The harassment from the showrunner continued, as Bowyer-Chapman’s boss explained he needed to play the role of the “sassy” judge on the panel. Bowyer-Chapman said, “Being told that from a white person, ever, as a Black person, it’s like a dog whistle. It’s like what is said of Black women and of Black queer men meaning you’re the hot-headed, opinionated one who’s going to tell it like it is and not give a shit about what anybody has to say. And that’s not who I am.” He also attributes that environment, at least in part, to a lack of Black talent behind the camera. “There really was no Black talent,” he said. “We’re walking onto a set of CDR day one, and the showrunner is telling me how diverse the crew was as he’s giving me a tour. And I didn’t see one Black person.”

In a departure from the US version of the show, the Canadian version outfitted judges with earpieces to get suggested snarky comments from producers. Judges also got a list of suggested negative criticisms from producers ahead of time, and were required to record them so editors could drop them into a show at will. The policy made Bowyer-Chapman uncomfortable as it forced both him and the other judges to constantly deliver negative criticism. “Even if we didn’t have anything negative to say, you had to come up with something negative.”  He said he realized the producers were portraying him as aggressively negative after the first episode. Tensions hit a new level several episodes into the season when Bowyer-Chapman had a terse exchange with the contestant, Jimbo. The moment, in which Bowyer-Chapman told Jimbo to “use time better, maybe,” became an instant meme, and prompted fans to create a Change.org petition to have Bowyer-Chapman fired from the show. The petition didn’t garner anywhere near its signature goal, but the moment started a campaign of online bullying that would follow Bowyer-Chapman the rest of the season. 

“My inbox was flooded with people telling me I was too mean. I didn’t know what I was talking about. Just a lot of blatant racism. Their public profiles read ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but their DMs were all about how my Black life didn’t matter. All of us were locked in our homes, riddled with anxiety … and then to be experiencing this hate and verbal violence and emotional assaults, this just blatant racism at the same time from my own community? It was really hard.” Bowyer-Chapman’s co-judges felt some of the backlash, too — but whereas judge, Brooke Lynn Hytes (who said of one contestant’s piñata-like outfit, “I should … beat you with a stick”) already had competed in a season of RPDR, and earned the right to critique, Bowyer-Chapman was viewed as an interloper with no expertise in the field. There also was the matter of race. “There was a lot I experienced that Brooke Lynn just couldn’t have, because Brooke Lynn is a white man.”  

Amid the harassment, RuPaul himself reached out to comfort Bowyer-Chapman. He also advised the then-judge to leave Twitter over the ongoing harassment. “We had conversations about his experience in this world and this industry as a Black, queer man. As a drag queen,” Bowyer-Chapman recalled. “All the hate and trolling and vitriol he’s experienced his entire life. And it’s really heartbreaking, but he’s experienced it for so many years and he’s so clear-headed about it. He has learned to not take it personally.” Still, when Season 2 of CDR rolled around, Bowyer-Chapman opted to leave to accept a role on another series though not before he “called a lot of attention to the bullshit that occurred behind the scenes and the stuff that happened online and their inaction.”

Crave, the network that airs CDR, released a statement regarding Bowyer-Chapman’s departure and the campaign of online bullying. “In light of the social media attacks and bullying that Jeffrey experienced during season one, we put measures in place to mitigate this for future seasons. This includes a dedicated social media consultant to work with Crave to continue monitoring conversations in real-time.” RuPaul declined to comment, but his relationship with Bowyer-Chapman remains good, and he already has taped an appearance on an upcoming season of RPDR. For Bowyer-Chapman, though, the lesson is clear: “That’s what happens when it’s only white, cisgender people behind the scenes making the decisions. That’s what happens.”

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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