BBC Three’s Glow Up is here to fill the Drag Race UK-shaped hole in all our lives.
Remember the 10 weeks we all spent locked down, frantically tweeting Bimini Bon Boulash memes and singing Bing Bang Bong until the cows came home?
Things are, thankfully, a little different now. Pub gardens are open, (outdoor) dates are no longer illegal, real life is back on the agenda. Well, in England, at least. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still hanker for a little reality TV escapism.
Thankfully, BBC Three’s Glow Up is back for its third season. Ten aspiring make-up artists (MUAs, in the show’s lingo) are put through their paces by returning judges Val Garland, who’s painted everyone from Kate Moss to Britney Spears, and whose signature “Ding dong!” is the show’s highest honour, and Dominic Skinner, global senior artist for MAC. This time around, they’re joined by new host Maya Jama, who takes over from Stacey Dooley.
Comparisons with Drag Race UK are inevitable: Glow Up is a reality competition show filled with LGBT+ contestants that platforms diversity, creativity and queer culture (the second episode features a Pose-themed challenge, complete with authentic ballroom performers and a special appearance from the hit show’s head of make-up). But are they earned?
In previous incarnations, not really. But the new season has a different vibe – it feels warmer and more celebratory. The first challenge focuses on the importance of a make-up artist being able to work with any and all skin tones; the second encourages the MUAs to showcase their identities, resulting in some truly astonishing TV moments. There’s Dolli, who blows the judges away with her Afrofuturism-inspired paint; Xavi and Sophie, who both create looks that illustrate their experiences with Asperger’s and autism respectively. We see make-up that tells stories of gender, surviving assault, body modification and social class. In the same way Drag Race uses camp and excess to tell real, personal stories, BBC Three’s Glow Up has learned how to balance glamour with heart.
Each of the 10 contestants have their own unique story. Dolli is a young mum who wants to make her daughter proud. Ryley’s experience has mostly been doing make-up on herself, leading her on a journey towards loving her beautiful, prominent port wine stain birthmark. Nic is passionate about the environment, while Samah wants to honour her Moroccan heritage while subverting the expectations place on her as a Muslim woman.
Among the stand-outs is Alex, who describes herself as a lipgloss lesbian. Like all the competitors she’s here to break into the upper echelons of the make-up world, but she also wants to educate.
“There’s the stereotype of the lesbian as this big butch, man-hating hairy unfeminine person – and they’re the best type of lesbians to be honest, that’s what my girlfriend’s like – but I’m here to smash that stereotype wide open,” she tells PinkNews.
Alex has loved make-up since a young age. “I grew up in Liverpool, I came out of my mother wearing two pairs of eyelashes and thick bronzer,” she quips. At school, she was a “big emo and a closeted gay”, who didn’t even realise femme lesbians existed until she was much older. She didn’t come out until her early 20s partly because of this, though her school friends clearly “had a sniff” of her hidden sexuality.
“They were like, ‘we don’t want you to get bullied,’ so I learned to get good at make-up. I’ve always had that interest, but I guess classism and misogyny kept me from following that career path.” After going to university to study something more “academic”, Alex was forced to quit her studies after being assaulted. “I hit my lowest point, and in order to rebuild myself I revisited something I’ve always loved: make-up. Sometimes flowers grow from dirt.”
Another of the MUAs, Jack, was working in a care home when they got the call for Glow Up. They’d worked in retail make-up for major brands in London and Birmingham, but when their grandfather got ill they returned home to Cambridge to help care for him, which led to a job at a home for people with dementia. The BBC show is a return to their first passion, something they’ve been enamoured with since they were “really young”.
“Make-up was an escape,” Jack says. “Being the little queer kid that I was, I didn’t really believe in my gender, I was a bit confused, I felt like I needed to become a woman to fit in with the make-up that I loved, with that femininity. But when I really got into make-up I found I could just be me. I realised that I’m just Jack, I didn’t need to tick male or female, I just need to write my name.” While working in make-up Jack also got into drag, performing as Anna Lies at Birmingham Pride and touring the country with Drag Race stars. They’re no longer a working performer, but a quick look at their Instagram shows that it’s still very much part of what they do.
“As RuPaul always says, you can’t just be a drag queen, you have to be the whole package, to really find who you are and let that spill over. I think the more that happened for me, the more I got confident with who I was.”
Alex, Jack and their fellow BBC Glow Up contenders are clear that make-up is for everyone, no matter your gender, identity, class, race or any other signifier. Even if you don’t wear make-up, or have any real interest in beauty, this show – this season, specifically – is a celebration of those things that make us different, and those that unite us. “And fingers crossed,” Alex says, “some closeted gay teenager is going to watch and think: you know, you can be gay and rolling and glitter every day.”
Glow Up season three launches on BBC iPlayer at 7pm Tuesday (April 20), and airs on BBC One at 10.45pm. New episodes land on iPlayer weekly.