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I t’s 9:31am, I’m on my second coconut iced latte of the morning and reading my 13th piece of hate mail, neither of which will have a positive effect on my mind or my body, but I go for it anyway. A few weeks ago, one coffee was enough to get me through the day. As a once happy-go-lowly office worker, my stress didn’t extend beyond being unable to install an update.
Now, however, I spend my day coming to terms with being in the public eye. It has happened in far too short a window of time for my unevolved brain to deal with Simon in Bedfordshire thinking I’m so unattractive that he had to message to tell me: “You should change your name to Munter Munter because that’s what you are.” I close Instagram and open Twitter instead.
I’ve stopped trending since last week, which is good for my on-going stomach flips. Have you ever had a convulsive reaction to an app before? No? I used to be like you.
In a fleeting moment of bravery, I decide to break with my first rule of troll-handling: DO NOT RESPOND. Instead I type: “Hi Simon, hope you’re well. Out of interest, why did you choose to message me today?” A few seconds pass and Simon starts typing back. “No hard feelings mate, you’re in the public eye, you have to be able to take it. Also omg didn’t think you’d see this.”
Simon didn’t think I would see a message he sent to my inbox. The problem is not that a middle aged man doesn’t find me attractive. The problem is that he thinks he’s entitled to insult me without consequence.
So what has happened? Well, you may have seen me on your television screens every Thursday since January in a competition called RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. My name is Sister Sister and this is my life now. Despite the content of these messages I’m still grateful to be competing on the show. Admittedly, the fruit of my labours hasn’t been what I expected but I now have the opportunity to share my voice in a different way.
When I got the call to be on the show, around this time last year, I had an overwhelming emotional response. I cried so uncontrollably in a cocktail bar with my straight cis male friend that people were staring suspiciously, as if we were in an abusive relationship. But that’s just me. I cry when I (and others) least expect it. I wear my heart on my big girl’s blouse just as much as the next drag enthusiast who has just been offered the biggest break of their career.Sister Sister’s entrance, episode one.
It goes without saying that reality TV is one hell of a popular machine, drumming up billions of likes, raising newfound celebrities out of nowhere and, more importantly, providing countless hours of entertainment, memes, gifs and fan-made videos long after the shows have ended. The popularity of reality shows lends itself to fans taking the content into their own hands and perpetuating it. This is the point when the stars on screen stop being real people and become characters. This is the slippery slope into trolling.
Trolling, or the creation of discord online, unfortunately goes hand-in-hand with reality TV. There is an apparent level of toxic inclusion that some online communities and individuals lust for when they view the show. In face-to-face interactions we would recognise the boundaries and be able to draw the line. However, behind online veils, trolls can project their dark thoughts to bring other people down – with little or no consequence. It’s not so much the individual messages that have an impact – it’s the emotional toll on the recipient when they come in en masse. It’s a wall of hate.What's frightening is the flippancy with which people type #BeKind on the same keyboard they use to harass people online
Inevitably, certain characters feature more heavily than others. But why do some narratives resonate with trolls so much? One hour a week to squeeze in the original cast of 12 people’s stories is not enough time to learn about someone. You could watch a show 100 times over and it would still be impossible to truly know the people on screen. In the case of Drag Race, you don’t know the person behind the makeup, only what you are being sold. So, given the option of a fleeting interaction with somebody who provides increasingly needed entertainment during lockdown, why make it negative?
Since last week, I have been tagged in many shocking tweets. Without going into too much detail, one that came from from a blank profile described in graphic detail how they would like to see me die and what to do with my body.
The toxic fandom have made themselves clear and my mental health has reached rock bottom; my anxiety is showing in physical symptoms. I always considered myself a self-sufficient, robust scouser but it seems even I have my limits. And right now, I’m not OK HUN.
What is frightening is the flippancy with which people type out #BeKind on the same keyboard they use to harass people online. How we interact has changed since the pandemic. Real-life contact has become limited. But a rule of thumb on social media is: “If you wouldn’t say it to someone in person, don’t do it online either.” We’re no longer bitching privately in bars – giving a strong opinion online and @ing in the person concerned is the equivalent of shouting it in their face.
What has to change in order for people to take their own online behaviour seriously? Do we need yet another tragic reminder that people can be ground down over time? I really hope not.
There’s a simple message that’s as old as water: If you don’t have anything nice to tweet then don’t tweet anything at all. Leave the drama to the experts on TV.
• RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is on Thursdays on BBC3/iPlayer