On June 27, 2020, amid the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns and the trauma of George Floyd’s murder, Canada’s Drag Race premiered. For fans of the franchise — the spinoff aired in Canada on Crave (it would become the highest-rated original series in its history), in the U.K. on BBC3 and throughout the rest of the globe on the streamer WOW Presents Plus — it was a rare oasis from a seemingly unending onslaught of horrible news.
For Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, it should have been a dream come true. Raised in a tiny town in Alberta, 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, biracial Bowyer-Chapman already was familiar to Drag Race fans the world over, having appeared a handful of times as a guest judge on VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. “There’s something about drag that I’ve always been so enamored by,” he says. “Drag is magic.”
But the dream quickly turned into a glittery nightmare, when Bowyer-Chapman — whose tart critiques of contestants rubbed some viewers the wrong way — felt the full force of Drag Race‘s toxic fandom.
Racist cyberbullying has been a pervasive scourge in Hollywood, felt everywhere from big-budget blockbusters (Ghostbusters‘ Leslie Jones and Star Wars‘ Kelly-Marie Tran each endured racist and sexist taunts following the release of their films) to reality TV (The Bachelorette‘s Black star Rachel Lindsay disabled her Instagram account after being inundated with hateful messages).
For a show all about acceptance and inclusivity — about spotlighting queerness and toasting life’s outcasts and oddballs — Drag Race, too, has been a frustratingly fertile breeding ground for bullying and hate.
To be sure, they are in the minority of Drag Race fans. But en masse their voices can be deafening, a faceless mob of scolds and trolls whose targeted attacks — typically directed at drag queen competitors but in Bowyer-Chapman’s case against a new judge — have only increased in intensity as the franchise has blossomed into both a critical darling and cultural sensation.
“The amount of times that I was called a stupid n—er in my inbox from white, gay men was shocking — specifically because we were in the midst of a racial justice awakening,” Bowyer-Chapman tells THR in a raw and emotional conversation. “I think that with me receiving all of the hate, and racism, and harassment, and death threats — it’s shone a light on the insanity of it. It really did show a lot of people how dark and how toxic the Drag Race trolls have become over the past couple of years and how unacceptable it is.”
As he prepares now to step back into the limelight, playing a gay doctor on Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (a reboot of Doogie Howser, M.D., that premiered Sept. 8 on Disney+), Bowyer-Chapman — speaking about the events for the first time since the Drag Race backlash led him to delete his Twitter account in August 2020 — reveals what really went on behind the scenes. According to him, the fault lies not solely with the fandom but within the show itself. “As gay men, we unfortunately have grown accustomed to experiencing hate and vitriol and homophobia,” says Bowyer-Chapman. “I guess I had just never experienced it from my own community. That was the part that was most heartbreaking.”
Bowyer-Chapman has endured an unenviable amount of bullying throughout his life. Some of his earliest childhood memories involve being taunted in a schoolyard in Rimbey, Alberta — an oil-drilling and cattle-ranching town, population 2,500. He was brought up there by an all-white family after his biological parents, a Jamaican man and British woman, gave him up for adoption. “I was the only person of color in the school in my town,” he says. “I was the only identified queer person. I inherently felt different because I constantly had the whole town pointing the finger at me and telling me I was.”
At 16, having sprouted up to a handsome 6-foot-3, he was signed to a commercial modeling agency. By 19, he moved out of his family home and the dusty roads of Rimbey and started living on his own in Vancouver. There, he signed with a larger agency and began traveling the world, appearing in campaigns for brands like Levi’s, Neutrogena and Coca-Cola. “That’s when I really started to come into myself,” he says. “It’s when I started to meet more people who were like me: more Black people, more queer people. It was a whole new world.”
In 2009, at 23, he had enough work experience to qualify for a green card. He relocated to Brooklyn, where he turned his focus to acting. His break came in 2015, when he was brought in to read for a TV series based on a short film by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on The Bachelor. Bowyer-Chapman was cast in the pilot as Jay, a straight, womanizing, manipulative reality TV producer. When UnREAL was picked up to series, the network ordered the pilot reshot. Much of the cast was let go; when a call came from showrunner Marti Noxon, he was expecting the worst. “But she said, ‘We loved you, Jeffrey, more than we love Jay as written on the page. So we want to rewrite Jay to be modeled after you — beginning with him being an openly gay man,’ ” he recalls.
It was a moment of personal triumph as well as one of enormous relief. “I could finally be my fullest, authentic self,” he says, “and not live in fear of what had happened many times in the past — where straight, white, male producers would say, ‘Can you play straight? Are women going to fall in love with him?’ “
His entrée into the world of Drag Race came directly from UnREAL. “When doing press, so often the question thrown to me was, ‘Do you watch reality TV?’ And I said, ‘The only reality show I watch is RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ I guess I said it enough times that it got to producers and casting directors working on Drag Race.” He was further brought into the fold when he kept crossing paths with RuPaul and Drag Race judge Michelle Visage at Emmy events in 2016, when both series were up for awards: “We ended up spending day and night together, the three of us, going to different parties and such. We really found that we had so much in common.” Not long after, Bowyer-Chapman was invited to guest judge on the show’s ninth season, which found him sitting on a panel next to the late Naya Rivera. “I felt immediately at home,” he recalls.
He became part of the Drag Race family. So much so that Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — co-heads of World of Wonder, the Hollywood-based studio behind Drag Race — invited him in May 2019 to join Canada’s Drag Race among the show’s all-Canadian panel of judges. Filling out the roster were Brooke Lynn Hytes, runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11, and Stacey McKenzie, a model and runway coach who appeared on America’s Next Top Model.
The day-to-day producing duties on Canada’s Drag Race fell not to Bailey and Barbato but to Crave and Blue Ant Media, a Toronto studio behind reality shows like Cabin Truckers and Killing Bigfoot. (Ownership of international versions varies. Some, like Canada’s Drag Race, are a format license, while some are co-produced and some are World of Wonder-produced.) Bowyer-Chapman says he immediately felt something different in the air on the Toronto set.
“I came into Canada’s Drag Race with a false sense of security because I had built that trust with the producers of the American show,” he says. “But this was a different set of producers. And I think they were trying to create something impactful and prove themselves along the way. As so, there are many instances where looking back I should have paid attention to my intuition and spoken up. And I didn’t.”
For example, he describes the moment, seconds before he walked into the show’s Werk Room (where contestants put their looks together for challenges) when the “white, gay, male showrunner pulled me aside, right before I was to meet the queens for the first time, and told me I was the ‘man-candy that was there for the queens to drool over.’ “
The comment threw him. “All of the judges had signed these very ironclad contracts stating that we would not fraternize with any of the contestants or the crew off-set,” he says. “That we would have no personal relationships, or dialogue, or contact with the queens whatsoever, other than when we were filming.” Instead, at his introduction to the 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.”
As a means of resisting objectification, Bowyer-Chapman says, he leaned into his queerness, bringing along his own makeup artist to design glam rock-inspired eye looks and adding affectations — a shoulder pop here, a mispronunciation of “dollars” as “doo-lahs” there — that online critics later snipped had pulled too freely from RuPaul’s playbook.
He says the same showrunner explained to him that he was the “sassy one” on the panel. “And being told that from a white person, ever, as a Black person, it’s like a dog whistle,” he says. “It’s like what is said of Black women and of Black queer men, meaning that 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 was not encouraged by the faces he saw behind the cameras — everyone from story editors to grips and camerapeople were white. “There really was no Black talent,” he says. “We’re walking onto a set of Canada’s Drag Race, day one, and the showrunner is telling me how diverse the crew was as he was giving me a tour. And I didn’t see one Black person.”
Bowyer-Chapman, as well as Hytes and Mackenzie, was outfitted with earpieces during tapings, through which producers delivered prompts. (Judges do not use earpieces on the U.S. show.) “Even if we didn’t have anything negative to say, you had to come up with something negative,” he explains.
In postproduction, the showrunner handed him a list of pre-written negative critiques to recite into a microphone. “Very naively, I thought, they must just be doing this because they gave me the bubblegum edit,” he says. “Because there was endless footage of me connecting with the queens and being loving and kind and guiding them.” The edit proved to be far from bubblegum, however, with one outlet going so far as to describe Bowyer-Chapman as bringing “Simon Cowell-with-eye-glitter energy” to the proceedings.
No one was more shocked at the depiction than Bowyer-Chapman himself. “I remember watching the first episode on the couch with my partner. And by the time the credits rolled, just feeling this pit in my stomach.”
A source close to the production counters that Bowyer-Chapman signed off on the first three episodes before airing and that the ADR session was “not a list of negative comments.” Crave, in a statement to THR, says: “Jeffrey is a gifted talent whose energy, skills and passion unquestionably contributed to the success of the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race on Crave. He will always be considered part of the Canada’s Drag Race family.”
Laura Michalchyshyn, Blue Ant Media’s chief creative officer and an EP of Canada’s Drag Race, says: “We consider Jeffrey a part of our family, and when he came under attack on social media during last season, we were horrified at the hateful abuse he was forced to endure. In addition to clearly and publicly condemning that bullying, we sought to stand with him by blocking and deleting inappropriate and vile racist comments.”
World of Wonder and RuPaul declined to comment, but their relationship with Bowyer-Chapman remains good, and he already has taped an appearance on an upcoming season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The irony of his situation — that he found himself falling victim to the same kinds of machinations he’d been re-creating for laughs on Lifetime — was not lost on Bowyer-Chapman. “After playing a reality TV show producer on UnREAL for four seasons, and spending time behind the scenes with reality TV show producers, I was aware of how dark and how shady that world can be,” he says. “And how manipulative it can be.” He immediately called the producers and asked if the tone would continue for the rest of the series. “And they guaranteed us that no, it wouldn’t, and that they were just finding their way for the first episode and what have you. So I let it go.”
But things only got worse. If there was a tipping point, it was one widely GIFed exchange in which Bowyer-Chapman suggested to fan-favorite contestant Jimbo, regarding time management, “Use it better, maybe.” He followed it by what Vulture described in its recap as “the meanest, most vicious squint.” A petition appeared on Change.org demanding the “rude” Bowyer-Chapman be fired. (It only garnered half of its 5,000-signature goal.)
From Jimbo’s point of view, the remarks — not just from Bowyer-Chapman but from the other judges, too — cut a little too close to the bone. “At first, he was so handsome and so charming and so sweet,” Jimbo says of Bowyer-Chapman in a call from Manchester, U.K., where he’s on tour with other Canada’s Drag Race alums. “But then the judgment started rolling out, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. You did not come to play.’ ” Jimbo thinks part of the backlash had to do with the dark mood that had set in during the early months of the pandemic. “It was just not the right fit with the times, that stereotypical harsh judge — the Simon Cowell, tough-love judge. I don’t think him playing up that campy bitchiness was the best way to go about it all.” Still, watching his co-star endure a torrent of racist bullying from fans was difficult. Like other competitors, he denounced the harassment on social media. “I obviously felt terrible it was happening when it was supposed to be a celebration of drag and art,” he says. “That was intense.”
Bowyer-Chapman’s co-judges felt some of the backlash, too — but where Hytes (who said of one contestant’s piñata-like outfit, “I should … beat you with a stick”) already had competed in a season of Drag Race and earned the right to critique, Bowyer-Chapman was viewed as an interloper with no expertise in the field. (To that, he responds that he has worked as a modeling agent and sat on countless panels judging aspiring fashionistas.)
There also was the matter of race. “There was a lot that I experienced that Brooke Lynn just couldn’t have because Brooke Lynn is a white man,” Bowyer-Chapman says. “Myself, as a Black queer man, 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.”
Before long, he found himself consumed with the negativity. “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,” he says.
He found solace, fittingly enough, in one of the only people who could understand what he was going through: RuPaul. “We had conversations about his experience in this world and this industry as a Black, queer man. As a drag queen. 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.”
It was RuPaul who suggested Bowyer-Chapman leave Twitter. The 60-year-old drag legend — who holds the record for the most Emmy wins for host for a reality or competition program (five) — told him, “Sometimes you have to put up walls to protect yourself from being exposed to negative energy.”
Another RuPaul’s Drag Race regular, singer-choreographer Todrick Hall, also reached out. “He talked about the hate he’d receive from white gay men,” Bowyer-Chapman recalls. “The thing we all had in common — myself, Ru and Todrick — is we realized that white people, specifically white gay men in this situation, don’t like opinionated Black people. They have a hard time being told what to do from a Black person, especially when you are not fitting into the fetishized ideal. For them, if you’re not being hyper-masculine — a piece of meat, essentially — then you have no use.”
When that realization clicked into place, he continues, “it made putting up that boundary between me and the trolls an easy decision.”
What a difference a year makes. Since his Drag Race ordeal, Bowyer-Chapman is smiling broadly once again, ready to introduce himself to a new audience — as “an openly queer character on a Disney show” — on Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.
The hourlong Disney+ dramedy filmed this year in Oahu and Honolulu and is overseen by Kourtney Kang, a former executive producer on Fresh Off the Boat and How I Met Your Mother. “She is a shining example of how to be in this industry,” he says. “She has a very strong ‘no-assholes’ policy on set.”
Watching his audition video, Kang recognized Bowyer-Chapman from her daughter’s basketball games; he would show up to cheer on his UnREAL co-star and friend Constance Zimmer’s 13-year-old daughter, who played in the same matches. “I was like, ‘It’s Jeffrey from the basketball games!’ ” says Kang, who loves having him around. “He is such a bright light on set,” she says. “Positive, upbeat and brings so much to the role. He makes everyone feel seen and appreciated from every department.”
Bowyer-Chapman was asked by Crave to return for season two of Canada’s Drag Race, but, “long story short, because of COVID, I had to make a choice.” Still, he thinks the circumstances may have worked out for the best. He did attend several production meetings, however, where he “called a lot of attention to the bullshit that occurred behind the scenes and the stuff that happened online and their inaction.” (Crave did issue a statement on Aug. 25, 2020, condemning “hateful comments about our queens and judges online” — what Bowyer-Chapman feels was too little too late.)
He says his feedback has led to the addition of a dedicated judges’ producer, there to work specifically with the panel, while the showrunner focuses on the contestants. “I hope that does benefit the show,” he says
In its statement, Crave said: “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.”
World of Wonder has been rolling out its own anti-bullying measures since RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine in 2017 — a series of PSAs and social media messages reminding viewers to “say love,” in Drag Race parlance.
For the Canadian season two, expected to debut this year, only Hytes is returning, joined by Traci Melchor, who is Black, and actress Amanda Brugel, who is biracial. Brad Goreski, best known for Bravo’s The Rachel Zoe Project and his spinoff, It’s a Brad, Brad World, will serve as the stylist. Additionally, the season one showrunner, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been replaced. “I knew that even though it was a different actor, it was the same script,” says Bowyer-Chapman of the showrunner change.
“We worked hard to ensure that Jeffrey was heard and the show is a positive experience for everyone,” says Blue Ant’s Michalchyshyn.
Surveying the new panel, however, Bowyer-Chapman is not entirely sure the show has learned from its mistakes. “I think that there are a lot of other choices out there in Canada that would have been much more appropriate,” he notes. “There’s a lot of Indigenous talent that has gone unrecognized; a lot of trans and nonbinary talent. People of color beyond Black people. There’s West Indians. I think [season one winner] Priyanka would have been a brilliant choice to have replaced me on the judges’ panel. There’s so many obvious choices if they had had the reference points.”
“But,” he continues, “that’s what happens when it’s only white, cisgender people behind the scenes making the decisions. That’s what happens.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.