America's most famous drag queen, RuPaul, is finally mainstream, with two Emmy nominations for his reality show, RuPaul's Drag Race.
We visited set of Drag Race here in Los Angeles, where RuPaul and the gang are taping the show's ninth season. The show is a competition — contestants go through challenges to prove their drag skills: lip synching, runway walks and photo shoots. Then RuPaul and a panel of judges choose a winner.
A producer walks us behind a two-way mirror to see the latest contestants. We can see into a big dressing room where RuPaul tells the contestants about their next challenge; we can't tell you what it is — spoilers — but we can say the queens are given 30 minutes to go from boy clothes to full drag.
We watch as they come up to the mirror to shave their chests, put on makeup, padding on various body parts, wigs, jewelry, and gowns. After the queens finish their challenge, we sit down on another part of the set, a supermodel style runway. RuPaul walks up in a perfectly tailored suit, in a floral pattern they'd usually tell you to never wear on TV, stylish horn rimmed glasses, and no wig.
Drag Race started in 2009, and the top queens go on to be well-paid performers. The first thing I ask RuPaul is if he's worried one of these queens might steal his throne someday.
"Think about it," he laughs. "In all these years that RuPaul has been RuPaul, there's been no b**** who has come for this crown. Year after year, we pick America's next drag superstar. But has she ever come close to Miss RuPaul? I don't think so!"
RuPaul has a saying — "You're born naked, and the rest is drag." Drag is what you put on after you get out of the shower. "We're all playing these roles, you know? Even as a kid, I remember thinking, why aren't we talking about the fact that everybody's playing a role? I couldn't get anybody to break the fourth wall and say, 'Everybody's playing a role, right?' Are you seeing this?"
That's the general drag RuPaul says we're all wearing. But then there's his very particular type of drag, the drag he's been doing for decades — going from a tall skinny gay man to a glam and voluptuous woman. He says he started during the Reagan era, "as sort of a revolt. Not just against the status quo, but as a revolt against, you know, this hyper masculine culture. Especially even in gay culture that idolizes hypermasculine culture and says, you know what? F you to all you. I'm gonna do all of the things that we were told not to do."
RuPaul says for him, it started with a variety show on Atlanta public access TV called American Music Show. "And I saw it one evening flipping channels, and wrote a letter to them and said, basically you're my tribe, I need to be with you, and they said well come on down, be on the show. And I got together with a couple of my girlfriends and we did a dance routine to Junior Walker's "Shotgun," a Motown classic song, and I made some outfits with my girlfriends and we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.
So RuPaul found his tribe on American Music Show. He says that's what his current show, Drag Race, does for young gay men now. "What the show has done on a broad level is really spoken to young people who are out in the middle of nowhere who don't know where their tribe is," he says. "To help them identify what they're feeling and who their tribe is, and how to live a life outside of what they were told they're supposed to do. How to successfully live your life without buckling under the pressure of society."
Drag saves lives, RuPaul says, "because, you know, in a male-dominated culture where feminity is seen as an act of treason, especially when a man does it, it's important to express yourself. A lot of these kids come from families who have really thrown them out because they are outside of the status quo."
Now Drag Race is finally up for a major award. "Well, you know, it's great," RuPaul says. "But whether we win or not makes absolutely no difference to me. I'm gonna keep doing what I do." He's often joked that he'd rather have an enema than an Emmy — but do the nominations mean drag has gone mainstream? These days, everyone talks about "throwing shade," and there are lip-sync battles on late night TV.
"Those are the sort of the accessories of drag," RuPaul says. "Drag at its core is about challenging the idea of identity. It actually mocks identity. So it could never be mainstream. Mainstream is about pick what you're gonna be and stick with it, because you'd make us feel very uncomfortable if you started shapeshifting and changing 'cause that will wreck my head. So drag will never ever ever ever be mainstream."
RuPaul is now 55 years old, and he's seen a lot of changes in the LGBT community. But he's wary about saying things are getting better. "I've gotta tell you, you know, even in the late '70s we thought we were gonna be where we are now, we thought we were gonna be there then. But overnight, you know — disco sucks, and with the AIDS crisis, everything reverted back so fast. Your head — you'd get whiplash, it was so fast. So I'm very cautious when I talk about the changes and the advances we've made in such a short amount of time. Very cautious. Because in my lifetime I've seen that shift go completely backwards."
RuPaul's Drag Race is up for two Emmys, one for outstanding costumes on a reality show, and one for outstanding host. The awards will be given out in September.