Of the many things to admire about RuPaul Charles, one of the
least immediately apparent is his success as a business(wo)man. He’s a
self-made icon with a three-decade career: In addition to “RuPaul’s Drag
Race,” an elimination-style reality show for drag queens WHICH YOU SHOULD
BE WATCHING and the many Logo companion shows, Ru’s TV talk show about plastic
surgery, “Good Work,” recently premiered on E!. He’s also got a podcast, and has
self-released three studio albums in the last five years.
That work ethic has surely contributed to his success. But it’s
also due to the fact that RuPaul understood himself to be a brand before many
people thought of themselves as brands.
He built “Drag Race” around that brand, where girls compete to
be crowned by him, and dance to his music.
Now maybe RuPaul is just a savvy businessgal who knows how to
hustle, and whose glamour hides a keen understanding of the power of “available
on iTunes”-style vertical integration. But before the seventh season of Drag Race reaches its final
lap tonight, when “America’s next drag superstar” will be crowned, it’s
worth pausing to take a moment to survey the track, because it’s becoming
apparent that Mama Ru’s plans stretch further than the top of the iTunes
Two weekends ago in May, wedged in between a web programmer’s
convention and a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens, the Los Angeles
Convention Center hosted something a little less conventional. Billed as the
first-ever convention that celebrates “the art of drag, queer culture and
self-expression for all,” RuPaul’s DragCon attracted nearly 14,000
attendees across two days of panels and programming.
It was like Burning Man, if Burning Man was held in a
convention center, and everyone was in heels, charging money for a
That sounds like a wisecrack, but there’s some truth to it, in
at least three ways:
First, like the festival in the Nevada desert, DragCon’s focus
is on radical self-expression; and although the look of each respective event’s
average participant is very different, the feel is oddly similar: the queens
may dress fantastically but they are not
That is, no one is dressed as a character that exists in pop
culture, or as a sexy police officer off the rack of a costume shop. They are
not dressing as something else; rather, participants dress as a version of
themselves, a version that’s as big as their imagination will allow. The results, in both cases, are much
weirder and more beautiful (and sometimes more disturbing) than any Halloween
Second, DragCon is participatory culture, where inclusivity is
a core value. The message is: you
are welcome here, and you are welcome to engage, respectfully, with our
One suspects that the kind of inclusivity at DragCon is not
universal in the drag world.
RuPaul spent some time in his keynote talking about what he sees as the
increasing negativity on social media by younger viewers, who may have less
perspective on LGBT history.
What’s brilliant about DragCon is that it engenders this sense
of community by placing the art of drag within the safe space of fandom.
Fandoms are havens outside the normal social order where tolerance is implicit;
they are places where obsessives can feel free to obsess, and where a new
society can be built temporarily around the pretext of how much we all like
this one thing.
Finally, like the famous festival, what is created at DragCon
is temporary, and part of its artistic value is tied up in its ephemeralness. The large-scale expressions of
creativity exist today, and tomorrow, will be replaced by something else
equally fabulous, or with nothing–but either way will be gone. Both events reject the idea of art as
consumer object, by insisting that expression is worthwhile even when, by its
very nature, it cannot be permanent.
Another cultural reference point kept suggesting itself: Lady
Gaga. Her influence is everywhere,
not only in the fashion and music (although that influence is also apparent at DragCon),
but more fundamentally, in the way she’s made a career out of commodifying
DragCon felt, in some ways, like the place where Little
Monsters go when they’re all grown up.
(Even to say that is to confuse the order of things, because without
drag queens, it seems unlikely that Lady Gaga would ever exist.)
On the spectrum of radical self-expression, DragCon exists
somewhere between the de-commodification of Burning Man and the extreme
commodification of Lady Gaga. But
what’s most interesting about the community that formed at DragCon, unlike the
Man or the Lady, is how historically marginalized this community has been.
RuPaul has managed this near-alchemical feat: using the power
of her own charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, she has created a space for
this underground art form that has historically been a safe place for some
truly disadvantaged people.
Unlike the well-educated techies who deign to get dusty in
Black Rock City, unlike the pop phenomenon who has at her back the resources of
the world’s largest record label, RuPaul has near single-handedly created a
stage where she can elevate artists to a position where they can live off their
For evidence, one needed look no further than the featured
queens in attendance at the convention center — and the nearly ninety now who
have appeared on the show — many of whom have used “Drag Race” as a springboard to full-time careers as performers.
DragCon took care to present a wide view on what drag is, and
what it could be: It included panels with disco divas and party promoters, but
also with the politically-aware drag-nun activist Sisters of Perpetual
Indulgence. There was a panel on
drag queens who are also dads (“The Secrets of Fierce Fatherhood”).
There was a Sunday service with a gospel choir.
There were, of course, lots of panels that explicitly
celebrated the show: the show’s producer, World of Wonder, rarely misses an
opportunity to spin off a star or to get some extra web content.
Fan favorite Alyssa Edwards recorded live episodes of her web
series “Alyssa’s Secret.”
Likewise for “Raja Drawja,” season 3 winner Raja Gemini’s web series, where the drag queen interviews her subject as she draws a caricature. Latrice Royale and Raja had a wide-ranging and frank discussion,
touching on Latrice’s childhood and her brief time in prison.
Detox did not show up for the live taping of Oh Pit Crew with
Detox, which gave a queen who did not last long on her season of the show,
Kelly Mantle, a chance to step up and shine.
One of the most surprising things about the convention was how
uniformly great the talent was; queens who didn’t have much screen time to
prove themselves on the show, and queens whose storylines veered toward
love-to-hate, (or worse, who were relegated to serving as foils for more
successful contestants) turned out to be dynamic, engaging, and capable.
This was even true despite the obvious disadvantages of
performing in fluorescent-lit convention halls for mostly-sober audiences
during the daylight hours. “Love
drag at noon,” said Sharon Needles, as she vamped for the audience while
the conference staff tried to figure out how to get the tech to work, as she
introduced a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
More than one panelist pointed out that working real rooms full
of real people is the real-life skillset every drag queen needs, and every Drag
Race alum I saw at DragCon did that exceptionally well, through near-constant
battles with convention center technology.
“Practical” skills were also well-represented in the
panels: At DragCon, attendees could learn about wigs and makeup, of course, and
there was a panel on vogueing. There were panels on how to be “she-larious,”
for comedy queens, and panels on glamming up for the competitive pageant
circuit. There was even a panel on tucking, which is the drag queen’s art of
completing the illusion by hiding the jewels.
It was at a panel on walking the runway, though, that the scope
of what RuPaul has achieved really hit home. The hosts asked us whether we wanted to see a ballroom walk,
a high fashion walk, or a walk down the Walmart aisle. The crowd picked Walmart, which Jaidynn
Dior Fierce demonstrated with aplomb.
After Laganja Estranja followed her with a riff on a walk down the
Target aisle, they called for volunteers.
Then the most amazing thing happened: a dozen or so audience
members, ranging from very ordinary looking people in polo shirts and khakis to
men and women in more outre ensembles, of every race and body type, strutted
one by one down the makeshift runway right in the middle of the convention room
aisle. The crowd went wild for
everyone. Some of the less
fabulously dressed turned out to have some serious moves — one man even fell
into a split at the runway’s halfway point — twice.
Laganja summed up the proceedings with a heartfelt reflection
on her gratitude for how RuPaul changed her life. At that moment, it was hard not to look around the
convention center and feel staggered by the sheer scale of what he’s achieved:
the thousands of attendees, the club gigs and a touring show for a few platoons
worth of drag queens that allow them to eke out an existence by performing, the
exhibition hall full of vendors selling everything from fake breasts and
make-up to fake jewels and so, so many t-shirts. RuPaul didn’t invent drag, but he’s made it – almost — mainstream.
One interesting note about RuPaul’s shifting role in his
empire: Ru himself did not appear in drag during the convention. Not at the ribbon cutting; not at the
keynote speech, not in the pictures with fans that cost $60 a pop. His name’s on the door, so he can do
what he likes, but it’s hard not to speculate about what the rarity of Ru’s
drag could signify. (Maybe it’s just easier to run an empire from flats?)
Tonight’s season finale of “Drag Race” will be the
series’ 99th episode. RuPaul has
told interviewers that he expects the show will go on as long as there’s an
audience for it. It’s hard to
imagine what’s next for “Drag Race,” or for the ever-expanding empire
— but dates for next year’s DragCon have
already been announced.