Nobody takes the directive “You Better Work!” to heart more than RuPaul Charles.
From club kid performer to chart-topping singer (“Supermodel”) to hit reality TV mogul, RuPaul has gone through more careers than wigs over the years. But underneath the pancake make-up, he has always been a savvy entrepreneur – one who succeeded in nearly every part of the entertainment industry while staying true to himself and his beliefs.
“I’m happy that the industry has acknowledged our show,” he told IndieWire, after news broke of his Emmy nod for Outstanding Reality Host. “However, being nominated is being part of the establishment, and drag is not part of the establishment. It never will be, it never can be.”
For those on the other side of the rainbow, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (referred to simply as “Drag Race”) is a reality competition show that premiered on Logo TV in 2009. Contestants compete for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” and a cash prize, as well as a devoted fan following. The ninth season is now in production, and the second season of its spinoff, “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” debuts Thursday.
The show has garnered high-profile fans and guest judges such as Vivica A. Fox, David and Amy Sedaris, and John Waters. But “Drag Race” is more than just another reality-competition show.
Sure, the basic structure looks the same: Contestants receive a challenge, contestants stress out about difficulty of said challenge, contestants present their work and receive judges’ critiques, someone goes home crying. But at each step, “Drag Race” has managed to flip the script and reinvent itself.
In season six, the queens performed “Shade: The Rusical,” an original musical now sold on iTunes. Audiences were surprised by the ambition of the challenge, which led to an end result that was arguably better than most Broadway shows.
The hosting nomination for RuPaul is triply deserved: he also serves as Executive Producer and writer, along with the show’s five-person writing team. (Writing team? Yes, Lifetime’s “UnReal,” a scripted series about the production behind a reality show, taught audiences what insiders already knew: There is no such thing as “unscripted” television.)
RuPaul anchors the franchise, but the competing queens are the real heart of “Drag Race.” These performers have made careers out of being crass, quick-witted, outrageous and fabulous. They know why they are there: To put on a good show. Presiding over the spectacle is Mama Ru, winking at the camera as he throws out his catchphrase-littered missives. His eyes widen as he silences the chattering judges, claps twice dramatically, and announces: “The time has come, for you to lip sync… For. Your. Life.”
“I am absolutely playing the role of a reality host,” RuPaul said. “Now, within that context, I’m able to spew some real truths about life.” That includes RuPaul’s mantra, which is the farewell line in each episode: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
After eight seasons, the show remains fresh by borrowing elements from more traditional reality competition shows, like those hosted by RuPaul’s fellow nominees Tim Gunn (“Project Runway”) and Ryan Seacrest (“American Idol”). In one episode, contestants might be asked to design an outfit, write a stand-up routine, pose for a photo shoot, shoot a comedy sketch, and learn a choreographed dance. In heels. “The show itself is in drag,” executive producer Fenton Bailey said. “The format is like a drag queen: What should I put on now? It’s pastiching, parodying, satirizing all media.”
RuPaul put it like this: “That is the post-modern storyline – Andy Warhol paints a soup can, but through his eyes it elevates it to this other level where you get to see the irreverence behind it, the beauty, the stupidity, and who we are as a culture.” Reality television is RuPaul’s Campbell’s soup can; he plays with the now-ubiquitous format to elevate it to something else entirely.
That irreverence has landed Logo in hot water, and caused some in the LGBT community to question RuPaul’s judgement. In 2014, the network came under fire for a mini-challenge game titled “Female or She-Male,” with transgender activists pointing out that the word was offensive and stigmatizing. The network pulled the episode, and also removed the term from one of the show’s repeating jokes.
“You can’t explain irony to an idiot,” RuPaul said of the “she-male” controversy. “There’s also nuance and intent. There’s an irreverence to drag; it has to be dangerous… The intention was never to be hurtful, the intention was to make fun of language.”
“Clearly, we’ve weathered the storm,” he said. That’s why RuPaul did not bat a fake eyelash when Spike TV aired “Lip Sync Battle,” a reality show where celebrities lip sync against each other, very similar to a long-standing “Drag Race” (and drag) tradition. “Creativity trumps a bigger budget. Always.”
As for the Emmy race, RuPaul isn’t worried about voters who may not feel “Drag Race” is for them. “‘Drag Race’ appeals to anyone who’s ever lived outside the status quo, anyone who’s ever stopped to question — what is this thing called life?” he said. “Because that’s what drag is.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” premieres August 25th at 8/7c on Logo TV.