The Emmy-winning reality competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has been a staple of gay culture since its premiere in 2009, but it’s now a part of established pop culture as well. Going mainstream, however, doesn’t mean the show has lost its voice.
Instead, it’s shouting louder than ever, and hitting new ratings highs in Season 9. And that’s ultimately due to Viacom’s decision to shift this battle royale of drag queens between networks, moving “Drag Race” from its original home on Logo to the much larger VH1.
The move comes as Viacom makes several dramatic shifts in its cable portfolio (including transitioning Spike TV into the Paramount Network), and strategically moves shows around is properties. But the “Drag Race” move was also inspired by host RuPaul Charles’ Emmy win last year for Best Host.
“It was just this idea that the Emmy win really cemented the show in mainstream pop culture, and VH1 is more broadly available in homes across the US,” said original programming senior vice president Pamela Post. “It was an opportunity to broaden the show’s viewership even further.”
As of February 2017, Logo was available in 48.6 million homes, while VH1 was available in 88.1 million homes. That additional level of availability made a difference for “Drag Race”: The show’s Season 9 premiere tripled the viewership of its Season 8 premiere, leaping to nearly one million viewers that night and breaking major ratings records for the series.
And for RuPaul, there was also a nostalgic element to being on VH1: “It was extra special for me because I had a talk show on VH1 probably 20 years ago,” he told IndieWire.
Despite the move, nothing really has changed: The VH1 series has featured all of the hilarity, drama, fishiness and realness that viewers expect from the series, combining key elements of reality shows like “Project Runway” and “American Idol” with RuPaul’s signature charm.
But here’s the real reason nothing has changed: According to RuPaul, the decision to shift “Drag Race” from Logo to VH1 wasn’t made until a month before the premiere — at which point the whole season (minus the finale) had already been produced.
That includes the (incredible) Lady Gaga appearance in the season premiere, which RuPaul said was “years in the making. She was a big fan of the show and tweeted me years ago that she wanted to be on the show, because it’s part of her history — her New York club history, with all of the drag queens she would play the clubs with.”
Looking beyond the numbers, the show’s growing rise within pop culture can be summed up by Post with a pretty transcendent moment: A recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch which that respectful tribute to the proud “Drag Race” tradition of lip-syncing for your life.
While the sketch itself, which featured Chris Pine and Bobby Moynihan strutting to Erika Jayne’s “XXPEN$IVE,” is no longer online, you can still watch it on Hulu — skip approximately 45 minutes into the episode — or enjoy the GIF below:
“This is only anecdotally, but I think when you’re getting parodied on ‘Saturday Night Live’ you’ve actually gotten pretty far,” Post said. “It’s not a measuring stick by any means, but it’s truly something where you’ve reached beyond your normal breaking points.”
Post was working at Logo when “Drag Race” first began, and remembers distinctly what made the pitch special. “We’d heard a lot of drag queen pitches in the past,” she said. “But actually knowing that RuPaul was attached to it was a huge turning point for us. Because I think if you’re going to make a show like this with the person who is the most famous queen in the world — I think it really does matter.”
Post credited RuPaul for “Drag Race’s” irreverent attitude towards the tropes of reality TV. “One of the things that Ru is really known for is not taking himself or culture too seriously,” she said. “He’s an absolute fan of pop culture but I think overall really just relishes the idea that you can poke fun at just about anything. There’s always an underbelly and you can always have a laugh.”
“The parts that we take seriously within the show are the elements with heart, or the backstories of the queens, the things that matter and resonate with the audience,” she added. “But overall, the show itself — I think it’s just meant to be a good time.”
It’s one they foresee going on for a long time yet. When asked if the drag community was big enough to sustain, say, ten years more of the show, RuPaul responded, “Oh definitely. In fact a lot of the kids on our show grew up watching our show, and so they are the Drag Race generation. I think because of the popularity of the show, more people will feel free enough to try it and get into it. I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage of drag queens.”
RuPaul credited each new group of contestants, who truly end up shaping the season, as what keeps him engaged. “We plan this thing out, we have all the challenges ready, but once you add a new crop of queens to the mix, it takes on a life of its own,” he said. “And that’s what makes it so exciting for me.”
RuPaul then started to chuckle his signature high-pitched chuckle, the same one that punctuates the “Drag Race” theme song, and mentioned a potential new nickname for Donald Trump. “It could easily have another ten years. The only variable is what’s happening politically. If Cheeseolini drops a bomb on us, that would probably be the end of our show.
“But,” he added, “it wouldn’t be the end of drag. Believe me.”
The “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 9 reunion special airs tonight at 8 p.m. EST on VH1. The season finale follows next week.