RuPaul is easily the most recognizable drag queen in the world, whether he’s in wig and heels or suit and tie. He’s been the face of modern drag since the ’90s, thanks to a string of dance singles, myriad television appearances (including his eponymous talk show, which ran from 1996-1998), and occasional film roles. No one’s more qualified to head up a reality competition about the fierce, funny, sparkly world of drag queens, which is what RuPaul has been doing with RuPaul’s Drag Race since 2009. The Logo series (which also airs on VH1) pits working drag queens against one another in campy, tongue-in-cheek challenges—such as participating in a Match Game-like game show, hawking their fake autobiographies, and “reading” (i.e. insulting) their fellow contestants—in service of crowning “America’s next drag superstar.” Amid the alternating dramatics and silliness, RuPaul serves as mentor and judge, bringing expertise, charisma, and, most importantly, a sense of humor to the proceedings, demanding the contestants “lip-sync for their life,” and cautioning them with the catchphrase, “Good luck… and don’t fuck it up!” Ahead of the third season of Drag Race, premièring January 24 on Logo, RuPaul spoke with The A.V. Club about what makes a “drag superstar,” owning one’s greatness, and how we’re all doing drag.
The A.V. Club: With its emphasis on spectacle and entertainment, drag seems like an obvious fit for a reality-TV competition, but also one that would be really hard to sell to a network. Do you think a show like Drag Race could have or should have been on television before now?
RuPaul: It should have been on television before now, but what happened was, after 9/11, our country was in a deep love affair with fear hysteria. Gender issues have always traditionally gone underground when the world is involved with a fear-hysteria love affair. [Laughs.] So it took a few years for that to calm down before Drag Race could get on the air, and I got to tell you, we pitched it to about five different networks, and Logo bought it in the room. I don’t know if you’re in the TV business, but that just doesn’t happen. People don’t buy pitches in the room, and they bought it in the room.
AVC: Drag Race is about finding “America’s next drag superstar.” What exactly constitutes a “drag superstar” as opposed to a regular old drag queen?
RP: Well, a regular old drag queen is usually your science teacher who’s actually wearing women’s panties underneath his slacks. A drag-queen superstar is someone who actually works in clubs and makes a living doing it more than one night a year, or even one night in six months. We’re talking kids who know the ins and outs of what drag is and how to make it work for them. How to do different looks. Our show and the challenges are based on my own career, where I’ve had to wear a lot of different hats. I’ve done morning-drive radio. I’ve hosted TV talk shows, produced albums, written scripts, and even the business side, conceiving the idea for a TV show or movie. Every hat that I’ve worn, the challenges are born from. That’s what makes a drag superstar, is someone who really can do a little bit of everything.
AVC: You also act as a mentor to the contestants on the show. Is drag something that’s really hard to find your way in without assistance from others?
RP: I think this life is hard without assistance from others. You know, most of us come into this life with very little skills at learning how to be a human being. Our parents have their own agenda. That’s why I love the movie Tangled—side note—because it really talks about how you have to at one point see your parents with different eyes and see what their agenda is, and most people’s parents’ agenda, most times isn’t really evolving. It’s stuck, so you need mentors, you need to seek out people who can show you the ropes. Not just in drag, because I believe you’re born naked and the rest is drag. We are all doing drag. Every single person on this planet is doing it. I think that’s why drag has really come up against so much opposition throughout the ages, because the ego vehemently rejects that idea, because the ego wants you to know, “No, I am who I am, I am this person, this is my identity.” The ego is involved with identity. Drag is involved with changing identities and not taking identities too seriously at all. That’s why drag is such a hard sell to a network—or anyone, really, because it’s up against the ego.
AVC: Do you think drag is inherently a political statement, or can it just be about entertainment?
RP: Both. It is political. It’s political on the most basic level, which is who we are, what is our identity. And the truth is, we are spiritual beings having human experiences, spiritual beings first, and spiritual beings always. So the human part of it is really just temporary, like a pair of pants or a frock that you’d throw on, or a pussycat wig or a pair of slingbacks, just like drag. Our lives are drag… queens. [Laughs.] So it is political, it’s political on the most fundamental level.
AVC: Then how do you make that entertaining for audiences?
RP: You keep it fun. You laugh, you dance, you doll it up with some glitter and a Bedazzler. [Laughs.] Bedazzlers are always fun.
AVC: Ultimately, which is more important as a professional drag queen: having a good look, or having a good sense of humor?
RP: I think having a good sense of humor. If you take the look part of it too seriously, you get lost in what the message is, and the message is, “Don’t take life seriously.” That’s what drag is. In fact, throughout the ages, the shaman, the witch doctor, the court jester, is the drag. It represents the duality of the material world and the fact that this is all illusion, it’s not to be taken seriously.
AVC: Along the lines of not taking things too seriously, Drag Race obviously pokes fun at a lot of reality competitions, but the most obvious one seems to be America’s Next Top Model. You seem to channel Tyra Banks a lot in your persona on the show.
RP: No. [Laughs.] No I don’t, actually. People see that. Actually, people often say “You change your voice when you’re in drag.” It’s like, “Actually no, I don’t.” It’s what people perceive. I never change my voice, I just do mine, but people perceive it. I thinks it’s easy to say “Oh, you’re channeling,” but no, not really, actually.
AVC: But there was that promo clip of you freaking out during judging, à la Tyra.
RP: [Laughs.] Oh right, yeah. I mean, it was of course later revealed that was just a joke. [Laughs.] As with everything. The truth is, we have carte blanche to snatch everything, to sort of sample everything. I’d sample Tyra as much as I would anybody: Oprah, Larry King or whoever. And that’s really what drag does, it’s a pop-culture sample of everything.
AVC: You serve as the contestants’ mentor out of drag, and as a judge in drag. What’s the separation there, between mentor and judge?
RP: Well, as a judge in drag, I am the most famous drag queen to ever walk the Earth. [Laughs.] So my credence as an authority is, “Here I am, this is me, this is the creature that created this movement, the contemporary movement of drag.” And as a mentor behind the scenes, out of drag, I get to talk to them on a human level, as a human being. Drag as the construct, when I’m on the judges’ panel, it’s kind of like a demigod at that point. But to take it backstage, out of drag, that’s the human part. And I get to not only just commiserate, but to actually sort of help them. And—this is the big part of the show—help them overcome their own self-saboteur, because here they are at the Holy Grail of the drag career, and a lot of people stall. A lot of people choke up at the finish line, even at the starting gate, and as a mentor, I get to say “Look, I saw your audition tape, I know what you can do. This is the time to draw from all of your resources and pull it together.”
This is the biggest takeaway for the people watching, because all of us deal with the exact same thing. When are you going to own your greatness? When are you going to stop relying on playing small, and why are you playing small? What is that about? What’s the payoff for that? These people ask me about takeaway—and of course networks are involved with takeaway, that really is the big one. Don’t get it twisted, I have to deal with it everyday with myself. Old mental habits come up, and through the years, I’ve developed this system of check and balance to say “Ru, what’s your motivation? Where’s that coming from? What is your intent in this way of thinking?” And that’s what I get to do as a mentor back there. I get to see it, and I get to learn from them and go, “Oh my God, that’s what happens when I see myself as small, or if I want to play small so other people don’t feel intimidated by me.”
AVC: The contestants are from a different generation of drag than you came up in. Have you noticed any differences in the way they approach it?
RP: Well you know, there’s the whole ADD storyline. There is ADHD or whatever, where you actually do have a chemical imbalance, but ADD, where you can’t focus long enough, really comes from parents who live in this fast-paced world, their kids pick up this behavior pattern where you can’t really focus. [Adopts hurried parent voice.] “Okay grab your stuff, okay, now you guys are going to karate, let me pick up—” And the truth is, if you can focus, you can tune into your own GPS system, your own inner frequency, to actually communicate on almost a psychic level, and a lot of young kids don’t have the ability to quiet themselves long enough to read the energy, the frequency that is all around them. That’s the major difference.
And you know, I have a tendency to get philosophical, but listen, honestly, that’s why I was attracted to drag in the first place. Because as a kid, I grew up thinking “Okay, I want to fit in, I’m clearly not fitting in, what do I have to do?” So I studied our culture, I studied what people do and how they act, and after studying it, I thought “Thank you, but no thanks!” I want nothing to do with trying to fit in. In fact, I will commit myself, my life, to living outside the box and studying and analyzing what it’s like to be a human. So all these theories, philosophies I have are based on this, and that’s why drag is so important to me. You get to watch a culture and then make fun of it. [Laughs.] The only way to get through it is to laugh at it.