In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. In this edition, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which debuted in 2009 and premieres its 100th episode on Monday, March 7.
Gaudy, glamorous, and outrageous, Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race is the dragged-out love child of reality TV competitions like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, offering a hilarious, often subversive take on the genre filtered through the wit and wisdom of creator, host, and head judge RuPaul Charles. “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag,” is one of RuPaul’s favorite sayings, and it’s also the guiding principle of this series, which uses the fundamental concept of men impersonating women to explore deeper issues about the creation of identity and using performative art to discover your true self.
That may sound heady, but RuPaul also understands that people watch a drag show to have fun. Drag Race’s more substantial material is the subtext to its irreverent challenges, extravagant fashions, and bold personalities. When the show’s contestants are stressed out, exhausted, and unable to escape each other, it creates plenty of drama. Exaggeration elevates drag, and it elevates Drag Race, too, resulting in increasingly ridiculous challenges and a sound- and film-editing style that intensifies humor and tension. Drag offers an over-the-top interpretation of feminine beauty, and RuPaul’s Drag Race offers an over-the-top interpretation of a reality TV competition. That cartoonish quality is a major reason why the show is so entertaining.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is best viewed with a group of people, which is why gay bars around the world host viewing parties for new episodes. A passionate community has formed around the show, helping it gain popularity through strong word of mouth and providing a readymade audience for contestants after they leave the show. I saw the season-seven premiere in a packed 1,400-capacity theater, and the audience’s enthusiastic reactions made the jokes funnier, the insults shadier, and the fashion wilder. The venue’s size did great things for the episode, but not so much for the live performances from the queens, and it was fascinating to see how contestants that looked so big on screen struggled to fill such a large space with their routines. When the promotional tour for season eight came through Chicago, it was booked at a smaller venue more suited to queens who typically perform in the tight confines of a bar. Yet some of the contestants still struggled to grab the crowd’s full attention and hold onto it, a skill they’ll need to master if they want to have a fruitful post-Drag Race career.
Chatting with the season-eight contestants and season-six champion Bianca Del Rio, it quickly becomes clear that RuPaul’s Drag Race is now considered a crucial professional move for drag queens. “There’s a melting pot of all different types of people who audition for different reasons,” said season eight’s Laila McQueen. “A lot of people think it’s the next move in their career, where they’ve been doing shows for so long and they’re not getting paid as much. Drag isn’t as lucrative for them as it is for Drag Race girls. And then there’s other people who see Drag Race and they’re like, ‘Well, I just want to do that,’ and start doing drag just to get on [the series].”
Over eight years, 100 episodes, and 100 queens, RuPaul’s Drag Race series has made a dramatic impact on the drag community—for better and worse, depending on whom you ask. The increasing number of the show’s alumni and the wave of new queens inspired by the series has made for a more crowded, more competitive scene, which means queens have to work harder to stand out from the crowd. But that also means more artists putting more effort into their craft.
“I was one of five queens who worked in Brooklyn when [RuPaul’s Drag Race] first started,” says season eight’s Thorgy Thor. “I liked that drag was underground. I was attracted to it because it wasn’t something a lot of people did. And now it’s a dime a dozen. These girls come out of nowhere and there’s like a thousand queens and everyone looks different and everyone wants to be somebody and everyone wants to make money. But speaking from a different perspective, it’s wonderful because there’s so many performers who just want to go up there and live their heart on stage, so entertainment will never lack.”
To win the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, queens need to be proficient in a number of disciplines: They’ll be tested on their acting, dancing, singing, modeling, sewing, and application of hair, make-up, and padding over the course of the competition. Prospective candidates are honing their skills in all of these areas to make themselves more attractive to the series.
The range of queens is also growing. As RuPaul’s Drag Race continues, it delves deeper into the different subsections of the drag community, demonstrating the various creative avenues a drag queen can take: There are pageant queens, who have polished, but still exaggerated, characters and styles; club queens, who have a rawer, louder aesthetic; fishy queens, who look extremely feminine and are usually more fashion-focused; comedy queens (or clowns), who emphasize humor in their performance and appearance; celebrity impersonators, who channel a specific star’s look and personality; goth queens, who take their work in a darker direction; and genderfuck queens, who blend masculine and feminine elements to explore the flexibility of gender.
Drag Race thrives on the tension between these groups, but doesn’t look down on any of them, and most camps have had one of their queens take home the crown. They’re not separated by strict boundaries, though, and as the new generation of queens learns more about the different types of drag, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. But no matter what style of drag a queen pursues, Bianca Del Rio has one key piece of advice: “Don’t be an asshole. Whatever you choose to do on stage with drag: There’s Sharon [Needles, season-four winner] who loves to be spooky, Jinkx [Monsoon, season-five winner] loves theater and loves to sing and dance. I’m more of a cunt.”
She’s not just being funny; “cunt” was the word the audience in Chicago used most frequently to refer to Del Rio. Her stand-up is scathing—no one is safe at a Bianca Del Rio show—and she’s full of venom on stage, but get her alone and she has nothing but respect and gratitude for her Drag Race experience and sisters. “In fairness, there’s a time and place for it,” Del Rio said, “and if that’s what you do on stage, do it on stage. But be humble, be grateful, be kind to people backstage because you never know what any of that leads to. It takes so much energy to be a dick, and with this opportunity, with television, sometimes it turns people into monsters. Luckily I’m surrounded by really good people that constantly tell me, ‘Girl, calm the fuck down.’ Which has been really the best advice. It’s all about the work. You’re a lucky son of a bitch to get this golden ticket. And, like Ru always says, ‘Don’t fuck it up.’”
RuPaul’s Drag Race has evolved considerably from its extremely low-budget first season (later repackaged and re-aired by Logo as “The Lost Season”), and now stands as the foundation of RuPaul’s growing media empire, which also includes books, albums, a podcast, and other Logo programming like the Drag Race spin-off Drag U and the upcoming game show Gay For Play. After years of gradually drifting away from the spotlight, Drag Race revitalized RuPaul’s career, and the contestants have a deep reverence for “Mama Ru,” cherishing the opportunity to receive guidance from the drag world’s highest authority.
The series has also changed the entire drag community, inspiring new artists, motivating established ones, and significantly expanding the drag fanbase by giving performers a platform to reach a huge audience that was previously unavailable. “There is nothing more at the forefront of this profession than RuPaul and Drag Race,” said bluntly named season-eight contestant Bob The Drag Queen. “Who’s the next closest? Dame Edna? Drag Race has changed everything. The fans have changed, the queens have changed. Queens started looking like queens from TV. But it’s also for the better. This show has revolutionized drag.”
The influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the greater drag community can’t be denied, but it’s also become an invaluable show for young gay men by taking pride in gay culture and broadcasting that message to places that may not be especially tolerant. “I was recently doing my comedy show in Texas and there was a boy who was 13, who was wearing heels with his grandma,” said Del Rio. “And he’s like, ‘We watch the show all the time and we love it and we love you and my grandmother has no shame in what I do and thinks it’s great.’ How amazing is that? Because when I was growing up, none of that really existed on television.” RuPaul saw this hole in the TV landscape and filled it, creating a series that has given gay men greater visibility while changing an entire artistic medium in the process.