How RuPaul took drag mainstream

Ryan Cahill

Ryan Cahill on the superstar's journey to becoming a household name

25 October 2018 14:10

There are few people who can gain such a level of prestige that they become internationally recognised by their forename alone. You can probably count on one hand the people to whom this is truly applicable: Madonna, Cher, Britney – and, of course, esteemed drag superstar RuPaul.

Over the past 20 years, Ru has done more for the drag community than most would care to admit. His celebrity status, heightened by his hugely successful and nine-time Emmy-accredited TV game show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, has ensured that the art of drag has become a worldwide phenomenon – socially accepted and admired in even the most overlooked corners of the Earth. But where did it all begin? And how did a young black boy from San Diego become the world’s most successful drag queen?

Well, like where all good things begin, it started with a good jam: ‘Love Shack’ (1989) by The B-52’s – more specifically, its music video, in which RuPaul stars, eccentrically dancing in a sultry white dress. This appearance kick-started public interest; people wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Throughout the early Nineties, she utilised her new-found fame and the world’s yearning to see more of her to launch a successful career on the New York drag scene, performing at bars and establishing herself amongst the celebrity circuits – we’ve all seen that picture with Nirvana, right?

RuPaul in the music video for ‘Love Shack’ by The B-52’s

In 1993, she released her own debut album, Supermodel of the World, which featured the hugely successful single ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’, charting well in both America and Canada. Like Drag Race would come to do for its contestants some years later, Ru was an overnight success, and she cemented herself as one of the drag community’s most promising breakout figures. A string of TV and film appearances followed, including a guest slot in The Brady Bunch Movie (Betty Thomas, 1995), which later became a cult classic. In just a short amount of time, RuPaul had established herself as a household name; what prime time icon Lily Savage was doing for drag in the UK, RuPaul was doing on a global scale.

Up until this point, drag had been somewhat revered. It was considered by mainstream audiences to be a bit of schtick, something that people didn’t fully appreciate or understand. The idea of the ‘drag community’ wasn’t something that spectators were aware of yet, but behind the scenes, queens were uniting through the traumas in their personal lives. Those that had been disowned from their families and shunned from their homes were finding comfort in the arms of their peers, creating their own ‘drag families’ in the absence of their genetic ones. Essentially, a unique and hugely personal support network was being built backstage, and the foundations of this network were their shared experiences.

By the middle of the nineties, the interest in drag was reaching fever-pitch. Mass-market films were being produced that explored the emergence of the art form, helping to normalise it in the eyes of the generally close-minded public. By the end of the Nineties, films like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron, 1995) and The Birdcage (Mike Nicholls, 1996) had all been huge box office hits. Simultaneously, this burgeoning interest in drag meant more exposure for RuPaul. By the end of the decade she’d released three albums, had her own talk show that ran for two seasons – the first drag queen to get her own primetime TV show – and she had received the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Awards for her work promoting equality. By this point, she’d set a precedent: drag could be mainstream, and she’d be the one to take it there.

‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’ by RuPaul

Her most prominent success of the Noughties was, of course, Drag Race. A major success for queer representation in television, the simple game-show format had a cheap charm. In its first season, it was littered with product placement and unsubtle ads (still present in the show today, but the brands are a lot more prestigious) and the production budget was evidently on the lower side. Over the course of its 10-year span, its prize money has gone from $20,000 to $100,000, and the entire bill of contestants are pretty much guaranteed commercial success, regardless of their performance in the show’s challenges. While the series initially attracted some well-known names to appear as guest judges in earlier seasons, its appeal to ‘A-list’ celebrities has grown over the course of it’s run. In Season 9, even Lady Gaga made a special guest appearance, arguably their most prolific guest judge to date. More recent seasons have also seen appearances from Xtina, Lena Dunham and Shania Twain – evidence of its growing reputation over the past decade.

Drag Race made sure that the art form was being pumped in the homes of everyone across America, and eventually, the world. Surprisingly, it’s just kept growing and growing, eventually producing spin-off seasons like RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked, all of which help to produce a library of meme-worthy content that stretches its reach even further. But arguably, the show would be nothing without it’s leading lady, the one who started it all.

These days, that same queen who was goofing around in a late-eighties music video is appearing on the cover of magazines, making cameos in major TV shows like Broad City and regularly cropping up on TV interviews. This week, she’ll even release her latest book GuRu, which offers up philosophies and insights into her position as the world’s most influential drag queen (backed up by a recent Time Out ‘Most Influential People list’).

But when you reach the top, a fall from grace is almost inevitable and, in spite of her ever-growing success, the past year has been particularly problematic for Ru. Just as Drag Race received its highest ratings in the history of the show, her controversial comments about the trans community generated a lot of negative press for our favourite Glamazon. A string of former contestants, who now identify as women or non-binary, dragged (pun intended) RuPaul on Twitter; fans took to social media to say that they’d be boycotting the show; and the world of RuPaul seemed to take a serious dent from the criticism. Despite the public outcry, her damage control (manifesting in the form of a public and somewhat heartfelt apology) seemed to pay-off, and her gameshow series was renewed for an 11th season just a few months later, with high expectations that a trans contestant will feature – we can only hope.

Of course, these days, drag is everywhere. You can’t go into a pub or club in London without seeing an advertisement for a dedicated drag night. It’s clear to see that the art form has become a multi-million-pound industry; we have queens appearing in major fashion campaigns, such as Milk for Marc Jacobs, and the shows most recent winner, Aquaria, fronting the new campaign for Moschino’s collaboration with H&M. People like Trixie and Katya have their own TV series on VICE, and Willam and Shangela even starred in this year’s biggest blockbuster hit, A Star is Born. There’s no actual hard evidence to say that it was RuPaul who paved the way for drag queens to obtain mainstream success, but when his is the only mainstream show exploring drag on primetime television, it seems like more than just coincidence.