Shante, He Stays: RuPaul Reflects On Decades Of Drag — And 2 Emmy Nominations

Aug 25, 2016
Originally published on August 25, 2016 6:28 pm

America's most famous drag queen, RuPaul, is finally mainstream, with two Emmy nominations for his reality show, RuPaul's Drag Race.

We visited set of Drag Race here in Los Angeles, where RuPaul and the gang are taping the show's ninth season. The show is a competition — contestants go through challenges to prove their drag skills: lip synching, runway walks and photo shoots. Then RuPaul and a panel of judges choose a winner.

A producer walks us behind a two-way mirror to see the latest contestants. We can see into a big dressing room where RuPaul tells the contestants about their next challenge; we can't tell you what it is — spoilers — but we can say the queens are given 30 minutes to go from boy clothes to full drag.

We watch as they come up to the mirror to shave their chests, put on makeup, padding on various body parts, wigs, jewelry, and gowns. After the queens finish their challenge, we sit down on another part of the set, a supermodel style runway. RuPaul walks up in a perfectly tailored suit, in a floral pattern they'd usually tell you to never wear on TV, stylish horn rimmed glasses, and no wig.

Drag Race started in 2009, and the top queens go on to be well-paid performers. The first thing I ask RuPaul is if he's worried one of these queens might steal his throne someday.

"Think about it," he laughs. "In all these years that RuPaul has been RuPaul, there's been no b**** who has come for this crown. Year after year, we pick America's next drag superstar. But has she ever come close to Miss RuPaul? I don't think so!"

RuPaul has a saying — "You're born naked, and the rest is drag." Drag is what you put on after you get out of the shower. "We're all playing these roles, you know? Even as a kid, I remember thinking, why aren't we talking about the fact that everybody's playing a role? I couldn't get anybody to break the fourth wall and say, 'Everybody's playing a role, right?' Are you seeing this?"

That's the general drag RuPaul says we're all wearing. But then there's his very particular type of drag, the drag he's been doing for decades — going from a tall skinny gay man to a glam and voluptuous woman. He says he started during the Reagan era, "as sort of a revolt. Not just against the status quo, but as a revolt against, you know, this hyper masculine culture. Especially even in gay culture that idolizes hypermasculine culture and says, you know what? F you to all you. I'm gonna do all of the things that we were told not to do."

RuPaul says for him, it started with a variety show on Atlanta public access TV called American Music Show. "And I saw it one evening flipping channels, and wrote a letter to them and said, basically you're my tribe, I need to be with you, and they said well come on down, be on the show. And I got together with a couple of my girlfriends and we did a dance routine to Junior Walker's "Shotgun," a Motown classic song, and I made some outfits with my girlfriends and we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

So RuPaul found his tribe on American Music Show. He says that's what his current show, Drag Race, does for young gay men now. "What the show has done on a broad level is really spoken to young people who are out in the middle of nowhere who don't know where their tribe is," he says. "To help them identify what they're feeling and who their tribe is, and how to live a life outside of what they were told they're supposed to do. How to successfully live your life without buckling under the pressure of society."

Drag saves lives, RuPaul says, "because, you know, in a male-dominated culture where feminity is seen as an act of treason, especially when a man does it, it's important to express yourself. A lot of these kids come from families who have really thrown them out because they are outside of the status quo."

Now Drag Race is finally up for a major award. "Well, you know, it's great," RuPaul says. "But whether we win or not makes absolutely no difference to me. I'm gonna keep doing what I do." He's often joked that he'd rather have an enema than an Emmy — but do the nominations mean drag has gone mainstream? These days, everyone talks about "throwing shade," and there are lip-sync battles on late night TV.

"Those are the sort of the accessories of drag," RuPaul says. "Drag at its core is about challenging the idea of identity. It actually mocks identity. So it could never be mainstream. Mainstream is about pick what you're gonna be and stick with it, because you'd make us feel very uncomfortable if you started shapeshifting and changing 'cause that will wreck my head. So drag will never ever ever ever be mainstream."

RuPaul is now 55 years old, and he's seen a lot of changes in the LGBT community. But he's wary about saying things are getting better. "I've gotta tell you, you know, even in the late '70s we thought we were gonna be where we are now, we thought we were gonna be there then. But overnight, you know — disco sucks, and with the AIDS crisis, everything reverted back so fast. Your head — you'd get whiplash, it was so fast. So I'm very cautious when I talk about the changes and the advances we've made in such a short amount of time. Very cautious. Because in my lifetime I've seen that shift go completely backwards."

RuPaul's Drag Race is up for two Emmys, one for outstanding costumes on a reality show, and one for outstanding host. The awards will be given out in September.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

America's most famous drag queen RuPaul Charles has finally gone mainstream with two Emmy nominations for the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUPAUL CHARLES: Condragulations, Ladies. Can I get an amen in here?

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANTS: Amen.

CHARLES: All right. Now let the music play.

MCEVERS: The show is a competition. Contestants complete challenges like lip-syncing, runway walks and photo shoots. And then RuPaul and a panel of judges choose the best drag queen. We visited the set of "Drag Race" here in Los Angeles where RuPaul and the gang are taping the show's ninth season. The producer walks us behind a two-way mirror to see the latest contestants.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: So they're lining up right now for Ru's entrance.

MCEVERS: For Ru's entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: OK.

We can see into a big dressing room. RuPaul comes in and reveals the next challenge. We can't tell you what it is - spoilers. But we can say the queens are given 30 minutes to go from boy clothes to full drag. We watch as they come up to the mirror and shave their chests, put on makeup, apply pads to various body parts and put on wigs and jewelry and gowns.

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #1: I look gorgeous. I mean seriously, have any of you ever looked better?

MCEVERS: Eventually time starts to run out.

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #2: Can we get a time check?

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT #3: Ay, que bonita!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five minutes.

MCEVERS: The queens finish their challenge. We sit down on another part of the set, a supermodel-style runway. RuPaul walks up, and he is not in drag. He's in a perfectly tailored suit made from a floral pattern they'd normally tell you to never wear on TV, styley (ph) horn-rimmed glasses and just a little bit of makeup.

CHARLES: Hey.

MCEVERS: Hi.

CHARLES: Hey - Ru.

MCEVERS: How are you?

CHARLES: Good to see you.

MCEVERS: Nice to meet you. I'm Kelly.

"RuPaul's Drag Race" started in 2009. The winning drag queens usually go on to be well-paid performers. The first thing I ask Ru is if he's worried one of these queens might steal his throne someday.

CHARLES: Think about it. In all these years that RuPaul has been RuPaul, there's been no [expletive] who has come for this crown.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

CHARLES: Year after year, we pick America's next drag superstar. But has she ever come close to Ms. RuPaul?

MCEVERS: All I'm saying is...

CHARLES: I don't think so.

MCEVERS: RuPaul has a saying. You are born naked, and the rest is drag. Drag is what you put on after you get out of the shower.

CHARLES: We're all playing these roles, you know? And I mean even as a kid, I remember thinking, why aren't we talking about the fact that everybody's playing a role? I couldn't get anyone to break the fourth wall and say, everybody's playing a role, right? Are you seeing this?

MCEVERS: But then there's RuPaul's particular kind of drag, a drag he's been doing for decades - transforming himself from a tall, skinny gay man to a blonde, voluptuous woman.

Drag with a capital D and the way you have interpreted it is something different. It's a way to comment on society, right?

CHARLES: Yes. And definitely started - you know, I started during the Reagan era, and we were doing it as a - sort of a revolt not just against the status quo but as a revolt against this hyper-masculine culture and says, you know what? F you to all you. I'm going to do all of the things that we were told not to do.

MCEVERS: RuPaul says for him, it started with a variety show on Atlanta Public Access TV called "American Music Show."

CHARLES: And I saw it one evening flipping channels and wrote a letter to them and said basically, you're my tribe. I need to be with you. And they said, well, come on down. Be on the show.

And I got together with a couple of my girlfriends, and we did a dance routine to Junior Walker's "Shotgun," a Motown classic song. And I made some outfits with my girlfriends, and we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

MCEVERS: We found another episode of "American Music Show" on YouTube. A very young RuPaul teaches people a dance move called the incredible hulk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MUSIC SHOW")

CHARLES: Oh, no. I know. But - and then the third thing is - oh, the pelvic thrust. We cannot forget the pelvic thrust.

MCEVERS: So on that show, RuPaul found his tribe, and he says that's what his current show, "Drag Race" does for young gay men now.

CHARLES: What the show has done on a broad level is really spoken to young people who are out in the middle of nowhere to help them identify what they're feeling and who their tribe is and how to live a life outside of what they were told they're supposed to do, how to successfully live your life without buckling under the pressure of society.

MCEVERS: You have said that drag saves lives. What do you mean by that?

CHARLES: Well, drag saves lives because a lot of these kids come from families who have really thrown them out because they are outside of the status quo.

MCEVERS: RuPaul says he sees it a lot - contestants who've been kicked out or abused because they don't fit in. One contestant he says he'll never forget is Roxxxy Andrews from "Drag Race" season five.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")

CHARLES: What's going on?

ROXXXY ANDREWS: (Crying) Nothing, go ahead.

CHARLES: No, tell me about it.

ANDREWS: (Crying) It just hit me, like, not feeling wanted and not being good enough. I just feel like my mom never wanted me, and...

MCEVERS: On the show, Roxxxy says her mom left her and her sister at a bus stop when she was 3. Roxxxy went on to be a runner-up that season.

CHARLES: And it goes on and on. And these are not new stories to me. Coming up in gay life, in the club world, in the Bohemian world, that's - that is the norm.

MCEVERS: Now the show is up for major awards.

We have to say condragulations (ph) for the two Emmy nominations of course. And how do you feel about it? I mean, how do you feel about, you know, being recognized by the mainstream world given that drag, as you say, is something that was sort of a middle finger to the mainstream world?

CHARLES: Well, you know, it's great. But whether we win or not makes absolutely no difference to me. I'm going to keep doing what I do.

MCEVERS: RuPaul likes to say he'd rather have an enema than an Emmy.

You know I mean I think when you said that you meant you didn't want drag to become too mainstream because you maintain that drag isn't - like, at its core, not mainstream.

CHARLES: It can't be mainstream.

MCEVERS: But drag is now mainstream. People talk about throwing shade. And you've got lip-sync contests on late-night TV. I mean...

CHARLES: Well, those...

MCEVERS: Drag is among us.

CHARLES: Well, those are sort of the accessories of drag. But drag, at its core, is about challenging the idea of identity. And it actually mocks identity. So it could never be mainstream because mainstream is about, OK, pick what you're going to be, and stick with it because you'd make us feel very uncomfortable if you started shapeshifting and changing because that will wreck my head. So drag will never, ever, ever, ever be mainstream.

MCEVERS: At 55, RuPaul Charles has seen a lot. I ask him if things have gotten better for the LGBT community.

CHARLES: I wouldn't say better or easier. There have been shifts and changes. But I've got to tell you. You know, even in the late 70s, we thought we were going to be where we are now. We thought we were going to be there then.

But overnight - you know, disco sucks. And you know, with the AIDS crisis, everything reverted back so fast. Your head would - you'd get whiplash it was so fast. So I'm very cautious when I talk about the changes and the advances that we've made in such a short amount of time - very cautious because in my lifetime, I've seen that shift go completely backwards.

MCEVERS: RuPaul, thank you very much.

CHARLES: My pleasure.

MCEVERS: "RuPaul's Drag Race" has been nominated for two Emmys - outstanding host of a reality show and outstanding costumes. The awards are next month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.