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RuPaul's Drag Race: Changing Queer Representation Around The World

“Drag will never be mainstream, because it breaks the fourth wall and it mocks our culture and identity: how much you have, where you’re from, your economic background. Drag mocks all of that. It’s the antithesis of mainstream.” –RuPaul Charles

Who Is RuPaul?

RuPaul Charles is a drag icon, as he is known for his small roles in movies, a singer, and the host for the popular drag show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Before starting his reality television show and becoming the face of the drag industry, RuPaul was the only boy in his family of four sisters. Growing up RuPaul eventually began wearing his sisters’ clothes and started to explore cross-dressing while imitating his inspirations Diana Ross and Jane Fonda.

At the age of 15 Ru had moved in with his eldest sister in Atlanta, Georgia while attending Northside School of Performing Arts. Although he did not graduate, this was merely the start of his path to fame. In 1982 he sent a photograph of himself to a local television program: The American Music Show. He soon regularly appeared on the series with his newly developed band, RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

RuPaul and the U-Hauls with Wee Wee Pole

In the mid-1980s Ru left the South and headed to New York City and participated in the new festival known as Wigstock with his roommate Lady Bunny (launcher of Wigstock). They would perform drag in the East Village area and by the end of the decade RuPaul, was known as the queen of New York. In the 90s RuPaul debuted his new album Supermodel of the World, and his top hit Supermodel (You Better Work) reached the top 50 of the pop charts and the No. 2 spot on the dance club charts. Next up on Ru’s climb to fame was his acting career.

He appeared in TV shows such as, “Sister, Sister” and “In the House,” and in films such as “The Brady Bunch Movie,” “Blue in the Face,” and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” Not long after RuPaul had published his new autobiography Lettin’ It All Hang Out he was also signed as a model for MAC Cosmetics. RuPaul then landed himself his own TV talk show, “The RuPaul Show,” which aired from 1996 until 1998.

It was not long until RuPaul made his cultural mark in 2009 with his long-running reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race along with later variations RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked! The show won its’ first Emmy in 2016 for Creative Arts for outstanding host of a reality or reality competition series. In January 2024, Drag Race won its’ fifth Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Program.

Left: RuPaul with his first Emmy (2016) Right: RuPaul with his most recent Emmy (2024)

Ru’s many accomplishments did not stop there. In March 2018 RuPaul was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with an introductory speech by Jane Fonda, his early inspiration, becoming the first drag queen to receive the honor. This moment was “absolutely the most important moment in my professional career.” Ru continued producing and making music in 2018 he created a holiday themed album; in January 2020 he revealed his 13th studio album, and he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time the following month.

What Is RuPaul’s Drag Race?

The first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered on February 2, 2009, it consisted of 9 drag queens who competed in a series of challenges on the epic search for “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” The contestants are given a variety of challenges each week before two drag queens have to battle it out with a lip-sync for their lives. The show was a combination of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, but with drag queens representing themselves as well as the drag community.

Drag Queens from Season 1 of RuPaul's Drag Race

The winners of the early versions of the show received prizes ranging from cash, crowns, feature magazine spreads, lifetime makeup supplies, custom dresses, vacations and now a one-year supply of Anastasia Beverly Hills cosmetics and a cash prize of $200,000. Winners of the show, despite winning or not winning cash prizes, made a significant impact in the drag industry. As mentioned previously, RuPaul has variations of the show expanding in over fourteen different countries featuring the same concept of finding the next drag superstar.

Drag Culture In The Past And Now

The elements of drag culture have been historically seen as colorful wigs, extravagant outfits, lip-synching, comedic skits, performative dance, theatrical drama, and iconic catchphrases. However the history behind drag culture is breaking gender norms and stereotypes and exploring gender through self-expression. “Drag is the theatrical exaggeration of gender, what people think they know about gender.” –Joe E. Jeffrey

Drag over the years has uplifted and affirmed the people of the LGBTQ+ community who perform and enjoy it. The origins of drag can be traced back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome theatre, in which women were not allowed to play male roles, so men disguised themselves into female characters. The term “drag” has been theorized to reference the way the gowns would be “dragged” across the floor during a performance.

Drag Culture In Media And Its’ Impact

More drag culture has become increasingly visible in the media especially in RuPaul’s Drag Race and even in popular public events such as drag brunches, drag bingo, and drag queen story hours. This is where drag performers read children’s books to young audiences often in libraries. Several issues have stemmed from this as many believe introducing drag to a younger audience is a means of “grooming” as one might become involved with drag after being introduced to the idea but drag simply exposes people of all ages to alternative ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Drag Queen Story Hours

Many drag performers and scholars have said they believe drag is being scapegoated as a distraction from more important and serious issues in the US including poverty, gun violence, and institutional racism, all of which disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community. The media impact from drag is seen throughout RuPaul’s Drag Race as it has helped bring drag and queer representation into this “mainstream.” Drag Race has also brought transgender representation to light.

In the past transgender individuals were not cast as contestants for the show. During an interview with The Guardian, RuPaul was asked if he would let a trans woman who had completed her transition compete on the show, Ru had replied with “Probably not. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” This statement was shortly followed up with another message by RuPaul, “In the 10 years we’ve been casting Drag Race, the only thing we’ve ever screened for is charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, and that will never change.”

Struggles Of Drag Members In The LGBTQ+ Community

As of March 2023, recent legislatures were put in place in Tennessee making it a misdemeanor/felony for those who perform drag in an area where children are present. Many fear that trans people could also be wrongly criminalized for expressing their gender in public. This would mean one who does not necessarily perform drag but wishes to wear a dress could be wrongly accused of being a drag performer.

There is a segment on RuPaul’s Drag Race in which the drag queens are getting in and out of drag and they are given the chance to tell the world their story and their struggles while giving the audience a person to empathize with as they might have a similar journey. Many drag artists have been kicked and thrown out of their homes and shunned from their families. RuPaul has given the drag queens a space that allows them to express themselves creatively and challenge the gender stereotypes they have known their whole life.

“The great thing about drag is that the second you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes and turns into something else. That’s why we’ll always survive.” –Alaska Thunderf**k (winner of season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars)

With season 16 (premiered January 6, 2024) emerging it is refreshing to remind oneself of the struggles the drag artists are going through and despite this they have shone brighter than ever as they live out their dreams of being part of RuPaul’s family while displaying their craft to the world. It is clear that the industry of drag race is here to ‘shantay stay’ and will not be wavered by any force.

Drag Queens of Season 16 RuPaul's Drag Race

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