RuPaul said drag would never go mainstream. 24 Emmys later, his show is a global phenomenon (2023)

Earlier this month, when the 2022 Emmy nominations were announced, one show added 11 nods to its title of most decorated reality program in history: RuPaul's Drag Race.

The show's matriarch has always said drag would "never go mainstream", and infamously declared he would rather have an enema than an Emmy.

Since its humble campy beginnings in 2009, the franchise has added four spin-off series, 12 international editions, three annual fan conventions and a Las Vegas revue, elevating hundreds of drag queens onto the world stage.

In 2022 alone, the show’s fans have already binged their way through a 14th season of the original Drag Race series, and subsequent helpings of five international editions.

RuPaul said drag would never go mainstream. 24 Emmys later, his show is a global phenomenon (1)

The finale of All Stars, All Winners airs in Australia tonight, and the second season of Drag Race Down Underkicks off tomorrow.

So, what is it about this show that has fans all over the world gagging for more? Much of it comes down to the vision of one RuPaul Charles.

Who is RuPaul Charles, the queen behind the empire?

Born in 1960, RuPaul Andree Charles grew up with his mother and three sisters in San Diego, California before moving out to Atlanta, Georgia where he began his quest for stardom.

By the early 90s, Ru had already been making music, amateur films and cable variety shows for almost a decade, all while working the Atlanta and New York club scenes as a go-go dancer and gender-bending drag host.

RuPaul said drag would never go mainstream. 24 Emmys later, his show is a global phenomenon (2)

If there was an entertainment job that paid the bills, RuPaul tried it. So it was perhaps fitting that his big break came in the form of a dance club banger titled Supermodel (You Better Work).

The single launched RuPaul's career into hyper-drive, kicking off a world tour of his first studio album and opening the door to a bevy of offers.

A lucrative modelling contract with MAC Cosmetics saw RuPaul's face plastered over billboards from Sunset Boulevard to Times Square, and his schedule was filled with appearances on Saturday Night Live, music videos with the likes of Elton John and Diana Ross, and movie roles alongside Patrick Swayze and The Brady Bunch.

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By 1996, he landed his very own self-titled talk show, interviewing celebrities and musicians with his co-host Michelle Visage by his side.

Almost three decades later, the "little gay boy with nothing more than a pussycat wig and a dream" has built a global media empire and amassed an estimated net worth of $65 million.

His now internationally acclaimed reality competition has helped to bring what was once seen as a niche art form firmly into the spotlight, and changed the game for drag queens of the future.

"I really cannot think of another figure who's done what RuPaul has done to a particular form of otherwise fringe art," saysZeena Feldman, senior lecturer in Digital Culture at Kings College London.

From queer cult hit to TV royalty

The show's format draws inspiration from 1980s Harlem drag balls and the performances of subversive drag collectives of the 1960s.

In Ru's TV version, queens duke it out each week in various acting, fashion and improvisation challenges, and strut their themed looks down the runway before a lip sync showdown to decide who should 'shantay' or 'sashay away'.

The first few seasons attracted a cult-like following from dedicated viewers tuning into an LGBT-focused cable channel on a shoestring budget.

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But as the show found its feet that audience grew, and by 2021, a record-breaking 1.3 million people in the US alone tuned in to watch the season premiere on VH1.

Longtime fans look back fondly on the low production values and "vaseline lenses" of those early seasons, but Dr Feldman says the changing aesthetics of the show speak to a broader "professionalisation" of drag.

"They look like airbrushed, flawless specimens. And it is such a stark contrast to how representation started out on Drag Race in 2009," she says.

"One consequence of that aesthetic emerging is that others are not valued as much… so that puts queens who don't fit the form very much on the outside."

RuPaul said drag would never go mainstream. 24 Emmys later, his show is a global phenomenon (4)

Dr Feldman puts that shift down to the ubiquity of social media encouraging a glossier, face-tuned image, and the rise in "rainbow capitalism" heralded by a general expansion in LGBTQIA+ rights.

Drag Race has also had a sizeable cash injection.

While the first Drag Race winner walked away with $20,000 and a crown from Fierce Drag Jewels, within a few years the stakes were raised to $100,000, a lifetime supply of cosmetics and an all-expenses-paid holiday.

The victor of this season's All Stars, All Winners (cast entirely with winners of previous seasons) will go home with a $200,000 cash prize.

The network isn't the only one investing big. Past competitors have revealed the extreme lengths many queens go to — spending the equivalent of their college tuition or house deposits — for a shot at becoming the next drag superstar.

RuPaul once wrote "a cheap queen can still be a beauty queen", but his expectations as a judge are now definitively polished — just ask UK queen Joe Black, who was blasted for bringing an off-the-rack H&M look to the runway.

But thousands still send in their audition tapes each season in the hopes their time in the spotlight will deliver them exposure to a fanbase beyond their wildest dreams.

Drag Race as a platform

Today's drag superstars are using the show as a springboard for careers in television, comedy, acting, modelling, podcasting and music.

"When we think of RuPaul the media mogul, we think of all of the editions of drag race, his podcast, the production company World of Wonder, his music," Dr Feldman says.

"But the other part of the puzzle is all of the careers that Drag Race has launched."

Take Trixie Mattel, for example. The All Stars season threewinner has gone on to produce four studio albums, a comedy special, Discovery+ docuseries and cosmetics line plus an award-winning web-series and international tour with her season sevenchum Katya.

Australian queens are also lining up to board the Drag Race stardom express.

"There's no show that gives the golden ticket like Drag Race does," says Beverly Kills, a contestant on the upcoming season of Drag Race Down Under.

RuPaul said drag would never go mainstream. 24 Emmys later, his show is a global phenomenon (6)

She argues despite these commercial opportunities, drag will always be tied to its subversive roots.

"Drag queens are birthed out of repression. It's an explosion of love for the art form and anger at the world at the same time," she says.

Beverly, who grew up watching Drag Race and learned her craft from burlesque and sideshow performers, sees herself as someone who can toe the line between mainstream and fringe drag.

"In Brisbane we have this sort of idea that there's a rivalry — the brunch girls are the ones doing sparkly outfits and fun pop songs for the rich mums of West End, then the nightclub girls do the exact opposite," she says.

"The work that we do is just as important as each other.

"We are giving queer people a safe space to go celebrate nightlife, but we're also giving people who want to learn more about drag a safe space to sort of stick their toe in the water.

"I think it's really important to recognise both sides. And as someone who goes between the two, I'll take the work!"

Many queens — both inside the Drag Race universe and more broadly — use this increased visibility not just as a chance at fame, but to advance a progressive political agenda.

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Among the countless powerful statements brought to the Drag Race runway over the years are Symone's Say Their Names gown, representing the Black lives lost at the hands of police brutality, and Biripi and Worimi queen Jojo Zaho's Always Was, Always Will Be reveal on the first season of Drag Race Down Under.

It's this aspect of Drag Race that RuPaul has said is most important to him —and that seems to rile drag's critics the most.

Drag's rise is seen as a threat by conservatives

Drag Race has undoubtedly infiltrated broader popular culture, and its arrival on the world stage comes at a time when advocates say LGBTQ+ rights are more under threat than they have been in years.

This year has seen a raft anti-queer and anti-trans bills introduced across the US, on everything from banning schools from teaching sexuality to penalising parents who seek gender-affirming healthcare for their children.

The US House of Representatives just moved to protect same-sex marriage rights from being reversed by the Supreme Court, following a warning in Roe v Wade opinion.

Drag Queen Story Hour events, where queens volunteer their time to read storybooks to children at local libraries, have been disrupted by protesters time and time again — in the US, the UK, and Australia.

Last month, members of the far-right Proud Boys group stormed into a DragQueen Story Hour in San Lorenzo California, making white power gesturesand shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs.

Republican politicians in parts of the US are now looking toban children from watching drag performances.

“This is a diversion tactic to take the narrative away from the gun debate [and] scare people into thinking about something else," RuPaul has said in response.

"It's like y'all want to help your kids? Take away them guns, that will help your kids. Drag queens ain't hurting nobody."

RuPaul's own track record on trans rightsisn't flawless— he was heavily criticised in 2018 for comments about whether Drag Race should allow transgender queens to compete.

"Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it's not men doing it," RuPaul told The Guardian, adding that he probably wouldn't have admitted trans queen Peppermint if she had already started gender-affirming surgery.

Former contestants and fans were quick to point out how instrumental the trans community was in drag history, andRuPaul eventually apologised — a statement Peppermint acknowledged as an important step forward.

Since then, many more trans contestants have entered the Drag Race workroom, including the first trans man, Gottmik, and winning queens Angele Anang, Kylie Sonique Love, Vanessa Van Cartier and Willow Pill.

And Ru's rules around gender performance seem to have changed.

Dozens of non-binary queens have competed in recent seasons, as well as the first cisgender women anda cisgender, straight male drag queen.

The show is far from perfect when it comes to representation. But it remains one of the most highly visible entertainment platforms for the queer community.

The magic of Drag Race: queer joy

Given its undeniable success, there is something in the Drag Race formula that has clearly struck a chord with audiences around the world.

Beverly Kills says part of what makes the show stand out from other reality competition formats is how it relies on contestants succeeding.

"Drag Race relies on contestants doing well, compared to other reality TV shows that rely on some people doing poorly for entertainment," she says.

"Queens will do badly, it's how the competition works. Someone will do the worst and someone will go home. But the good thing is that they want everyone to succeed."

Fans seem to agree. Among the highest-rated episodes of the franchise are showstopping finales and episodes where no queens are eliminated because everyone exceeded the judges' expectations.

"To me, that is exactly what Drag Race is about. It's about making sure it's just a queer joy," Beverly says.

"People can experience that and maybe relate to it and feel excited to be a part of the community."

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