The 90s are making a comeback, for better or worse, with celebrities like Miley Cyrus doing an interesting Madonna impression and shows like Girl Meets World tugging the heartstrings of nostalgic TV fans. But one of the best 90s comebacks has to be that of RuPaul — and like any drag queen worth her wig, she’s reinvented herself with RuPaul’s Drag Race. Part Project Runway, part America’s Next Top Model and a scoche of Bad Girls Club, it’s one of the few reality shows that prides itself on being in on the manufactured drama it presents. Drag Race has also given the LGBT community a platform to showcase drag as an art form — and, with RuPaul as its host, a cultural touchstone for this decade. Billed as the “lost” season, the first season of Drag Race is currently airing on LOGO and gaining new fans every week.
Heading into season six, the runaway hit has breathed new life into RuPaul’s career, giving him the kind of exposure — and acceptance — that eluded him a decade ago. But for RuPaul, drag was never the center of his life or even his career; instead, it was simply a means to an end, a gateway to his destiny. “I knew I had a personality, had something that I thought had value,” he said in this month’s Rolling Stone profile. “I just didn’t know specifically what language or what venue it would be.” Sharing his value with the world — whether in makeup or out of it — was always RuPaul’s ultimate goal.
And with RuPaul’s Drag Race, he has found his calling: extolling the virtues of personal empowerment. He spends most of each episode in funky tailored suits (what he calls “male drag”), doling out advice on everything from beauty to relationships. Ending each episode of Drag Race with an Oprahfied affirmation (“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love anybody else? Can I get an amen!”) he reveals his own philosophy of love and self-worth. Drag was the door RuPaul walked through to reach stardom, but it’s what he does with his public platform that defines him.
For many contestants — young queens learning the ropes of the art, gay men estranged from or reuniting with their families, trans women in various stages of transition — the show is a visible step on their journeys of emotional growth. It sounds trite, but for each queen who allows a chapter of her life story to be featured on Drag Race, there’s an opportunity for a teachable moment in the audience. With weekly recaps and regular coverage in mainstream media outlets like Entertainment Weekly and Television Without Pity, the Polari, or slang, of drag culture — as well as the everyday lives of gay men and trans women — serve to educate the audience and humanize the show’s contestants in a subversive way.
Of course, it’s show business as much as pop psychotherapy, and RuPaul is a master of showmanship. And just like Dr. Phil or Oprah, Ru’s guiding hand steers her girls toward self-actualization and stardom: season five winner Jinkx Monsoon’s off-Broadway show The Vaudevillians is a bona fide hit, and standouts like Latrice Royale, Manila Luzon and Willam Belli have become drag superstars in their own right.
At the heart of RuPaul’s Drag Race is the message that everyone deserves to be heard and seen and loved — a philosophy that transcends sexuality and culture. But it doesn’t hurt to look fabulous along the way.