RuPaul Is Shifting Drag into Overdrive

By Jase Peeples
Originally published: The Advocate 2/24/14

We’ve only been talking for a little over three minutes, and I’m nowhere near asking the questions I’ve prepared on the impact Drag Race has had on pop culture, when RuPaul offers this thesis: “We live in a masculine-obsessed culture. Straight people are obsessed with masculinity; gay people are obsessed with masculinity — that’s our culture.”

Our preoccupation with masculinity might seem an unusual point coming from a performer who is known as much for his singing talent as his ability to work a runway in a fabulous frock, carefully styled wig, and an exquisite pair of heels. But as he points out, it’s drag’s ability to shift the extremes of identity that gives the artform its appeal — and the reason it is still feared.

“Because of our obsession with masculinity, anything outside of that traditional definition is feared or thought of as weak,” he explains. “It’s like we’re living in the film The Matrix, as if we exist in a computer program, and anything that attempts to take us outside those familiar boundaries, we fear and shun. And that’s how drag is still viewed by a lot of people. The ego thrives on identity. So here we are, these drag queens, saying, ‘Now I’m a man. Oh, wait, now I’m a fierce queen. Now I’m dressed as this, now I’m dressed as that’ — there’s resistance to it, because the idea of breaking the code, breaking the matrix, is fearful to people.”

Nevertheless, it was RuPaul’s daring choice to break with traditional gender norms as a drag performer that helped make him a household name shortly after his debut dance track “Supermodel (You Better Work)” sashayed onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1993. “When I was younger, I never understood why more people weren’t as intrigued with drag as I was,” he says. “I love the idea of shape-shifting and creating an identity for yourself, and then creating another one, and then another. That’s what we humans really are, we’re shape-shifters. For some reason we’re continually trying to repress that, but we are shape-shifters, and that’s why I think it’s always so interesting to watch someone let go and become the creation of their imagination.”

With the advent of reality television, witnessing the transformation of others has become a national pastime, and RuPaul’s Drag Race — which kicks off its sixth season tonight on Logo — has parlayed that interest onto a stage where an often misunderstood element of LGBT culture has been allowed to shine. But since the series debuted in 2009, Drag Race has become far more than an international hit; it has become a phenomenon. From expanding the boundaries of fashion to the adoption of LGBT slang by the mainstream, the impact of the reality series on pop culture can be seen in numerous ways, and an artform that was once even shunned by many in the LGBT community now attracts legions of cheering fans who flock to bars where episodes of Drag Raceare screened.

However, the Duchess of Drag doesn’t find the show’s popularity or its impact on pop culture surprising. “Gay culture has always informed and inspired mainstream culture — even more so today because of social media,” says RuPaul. “Whether people are talking about ‘throwing shade’ or telling someone to ‘work bitch,’ everyday culture and gay culture have morphed together more than ever before. It’s been an ongoing process and our show is a part of that process.”

“Specifically, I think our show has inspired so much in terms of fashion,” he adds. “Big stars from Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are all fans of Drag Race, and I think we’ve inspired a lot of pop stars to go further, to do more. Drag has come in fashion and out of fashion over the years, and right now now it’s way in fashion.”

Yet RuPaul is quick to point out that the personal stories of the contestants are the true engine beneath the hood of Drag Race. “At its core, this show is really about the tenacity of the human spirit,” he says. “What people are really cheering for is that part of themselves that they may have never expressed or may have been ashamed of at one point. These kids and our cast members represent all these factions of living outside the box and I think that’s why people get so invested in the characters, because they represent every aspect of what it’s like to dance to the beat of your own drum.”With the debut of his first unisex fragrance, Glamazon, and makeup line late last year as well as the release of his sixth studio album, Born Naked (available today), it’s clear that RuPaul doesn’t plan to stop dancing to the beat of his own drum any time soon. However, he promises to incorporate a few new steps this time around. “The new album has allowed me to take off the mask just a little bit, not enough to scare people,” he says, “but just enough where I dig down and go a little deeper.”

But while RuPaul is eager to share a softer side with his latest musical collection and embraces the use of social media to interact with his fans, he is concerned that the growing trend to primarily communicate through technology and devices in lieu of real-time human interaction is having a negative effect on the our sense of community. “Social media has done wonderful things in terms of connecting people, but it’s also created a different sort of divide between us, as well,” he says. “It reminds me of the trend in New York City around the mid-’90s, when the clubs became more polarized. Where the one type of guy would go to one place and the lesbians would go to another and the blacks would go someplace else. When I was coming up in New York, everybody went to the same clubs and there were tons of them. That’s what made it so great because everyone was mixed up and there was just no telling who you would see at the club. From an uptown lady to a street performer, everyone was mixed together. But for some reason that changed in the ’90s — people decided to become more polarized and they wanted to be around ‘their kind.’”

“I think in some ways social media has magnified that,” he adds. “These days you can’t even have a debate or conversations on a topic because people are so quick to be offended. The ego that runs our culture is looking for any opportunity to say, ‘How dare you offend me.’ And it’s like, fuck off, work that shit out with your therapist and don’t be so ready to pop off. Listen, think, and be open.”

However, RuPaul says our sense of community is about to experience a positive transformation. “People’s patterns are cyclical,” he says, “and I think we’re just at the beginning of something marvelous.”

The performer who once commanded the world to “wet your lips and make love to the camera” is now seeing the seeds he planted more than 20 years ago blossom in a new generation of fearless queens who have used their exposure on Drag Race to shift their careers into overdrive. “The best part of all of this has been watching these girls take over the world. The idea that these kids are making a name for themselves and becoming world-famous is just so exciting to me, and it really means my legacy continues on through them,” he says with his signature laugh.