RuPaul gives drag queens the royal treatment

Drag queens sashay down the runway, lip-syncing to RuPaul’s “Main Event,” escorted by their drag mothers. The mother-daughter fashion show has begun, and immediately we realize: we’ve never seen anything like this on TV. The mamas are only mommies for a day -- older gay men plucked out of their quiet lives to be transformed into drag queens as part of a reality show challenge. They’ve never worn heels, makeup or dresses.

And a test it is. Heels prove a giant obstacle for a couple of “mothers” who have trouble walking in their own shoes because of disabilities. But there they were in a Culver City studio last July, filming an episode of the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on Logo.

Their “daughters” have shaved them, contoured their cheekbones, lined their eyes and lips, applied wigs, dyed their shoes and dressed them in their own likenesses. You know, to get the mother-daughter effect.

When the “ladies” first strut on stage, there is laughter. Guest judge Cloris Leachman spends the first 45 minutes cracking up. “I want to see that again!” she screams when one drag queen accidentally flashes the judges.

Guest judge Debbie Reynolds can’t get enough of the sparkly showmanship of it all. “You are no contest for Ginger Rogers,” she tells Golda Lamé, drag mother to 30-year-old tough cookie, Raven. In her normal life, Golda Lamé uses a walker for assistance, so when she lets loose to dance, Reynolds says what everyone is thinking: “I was praying you were going to make it. You’re very funny. You’re hysterical.”

Then, just like that, a sentimental mood takes over. It turns out Raven bonded with Golda, a prominent gay rights activist, as they worked on their looks and performance together for 10 hours. When their rendition of RuPaul’s single is over, Raven picks up Golda, who is clearly struggling, and carries her backstage, a gesture that touches the judges and the crew.

“She seemed so protective of her mother,” RuPaul observes when they return to be evaluated. Raven is standing arm-in-arm with Golda, holding her shoes. “We haven’t seen so many sweet sides to Raven.” “The exchange was adorable,” Reynolds adds. “I felt the mother overcame her problem with great courage and they were really funny. I felt their friendship.”

If you’ve never seen “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a show that on the surface fits the “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway” mold, all this touchy-feely talk might come as a surprise. But if you’re in the legion who helped make the Logo series a sleeper hit last year, you know that emotion and honesty are the elements that have made this show about the power of personal transformation addictive, distinctive and meaningful. The grand prize is to win the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” but what RuPaul hopes is that contestants and viewers alike find “the Superman to their Clark Kent.”

“I stayed away from reality television for years because I didn’t want to do anything mean-spirited,” RuPaul said. “And I knew if we did this show, it would have to be with reverence and a love for these creative, courageous souls who do drag. Anyone who can follow his heart, buck the system, put on some lipstick and go outside is my hero. These kids were all little boys who were teased and who had to learn how to nurture the hero inside.”

Of course, Leachman isn’t the only one who giggles when RuPaul proclaims the now classic line, “It’s time to lip-sync for your liiife!” to the two last-place contestants or when contestants get admonished for their poor tucking jobs. But for every hilarious moment, there are poignant scenes, too. Last season, for example, Ongina, 27, touched viewers after she won a spot as a M.A.C. Cosmetics Viva Glam spokesperson, broke down and revealed that she was HIV-positive.

“We’re looking for someone who can fill Ru’s shoes, who can be the next drag superstar and carry forward the art of drag, and it’s a tough one because, still to this day, society and people marginalize gay culture and gay people marginalize drag culture,” said Santino Rice, the second-season “Project Runway” fashion designer who serves as a judge on the show.

“This show really shows people that they need to own who they are as individuals and if a man can transform himself into a beautiful creation, a beautiful drag queen, anything is possible,” he continued. “It’s really your mind that’s holding you back from anything you want to accomplish.”

A hit is born

Not even gay-friendly Bravo would buy “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” even with RuPaul on board as the host, mentor, and chief judge -- roles he plays in and out of drag. In a way, RuPaul understood. Convincing him to be a part of it had been a tough sell, too. Politically, the country had become more conservative than when the 49-year-old became the first drag queen to land mainstream success in the ‘90s, and he didn’t think they’d find a network “because of the culture of fear and hysteria.”

But then Barack Obama became a viable presidential candidate, and RuPaul saw an opening. It also helped that eclectic, compelling reality show protagonists were popping up all over the small screen.

“For so many years, drag clubs closed down,” said RuPaul, who lives in Los Angeles, began his drag career in the club scene in Atlanta and made it big in 1993 with his hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work).” “The kids had to do shows without lighting, and no stage. I wasn’t going to participate in anything that would seem like we were mocking drag in any way.”

Hollywood-based reality production company World of Wonder (“Fantasia for Real” and “Million Dollar Listing”) wouldn’t give up. The company’s co-founders, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, have known RuPaul for 25 years, and they were adamant about working with him again.

“What he projects is such a bright light and he never really crashed and burned,” said Tom Campbell, World of Wonder’s head of development. “He just went away. I was craving my RuPaul.”

When RuPaul and the producers pitched the 5-year-old, gay-oriented Logo network, senior vice president of programming and development David Mace was smitten. The network, now available in 45 million homes, had heard many drag show pitches, but RuPaul’s involvement immediately grabbed him.

“The genius of this show, for me, was that it’s all about transformation and the fact that RuPaul plays dual roles: out of drag as the mentor in the work room -- and then in drag as the judge and queen bee,” Mace said. “We get to see those two sides of RuPaul and the payoff with the contestants is that you see them as men and then as queens and it’s a fascinating process.”

Logo bought the show during the first meeting, expecting it to strike a chord with the network’s core audience, but did little to promote it. Viewers found it anyway and burned up the blogosphere with their support. Although Nielsen doesn’t yet measure Logo’s audience, Mace said the network monitored online viewing, visits to the show’s website and the positive response from TV critics. After it aired on sister network VH1, Mace knew he had a hit. “This was all word of mouth. People were just ready for it,” RuPaul said.

Although straight fans are just as rabid on the Web about it as gays, Barbato said he’s proud to produce a show that is helping drag queens elevate their artistry and lengthen their careers.

“This is very corny but from the perspective of the gay community, the drag queens threw the brick,” Barbato said. “They are the heroes of the gay and lesbian and transgender communities. At a time when a big part of the gay population is about marriage and mainstreaming gay and lesbians, it’s so important not to forget the colors in the rainbow.”

Rank and be ranked

“The library is now open,” RuPaul announces to his contestants. “Jujubee, do you have your library card?” This is Jujubee’s cue to “read” (trash-talk) her drag “sisters.”

The 25-year-old from Boston gives Raven the once over and says, “And you! Legendary, you think you are! Legendary looks more like leg and dairy!”

“Oh my,” RuPaul says. “She’s an expert reader. A speed reader.”

When it’s Pandora Boxx’s turn, she doesn’t miss a beat: “Tyra Sanchez, if you are America’s sweetheart, America needs a heart transplant.”


A winner is declared, and the drag queens retreat to their work room to prepare for a complicated challenge that involves writing and marketing a memoir, a photo shoot for its cover, a meeting with a graphic designer and an interview with an entertainment journalist. Last season’s contestants now see the value of these tests, which RuPaul develops from his own life.

“Not only did the show help me grow as a drag performer, but it helped me grow as a person,” said Ongina, who lives in Los Angeles. “The opportunities have been end- less. I’ve been traveling internationally and I just spoke in front of the U.S. Conference for AIDS. Who would ever [have] thought that a Filipino bald queen would sit with people like that and talk about what I’m going through?”

Success for the weekly show has meant fancier sets, improved lighting, three more drag queens (for a total of 12) and a celebrity roster of guest judges, including Kathy Griffin, Jackie Collins, Lisa Rinna and Tatum O’Neal. It also has brought the addition of a companion show, “Untucked,” which will follow the queens into the Interior Illusions Lounge when the judges are deliberating.

“In Season 1, we really had to reintroduce drag to the world so we needed some of the veterans of drag, some of the people who hold the keys to the legacy of drag,” RuPaul said. “In Season 2, we were able to mix it up a little bit and go younger. When I first started doing drag, there was a lot that I had to work through on a personal level to be able to do it. A lot of these kids don’t have that conditioning. They don’t know the shame attached to drag.”

Indeed, Tatianna, 21, tells RuPaul in the work room that she knows exactly what she wants to write about -- coming out when she was 11 and having the guts to go to school in drag when she was 14. Her first line: “I stepped off the school bus and I knew my life would change forever because it was the day I was coming out to my fifth-grade class.”

“So it was like ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag and I’m gay,’ ” RuPaul replies. “That’s a book I will read. Good for you.” /entertainment Can’t get enough “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its spicy host? Log in to see more photos.