When Randy Barbato was younger, he found himself enamored by the drag queens of New York’s East Village. And though it was the 1980s with mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people calling themselves fellow fans, Barbato felt that more than just LGBTQ people would be entertained by the over-the-top spectacle.
Alas, “no one ever thought it could go beyond the East Village,” he said.
Then came RuPaul, who blazed a path and created an empire that now spans the worlds of music, film, television and fashion. At 56, the world’s most famous drag queen has another Ru-venture — DragCon, which comes to the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday and Sunday — and is proof of how far drag has come.
DragCon, now in its third year, is a celebration of “the art of drag, queer culture and self-expression for all.” The event features panel discussions, including “Tucking 101: Everything You Wanted to Know About Tucking (But Were Afraid to Ask)” and a gathering authors in “LGBTQ Youth Fiction Revolution.” Other attractions include a 210,000-square-foot exhibitor space with 200 vendors plus lip-sync contests, drag “herstory” discussion groups and fashion and makeup workshops for men and women.
Think ComicCon, but for drag queens.
The concept grew out of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the reality competition TV show that is “America’s Next Top Model” meets “American Idol.” So many young people have a social media tribe because of the show, RuPaul said.
“DragCon is an opportunity for them to get together in person and meet their tribe because something happens when two people meet,” RuPaul said. “DragCon is a platform for that one-on-one magic to happen.”
The convention and the TV show are signs of how drag moved out of the clubs. RuPaul nabbed an Emmy last year for best reality show host, and though the first eight seasons aired on Viacom’s LGBTQ-focused network, Logo TV, the latest season can be found on the more popular sister network, VH1. When “Drag Race” premiered March 24 in its new slot, the episode starring guest judge Lady Gaga drew nearly 1 million viewers, a new show high.
It’s easier to marginalize someone when you don’t have to think of them as a living, breathing human being.
Although those ratings might signal growing acceptance of LGBTQ people and culture, RuPaul cautions otherwise, pointing to the presidential election.
“The old guard who likes things the way it was — who had more power because of the color of their skin or their gender — are putting up a hell of a fight,” RuPaul said.
And therein lies the importance for drag, said Barbato, who along with Fenton Bailey owns World of Wonder Productions, the company behind “Drag Race” and DragCon. Drag is not just a celebration of diversity but a way for people to come together and use that sense of empowerment to effect change, Barbato said.
“Drag has always been political, and anyone who is willing to buck the system is punk rock in my book,” RuPaul said.
The Times spoke with RuPaul about the latest season of “Drag Race,” recently marrying his partner of 23 years and DragCon’s new Kids Zone, dedicated to drag’s youngest fans.
You have made drag sort of mainstream. Did you ever expect that?
Everything I do, I approach it as if it were the best thing since sliced bread [laughs]. Of course, most other people don’t feel that same way, and then I go on to the next thing. I think it's the only way to approach anything. How people receive art is up to them. It’s none of your business, but I always go into everything with more than 100%.
How did you nab Lady Gaga as the premiere episode’s guest judge?
She’d always wanted to do the show. It was just a scheduling thing. The biggest issue we have with guests is scheduling.
Talk about the benefits of the show moving to VH1.
VH1 certainly has more eyeballs on it, 93 million homes as opposed to less than half of that that Logo has. Logo has always been on the most expensive cable package [laughs] and not everyone knows how to find it. Now everybody knows how to find our show because everybody knows where VH1 is. But I think our audience has always been very very diverse with so many young kids, and then there’s a huge portion of the audience which are young girls. This gives them an opportunity to see the show, and more kids.
Describe DragCon’s Kids Zone and the reason for adding it to this year’s convention.
We did it because we recognize that there are so many young people, from 3 to 11 or so. I think young parents know how important it is to expose their children to this diversity, especially in this current political climate. This is a place where they can go and expand their lives and see that there is more than one way to live a successful, abundant life. It doesn't have to exist in this box, and it involves all the colors in the crayon box. We are so proud of this because it gives our queens an opportunity to meet them, fans that wouldn’t necessarily go to a nightclub to see them.
Speaking of nightclubs, they are no longer the only places where drag can be seen.
Well, nightclubs had been dying because of social media. They used to be spaces where you’d go to meet a friendly stranger [laughs]. I think our show has given people another reason to go to a nightclub. That’s a good thing for clubs. Our show has opened it up to more people. But I rarely ever stay up past 9 o'clock so something like DragCon is great to [meet my] community.
You’ve become a jack of all trades, mastering product placement, selling music, commanding screens large and small. What do you hope the queens who come after you take from your example?
I want them to understand that you craft a career that will last a long time, that will sustain you. I want them to see that this doesn't have to just be a shot in the dark for fame. You can make a career out of this and in the process, if you prepare, you can evolve as a human being. I did not get into show business thinking I would be the world’s most famous drag queen. I just worked hard enough to realize this was something the universe was saying to do.
A few weeks ago, the interwebs were ablaze with news of you marrying your longtime partner. Why do you think people were so surprised?
It’s easier to marginalize someone when you don’t have to think of them as a living, breathing human being. I’ve always kept my private life out of my work because it’s very difficult for people to take in my message and take in me as a sexual, loving human being. Either you’re just the person you portray on TV or just a sexual being. But not both at the same time.
When: April 29 and 30, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles
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