Not knowing drag’s history gets RuPaul steamed, but so do politics, the media and mad men
At the end of each episode of Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the show’s host, judge and jury, RuPaul Charles, chooses two of the lowest performing contestants to “lip sync for their lives.” If they survive, they make it to the next episode. If not, they famously “sashay away.” A decision, mind you, that along with determining the eventual winner of the program is famously in the hands of the legendary pop culture figure who will remind you, “That’s why it’s called ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
In the second episode of the show’s eighth season, the bottom two drag queen contestants were tasked with lip-syncing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the iconic disco track that many gay boys have grown up secretly (or not so secretly) lip-syncing to for almost 40 years. In this instance, the contestants were so bad, that it ruffled RuPaul’s feathers.
There’s a long history of drag and part of that history is that song. It is like not knowing the words to the national anthem.
“Watching that lip sync, I was thinking ‘Wait a minute, back up. No,’” he recalls. “There’s a long history of drag and part of that history is that song. It is like not knowing the words to the national anthem.”
RuPaul was thinking about that key moment in the show in the context of almost two weeks of the Republican and Democratic conventions mercifully coming to an end. Earlier, he’d gone through his routine of morning tweets and many on this day had something to say about the current political discourse. It was clear the always unfiltered entertainer had other things on his mind.
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“[The lip-syncing] was really a slap in the face and if you are an American who has followed the values of the American people for many, many years and you watch what’s happened in this election you will really be disgusted; you will be thinking, ‘Yes, this is a big threat,’ but why aren’t people screaming in the streets going, ‘This is not how we think! This is not who we are,’” RuPaul says animatedly. “And that is how I felt during that lip sync. That was why they both had to go home.”
Like many reality competition shows, “Drag Race” traditionally has a five- to six-month lag time between filming and broadcast. When Season 8 was filming a year ago no one could have predicted that Donald Trump would end up as the Republican nominee for president of the United States. That didn’t stop one contestant, Robbie Turner of Seattle, from joking about outlawing Trump during a Supreme Court justice-themed mini-challenge. In another episode, the queens created their own outrageous presidential campaign ads that seemed slightly more appropriate for the primary season than RuPaul or the show’s other producers could have ever envisioned.
“I don’t want to sound so metaphysical, but as long as we have been doing this show it really has had a mind of its own and there are things that have come through that have surprised us,” RuPaul says. “Certain things that we could have never produced, we could have never foreseen that history would turn out the way it does.”
One-hundred contestants and 109 episodes into the landmark series, RuPaul – who appears in both male and female dress over the course of each installment – finally earned an Emmy nomination for host of a reality or reality-competition program. He certainly earned it. RuPaul not only dealt with that epic lip sync fail but in a later episode had the grace to criticize the four contestants who thought wearing a kimono outfit for a Madonna runway challenge was a winning formula without screaming at them. (“Knowing what I know about younger people it was probably the easiest choice.”)
He also ended up crowning a popular winner who has been lauded for his response to the Orlando nightclub attack, Bob the Drag Queen (Christopher Caldwell). The tragedy stirred strong emotions in the drag community, as the venue was a regular performance destination for many former “Drag Race” contestants including RuPaul.
“Pulse is a club I’ve worked at for years and years and years, and it’s a safe place that [you could go to] after fighting so many battles to be yourself even within your own blood family,” RuPaul says. “We have all been so desensitized by these kinds of tragedies, but the Pulse tragedy did hit me the hardest because they are my children and because they’re all of our children. They are the children who have dared to dance to the beat of a different drummer.”
One of the more under-reported stories the night of the attack was that many of the people in the club were on hand to see “Drag Race” alum and transgender queen Kenya Michaels perform. RuPaul understands why the drag connection was barely reported outside of the gay community because the other story was “sexier, especially when you link it to a terrorist story line.” But he has very strong feelings about the shooter and his portrayal in the media.
“The bottom line is it is just a crazy person, a crazy person whose doctrine I don’t want to see,” RuPaul says. “I don’t want to see [his] picture printed but we are a very primitive culture and news media organizations aren’t there yet. Their decisions [on what to report] are based on what their audience wants to see, and the audience doesn’t want to be compelled to think really hard. Of course that story isn’t going to be told because the real story is that of the person who’s made a path for themselves regardless of what society says, you know? People like Kenya Michaels, who says, ‘You know what, I’m going to do my thing regardless of what society says.’”
That struggle with the mainstream media is something RuPaul knows all too well. He talked earlier this year about how despite the increasing popularity of drag around the world, he had never been a guest on a network late-night talk show nor been honored with an Emmy. Could a course correction be in the works? Since that March New York magazine interview, RuPaul has appeared on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and there is an Emmy nomination on his resume.
“The mainstream is never why I do what I do,” RuPaul says. “I know that these are Americans and we are domesticated to strive for the mainstream and strive for the biggest apple in the bunch but that is not everyone’s motivation. Whatever other people think of me is none of my … business.”
“Drag Race” was recently renewed for a ninth season and “All Stars 2,” which finds 10 former contestants competing for a second shot at a crown, premieres Aug. 25. But “Drag Race” has yet to earn a reality series Emmy nod. Might there be something coming up this season to get more voters watching?
“You know, the truth is people vote for their friends,” RuPaul says. “When I was in ninth grade, I won best afro and best dancer and I know I had both, but that’s not what won me the award. What won me the award was I was hanging out with a cool crowd of kids. Don’t get it twisted, that hasn’t changed since junior high school.”
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