Last year, RuPaul Charles scooped his first Emmy as host of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While that win was the first Emmy recognition for either Charles or the show, this year, their ninth season boasts a grand total of eight nominations. Charles is again nominated for host, while the show is up for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, and its makeup, hairstyling, costumes, picture editing and casting also merited noms.
So why the sudden Emmys bonanza? Possibly, a Season 9 move from Logo to VH1 helped the show get more recognition, and perhaps viewers are more open to LGBT themes, but as Charles says philosophically, “I think we’re on the precipice of major change, but I’m not sure if that change will come through a television show.” Drag Race presents real, personal stories within a fun competition format, and Charles says it provides an important outlet for young people. “We’ve created a vernacular for sweet, smart, sensitive souls out there to really use in their lives as a navigation,” he explains.
Drag Race got so many nominations this year–did this feel like real recognition at last?
I was very happy. I’ve always conducted my business on the outskirts of town, so to speak. I’ve never been part of mainstream show business, so for the hierarchy of the television industry to recognize our little show is quite an accomplishment. I actually never really courted the hierarchy; I’ve always done my own thing, created my own show business storyline. It’s always a shock when the status quo recognizes us.
Do you think this level of response signals a positive change for Americans?
This is coming from the show business community. It’s coming from the Academy, so it’s not really a cross-section of America. But it is the beginning of change in America because the people who vote in the Television Academy are the tastemakers and the gatekeepers of different points of view through their work in the television industry. So it is the beginning of something, but we still have a long way to go in terms of LGBT recognition. When Will & Grace was on, people would always ask me, “Do you think this signals a change?” I thought, Will & Grace is a television show. That’s different from being in the middle of Wyoming at a truck stop and dealing with middle Americans on their own turf. It’s different in middle America. Very different. We’re still a very primitive culture, not just in America, but really around the world.
How has the move to VH1 affected things?
We didn’t know we were moving to VH1 until a month before we went on the air. When we taped the show, we assumed it would go straight onto Logo. The biggest difference for us is that VH1 has more eyes on it—90 million to 93 million homes. That’s major. It’s brilliant that we’re accessible to many more eyes and many more malleable minds, young minds.
Do you feel you cater specifically to younger people who might be feeling trapped or marginalized in their daily lives?
We have deliberately served as a curator for a lot of young people who are so smart, so creative and so loving, to direct them and help guide them through their life’s decisions. I’m very, very proud of that. Our show, at its core, is about the tenacity of the human spirit, and the kids who are contestants on our show have been through everything. Sometimes they’ve been ostracized from their families or from society, but they have made a way for their flower to bloom and shine. That speaks volumes, not just for potential drag queens out there, but for anybody out there watching who’s ever had a dream. It takes a lot of courage to follow your heart. In fact, I think it’s the most political thing you could do.
Chris Pine recently did a bit on SNL as a mechanic whose favorite show is Drag Race. Do you feel like you’re entering the mainstream?
I loved it. I think it’s fantastic, but again, that was kind of an inside joke. Our show is still not seen. Most of the people in the world don’t know what our show is. It’s not like, say, The Voice or something that really crosses over. We’re still niche. I maintain that there’s still so much work to be done, because that work we’re talking about is more than just coming from a television show; the work we’re talking about has to do with how people see themselves in the world and how they relate to other people.
How did Lady Gaga get involved as a guest host?
She wrote me a tweet probably three or four years ago saying, “I love the show. It represents the world I come from in the New York downtown club world, and a lot of drag queens taught me how to become a better woman.” She said, “I want to be a judge on the show.” It took that many years to coordinate the schedules for her to finally to be on it. I’m so happy we were able to do it. She was able to tell our contestants how fabulous they were and how to recognize the opportunity that was happening to them. Their lives would be forever changed from this moment on. Seemingly, she became a superstar overnight, and she was able to prepare our girls for what was about to happen to them.
How do you see the show evolving going forward?
Every season, what changes about our show is the contestants. We produce, plan and craft the show every year, but we can never anticipate what the contestants’ energy adds to the show. It’s always really new for us and exciting. In fact, that’s what keeps it exciting for me is these bright, courageous, incredible queens who come every season to not only tell their stories, but inspire everyone they’re around.