While much has changed over the course of the last decade, RuPaul’s Drag Race has remained much the same. Still dominating the reality sphere, continuing to grow its audience year by year, the challenge in putting on the series remains the aggressive fight for excellence.
In the eyes of RuPaul—the series’ two-time Emmy-winning host—and executive producer Randy Barbato (co-founder of World of Wonder, with Fenton Bailey), every episode is a new challenge, even 10 seasons in. “We push ourselves to constantly make it better,” Barbato says, “to be making the best TV that’s out there.”
A relentlessly determined and enthusiastic creative, Barbato and his series have been hit over the past year by an altogether different kind of challenge—a challenge of a political nature. While some reality producers deflect talk regarding their work’s sociopolitical consciousness, Barbato is happy to own his. “To be a drag queen—to choose to be a drag queen—is a political statement in and of itself,” he says. “I would say all of our seasons are political, because I think drag is political.”
Confronting a presidential administration often at odds with minority groups, Barbato has found in these trying times not only an obstacle, but also an opportunity—to loudly, proudly champion the voices of the LGBTQ population.
You’ve hit upon a benchmark season in your 10th go-round. What has that meant for you, looking back on your years with Drag Race?
Going into the 10th season has been sort of extraordinary for us. For this little show that started over 10 years ago to actually be more popular than it’s ever been in its 10th season has been more than a dream come true. I think it has exceeded all of our wildest expectations. In a weird way, it’s a reflection of all the passion that’s put into producing the show, the passion of the people behind the camera and the talent that are featured. I do think our show is unique to a lot of reality shows, because we’re celebrating these incredible artists who have a multitude of talents and also have these unbelievable stories to share.
What was on your mind as you set out with Season 10?
A big thing for us was to celebrate the decade of drag. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a unique competitive reality show in that there really aren’t any losers. All of our queens are winners. They actually all go out and grow their careers. This season, we featured queens from the past. We wanted to remind the audience of a little bit of the legacy that we’ve already built.
What have your methods been in keeping the series fresh over the years? What contributed to this season’s vitality?
A lot of the creative team behind RuPaul’s Drag Race have been with the show since the beginning, or for a very long time. We have a pretty rigorous creative pre-production schedule. We go through endless ideas and boards and schedules, pitching out ideas, and RuPaul is very hands on with all of that. We’re endlessly pitching new episodic creatives. Sometimes there’s a rich idea that you know early on has got something, and sometimes we’re changing the schedule literally a week before we tape an episode.
Ru’s famous question when we’re talking with him about ideas is, “What’s under the hood? What’s this idea? What’s this challenge really about?” I would just say we have a rigorous process when it comes to the creative of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s one where every idea is challenged endlessly, up until the moment we’re taping it.
What has last season’s transition from Logo to VH1 meant for the show? Has it allowed you to be even more audacious with your challenges?
The move from Logo to VH1 has been amazing for us. I think [VH1, MTV and Logo President] Chris McCarthy saw an opportunity to organically grow the show. What’s been the most amazing is that moving from this smaller network to a more mainstream network, there’s been no additional creative restrictions. Nothing has changed behind the scenes, in terms of the day to day and how we go through the creative. I think there was a big concern on our end. “Oh no, we’re going to have the opportunity to have a bigger audience, but…” You have that fear of, “Does this mean now that ideas are going to be vetted in a different way?” And that didn’t happen at all. The network encouraged us to just keep doing what we were doing, while simultaneously offering us a larger platform. I think the timing just seemed to be right—and the show has always been kind of audacious. I don’t think we ever needed any encouragement to push that further. We always try and push it as far as we can. That’s what drag is about.
Can you dig further into the process of executing your challenges, from a logistical perspective? This season’s musical challenges were particularly interesting.
I think as the RuPaul’s Drag Race machine has grown and been fine-tuned, we’ve had the ability to stage more ambitious challenges, [like] musical ones with more ambitious production designs. I think in every area, the goal is to deliver spectacle. We just push ourselves to deliver. It’s like all the people working on Drag Race are drag queens. Drag itself is about everything being over the top, and that’s the way we produce the show. We produce the show with a drag head and a drag mind, so whatever the challenge might be, the idea is to create shock and awe. If we don’t do that, then we feel like we’re not delivering.
Looking back on this season, were there specific takeaways for you?
The heart and soul of this show are the queens, the artists who are featured. We produce these epic challenges, but so often the real takeaway is what comes from them and their vérité moment. This season, we tackled these amazing topics: topics of race, of conversion therapy. These are their stories. This whole show couldn’t exist without them, and they’re really the engine of the show. We dress it up with these amazing and entertaining challenges, but I think what people really take away from the show is the connection they make with these queens and the stories that these queens share with us.
I think that there were some really provocative and illuminating discussions about race, about conversion therapy, and about homophobia. These kind of naturally come out. To live your life as a drag queen is not an easy feat. To survive and then to ultimately succeed, it takes a lot.
What made Aquaria a model winner for this show in Season 10?
I think that she was consistent throughout the season. She was strong in the competitions. She was unique. She delivered a sort of fashion look. You know, it’s weird. All top four were extraordinary choices, but Aquaria had the sort of strength and consistency and drive and the look to take it over the top. She went home with the crown and made us happy.
As you noted, RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t afraid to address contemporary politics—and it also has its finger on the pulse of current pop culture. What is the goal in tapping into these areas?
I think the art of drag creates the opportunity to comment on popular culture. The art of drag gives one permission to talk about everything that’s going on and do it in an at times politically incorrect way. I think that it would be impossible to do a good drag television show without being topical and current, and dealing with the current political climate. That’s what drag is all about, and it’s also the thing that inspires drag.
When you think about RuPaul’s Drag Race, I would say that Season 10 was a particularly political season. The fact that our show even exists, especially given today’s climate, is political. I think the longer the current political environment exists, the more important our show is, and the more significant the role it plays in not only entertaining our audience, but in reminding our audience how important it is for the voices of the individuals we showcase in our show to be heard, to be respected, to be acknowledged.
It’s truly part of what drives all of us who make the show, and I believe, part of what drives so many of the artists who do drag. We’re out here waving the flag, reminding people not to judge other people, reminding people to take a second look at people you might ordinarily dismiss or think you don’t connect with or have something in common with.
Why do you think the series has resonated so strongly, to the point where it’s managing to build its audience, year after year?
I think many people come to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race for a laugh. Or they’ve heard about it and they tune in and think, “Oh, this will be a fun thing.” Then they connect to the actual drag queens. The reason this show has been successful and has continued to grow is because people connect to our characters, and it surprises them. It catches them off guard. I think they tune in to see a freak show, and they stay tuned because they join the family. I don’t think anyone has that kind of expectation when they first come to RuPaul’s Drag Race. The queens who star in the show become part of your family—and who doesn’t want a drag queen in their family? Come on. That’s who you want to bring home for Thanksgiving.