Things on the Paleyfest stage got a little more glamorous on Sunday when host RuPaul Charles and judges and producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race graced the stage to talk about the creativity, uniqueness, nerve and talent it takes to make the Emmy-winning reality show that has snatched our wigs for 11 seasons (plus four All-Star seasons). Moderated by Aisha Tyler, the Drag Race team talked about the slayworthy eleganza extravaganaza and camp of the VH1 reality series, but also the awareness the show has brought to the LGBTQIA+ communities and those who have ever been marginalized — especially in the divisive climate we live in now.
Supermodel of the world RuPaul was joined on the stage with the show’s regular judges Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley and Ross Mathews as well as Drag Race producers Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey, Tom Campbell, Steven Corfe, Mandy Salangsang, Pam Post and Tim Palazzola. Yes, the show has given us some of the most epic lip sync battles of all time and tons of workroom drama, but behind all the paint and powder, Drag Race has made an entire community feel seen. Showcasing drag culture in mainstream media started with the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning (and possibly even before that). Drag Race has amplified this message and continues to do so in its 11th season.
Charles says that drag culture has evolved and “it’s always been irreverent, dangerous and political.” Now, with the advent of streaming, the audience has changed and they have a global reach. Drag Race has and continues to shift the conversation about drag culture and the LGBTQIA community. In its own special way, it educates.
Drag runs deep with camp, glamour and inappropriate humor, but beyond that, Visage notes that the show has helped parents of queer children understand their kids better and, as a result, bring families closer together. Kressley adds that the humor disarms people and makes them forget preconceived notions and see the Drag Queen contestants as people.
The most personal moments on the show come when the queens are “beating their faces” before the runway show. A lot of the times, they share stories and some of those narratives make their way on to the mainstage. It’s these stories that give the show soul, heart and compassion as they are stories about being thrown out or abandoned as a child because they came out as gay or hardships with addiction and abuse.
The producers recall moments that they did not expect to happen during the show. As much as laughter on the show, there are plenty of tears. During season one, Ongina revealed her status as HIV positive on the show, which proved to be very emotional. In season five, Roxxxy Andrews broke into tears as she shared her story of when she and her sister were abandoned at a bus stop by their mother at a very early age. Drag Race has given people who feel displaced and abandoned a sense of community — whether it be a queen on the show or a viewer living in middle America.
“We get to show the world the coping skills of queer people,” said Charles. “We all come from broken places — society has pushed us to the side and there are deep feelings there.” Charles continues to say that Drag Race pulls the curtain back on how the queens cope with their emotions via beauty, humor, and the wild creativity that comes with each episode. He also adds that “every kid sees there’s a tribe out there waiting for them with open arms.”
Charles points out that Drag Race is a “reflection of a global idea.”
“We learn how to integrate and behave with one another,” he said. “We learn how to navigate different cultures and ask questions.” This is more evident this season which features one of the most diverse casts in the show’s history. In addition to members of the black and Latinx community, the 11th season features Asian immigrants as well as the show’s first Muslim drag queen named Mercedes Iman Diamond, who in the most recent episode is apprehensive to talk about her religion with her fellow contestants and the cameras — it is certainly a story that will unfold throughout the season.
Executive producer Tom Campbell admits that he doesn’t think Drag Race has changed much since season one. “When the show began, competition shows were much meaner,” he said. He also points out that the first queens brought so much heart to the show and how the show has even shown the diversity within the world of drag. Like the LGBTQIA community, drag is not a monolith and it is shown with queens like Sharon Needles, Alyssa Edwards, Latrice Royale, Vixen, Sasha Velour and even this season’s Yvie Oddly.
From SNL alum Bobby Moynihan to the Oscar-winning Lady Gaga, the series has seen the likes of many guest hosts. It has shown its influence on pop culture. Visage said every guest judge wants to be there and is a genuine fan of the show which makes for great camaraderie. Campbell chimed in with a story about how Debbie Reynolds burst into the control room to introduce herself. That said, the producers and judges gushed about their dream guest judges. Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Diana Ross were thrown on the table while Visage continues in her campaign to get Madonna on the show. But the best suggestion came from Kressley and Mathews who said they want to be sandwiched in between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Judge Judy on the panel.
Since Drag Race, drag culture has become bolder and more in the mainstream, inspiring people to be defiantly beautiful and unapologetically themselves. Charles said that the show was made to elevate and celebrate the culture of drag.
“I also want to say we live in a world where drag is loved,” adds Visage. “Drag has changed because of one person — and that’s because of RuPaul.”
With that, the crowd and the panelists on the stage at the Dolby Theater came to its feet, giving Charles an uproarious ovation.
“It’s taken a while to get where Ru is,” said Visage. “This is the queen right here. There have been many attempts to do other shows — but there is a reason why RuPaul’s Drag Race works.”
After the applause calmed down, Charles stood on his feet and thanked the crowd and said, “I just want to add that the RuPaul’s pop up shop is upstairs right here at the Dolby Theater.”