Inspired by living in New York and seeing drag queens perform at the Pyramid Club in the East Village, World of Wonder founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato got the idea for a reality series about a group of drag queens who would show off their craft and compete for prizes.
Armed with the concept that “drag is something anybody can relate to because you get out of bed in the morning and you put on a look, you put on a uniform, you invent yourself,” Bailey says they pitched it around but had trouble finding a home for it. But when Tom Campbell joined them at World of Wonder a few years later, they revisited the idea — and thanks to his persistence, they finally landed a network deal.
“We went into Logo and the rest is herstory,” says Bailey.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” exploded in pop culture and on social media, and is now entering its 10th season.
Hosted and also executive produced by frequent World of Wonder collaborator RuPaul, the show premiered on Viacom’s Logo network in 2009 with a companion online behind-the-scenes series, “Under the Hood of RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“What we really wanted, and still do today, is to really celebrate the art of drag,” says RuPaul. “When we started doing the show, all these other levels of consciousness started to emerge with the stories behind the contestants and the courage it takes to go up against this huge idea of masculinity and what that brings out. It’s all these different layers that emerge once you dig into that.”
The producers credit Viacom as being a collaborative partner that allowed the show to grow and evolve from its first season. “They’ve given us the room to make a show that’s true to the spirit of RuPaul and true to the spirit of drag, and that’s really why this show has been a success,” Barbato says.
“Drag Race” started small in 2009, with a prize package of $20,000 cash, $5,000 worth of MAC Cosmetics, and a campaign with L.A. Eyeworks for the winner. Since then the winnings have increased steadily over the seasons, to $100,000 cash, in addition to cosmetics supplies and the crown.
The series’ debut did not make initial waves in the overall television landscape, gaining the nickname “The Lost Season.” Logo ended up re-airing the season five years after its debut, once the show had gained more popularity.
“The amazing thing, which I think is difficult in today’s climate, was to have the opportunity to make a show where you’re not suddenly unveiled to the world and you’ve got to make it or break it within the first few weeks of the first season,” Bailey says. “This has been a slow burn, and I think that is really advantageous to all of us.”
The popularity and notoriety of “Drag Race” grew season over season, in part because of how “drag is a metaphor for the entire entertainment industry — and the culture at large,” Barbato believes.
|RuPaul sets the tone for “Drag Race” not only as executive producer, but also on-screen host and ultimate judge.|
But RuPaul also notes that it often takes a long time for people to hear about something, let alone pay attention to it.
“Our consumer culture is based on selling beer and shampoo, and they sell that through sexuality. Our show has nothing to do with that,” RuPaul explains. “Our show has to do with self-realization at its core. Not just drag queens but every human who walks on this earth is experiencing humanity. It is the source of, for lack of a better word, God — though I don’t know what God is and I don’t care to know. We are the source experiencing humanity. So there’s this deeper meaning of our show, which speaks to life and what we’re doing on this planet.”
Key for the show’s success has been its casting as well. The show has taken the approach of showcasing comedy queens and pageant queens alike, including all races, ages and looks.
“Assembling a diverse cast each season in terms of different drag styles, backgrounds and experience is of course important. But getting this mix right is actually not as premeditated as you might think,” says executive producer Steven Corfe. “The kids who cut through and stand out from the fold inevitably all bring something cool and distinct to the table. We just cast our favorite 14 standouts each season. Once they’re together in the mix, something surprising happens every time. It’s kind of like a classroom chemistry experiment.”
In its second year, the behind-the-scenes component was retitled “RuPaul’s Drag Race Untucked” and moved off the web to TV. In 2012, the show released a spinoff entitled “All-Stars” that invited past queens to compete once again. And in 2015, “Drag Race” received its first Emmy nomination for multi-camera series or special non-prosthetic makeup — marking the first nom for then-network Logo.
Subsequent years saw a growth in recognition by the Television Academy. In 2016, “Drag Race” received a nomination for costumes and a win for reality or reality competition host (RuPaul), while in 2017 the series, which had moved to VH1, racked up seven noms in the hairstyling, non-prosthetic makeup, casting, costumes, editing, host and reality competition program categories. “Untucked” also received a nom. That year “Drag Race” took home the trophies for costumes, editing and host, giving VH1 its inaugural Emmy wins.
“We asked a lot of our audience with the move from Logo to VH1 and our audience not only followed but [also grew],” says Pam Post, senior vice president of original programming at VH1. “When you see it permeate pop culture at large — the Emmy wins, Time magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ for Ru, commentary on ‘SNL,’ being at Sundance this past year, the cover of the New York Times magazine — those are the awards and the accolades that show you that people are paying attention to it. So the reviews and the recognition and the audience awareness are the ways we measure the success.”
The ninth season premiere on VH1 was the highest-rated for the series, coming in at 987,000 total viewers. Its season finale was the second highest rated episode with 859,000 live+same day total viewers. The format has also seen an international expansion — with a version of the show premiering in Chile in 2015 and one in Thailand just last month.
Producers are particularly excited to see the reaction from the audience as they tweet their way through episodes and hold viewing parties in gay bars all across the country.
“Obviously this is an art form that comes from the gay community, but it’s so exciting to see it being enjoyed by those in addition to the gay community. It can be enjoyed by people at large,” Bailey says.
Hot off the heels of the third installment of “All-Stars,” “Drag Race” is entering its 10th season with the return of “Untucked” to television. (In 2015, ahead of the show’s seventh season, the companion series reverted to digital distribution.) For VH1, it is an “opportunity to create a two-hour programming block that super-serves” the show’s audience, Post says.
“Some people tune in for the transformation, some for the drama, but I’ve always believed that at the core it’s about the heart. If this show didn’t have heart it could be considered typical dramatic fare, but it has heart and meaningful storytelling at its center,” Post says. “Quite honestly I think we’re at a time when people want to see unconventional heroes and people who are willing to buck the system because the current system doesn’t necessarily protect the underdogs. This show is about underdogs.”
But while many of the contestants may walk onto the show as underdogs, being given a national platform not only showcases their art form but also legitimizes it.
“What’s happening right now with drag is not too dissimilar to what happened in the early ‘80s with rap,” says Barbato. “Drag is an art form that has finally pulled up a chair and is sitting at the entertainment industry dinner table. We’re not at the little kids’ table anymore and this is not some sort of trend or blip. This is a force to be reckoned with.”
Such contestants as Bianca Del Rio are able to sell out large, worldwide venues, while Katya and Bob the Drag Queen have guest starred on scripted television shows including “Playing House” and appeared in movies like “Rough Night.” Meanwhile Trixie Mattel climbed the Billboard country-folk music chart with an original studio album.
“Before our show, it was easy for people to see [drag] as just some subversive, weird fetish thing,” RuPaul says. “Humans always want to put something in a box so they can somehow interpret it or understand things, but our show has allowed the art of drag to break out of that box. It’s really a revolution in identity and a revolution in understanding the possibilities as shape-shifters on this planet. Each of us is a shape-shifter.”
Elizabeth Wagmeister contributed to this report.