It took years of hustle and hard work in high heels before RuPaul hit it big in TV. But while he was on the road to becoming a household name and multiple Emmy winner, the host and executive producer of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” never doubted that he was destined for small-screen success.
“Everything I know I learned from television,” RuPaul says. “I grew up watching television. I was groomed for it before I ever stepped in front of a camera. The first time I did, I knew exactly what to do.”
RuPaul recalls being obsessed with TV as a kid growing up in San Diego and the Atlanta area, frequently watching “Perry Mason” and “Murder, She Wrote” with his mother. He never missed “The Carol Burnett Show” and variety series hosted by Sonny & Cher. “Good Times” and “Sanford & Son” were also favorites. He watches reruns of “Golden Girls” regularly to this day.
RuPaul credits the free-wheeling cable public access channel in the Atlanta area in the early 1980s for getting his career as a performer off the ground. Appearances he made on a local variety series dubbed “The American Music Show” helped make him a local celebrity and led to taking his act on the road on the gay nightclub circuit.
“It was a revolution,” RuPaul says of those early public access appearances, some of which can be found on YouTube. “We were the children of television doing it our way in this post-modern, Warhol-esque, John Waters-style that was very punk rock.”
Today, RuPaul has achieved one-name superstar status, and he is the sun around which Viacom’s “Drag Race” universe revolves. The drag queen competition series has been a staple for Viacom since 2009, launching on Logo but moving to VH1 in 2017. The franchise RuPaul crafted with his longtime collaborators Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, who head the busy World of Wonder Prods. banner, is now branching out around the globe with local editions airing in the U.K., Thailand and Chile, with a Canadian installment on the way. At home, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has yielded three spinoffs since 2010: “RuPaul’s Drag U” and the active series “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.”
As with its namesake, the “Drag Race” franchise has also made an indelible mark on culture by putting the spotlight on an area of entertainment that is as old as the theater, but had yet to receive the level of mainstream recognition and respect in the U.S. until RuPaul and Co. created the venue for the artistry of drag to shine. With humor and heart, “Drag Race” has also helped promote understanding and inclusion for the LGBTQ community in telling the stories of performers who often faced discrimination and worse simply because of their interest in working as drag performers.
For his impact in business and culture, RuPaul has been selected to receive Variety’s Vanguard Award at Mipcom saluting innovators in the global television market.
|Known more as a television host now, RuPaul also has a number of acting credits under his belt, including Ryan Murphy’s “Popular.”
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
“RuPaul is this intoxicating combination of everything you want in a star,” says Barbato. “He’s a work horse. He’s smart, focused, incredibly spiritual and with a depth and wisdom that is startling.”
Moreover, RuPaul is essential as a hands-on executive producer of “Drag Race” with Bailey and Barbato.
“You want him in front of the camera and behind the camera,” Barbato says. “He’s a smart producer. He understands that drag is not just dressing up and looking pretty: Drag deconstructs the pop culture world we live in.”
The influence that the show has had on the lives of its contestants has been among the most gratifying aspects of doing the show for RuPaul. Queens such as Valentina, Adore Delano, Bianca Del Rio, Shangela, Willam and Bob the Drag Queen have used “Drag Race” as a stepping stone to prosperous careers.
“I’m most proud of this show being a launch pad for those brilliant artists,” RuPaul says. “I have a lot of fun doing [‘Drag Race’], but years from now, that will be the legacy of this show. Not only has it touched the lives of the audience, but it has launched careers.”
RuPaul’s natural ability to bring out the life stories of the “Drag Race” performers was a crucial reason why the show was picked up by Logo. Producer Brian Graden was overseeing the LGBTQ-centric cabler, which was barely three years old at the time “Drag Race” was greenlit in 2008.
“When we first started Logo about half of the pitches we got were drag-related,” Graden said. “We wanted to do a drag show, but we knew we only had a slot for one. When we heard RuPaul’s pitch I thought that if anybody had earned the right to do this show, it was him.”
“I didn’t think I was going to become the world’s most famous drag queen. I thought I was going to be doing a David Bowie kind of thing.”
As “Drag Race” began to rack up big ratings, RuPaul also began to reap personal rewards. He earned his first Emmy Award for hosting the show in 2016. Three more consecutive wins, including this year, followed. The series itself also claimed two consecutive wins in the competition program category, in 2018 and 2019.
“It’s fantastic to see this show recognized for shining a light on something that is so universal — seeing people who have been marginalized get lifted up,” Bailey says. “Drag queens have been around for hundreds of years but rarely have they been taken seriously as entertainers and artists.”
Barbato and Bailey first met RuPaul in 1985 when all three were broke and just starting to claw their way into entertainment industry careers while living in Manhattan’s East Village. It was a heady time, overflowing with future celebrities, artists and ground-breaking works. Even in this environment, RuPaul stood out — and not just because of his 6-foot-4 frame.
“Ru was fully realized even then,” Bailey says. “He took his work to a level of ambition and grandeur that seemed impossible.”
But, RuPaul says, “I didn’t think I was going to become the world’s most famous drag queen. I thought I was going to be doing a David Bowie kind of thing.”
Even as RuPaul pursued his music career, TV was always beckoning. He became a favorite guest on the talk-show circuit. That helped him land the short-lived VH1 talk show “The RuPaul Show,” which World of Wonder produced in 1996 and 1997.
RuPaul then took a long break from his career between 1999 and 2004. He had, by his own admission, lost the fire in his belly to pursue the business of being RuPaul.
“I wasn’t as ambitious as I had always been. I was focused on friends and family and my own well-being as a sober person,” he says. The time also involved “a lot of therapy, which I continue to do.”
By 2004 RuPaul was back on morning drive-time radio in New York, co-hosting with future “Drag Race” judge Michelle Visage. But Barbato and Bailey sensed that he was ready to give TV another go. RuPaul was initially skeptical of doing a reality show — “I didn’t want to do anything mean-spirited,” he says — but once the trio got down to the nitty gritty of creating “Drag Race,” his worries disappeared and his confidence spiked.
“The winds of change were in the air,” RuPaul says. “I am a medium, and I could feel the change.”
He also knew that nobody would get his brand of entertainment better than Barbato and Bailey. Around this time, World of Wonder also produced “Starrbooty,” the 2007 indie farce starring RuPaul as a supermodel who goes undercover as a hooker to save her niece from kidnappers. (It was a follow-up to a series of ultra-low budget movies RuPaul made in the 1980s).
|“RuPaul’s Drag Race” has brought drag culture into the homes of millions around the world.
Courtesy of VH1
“I trust them, they trust me,” RuPaul says of trio’s long relationship. “We’ve been able to use each other to act as another pair of eyes for one one another. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be in business with them for so long.”
Initially, “Drag Race” was shopped to a handful of cable outlets, but RuPaul knew when he was in the room with Bailey and Barbato at Logo that the show would be a go. Graden and his team, which included Dave Mace, now executive vice president of Brian Graden Media, gave World of Wonder and RuPaul the confidence that they understood their vision for the show. “Everything we set out to do is exactly what happened,” RuPaul says.
Graden says it was not a hard call: “RuPaul’s voice was evident in everything they pitched — from the comedy to the competition. It was equal parts sass and heart. That was something that was missing from a lot of the drag pitches we’d gotten.”
The first season of “Drag Race” was produced on a shoestring budget. “It was put together with smoke and mirrors and a lot of Vaseline on the lens,” RuPaul jokes. Barbato and Bailey knew the show was having an impact when fan-favorite performer Ongina revealed that she was HIV-positive in the fourth episode of Season 1.
Graden was touched last year when the “Drag Race” team gave him one of their Emmys in light of his role in getting the franchise off the ground. “It’s just a triumph of expression and ideas,” Graden says of the franchise today.
The success of “Drag Race” has helped RuPaul diversify his own TV brand to include hosting a prospective daytime talk show (he did a four-week test run last summer with Fox and Telepictures) and starring in a scripted comedy, “A.J. and the Queen,” coming to Netflix in 2020. The series, co-created by RuPaul and “Sex and the City” alum Michael Patrick King, revolves around a down-on-her-luck drag queen, Ruby Red, who travels the country in an RV and winds up becoming a de facto parent to an 11-year-old kid named A.J (played by Isabella Gaspersz, whom RuPaul calls “a goddess”).“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve done and in some ways the most fulfilling,” he says.
As with any entertainer, RuPaul has faced his share of career ups and downs over the years, though. One of the toughest lessons he had to learn was how to deal with the “dark clouds” that are inevitable.
“There were so many times when it looked so dark and the clouds were not parting. I’m so happy that I didn’t give up,” RuPaul says. “I’m so practiced now at staying in the moment. Your next job is not promised to you. You could show up for work and the doors are boarded up. Man, everything in this life is temporary. I’m just having a blast getting to work with my friends on all these brilliant shows.”