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Why the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Team Still Considers the Show an ‘Underdog’ at Emmys (Column)

When “RuPaul’s Drag Race” won the Emmy last year for reality competition, it defied all odds. Until 2018, only three series had won the category in its 15-year existence: “The Amazing Race,” “The Voice” and “Top Chef.”

“Drag Race” airs on VH1, which hasn’t been a huge Emmy player in the past (last year was the network’s biggest Emmy haul ever), and comes from a small production company, World of Wonder. Without the benefit of a studio with a large in-house voting block, “Drag Race” had to overcome plenty of Emmy deficits.

But momentum for the show had been building: RuPaul won the reality or competition program host Emmy in both 2016 and 2017, before picking it up for a third time in 2018.

On Emmy night last year, “Drag Race” also made history: It became the first program to win both reality competition series and reality or competition host in the same year.

A year later, the show is now the incumbent in the category, which has been renamed “outstanding competition program” (dropping “reality”) for 2019. I recently visited the set of RuPaul’s new self-titled daytime talk show to meet up with the “Drag Race” team, and found that they by no means consider themselves the frontrunners.

“We’re still the underdog,” judge Michelle Visage says. “Because we’re still the queer show. I think we’re still, ‘Did this really happen?’”

Visage says part of the surreal nature of last year’s win came from their not receiving the award from human beings. Instead, Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” announced the winner. “It’s, can I pinch myself? Is this really happening? An Emmy, really? Never take it for granted. This is a little television show,” she says.

Executive producer Randy Barbato shares Visage’s opinion that despite last year’s win, “Drag Race” is still an unlikely champ. “I think drag is always the underdog,” he says. “For a very long time there was a misconception of what ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ was. A lot of people hadn’t even seen it and reached an assessment [or] judgment of what this show was.”

Adds executive producer Tom Campbell: “I think people vote with their hearts. Our show makes people laugh and cry and make people happy. If we don’t get it again that’s OK, but it was a thrill to get it and a thrill to be in that company.”

They probably shouldn’t worry, as the competition series field may be the most predictable in all of the Emmys. The 2018 nominees were an identical list to 2017, and the category’s winners rarely change. It’s made for a bit of a ho-hum race, as so many competition shows have been shut out by the incumbents.

That’s reflective of the unscripted landscape itself, as legacy franchises such as “The Voice,” “Survivor,” “The Bachelor” and “Hell’s Kitchen” continue to do well for their parent networks, but that has limited the shelf space for new shows to make a splash.

Every once in a while, a new reality sensation pops up: This year, it was Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” which is definitely a contender to shake things up in the competition category.

“Drag Race” was the rare example of a reality slow burn, however. Although “Drag Race” is a critical hit and has developed a loyal following over time, it took a decade to make it to the Emmy stage. Launched in 2009 on Logo, “Drag Race” saw its audience dramatically expand after moving to VH1 in 2017.

Given the trend toward multiple wins in the category, RuPaul should probably get used to walking back up the Emmy stage. But he’s also zen with the possibility that another show might take “Drag Race’s” place this year: “I take one day at a time. I’ve been up and I’ve been down, and I’ve been up and down again,” he says. “I’m prepared for natural progression of show business. It always ends. It does. And it’s fine. I’m having a great time right now.”

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