Inside the Wondrous Expansion of — and Biggest Threat to — the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Brand (EXCLUSIVE)

For four glorious weeks in April and May, Fridays on VH1 belonged to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” First, viewers could watch the 90-minute episodes of the Emmy-winning reality show’s 12th season, in which 13 drag queens (well, actually 12 — more on that later) compete to be crowned “America’s next drag superstar.” Then they could take in a 90-minute episode of the four-part special “RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race,” in which three bold-faced names stepped into the show’s workroom for full drag makeovers and the chance to win $30,000 for the charity of their choice. And then fans could stick around for “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked,” the 30-minute aftershow in which the Season 12 queens dish, bitch, and throw copious shade while they wait for the main show’s judges to deliberate on who should win that week, and who should be told to sashay away.

The three-and-a-half hours of weekly “Drag Race” content delivered record-breaking ratings for VH1, and represented the latest high watermark for a series that in the past year has taken an ambitious and risky leap into becoming a bona fide global franchise. Along with the mothership show, “Untucked,” the new “Secret Celebrity” edition, and the fifth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” premiering June 5 on VH1, a live stage version of “Drag Race” launched in Las Vegas in January (and is currently on COVID-19 hiatus), and two new international versions have joined the family: “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” last fall and “Canada’s Drag Race” this July.

That is just the beginning. Executive producer Fenton Bailey tells Variety that World of Wonder, the “Drag Race” production company he runs with his longtime business partner Randy Barbato, is currently developing seven — yep, seven — new international editions of the show.

“We’re excited,” Bailey says. “None of them can be announced yet, but there is more on the way.”

With the season 12 finale airing tonight on the heels of the “All Stars” Season 5 premiere next week, Variety spoke with Bailey, Barbato, and fellow executive producer Tom Campbell about their success and struggles with expanding the “Drag Race” brand.

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The team from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” accepts the award for outstanding competition program at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in 2019. Phil McCarten/Invision/AP/Shutte

Category Is: Drag Queen Fabulosity

When it first launched in 2009, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was a scrappy, eight-episode series operating on a microscopic budget and an uncertain future. Today, it’s no less than an American TV institution. “Drag Race” has won 13 Emmys, including two wins for best reality competition series and four for RuPaul for best reality host. The guest judge slot has become a destination for music superstars including Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Lizzo, and Ariana Grande, and the show has become such a vital cultural touchstone that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have both appeared on it.

The heart of the show, of course, has always been its namesake, host, mentor, and central judge, RuPaul — easily the most famous drag queen in the U.S., if not the world. But the fuel for the show’s astronomic success has unmistakably been the 153 drag queens who have competed on “Drag Race” to date.

“It is a 1,000% commitment at total transformation and reinventing themselves on a daily basis,” says Barbato. “That’s the exciting vitality and DNA of our show and that’s why I think people are still discovering why it’s endlessly satisfying.”

“We joke that drag queens are the Marines of reality television,” Bailey adds. “Because they dance, they sing, they lip-sync, they do their hair, they do their makeup, they build their look. They’ve also been pioneers in social media in terms of building platforms, building followers. What’s that expression, triple threat? They’re sort of quintuple threats — multi-, multi-, multi-threats. They do it all!”

“Drag Race,” however, doesn’t simply bask in the glamorous virtuosity of its contestants — it often turns as much attention to the heartbreaks, traumas, and gnawing self-doubts that bedevil even the most dazzling queens on the show. The mantra RuPaul uses to close every episode — “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?” — could also serve as a kind of self-actualization thesis statement for the entire show.

“We’re used to telling people’s stories, celebrating them, letting them shine — and not putting judgment on them,” says Campbell of the contestants. “It’s that combination of the queens with their real stories and real passions and real uniqueness, and then being able to tell it in as unvarnished a way as possible.”

Then this year, one queen’s demons threatened to topple the whole season before it had even really started.

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Sherry Pie at a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 12 special event at ViacomCBS – TRL Studios, in New York on Feb. 26, 2020. Scott Roth/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Category Is: S—t Suddenly Got Really Real Realness

As fans of “Drag Race” already know, one of this season’s top contestants will not appear on the finale: Sherry Pie. Just days before she was due to make her debut on Season 12, a 25-year-old actor came forward on Facebook alleging that Joey Gugliemelli (i.e. Sherry’s non-drag name) had catfished him in 2015 into sending Gugliemelli sexually explicit material under the pretense that it was an audition for a feature film (that didn’t exist). The following day, BuzzFeed News reported that four more actors had similar stories, including one who said that Gugliemelli convinced him to masturbate on camera, again telling him it was an audition for a (fictitious) movie.

Immediately after BuzzFeed News published its story, Gugliemelli admitted to the misconduct on Facebook. “I want to start by saying how sorry I am that I caused such trauma and pain and how horribly embarrassed and disgusted I am with myself,” he wrote. “I know that the pain and hurt that I have caused will never go away and I know that what I did was wrong and truly cruel.”

The entire ordeal flew in the face of everything “RuPaul’s Drag Race” stands for and presented an unprecedented dilemma for the show’s producers. Every episode of Season 12, save for the reunion episode and the live season finale, had already been filmed months earlier in 2019, and Sherry was a standout contestant, earning the top prize in two episodes and ultimately earning a spot among the top 4 in the finale.

“We were devastated when we first found out,” Barbato says, speaking at length about Sherry Pie for the first time. “But we also knew that we had this amazing cast, we had this amazing season, and we knew that this season and the cast were bigger and more powerful than a scandalous headline.”

It took not even 48 hours after the news first broke for VH1 and World of Wonder to come to an inevitable conclusion: Sherry Pie had to be disqualified from the show. She wouldn’t appear on the reunion episode nor on the finale. What that meant for the rest of season, however, sent “Drag Race” into completely uncharted territory for reality TV.

“It was a gut punch — I mean, we were [already] delivering episodes of the show,” Barbato says. “There was no road map. There were long conversations with the network and World of Wonder, and yeah, there were no reference points for us.”

If the episodes aired unaltered, it could appear as though the show condoned Gugliemelli’s behavior and cast an unintentional pall over the season — and the “Drag Race” brand itself. So instead, the producers elected to reedit the episodes that had already been locked and, in Campbell’s words, “minimize Sherry’s performance.”

Virtually all of Sherry’s confessional interviews were excised, and sequences that had to involve Sherry were recut to favor camera angles that deemphasized her presence, or, when possible, didn’t feature her at all. In last week’s reunion episode, no one even said Sherry’s name, and her disqualification was only mentioned obliquely. (To get a sense of how deftly handled the reediting was, check out this clip put together by eagle-eyed “Drag Race” fans on Reddit, who placed the recut version of an early episode side-by-side with an original cut that managed to slip onto some streaming outlets that carry the show.)

“It was case-by-case and just trying to make sure that we were honoring the queens and telling the story so it made sense for the audience — that was our only goal,” Campbell says. “We live in a crazy, black and white, very threatening world of social media, and I think we wanted to protect all parties — the victims and the queens and everyone.”

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Contestants Nicky Doll, Gigi Goode, Brita, Crystal Methyd, Widow Von’Du, Heidi N Closet, and Jackie Cox on the Season 12 premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Courtesy of VH1

Category Is: Videoconference Eleganza Extravaganza

The scramble to cut Sherry Pie from the season unfolded, of course, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the “Drag Race” post-production team all working from home. But all that work on Sherry Pie did nothing to resolve the looming problem of how — or when — to shoot the season finale, which had traditionally been filmed just weeks in advance in front of a live audience in Los Angeles, with the final four (now final three) queens lip-syncing for the crown.

“Everything was changing on a daily basis, because we were holding out hope that there might be some version where we might even be able to have a camera person in the space [with the contestant],” Barbato says. When it became clear that wasn’t possible, the producers say they did discuss with VH1 about the possibility delaying the finale until the fall when it might be safe to shoot it live — but that idea was ultimately scrapped.

“We all believed it was important to connect the finale with the season,” Barbato says. “And the queens, of course, are built for shooting remotely. There’s no one more well suited to doing a remote finale.”

As Campbell says, “We had no idea last summer that the final challenge for the queens would be producing a reunion and the finale from home.”

The producers decline to explicate how the season finale will work remotely, but they insist it will be distinctively “Drag Race.”

“You can strip away the stage, you can strip away the lights, you can strip away the audience, but you can’t strip away their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talents,” Campbell says with a laugh, evoking the carefully worded qualities RuPaul seeks in every “Drag Race” contestant. “That comes through, even on Zoom!”

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Baga Chipz, Divinia de Campo, and the Vivienne on “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” via the BBC

Category is: International House of “Drag Race”

Even though “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has successfully aired abroad for much of its run, for years, World of Wonder sought to produce a homegrown UK version of the show, only to keep hearing variations on the same refrain: Will anyone actually watch it?

“It’s been a long process,” Bailey says. “I think what we’ve seen is a reframing of drag as a cultural/artistic phenomenon. Look, every country has a rich tradition of drag, and it’s different in every country. But I guess what is true in every country is that it hasn’t been a television proposition, really. I think it’s taken broadcasters in different territories a little time to adjust, to recognize that.”

In 2015, a one-off special selected the “UK Drag Race Ambassador,” but it wasn’t until 2019 that World of Wonder finally launched a full-fledged UK season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” partnering with BBC Three via the BBC iPlayer streaming service. The show won wide acclaim and renewal for a second season — which had to suspend production due to COVID-19; the producers don’t know yet when it can start up again. And the producers credit the UK spin-off’s success for helping to open up the possibility of further expanding “Drag Race” overseas.

“I think that encouraged other international territories to come along for the ride,” Bailey says. “‘The BBC is doing it! It can’t be that scary a proposition!'”

World of Wonder also produced two seasons of “Drag Race Thailand,” which isn’t hosted by RuPaul, in 2018 and 2019. But while “there are other Asian territories that are coming on board,” says Bailey, “it’s still a question mark about season three of ‘Thailand.'”

And when asked about reports ITV Studios Australia had obtained the rights for an Australian version of the show, Bailey says, “It’s very much our intention to bring ‘Drag Race’ to Australia, and we would be very much involved.”

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Top: Monet X Change, Trixie Mattel, and Bob the Drag Queen; bottom: Jordan Connor, Nico Tortorella, and Jermaine Fowler in “RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race.” Courtesy of VH1

Category Is: “Secret Celebrity” Realness

Along with a UK version of the show, World of Wonder has been eager to embrace the time-honored tradition of competition-based television: a celebrity version.

“We’ve talked about ‘Celebrity Drag Race’ for a long time,” Barbato says. “One of RuPaul’s favorite episodes of drag race every season is the makeover episode. There’s something incredibly powerful about watching non drag queens get into drag. It was inevitable that we’d do this. It just was a matter of time.”

Time, and an executive willing to take a chance on making it happen. Campbell, Barbato and Bailey all credit Chris McCarthy — president of MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Comedy Central, PopTV, Smithsonian, Paramount and TV Land — with signing off on a celebrity version. “He’s the one that took Drag Race from Logo to VH1 [in 2017], and he’s been incredible supporter of the brand,” says Campbell. “He was the one that said, ‘Let’s do this.'”

McCarthy’s yes to “Celebrity Drag Race,” however, came with a tight schedule, with only “a month or so,” says Campbell, between the greenlight and starting production on the four-episode season. So it was an understandable challenge to land celebrities who could fit the show’s unforgiving production timetable and demonstrate the necessary enthusiasm for embracing a full drag makeover — including, for the male participants, a tuck.

The result was an appealing if not quite A-list-y mélange of actors (Jordan Connor from “Riverdale,” Nico Tortorella from “Younger,” Dustin Milligan from “Schitt’s Creek”); comedians (Jermaine Fowler, Matt Iseman, Phoebe Robinson); musicians (Alex Newell, Hayley Kiyoko, Madison Beer); and a major star in Vanessa Williams — all paired with all-star drag queens from earlier seasons of the show.

Campbell stresses that they were “very happy” with the cast they got for “Secret Celebrity.”

“Casting is the same for everyone — it’s space, time, and motion,” he says. “We wanted to have a really wide range. There’s celebrities that have, you know, 18 million Instagram followers that some of the audience doesn’t know. I think did a good job of really representing all kinds of different kinds of celebrities with different kinds of fields, and most importantly, everyone who came — it wasn’t like another gig. It wasn’t like even guest judging. It was a passion project, it was something that they did to prove something to themselves.”

VH1 has not officially renewed the celebrity edition for a second season, but Campbell is optimistic. “I think next time, now that people can see what it is, we get a lot more people to come aboard,” he says. “I’m a nervous Nellie, and anytime we try something new, I’m always concerned: Will it translate, will it have the same emotion or whatever. And as we were shooting the celebrity drag queens, we were tearing up in the control room. We were cheering for the lip-syncs. We were gagged. It’s hard to believe that those emotions could happen.”

Category Is: Vegas, “All-Stars,” And The Future

Not all the recent “Drag Race” spin-offs have had as much good fortune. “RuPaul’s Drag Race Live” only played for a few months at the Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the show until at least Aug. 1, so very few fans have had a chance to see it.

“If you’d like, I can sing you the whole opening number right now,” Campbell says with a chuckle, as Bailey and Barbato egg him on to do it. (He declines.)

The stage show, Campbell explains, was designed by RuPaul to be a musical version of an episode of the series, with mini challenges, a central maxi challenge, and a lip-sync for your life to cap off the evening. The process of creating the show, directed by Jamal Sims and RuPaul, also evoked one of the core ways fans have consumed “Drag Race” for years.

“I spent like the last decade watching ‘RuPaul Drag Race’ in crowded bars, over people hooting and hollering,” says Campbell. “Translating it to a live audience wasn’t that difficult, because, in effect, without knowing it, we’ve been doing test groups in public for like a decade.”

“Drag Race Live” stars an assortment of past contestants, including at least three — Derrick Barry, Shea Coulée, and India Ferrah — who will also compete on the upcoming season of “All Stars.”

Curiously, in February, Showtime announced that “All Stars” was moving to the pay cable network for Season 5 — a decision that the producers say was made after the season had already been shot. But in May, corporate parent Viacom apparently changed their mind and elected to keep “All Stars” on VH1 after all.

“That was the network’s decision,” says Campbell. “But it was a byproduct of everyone being at home during this time. Like everybody else, we can’t go to bars and we can’t see each other. ‘Drag Race’ on Friday, it was kind of a thing that brought people together. And I think the idea was to keep that party going on VH1.”

(Even more curiously, Barbato hints that another new “Drag Race” spin-off could be arriving this year. “I do think you should be expecting something very soon, actually … but that’s all that we can say,” he says. “How’s that for a little bit of a tease?”)

What is further on the horizon for “Drag Race,” meanwhile, remains stuck in the same coronavirus limbo as the rest of the entertainment industry — especially since seasons of “Drag Race” have traditionally shot during the preceding summer. But if the producers are worried, they’re not showing it.

“Whatever the iteration is, the new season will be on the air in 2021,” says Barbato. “We don’t have the date set. But we have no fear that no matter what the world deals us, we’ll be able to deliver a new season. … You know, ‘Drag Race’ is like Cher and cockroaches: You can never get rid of them.”