EXCLUSIVE: 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Producers on the Series' 8(!) Emmy Nominations and Why America Needs Drag

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Photo: VH1

On Thursday, RuPaul’s Drag Race was finally recognized by the Television Academy in a major way. The show, now in its ninth season, earned seven Primetime Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Reality Competition Program and Outstanding Host for a Reality Competition Program, and one for its after-show, Untucked.

While RuPaul won an Emmy in 2016, his first, for hosting duties, the show had only earned three nominations up until this year. Yet, Drag Race is as big as it’s ever been. 

EMMYS 2017: The Complete List of Nominees

“We’re blown away that in our ninth season we get eight nominations,” executive producer Tom Campbell tells ET, who credits the show’s jump from Logo to VH1 for creating a new platform that helped its audience reach a record high.

“We're just so excited on behalf of not only an amazing cast, crew and RuPaul, but also 100 awesome queens,” executive producer Randy Barbato adds.

In a conversation with ET, the two longtime producers behind RuPaul’s Drag Race discuss the show’s success, the Emmy recognition and why American needs drag. 

ET: What is it about RuPaul’s Drag Race that continues to pick up momentum and connect with audiences?

Randy Barbato: The heart and soul of this show is RuPaul and all the drag queens, who are amazing artists. They're what inspire us to make this show the best show on television. It's the tenacity of their human spirit. It's sort of the engine that makes this show so special. 

Tom Campbell: [The show] connects people deeply. 

Randy: It's more than TV… These are very dark and tumultuous times we're living in. RuPaul's Drag Race delivers a ray of light during dark times. It reminds people that there's hope in our world. If you're an outsider or you don't fit in, there's a place for you. There's a family for you. Other shows have one gay character or two characters. We have the full pu pu platter. 

After RuPaul’s win for host last year, did that change perceptions of the show within the industry?

Tom: Yes. While we try to make the show better each year, we've been making the same show for [nine seasons]. We've been inspired, on fire and excited every season. The Emmy made some people wake up and some mainstream -- a lot of our press this year has been the press we always get and love but it's also been Teen Vogue and Atlantic. It seems like the interest keeps growing. 

When I talked to RuPaul two seasons ago, we discussed the idea of drag going mainstream and if it could ever reach that level. [For the record: RuPaul says going mainstream would be jumping the shark.] Do you think eight nominations puts drag in a new stratosphere, where it is mainstream on some level?

Randy: I think that eight Emmy nominations doesn't change the fact that drag will always be drag. In other words, yes, we're excited and happy about the mainstream recognition, but you know the art of drag -- these are guys who get up and put high heels on and makeup and wigs and they will always be outsiders. While the recognition shines a light on their artistry, they're always going to be fringe artists.

Tom: I also think that drag queens, because of their visibility, can't hide, right? They're very visible representatives of the gay community and because they're kind of visible on the front line, that they're kind of the first people in line to feel in the backlash of reaction. We live in a very divided time. You know, gay rights, gay marriage and the things that have happened over the course of the Obama administration, which happened to dovetail with RuPaul’s Drag Race, are all in jeopardy… We're lucky that it's on the air. We're grateful every season that we have a place on the air.

Randy: It's a very dark time, particularly for gays and lesbians. A drag queen threw the first brick at Stonewall. It's appropriate right now that an army of them should be recognized. We need drag queens now more than ever. We need this show now more than ever. Having this recognition means so much because I think America needs drag race. 

Reality TV has really been at the forefront of showcasing LGBT stories across the living rooms of America. How does RuPaul’s Drag Race continue to break down those barriers with each season?

Tom: Every time a queen walks through that workroom, they have a story to tell. We love subcultures, and within our show, there are 14 contestants and 14 subcultures because they all come from different places and they have their stories to tell. And that’s what really refreshes and regenerates the show each season. As gay roles change, as rights are taken or given away, the queens' stories are more relevant than ever. 

Randy: The surprise of RuPaul's Drag Race is that every queen's story somehow connects and relates to the audience. Even though it’s stories of outsiders, it's like, we're a nation of outsiders. We’re all outsiders. People come with this expectation to see these guys in crazy wigs, but the reality is they come and watch these amazing artists who they can connect to. They connect with their hearts, their souls and their stories. That's the secret weapon of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Tom: The show is not gloomy or heavy-handed or trying to sell a message. It's about makeup and hair and dancing and lip-syncing and laughing and being irreverent. Some audiences discovering the show now are like, “This is like every reality show I’ve ever watched in one episode.” 

I’m glad you mentioned the hair and makeup because it was great to see Delta Work and Raven both get nominated. What does it mean to keep the queens in the family and have them contribute to the success of the series?

Randy: Well, RuPaul's Drag Race is unlike any reality competition show in that there are no losers. Everyone is a winner. These artists go out and they work. Whether it's working with World of Wonder or VH1, working at a drag bar or in Australia, they’re all working artists. That means a lot to us. We pride ourselves on making a show that everyone goes home a winner.