“That’s why it’s called show business,” RuPaul tells ET on the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where the Logo reality competition is currently filming its ninth season. Having worked in the industry for over two decades, becoming a household name with his 1992 hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and hosting his own VH1 talk show, this drag superstar isn’t fazed by the ups and downs of popularity.
RuPaul, who serves as host (out of drag) and judge (dragged out from head to toe) on RuPaul’s Drag Race, is nominated for his first Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. It’s also the long-running series’ third nomination (the other two being for costumes and makeup).
For fans, it’s well-deserved recognition for the little show that could. When it debuted in 2009 it could have easily been disregarded as a knockoff of America’s Next Top Model, with drag queens competing to be America’s Next Drag Superstar through the high gloss of a Vaseline-covered lens. (Though that’s something RuPaul has never denied. “We’re like a sampling machine,” he said ahead of the show’s season seven premiere.) Now it’s a full-fledged juggernaut of a series, becoming Logo’s highest-rated program with its own spin-offs: the now-defunct RuPaul’s Drag U and All Stars Drag Race, whose second season premieres on Thursday, Aug. 25 at 8 p.m. ET, as well as a successful live tour. But it’s also finally enjoying some of the recognition that has often gone to the same crop of nominees (Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, Survivor and Top Chef).
Yet, RuPaul is quick to shrug all of that off. He’s not necessarily interested in winning (“I don’t know…”) nor does he see the show’s nominations as validation (“You know, who knows?”). He does recognize what it means to Logo. “It’s been this fledgling network for many years,” RuPaul says. “This kind of recognition from the television industry is a big deal.” But this is the same person who told Vulture earlier this year that he’d “rather have an enema than have an Emmy,” after all.
“I feel like I've won every year the show has been picked up by Logo because, really, nothing beats a paycheck,” RuPaul says in his typical deadpan, blurring the lines between sarcasm and honesty.
“I'm not doing this because, you know… Well actually, I was going
to say not for fun, but actually I have a lot of fun doing the show,” he
continues. “We get to launch the careers of all these young kids who have a
dream. That is really the biggest payoff of all.”
If there’s any proof of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s success, it’s the careers that have unfolded offscreen. Season five winner Jinkx Monsoon starred in the celebrated Off-Broadway cabaret show The Vaudevillians, while the year’s previous winner, Sharon Needles, as well as many other contestants, have launched musical careers. Season six winner Bianca Del Rio has gone on to share the screen with Alan Cumming and the most recent winner, Bob the Drag Queen, landed an Axe commercial following his coronation in May.
In fact, that’s RuPaul’s preferred legacy: launching the careers of over 100 queens. “I love the creativity and the social and political aspects of drag,” he says. “Watching these kids come through here and take this fun around and teach other kids around the whole world how it’s done – that’s the greatest legacy I could ever have.”
As contestants continue to gain fame outside of the show and the show itself (hopefully) continues to pick up more nominations, it’s easy to assume RuPaul’s Drag Race has become mainstream, finally cracking that Vaseline-covered glass ceiling. But that’s a label RuPaul will resist, no matter how popular the show becomes.
“Our show is popular with some people, but it’s still underground,” RuPaul said ahead of season seven. “Drag will never be mainstream because it threatens the status quo.”
On the set of season nine, RuPaul reiterates that point. “I don’t think drag will ever be mainstream because it’s counter to what the mainstream directive is, which is picking an identity and sticking with it for the rest of your life,” he says. “We play with identity, we mock identity and we decide to change identity every day.”
So, does the point then become to flip the meaning of mainstream on its head?
“The whole point is to live life and be -- to use all the colors in the crayon box,” RuPaul says. “Society wants you to pick a few colors and stick to those colors. We don’t believe in that.”