When RuPaul’s Drag Race first premiered on Logo in 2009 it could have easily been written off as a cheap knock off of America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks’ long-running reality competition shows already in its double-digit cycles.
With film so glossy, it looked as though the lens had been covered in Vaseline to distract from the shoestring budget used to produce the show. Now, six seasons later, Drag Race has become Logo’s highest-rated program with the queens vying to become America’s Next Drag Superstar in high definition.
“We’re never trying to be the look and feel of real,” RuPaul Charles, host and producer of the competition, tells ETonline of comparisons to ANTM. “We’re like a sampling machine.”
Now standing firmly in its own two heels, RPDR is at a turning point. Season 7 will premiere with the pressures of maintaining a fresh appeal--the show added two new permanent judges--and turning its contestants into instant stars of the drag world, if not mainstream entertainers. Of the season winners, season 5’s Jinkx Monsoon has had the most success, leading an acclaimed Off-Broadway cabaret act, The Vaudevillians, while Sharon Needles of season 4 has pursued a music career.
And it’s when a series creeps into its double-digit seasons--if not sooner--that it tends to jump the shark in order to maintain ratings. But Charles, 54, doesn’t feel any of that pressure, insisting that’s what RPDR consistently does. “Drag demands that you jump the shark every f--king day,” he says with his signature laugh. “They go hand-in-hand. The more outrageous you can be the better.”
Though RPDR’s popularity continues to grow, Charles is certain it will never permeate the mainstream. “Our show is popular with some people but it’s still underground--honestly,” he explains. “Drag will never be mainstream because it threatens the status quo.”
Even the status quo for what's considered acceptable in a cult show has changed since its start, especially when it comes to language that some contestants embraced even as others in the audience were offended as was with the case in season 6 when mini-challenge involved the use of an anti-transgender slur. Once GLAAD stepped in, the show apologized and producers removed subsequent use of “she-mail,” a pun on ANTM’s “Tyra Mail” used to introduce that week’s challenge.
“We’ve always done whatever the hell we want to do and we’ll continue to do that,” Charles says when asked what the show will do--if anything--to rectify its offensive use of transphobic language, but he adds, “We’ve always come from the place of love and the idea that we’re not coming from a place of love is absolutely outrageous.”
While behind them, the controversy very well may not be the show’s last as long as it continues to break ratings records for Logo. Yet, for now, it’s about appreciating what RPDR has become.
“We’ve enjoyed a beautiful, open window in our culture here in the United States where the powers that be are open to it,” Charles says. But even he knows that won’t last forever. “I’ve been on the planet for a few years now and, generally speaking, the culture prefers that window closed. I take it as it comes.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race returns Monday, Mar. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on Logo.