For as long as there's been culture, there's been subculture. But never in the history of pop culture has the underground been as mainstream as it has in the four years since Logo launched RuPaul's Drag Race -- a reality competition that ensures every participant emerges a winner given that the ultimate prize is acceptance.
Drag Race, which recently wrapped its fourth season, has gone from cult hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to a cheeky mix of high camp, intelligently dispensed low-brow humor and star-studded revelry. But the show truly shines in the deft way it tackles topical social issues, from D.A.D.T. to H.I.V. to gay rights, without ever becoming preachy.
And fueling every pun, prize and performance is RuPaul -- the show's host, mentor, mother bear and executive producer, who not only served as inspiration for the show, but also serves as an aspirational idol for the competing queens. ETOnline caught up with the multi-tasking multi-hyphentate to learn the origins of this Emmy contender (for both Outstanding Reality-Competition Program and Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program) and dissect the impact its had on mainstream society.
ETOnline: What inspired you to create RuPaul's Drag Race? RuPaul: What I've been doing for a living for past 30 years has always been considered subversive in our culture even though it's really not that subversive because we're all in drag. My mantra is, you're born naked and the rest is drag. The truth is, whether you work at McDonalds or Wall Street, we're all playing roles and creating an illusion. The show stemmed from our love of the art of drag and wanting to bring that art to the masses. It's important to shed light on our craft so people not only understand what we're doing, but that life is not meant to be taken that seriously.
ETOnline: The show has exponentially increased in popularity over the last two seasons and now you have people of every ilk spouting vernacular popularized on Drag Race. Are moments where you hear "The Library is Closed" in casual conversation when you realize how deeply the show has resonated? RuPaul: Absolutely. It harkens back to a time when gay culture influenced mainstream culture but at a much slower pace. You always knew that something was over in the gay culture 10 years later when straight culture was using it [laughs]. Now, with social media, this vernacular is out there immediately and you have school teachers saying "executive realness!" I love it!
ETOnline: The fourth season undeniably presented the most capable cast of contestants to date. Given how popular the show has become, does it become more difficult to cast worthy contestants? RuPaul: It absolutely becomes harder and harder to find the people worthy of the past seasons. Everybody with a pussycat wig and a pair of cha-cha heels auditions for this show, but not everybody is ready for it because we are looking for people who do this every day. Who know the ins and outs of putting on a show. That's why the challenges are so hard for so many of the kids because they don't know how to dig deep from their core and pull out something imaginative and different and screams, "This is me!"
ETOnline: You've represented a wide-array of the different drag subsets -- in casting, are you looking to tick off certain boxes or just cast the best people at the time? RuPaul: It's absolutely both. We want to represent your gender f*ck, your ingenue, your impersonators, the funny queen – but ultimately we're making an entertainment show and we do have to cover all the boxes. It just so happens that every year, a different genre rises to the top because that particular performer is very strong.
ETOnline: You wear, roughly, 75 different hats in terms of producing this show. But if you had to boil it down to a single element, what do you consider to be the most important element of RuPaul's Drag Race? RuPaul: It's respecting the creativity – these beautiful men have been ostracized and made fun of. At its core, this show is about the tenacity of the human spirit. To watch, in this masculine dominated culture, these people rise above that and say, "I hear what you’re saying, but I'm going to do this any way because I love it." Really, the most important part of our show is to respect that and honor that.
ETOnline: At the NYC crowning of season four winner Sharon Needles, I saw a 9-year-old boy come up and tell Sharon how much of an impact the show made on his life. In those moments do you feel like the show has accomplished its goal? RuPaul: You know, I've gotta tell you, and this may sound schlocky, but the most important part of this whole experience for me has been to introduce these brilliant queens to the rest of the world. We're in 25 different countries and they become world famous. Through my legacy, these kids create their own legacy -- that is the most important thing for me. For 20 years, I was the only queen in the mainstream game. So to have these new playmates is the thing I'm most proud of.