‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and the Rise of Drag on TV (Exclusive)

RuPaul Charles
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

While drag is enjoying significant popularity both on- and off-screen, does that mean that the art form has truly become a part of mainstream culture?

Over the last decade, the art of drag has gained undeniable popularity, moving from the fringes into something more widely accepted -- at least on television, thanks in large part to its portrayal on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition modeled after America’s Next Top Model, where 12 to 14 contestants compete to be “America’s Next Drag Superstar.”

Now nine seasons in, the show has become a cultural phenomenon, most recently earning 8 Emmys nominations and winning three, including one for its host, RuPaul Charles. Last season the series moved from LogoTV to VH1, crowned Sasha Velour its winner and featured Lady Gaga in the premiere and saw record-breaking ratings. It opened to 987,000 viewers and, according to Nielsen Media Research, saw a 108 percent increase in audience size from season eight, with 49 percent of the season nine being female -- a noted shift from the show’s predominantly gay male audience. The show’s popularity on Logo led to multiple spin-offs, including the now-canceled RuPaul’s Drag U, the Emmy-nominated after-show Untucked and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which returns with a highly anticipated season three on Thursday, Jan. 25 on VH1.

Drag Race’s success even extends beyond the show itself, with the launch of multiple road tours featuring former contestants and its own convention, RuPaul’s DragCon, which has expanded from Los Angeles to New York City. A number of the drag queens on the show have seen their careers skyrocket thanks to the exposure, reaching a new level of drag celebrity that was previously reserved only for RuPaul. They’re fixtures in the fashion world; Violet Chachki is a regular at runways and Milk has appeared in Marc Jacobs ads. Most have recorded and released original music. Bob the Drag Queen, who appeared in Axe commercials shortly after winning season eight, has appeared in the films Cherry Pop and Rough Night and is set to play Belize in Angels in America at Berkeley Repertory Theater, while a number of queens have appeared on film and TV in and out drag.

Drag’s prevalence in modern pop culture has undoubtedly reached new heights, but does that mean that drag has become “mainstream?”

The host of Drag Race doesn’t think so. RuPaul, a legendary drag performer who rose to worldwide fame in the ‘90s with the hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and his own VH1 talk show, saw his popularity reach zeitgeist levels with the launch of the reality competition. Today, even though his fame has rocketed him to the cover of Entertainment Weekly and into the pages of Vanity Fair and O, the Oprah Magazine as well as recurring roles on Neflix’s Girlboss and Broad City, he believes that drag is an underappreciated art form. “Our show is popular with some people but it’s still underground -- honestly,” he told ET in 2015. “Drag will never be mainstream because it threatens the status quo.” That’s something he’s reiterated again and again, in subsequent interviews with ABC News and Vanity Fair.

RuPaul certainly has a point -- the very nature of drag is rooted in the subversion of cultural norms. But with drag’s newfound prominence in pop culture, it’s clear that something has fundamentally changed.

In 2017 alone, Viceland launched a talk show hosted by Drag Race fan favorites Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel based on their popular YouTube series; the docuseries Shade: Queens of NYC debuted on Fusion; TNT’s Good Behavior featured a few Drag Race contestants in an episode focused on drag culture; RuPaul guest-starred on various TV shows; and the film Cherry Pop started streaming on Netflix. And that’s not to mention the current cycle of America’s Next Top Model, which will feature a crossover episode with former Drag Race contestants; the upcoming series Pose, which will explore the 1980s ball scene, set to debut on FX this summer; and the series J.J. Abrams is developing with RuPaul based on the performer’s early drag days.

Dr. Michael Bronski, the author of A Queer History of the United States and a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Harvard, doesn’t necessarily disagree with RuPaul. But he argues that it’s not as simple as being “mainstream” or “not mainstream.”

“There are multiple mainstream cultures that overlap, that coexist in some tension with one another,” he tells ET. “So, I think yes, drag has become one of the mainstream cultures.”

Bob the Drag Queen poses for a portrait at Logo's 2016 'Trailblazer Honors;' on set of 'RuPaul's Drag Race' - Ungano & Agriodimas /Getty Images Portrait / Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

To that point, Jasmine Rice LaBeija, a well-established New York drag queen and cast member on the Fusion docuseries, points to the fact that shows like the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo and scripted series like Younger have adapted drag vernacular and popular forms of the art -- such as shade, reading and the “library is open” -- in the context of their own cultures. “That all comes from LGBTQ culture and the ballroom culture,” she explains. “I think what people have decided to do is actually give credit to those who deserve to be credited.”

In fact, drag or its various forms has always been a staple in popular culture, often seen in sillier portrayals by mostly straight actors as in Tootsie, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and The Birdcage. But now, its place on screen has become more expansive and nuanced, with shows like Pose casting transgender actors to bring authenticity to the vogue and ball culture, previously most visibly seen in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning.

On a season two episode of Good Behavior, co-creator and executive producer Chad Hodges wanted to include a story set in a drag club not only to further explore the show’s main character (Letty, a con artist played by Michelle Dockery), but to give a new form of exposure to the drag community. “I think [exposure] is only a good thing when things have become more tolerated and people are interested in a subculture and want to know more about it,” he says. “The more drag the better, as far as I'm concerned.”

Even onstage, drag is enjoying popularity. Kinky Boots, the Tony Award-winning musical about a shoe factory that starts producing shoes for drag queens, debuted in 2013 and has been enjoying consistent success ever since. Torch Song, an Off-Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, about a lovesick drag queen, received rave reviews before it closed on Dec. 9, 2017.

Michael Urie, the star of Torch Song, says that drag deserves the popularity it has garnered, even if it is only momentary. “It’s a funny and enjoyable and delightful and artistic art form, and it should have its moment of being mainstream,” he says. “Whether it stays there, I don’t know, whether it becomes something else.” But, he adds, drag has already undergone major changes in the last decade. “If you look at the kind of drag Harvey [Fierstein] was doing in the ’70s versus what we’re doing now, it’s very different. That was performance art, avant-garde, and then it became music-based and comedy-based, and now there are some that are going avant-garde again.”

The queens of 'Rupaul's Drag Race All Stars' attend the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden. - Theo Wargo/MTV1617/Getty Images For MTV

Bronski says that drag can trace its roots decades into the past, when female impersonation was a popular form of entertainment in the American vaudeville theaters of the 1920s. One of the stars of the American vaudeville age, Julian Eltinge, was renowned around the world for his skills as a female impersonator. He even had a Broadway theater named after him. But Bronski notes that there was one fundamental problem -- Eltinge was not allowed to be open about his sexuality. “He was most probably gay and totally hid that, and kept on putting out rumors that he was secretly married, that he beat somebody up in a bar, that he smoked cigars,” Bronski says. “He was very popular, but he couldn’t be openly gay because that would be a violation of some social norms.”

That idea has changed, Bronski contends, but not entirely. While people are much more comfortable with homosexuality today, there is still a serious stigma regarding gender in modern society. “American people across the board are far more comfortable with the notion that you can play around with gender, just as long as it's entertainment,” he says. “If it's an eighth grader who's transgender who wants to go into the bathroom that she feels is the correct bathroom, people have a problem with that.”

Katya Zamolodchikova ultimately agrees with RuPaul: Drag cannot be mainstream because it’s not for a mainstream audience. “A lot of drag does not make sense to straight people because it doesn't apply to them. We're actually making fun of them,” she says. “So, it doesn't need to be mainstream, they don't need to understand it, we're making fun of them!”

Drag as we know it today was born out of a desire to take long-held cultural norms and turn them on their head -- to reverse expectations at all turns. Many drag queens today, including RuPaul himself, argue that that spirit of subversion is inherent to the art form and is never going to disappear.

Even Randy Barbato, one of the executive producers for Drag Race, recently said that the nature of drag is one that will always remain outside mainstream culture. In a July interview with ET, shortly after the franchise earned its highest number of Emmy nominations ever, Barbato said, “We're excited and happy about the mainstream recognition, but … 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.”

Trixie and Katya pose for portraits for 'The Trixie and Katya Show;' Michelle Dockery as Letty in drag on 'Good Behavior.' - Viceland / TNT

However, Barbato and the World of Wonder team seemingly reversed that view when it announced the production of a new film, Drag Queens on a Plane, and the upcoming launch of Drag Race Thailand. “We have seen an overwhelming global demand for scripted and unscripted content illuminating the stories within drag culture,” World of Wonder co-founders Fenton Bailey and Barbato said in a statement to ET. “What was previously thought of as niche is now undeniably mainstream. World of Wonder will continue to bring meaningful, fabulous, filled-with-love entertainment to fans both on screen and off.”

While drag is certainly enjoying a moment of popularity, Violet Chachki stresses it’s important to remember the purpose of drag. “We're supposed to kind of question the status quo, so it gets interesting when [drag] sort of becomes the status quo,” she says. “It's definitely our job to be polarizing and subversive.”

If drag has always made fun of the gender barriers in modern society, then it is facing a new challenge today -- as the idea of gender fluidity slowly becomes more widely accepted, what is drag going to subvert next?

Trixie Mattel, who is competing on the new season of All Stars, contends that “drag will always find a way to be weird.” Case in point? The web series The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula -- an online reality series similar to Drag Race, except that the contestants are competing to be crowned the next drag “supermonster.” Mattel says that it’s this weird, dark, creepy kind of drag that has been finding more popularity with gay audiences. “When you perform for a room full of gay people, gay people want you to go dark, they want you to go deep, they want you to be sexy and wild and sad,” she explains. “It's a different type of thing than [straight people] look for in drag. And it's a different type of thing that they can even pick up on.”

Katya further adds that there is a difference between being popular and being mainstream. “[Drag] is popular, though it's not mainstream,” she said. ”Mainstream is something like Big Bang Theory. Seinfeld is mainstream.”

So maybe RuPaul is right. Maybe all of the attention and media that drag has been featured in does not mean that the art form is becoming “mainstream.” Maybe it simply means that drag is more popular than ever, while still challenging heteronormative culture at every opportunity. And maybe that is ultimately a good thing.