Pop Culture Happy Hour
The Evolution Of 'RuPaul's Drag Race'
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"RuPaul's Drag Race" began its life in 2009 as a raggedy spoof of reality competition shows with hilariously low-rent production values on LOGO, a cable channel most people didn't know if they had or not. Over the course of 13 seasons, it has become an international franchise, a global brand, really. It has transformed and distilled the once underground and defiantly transgressive culture of drag into a formula perfectly suited to family viewing. I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "RuPaul's Drag Race," the show and the phenomenon, on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me is NPR music's Marissa Lorusso. Welcome back, Marissa.
MARISSA LORUSSO, BYLINE: Hey, happy to be here.
WELDON: Always great to have you. Also with us is E. Alex Jung, features writer for New York Magazine and Vulture. Welcome back, Alex.
E ALEX JUNG: Hi.
WELDON: And making their POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut is Tre'vell Anderson. Tre'vell is an entertainment journalist and the co-host of the podcast FANTI, of which we are all big fans - no anti, all fan. Welcome, Tre'vell.
TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Hello. Thanks for having me.
WELDON: Of course. Great to have you. All right. This is a surprisingly big topic. So we're going to drill down a bit. We're going to start with some basics, some NPR explanatory comma. "RuPaul's Drag Race," comma, which stars RuPaul Charles both in and out of drag, pits drag queens against one another in a variety of challenges that are related to drag performance, notionally anyway. The connections can get pretty abstract, but basically, acting, singing, dancing, improv, design. There's many challenges. There's maxi challenges. There's a weekly themed runway competition, after which a panel of judges offers their critiques and make recommendations to RuPaul. RuPaul ultimately decides the winner and the two poorest performing queens of the week. Those two then compete in a lip-sync for their life. And one is sent packing. This continues until one queen is declared America's Next Drag Superstar. The 13th season is currently airing on VH1. Alex, you have been called a drag race scholar, so I got to start with you. What is your history with this show?
JUNG: You know, not to brag, I did watch it from Season 1. So - (laughter).
WELDON: I'm there with you.
JUNG: You know, loved it since the very beginning. And I think that relationship has changed over the course of many, many, many, many, many seasons (laughter).
ANDERSON: I, too, was watching during Season 1 on LOGOtv. I was one of the people who knew that LOGO was a thing. Shout out to Patrik-Ian Polk's "Noah's Arc" that introduced me to this - to that station. And so yeah, I remember when the - it just looked like somebody took some Vaseline and it was over the camera because you couldn't really see much.
ANDERSON: And I've been with it ever since. I've seen every season, probably, a couple times at this point.
WELDON: OK. And Marissa, how about you?
LORUSSO: Unfortunately, I have not been watching since Season 1. I think I started watching in the sixth season and then kind of went back and watched a bunch of the early seasons and have been watching ever since, plus "All Stars" and "Untucked" and the U.K. seasons. And then, I also just remembered that "RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race" was also a thing for a minute.
WELDON: Oh, boy. Yeah.
LORUSSO: And unfortunately, I did also watch that.
WELDON: Oof, oof, oof. That was...
JUNG: ...Dark moments for us all.
WELDON: Yeah. That's the thing that I find fascinating about the show, because I also have been watching since Season 1, the year of the suet on the lens and the really cheap production values. This show has growing pains, right? It makes mistakes. It tries things. I remember the rumbling in the drag community when we learned that the show was going to switch from being broadcast in standard definition to HD. (Laughter) That really ruffled some feather boas. But there's a taxonomy, right? Every season we get, basically, there's some comedy queens. There's some pageant queens who come from the drag pageant circuit. There are some look or, increasingly we call them, Instagram queens, who can turn a look and beat their face but may or may not be performers first and foremost. There are the spooky or weirdo queens. And then there are the avant garde or club queens.
I am a fan of the show without being a student of the show, much less a scholar of the show. I can tell you my favorite queens, you know, comedy queens like Bianca and Trixie and Bob and Shangela and the weirdos like Sasha and Yvie and Jinkx and Tammie Brown. (Laughter) Do not forget - you cannot forget Tammie Brown. And, of course, even though pageant queens aren't my thing, there's a special place reserved for Latrice. I couldn't tell you what season they're from, but I've - and I've watched the Alyssa-Tatiana "Shut Up And Drive" lip-sync more times than I can count. But I haven't done a re-watch. I think, as I say, what's fascinating to me is the growing pains.
Misfires like "Drag U," which attempted to kind of update the queen-for-a-day formula by turning women with inspiring stories into drag queens, I don't think it worked because it played into something that's at the heart of the show, which is that RuPaul sees himself as a life coach. So he's got this propensity to litter the ground with these tidy, little self-help aphorisms and platitudes. And on those moments when the show indulges that, you lose me because the show, I think, is doing that work already on some level by challenging these queens to get better at their art and become vulnerable. Alex, does that make sense to you?
JUNG: Yeah. You know, I mean, I think, at this point, it's a little tropey - right? - to talk about the inner saboteur that, you know, exists in all of us.
JUNG: And it may sneak out at any moment in the competition. But, you know - and obviously, that's true. And I think that, as a framework, when RuPaul tends to lean into self-help guru, I think it works less - right? - because, you know, at least if you watch the early seasons, queer people, trans people, people of color doing drag is inherently going to be a story about overcoming or creating something out of, often, hardship, right? And not always. But I think, like, that narrative or that tension often exists. And you kind of just have to let the cameras roll and let people talk to each other and do their art. And that will all just kind of emanate naturally from it. And I think that when you try to, like, force the story bite at the makeup mirror, I think that's when it can feel a little bit contrived.
WELDON: I agree. Tre'vell, where do you come down on this?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, very much so. I feel like we can all feel when that moment is coming in an episode. And I feel like they're doing it every episode at this point. There's a very special moment in every episode at this point, which does kind of, I think, pull you out of the fantasy of it all and the entertainment of it all. I think it worked a lot more successfully early - in earlier seasons where we didn't really see and have a lot of regular-degular-shmegular (ph) queer people talking about what it's like to live and exist as queer people in their communities. But now we've seen that, right? We've had 13 seasons of the original "Drag Race." We've got 12 million different, you know, spin-offs at this point. And so we're used to that already. We know that narrative. And so sometimes, it just feels a little, you know, done.
LORUSSO: I also agree with kind of the trope-iness (ph) of, like, Ru talking to one of the queens, everyone breaks down in tears. And then kind of, like, inevitably, that is the queen who goes home that week. You just know that you got enough of their backstory. We got everything useful from this character that we could get, and then she's sent packing.
WELDON: I think something happens on a show like this when the kids who grew up watching it become contestants. And this is true with any long running reality competition show - "Survivor," "Top Chef." The show evolves because they know exactly what to expect. And they know how to game the system. I would argue, though, that this show started off from such a meta, self-aware place that you don't necessarily see that phenomenon happening to the extent you might see it on another show - because, yeah, you can see contestants kind of gauging, their eyes kind of whirling around as they're gauging, you know, when to tell their tragic backstory, when to deploy tears. You can see them figuring out if they stir the pot on "Untucked," the producers might keep them around. But do you get a sense that there's something that's changed? Or has the formula just locked in so clearly that we're - this is the show we're going to get, period?
ANDERSON: Well, I'll say - I mean, I do think that we've seen, through "Drag Race" in particular, the rise of the contestant-producer is what I call them - right...
ANDERSON: ...The contestant who knows that the camera's there, who knows that this is their moment or they know how to ask that shady question to prop someone else up. Or they're in their confessional - right? - basically narrating the entire episode. I feel like we've seen a lot more folks who are hip to that approach of being a contestant on the show, whereas, you know, in earlier seasons, you know, the girls just didn't know, you know, how to navigate that particular space. And I think that's something that has changed. I'm not sure if that's a positive or a negative, but it definitely is something that has evolved over the years.
JUNG: I mean, drag has always been, like, inherently referential to me, right? So like, that sort of sense of awareness or production of image has always been a part of the semiotics of drag, so to speak, from the beginning. I do think that with the increasing production level and the increasing awareness of self-as-brand and the need to market as brand is part of what is really shifting for me. And so now it - you know, they often call "Drag Race" the Olympics of drag. And I think that's actually really true because you need an entire team to help you win, you know? You need stylists. Everyone comes really, really ready with - they do improv classes. They take dance classes, right? Like, you know, just doing some minor reporting on this, the amount of actual prep work that goes into going onto "Drag Race" is absurd. Right? It's out of this world.
WELDON: And the thousands and thousands of dollars of investment just - it's a real, real thing.
JUNG: Yeah, yeah.
LORUSSO: I think part of that, too, is that because "Drag Race" has become such a phenomenon, these queens are the queens who go on to really have commercially viable careers as drag performers. And so you need to be able to be a Ru girl to make it onto "Drag Race." And then you need to be able to make it onto "Drag Race" to kind of be in that upper echelon of performers who can, like, make a living doing this. Because the show is so big, I feel like it has the tendency or ability to crowd out other drag scenes because anyone who is a passive fan of drag is going to pay money when a Ru girl comes through their town in the way that they might not necessarily if it's, like, your local drag scene.
JUNG: Yeah. Drag Race kind of reminds me of Marvel in some ways now because it's like the "Drag Race" extended universe. And it's like the millions of, like, minifranchises, spinoffs, like whatever things that you can sort of create for yourself that kind of just, like, keep expanding this world so it's bigger and bigger and bigger. And Ru is at the center of it. That's kind of the feeling of it now to me, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just is.
ANDERSON: I mean, we should also note how now it feels like you can't go a week without some sort of "Drag Race" being on - right? - whether it's the Canadian version or the Thailand version of the U.K. version, you know? And it's just like - I feel like that's an aspect that has also changed the nature of the show a little bit, because it does not give us as an audience time to really build a relationship with the queens in the way that we might have done in earlier seasons.
I feel like for all drag queens, at least in the U.S., so many of them want to get on "Drag Race" because of the potential career and financial, you know, gain they can get from it. But it does require them to invest so much money at the beginning. And we see, unfortunately, the queens who don't have that access to money oftentimes are the queens who end up going home earlier on just because their looks - right? - aren't up to par with some of the others.
WELDON: Right. I want to talk about the formula, but I also want to talk about, man, RuPaul as host, as persona - flawed, complicated. She said some things - some pretty thoughtless things about trans contestants over the years. And it seems to me right now the show's trying to have it both ways. You mentioned the versions in Canada, Thailand. Those are called just "Drag Race" because RuPaul is not directly involved in them week to week. Right? There is "RuPaul's Drag Race U.K," where RuPaul's there. But those other ones, she's not there, and they're fascinating to watch for me because it is the show's rigid formula without revolving around this kind of gravity sink of RuPaul.
I do want to talk about the fandom now. The fandom for this show is intense, and much of it is joyous. If you go to a DragCon or any, like, drag convention, you'll see kids, entire nuclear families - Mom, Dad, Bobby and Sissy - in drag, which is fun to see. It's about as far away from this art form's roots as it is possible to get. Alex, you've written about this, what's gained and what's lost.
JUNG: Yeah. I think to the earlier point about, like, the sense of like a Marvel-ifictation (ph) or like a populism or mainstreaming of "Drag Race," "Drag Race" is the mainstream version of drag. It is not drag as a whole. And I think that it's important to remember that those two things are separate or, like, overlapping, but not necessarily the same thing. But I can't imagine that - you know, drag, I think, is inherently going to be subversive and resistant to ideas of rigid conforming. So that always exists. And I think it just will create different spaces for itself at various points. It's just right now, it's hard not to look away at the giant neon sign.
WELDON: Sure. The thing about the fan base is that it's not all joyous. Much of it gets really toxic. These queens get attacked on social media, particularly queens of color. And for listeners who don't know, it's not coming from the quarters you might expect - the you'll go to hell, repent, homophobic, normal places. It's coming from inside the house. It's coming from the queer community. I should amend that. It's coming from the white cis male gays especially. And it doesn't seem like a fluke. It seems like it's an outward manifestation of something that's really kind of loathsome within the community. What do you guys think of that? Why is it happening?
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, I think the broader queer community is racist.
WELDON: There you go.
ANDERSON: And so (laughter) the people who love "Drag Race" so much are also going to show that racism. And we see it manifest in terms of, you know, which queens from the show get the follow on Instagram and which ones get the movie deals and, you know, the World of Wonder deals and, you know, all of this other stuff. I mean, I think we know very well that our community - right? - we've got the no fats, no fems, no Blacks, no Asians, you know, mantra that is often - I shouldn't call it a mantra, but folks in our community use it as if it's a mantra to basically dictate the types of people they want to invest their time and energy and money and desire into and those they don't. And so we see that just showing up in terms of the audience of the folks around "Drag Race."
That being said, connecting it to what Alex was just saying about "Drag Race" not being drag, you know, there is a host of other types of queens. I'm particularly thinking of Black and brown queens - right? - whose work is a lot more political than a lot of the stuff that we see show up on "Drag Race," who seemingly don't have a space or a place on "Drag Race." I'm thinking of Vixen, who was one of the contestants who was just, you know, super Black Power, super radical and ran into a lot of issues not only on the show, but also in terms of the fan base's response to her. And so I think that's the core of why there is this racism within the fan base. It's because, you know, they racist (laughter).
WELDON: (Laughter) We don't have to scratch too deeply. That's right there on the surface.
ANDERSON: You know.
WELDON: I just want to say that something like Lip Sync Battle feels appropriative. That show is like when a high school football star would dress up in his girlfriend's cheerleading outfit for spirit week.
ANDERSON: Can I just say, we have had some iconic lip syncs on this show.
JUNG: We have.
ANDERSON: My personal favorite, which no one else will like, I promise you...
JUNG: I'm so excited (laughter).
ANDERSON: (Laughter) It was Alexis Mateo's performance of Fantasia's "Even Angels."
JUNG: Uh huh, I love that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
FANTASIA: (Singing) Close call - you think you might fall. All you got to do is try. Even angels, even angels learn to fly.
ANDERSON: Fantasia's my favorite artist of all time, and so that episode has a special place in my heart. But Latrice - anything Latrice has done...
WELDON: Anything Latrice, yup.
ANDERSON: ...Is so good. But there's so many. You mentioned "Shut Up And Drive." Coco Montrese and...
JUNG: Alyssa Edwards.
ANDERSON: Alyssa Edwards, yes. Coco Montrese and Alyssa Edwards, their lip sync is also legendary. I mean, it's just - I'm one of those people who will watch lip syncs over and over on YouTube, and those are the ones that I revisit all the time.
JUNG: I spent the past hour just re-watching old lip syncs (laughter).
WELDON: You got any that Tre'vell didn't mention?
JUNG: I would just add Dida Ritz doing "Everlasting Love" in front of Natalie Cole. That was...
JUNG: ...Truly an amazing moment. And I think for me, the - one of the lip syncs that really - like, I was like, oh, this is drag was Manila Luzon doing "MacArthur Park"...
WELDON: Oh, right.
JUNG: ...In the Big Bird dress.
JUNG: And something about it...
JUNG: Like, that was the moment when she turns and she understands how campy the song is itself. And I was like, oh, this is high drag.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) I recall the yellow on the ground beneath your knees. MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down.
WELDON: (Laughter) Marissa, you got any we haven't mentioned yet?
LORUSSO: Oh, yes. OK, season nine finale - Sasha Velour and Shea Coulee - when Sasha, like, lifts the wig off her head and the rose petals fall.
WELDON: Uh huh. Sure.
LORUSSO: Oh, my gosh - iconic. One that I come back to a lot is Yvie Oddly and Brooke Lynn Hytes doing "Sorry, Not Sorry" by Demi Lovato.
LORUSSO: The acrobatics, the Cirque de Soleil realness - I keep getting this TikTok on my algorithm that is a man saying, show me a sports highlight that gives you chills every time. And every time, I'm like, why am I getting the sports-themed TikTok? And then immediately, it cuts to "Sorry, Not Sorry" lip sync, and it gives me chills every time. It's so good.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
DEMI LOVATO: (Singing) Now, payback is a bad chick. And baby, I'm the baddest. You playing with a savage. Can't have this, can't have this. And it'd be nice of me to take it easy on ya, but nah. Baby, I'm sorry. I'm not sorry. Baby, I'm sorry. I'm not sorry. Being so bad got me feeling so good.
WELDON: It is so good. This show has a lot of joy in it. It's a complicated show, but it offers a lot that is good and especially good for deep dives - YouTube rabbit holes. Tell us what you think about "Drag Race." Find us on Facebook, at Facebook.com/pchh or tweet us @pchh. When we come back, it'll be time to talk about what's making us happy this week. So come right back.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY, NOT SORRY")
LOVATO: (Singing) Baby, I'm sorry. I'm not sorry. Baby, I'm sorry. I'm not sorry. Being so bad...
WELDON: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what is making us happy this week. Marissa, what is making you happy this week?
LORUSSO: So last week, Japanese Breakfast, which is the wonderful musical project of songwriter Michelle Zauner, came out with a new song. The song is called "Be Sweet."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE SWEET")
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) You know it's better. Be sweet to me, baby. I want to believe in you. I want to believe. Be sweet - be sweet to me, baby. I want to believe in you. I want to believe in something.
LORUSSO: It is such a lovely song - full of joy, so bubbly - and it's the first single from the new Japanese Breakfast record "Jubilee," which is coming out this summer. It's, like, a really great song, but it also made me go back and revisit her earlier albums, especially her 2016 album "Psychopomp," which was her first full-length Japanese Breakfast record. It is filled with such great, sharp, lovely songwriting, and it had been a little while since I had revisited it, so I'm really glad I did. So the music of Japanese Breakfast is what's making me happy.
WELDON: Awesome. Thank you very much. That sounds great. Alex, what is making you happy this week?
JUNG: I got a galley for Alison Bechdel's upcoming book, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." And if you don't know her, she's a graphic novelist, cartoonist. She did "Fun Home" and "Dykes To Watch Out For," the comic strip that went on for many, many years. And she has a new book coming out in May about working out, her body, existentialism, muscles.
WELDON: Existentialism and muscles, my two passions.
JUNG: I love it.
WELDON: So that's "The Secret To Superhuman Strength" by Alison Bechdel, coming in May. Tre'vell, what's making you happy this week?
ANDERSON: I'm ironically going to keep mine sort of in the "Drag Race" ecosystem and give a shout out to "The TS Madison Experience" on WE tv. "Drag Race" judge TS Madison, former sex worker turned social media maven, has her own reality show. And it's hilarious, and she deserves all the attention she's finally getting. And if you just need to watch something and have a little fun and just, like, relax, it's "The TS Madison Experience" on WE tv.
WELDON: Awesome. And if you watched the most recent episode of "Drag Race" as we tape this, she came back to the workroom during "Untucked," and she was just great.
What is making me happy this week is "True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee." It's a new biography of the man, the myth, the legend. It's by Abraham Riesman. It's a book that has been sorely needed for a very long time because Stan Lee was kind of his own hype man, really given to self-mythologising, inflating his role in the creation of various characters. And the other thing about it is those early years of comics, very little about their creation was preserved. They don't have any script. We don't have many - much art. We don't have many notes, so...
Now, I kind of know Abe, and the other thing is that his publisher is publishing my book in June - different imprint, but the same publisher. So with all of those caveats, I would still be recommending this book, even if none of that were true because it is such a rigorous but ultimately fair-minded, clear-eyed examination of what was a deeply complicated dude. It's a combination of scholarship with deep empathy, but it doesn't shy away from the stuff, like the man's sort of shadier aspects or away from a really sad story about his final days. It's a book that a lot of people have tried to write over the years, but this strikes me as definitive. That's "True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee" by Abraham Riesman. And that is what's making me happy this week.
Before we go, we wanted to let you know that we are going to be doing an episode about the best Muppets, and we want to know which Muppets you think are the best. You can vote for your favorite Muppets at npr.org/muppets. That's a real thing. You can vote for your favorite Muppets at npr.org/muppets.
And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. I'm @ghweldon. You can follow Alex @e_alexjung. You can follow Tre'vell @TrevellAnderson. You can follow Marissa @mrsslrss. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy @jessica_reedy. You can follow producer Candice Lim @thecandicelim and producer Mallory Yu @mallory_yu - Y-U. You can follow producer Mike Katzif @mikekatzif - that's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music that maybe you're bobbing your head to right now, maybe you're not - I don't know your life. Thanks to all of you for being here.
JUNG: Thank you.
LORUSSO: Thank you.
WELDON: And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all next week, when we'll be recapping this year's Grammy Awards.
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