As an industry veteran with decades under his belt, RuPaul is riding the sort of wave that doesn't come along often.
The ninth season of RuPaul's Drag Race, the competition show on which RuPaul, appearing in and out of drag, picks a winner from several aspiring queens, is nearing the end of its first season on VH1 after eight years on scrappier sister network Logo. (The finale, in which a winner is to be named, will air June 23.) Last year, RuPaul won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality/Competition Host. This year, he has appeared on the Netflix series Girlboss and is to serve, alongside J.J. Abrams, as executive producer of an autobiographical series about his rise to prominence in the 1980s club scene. He was among the honorees on this year's TIME 100.
Drag Race has been fulfilling a similar enough version for years. The show combines a giddily anarchic spirit of possibility with a rigorous respect for the culture and traditions of drag — specifics that were entirely unknown to a sizable subset of the audience before they tuned in for the first time. TIME spoke to RuPaul on the phone about drag in the Trump era, how he plays favorites and the season's biggest water-cooler moment.
Given that drag is an art form practiced by society's outsiders, what does it mean for the show to reach such a wide audience? At what point does it cease to be the art of the outsider?
I think it has broken through with many people, but in terms of the critical mass, it’s still not really broken through, and it can’t break through, because it would require the critical mass to look at themselves with X-ray eyes, and understand who they are beyond what it says on their driver’s license. And that is a tall order for the critical mass. Most people have no idea that there is a consciousness beyond the thoughts that they think. And drag is the physical embodiment of understanding who we really are. And who we really are is, for lack of a better term, God experiencing humanity, God experiencing life in human form and having fun with it. Drag takes it to the next level, which is — Oh, I can do whatever I want? Yeah, you can! Most people think, Oh, I have to choose one thing and stick with it forever.
It's interesting that the guest judges, from other areas of popular culture, seem fairly fluent in the art of drag. I was impressed by Lady Gaga's appearance this season.
She’s not the best example, because she’s closer to drag than most of the judges that we have on our show, given her background in New York clubs. We’ve had many people who’ve been on our show who don’t seem to have a background in it. But the truth is that everyone who steps onstage, every performer, ultimately understands that the person onstage is very different from the person at home who has to go pick the kids up or go get the dry cleaning. That duality is what they share with the girls who are in our competition show. Everybody, even if you work at McDonald’s or Walmart, you are in some form of show business.
Because you’re putting on your face to be before the public.
This season, you sent home Valentina, who you said you had thought could have won the whole competition, after she initially refused to remove her mask and fully take part in the lip-sync competition. [Valentina was later revealed not to have bothered to learn the song's lyrics, a standard task on the show.] You seemed disappointed on a personal level, over and above the competition.
When I see the audition reels, I have high hopes and I get a sense of who they are. Especially if they do the audition reel properly. Probably 75 percent of the kids who audition put on this air, this personality that they think I want them to be. They couldn’t be further from the truth — I want them to be authentic. The 25 percent who get through, who are authentic, I fall in love with them, because they reveal themselves. Valentina was someone who I really did think would go all the way. And then when I saw what she did in the challenge and ultimately in the lip-sync, I felt that she had given up. She’s smarter than what she did in the challenge, so that’s why I was disappointed.
As the arbiter of a show with your name in the title, is it hard to go into each challenge open to the possibility for surprise — positive or negative — once you have your early favorites in mind?
To win at life and to win in this competition, you have to be willing to die a thousand deaths and be reborn a thousand times. This competition is designed for a person to break themselves down to their core and build themselves back up again. It’s only when people aren’t courageous or really willing to do the work that that doesn’t happen. We saw that with [season 9 competitor] Nina Bo’Nina Brown — she would sabotage herself. I know that girl because that girl is me and I’ve been in that place so many times. In fact, every day I have to do the work to build myself back up again because my proverbial tail grows back every single day and you have to shave it down.
The show has had a huge impact on drag's visibility and has brought to light how queens work. But is there any concern about opening up the clubhouse too much — revealing the magicians' secrets, as it were?
It’s possible that certain people may feel that way, but I doubt it, because when our show started, drag had been way underground, probably more than it had been in at least 40 years, because the Bush era of fear, 9/11 and all that was really terrible for drag. When our show started, it was part of — it wasn’t responsible for, but it was part of — this bigger movement, this opening up that came along with Obama and so many other things globally that were open.
You've mentioned you felt culture closing up during the Bush era before. And I wonder whether the cultural climate during Donald Trump's presidency feels once again more hostile to drag.
It’s quite possible, and I’ve lived through this before, when disco died. When disco was happening, we thought, “Oh, this is going to be happening forever! How could something this good be demonized?” It’s interesting how humans feel so much more comfortable with fear than they do with love and openness and spirit. We were surprised that disco would go away — although it just changed its name and address and moved locations, but it was still there. This generation — and we see this with DragCon, which we’re doing in New York September 9 and 10 — young, young people, we’re talking 12, 13, 14, they are carrying the torch. They are identifying as gender fluid, even if they don’t know what that really means, and they’re understanding that they are our salvation. They will not let this movement die. And it has less to do with dressing in drag, but more to do with the freedom of expression and the ability to choose how they see themselves in the world.
Do you think the show has had some part in opening minds?
Absolutely! Yes. We have a ranch in Wyoming, in the most desolate place you can imagine. And the show comes on there and people can see it. And I think about places around the world where people can get it from Netflix or Amazon, all that stuff, and I think about the kids, seeing this show and how it inspires them, just their approaches to life. [Season 6 runner-up] Adore Delano has this carefree approach that they really identify with. And it actually teaches them how to behave. They are learning how to navigate their lives in this courageous, creative, colorful, no-excuse way, and I think that definitely has an effect on young people.
By the same token, I think millennials take a harder line on issues of identity than you do — and are a bit more affronted by the sort of wordplay and free-associative identity play central to drag. Has this made you rethink aspects of your act?
Not me personally. The network has gone through that! I think the Trump era will wipe that out. To be that particular about words, you have to be in a place where you’re not under attack. I believe that those same people, right now, are so under attack that ain’t nobody got time to be dealing with “Did you call me a he or a she?” That is going to change real fast. When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, “Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?” That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing. Even what happened with Bill Maher, the truth is he wasn’t being malicious. He was being funny — he’s a comic. People need to get over that sh-t. And, you know, you have to trust your intuition and understand what the intent behind it was. His intent wasn’t to be nasty. It was to be funny.
I will say that there's an idea of nuance in drag that I think is lacking in, for instance, discourse on the internet.
Absolutely. The drag creed, really, is, Do not take life too — capital letters, “TOO” — f---ing seriously.
It's funny how some contestants seem to lose that thread — taking the game too seriously, not in the sense of wanting to perform to their personal best but getting caught up in drama.
In that situation, there are cameras all around them. They are with people they probably never met before, they are sleep-deprived and they’re put under a microscope in a way they’ve never been before. They’ve been asked to morph into something they’ve never seen themselves as. That’s what humans do under that pressure with cameras in their face. They lash out. And queens are extra-special creatures because they’ve had to fight for every little thing they’ve gotten, and they’ve had to fight society and their parents and their communities, because people are saying “You’re not right.” And their natural instinct is fight or flight.
Each winner so far has pushed drag forward in one way or another — an unusual sense of humor, a special gift for craftsmanship. Does the idea of your winners reinventing drag appeal to you?
Absolutely. That’s what I’ve been able to do in my career. When I started out in Atlanta, there was the traditional drag, which was kind of the pageant thing. We — Lady Bunny, LaHoma Van Zandt — we were the punk-rock drag. We wanted to poke fun at the establishment. And that’s what I’ve been able to do, it’s what Bunny’s been able to do, and it’s what we wanted to do with the show. It’s what we have done with the show. And so the winners are always people who are very charismatic, very talented, but also have a very specific point of view.
Last year, you said you'd "rather have an enema than an Emmy." Then you won. Did that change your perspective?
The Emmy, honestly, was great for us as a whole. Logo is a small network who has been chugging along for all these years. World of Wonder is a production company that has been very punk rock and anti-establishment; they dance to the beat of their own drum. So as a group, for all of us, it was a great bit of recognition. And so that’s why it was important.
But for me personally, I’ve created my whole career outside of the box. There wasn’t a template for what I’ve done. And I had to remove needing validation from the establishment of show business, I had to remove that from my gameplan if I was going to move forward. There was no way the establishment was going to recognize me because I am the antithesis of that. I do my own thing. I’m actually poking fun at identity, and the establishment, they’re selling identity. That wasn’t something that was on my plate, but I am happy to have received it as part of a group of people who are working very hard, and that kind of recognition is brilliant.