Drag Race fan favorites share moving memories of RuPaul: ‘We were being seen’ – EW.com
Check out the complete oral history of RuPaul — and revisit 25 years’ worth of game-changing LGBTQ movies, TV, and music — in the special LGBTQ issue of Entertainment Weekly, available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Upon its 2009 premiere, RuPaul’s Drag Race helped usher in a new era of fabulous for its Emmy-winning host, who’s comfortably settled into his sky-high stilettos as America’s reigning First Lady of Drag. Across 116 episodes to date, the reality competition series has broadened the world’s perception of drag not only as a form of entertainment but as a legitimate art that — in the cultivating hands of Mama Ru — continues to expand and evolve with each new contestant who sashays into the program’s storied work room.
While 115 queens from around the world have seen their artistry soar to new heights as part of the Drag Race cast, four of the most prominent graduates — season 6’s Bianca Del Rio, season 5’s Jinkx Monsoon, and season 4 sisters Latrice Royale and Chad Michaels — have arguably made the most of their time on the show, fronting international comedy tours, starring in elaborate stage productions, and acting in films and television shows, with the ripples of RuPaul’s success lighting the way. Now the queens are opening up to EW about RuPaul’s hand in making them superstars on the drag circuit, recalling everything from the first time they saw his “Supermodel (You Better Work)” music video to the impact he had on their budding sexuality as awareness of LGBTQ discrimination intensified in the early ’90s.
As RuPaul’s Drag Race prepares to conclude its ninth season on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on VH1, check out what fan favorite contestants have to say about RuPaul’s life and legacy below.
Del Rio: “I go back to MTV when they actually played videos. There was a video of Ru, ‘Supermodel,’ and I was like, ‘Who is this person?’… At the time, I knew about drag queens like Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey, who were much older, but they weren’t glamorous, and Ru just came out of nowhere… at the time, ‘Supermodel’ was the s—. It was the song that we all knew, gay and straight… I also witnessed Joan [Rivers] welcoming gay men in drag on her show, and it wasn’t crazy crap about them eating baby food or having some sick fetish. Joan presented them as entertainers. I thought that was kind of insane, it was the beginning of it all… obviously it was something magical happening.”
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Royale: “He made me feel like we were being seen, and people knew that we were a viable career choice and not just a joke or an afterthought in the nightclubs. For me, I’m always looking at things from the business side, so this is now putting us in a situation where we can actually be a viable job. He represented a career that can now be seen as something tangible… [his presence told me] you can actually be a brand and become more than just a drag queen. You get a face and have a voice. He was doing all of that by stepping out and trailblazing.”
Del Rio: “I was 20-years-old and finally settling into my life. I was going through life being called gay or a f—– and looking at it as a bad thing, because it was definitely a freeing point in my life, just to be a gay man functioning in the world. It brings back fond memories on that level. I am fascinated now just to see how young gays experience all of this stuff or are basically living their lives, but it was such a different time back then. It was a big deal to be gay and discrimination was far worse than it is now. It was a huge turning point, especially for me in my little life… it was huge then, and no one had really done that. I’ve known many drag queens then and since, but no one had that exposure that Ru did, so there was definitely something magical there that was going on.”
Michaels: “His rise started when I started doing drag. I wouldn’t say I started doing drag because of RuPaul. I’m a child of the ‘70s, so I’m very into pop culture and it was always Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman on TV, Princess Leia, all these hyper-feminine role models. I had an obsession with Madonna, too. This celebrity impersonation thing is what pulled me into doing drag. However, RuPaul was the fire underneath it all, going, ‘This makes it possible.’ There’s a viable career there if you work for it and really want it… It wasn’t shocking; it was exciting. It was shocking because we hadn’t seen it before, but it also felt like home… This is what it’s supposed to be… Look at this person who’s completely doing their own thing no matter what anybody’s views were at the time regarding drag or female impersonation… it was the start of an era.”
Monsoon: “Not only has her music always been in the drag bars that I’ve worked in since I was 15, but she was in The Brady Bunch Movie, so I think of times when I saw her at 8 or 9-years-old and I didn’t realize then that she’d one day be a huge part of my life. I think back on all these little things that, at the time, I took for granted, but now I think she’s the only drag queen to break the glass ceiling so immensely. Drag has come a long way and people are respecting it, and giving drag queens and other people who defy gender norms more chances than they’ve ever been given before, but it’s thanks to people like RuPaul, especially, who set that momentum going… I don’t think I knew Ru was a drag queen when I would see her in The Brady Bunch Movie. I don’t think any part of me thought, ‘Oh, that’s a man dressed as a woman.’ My family was always accepting of my own self-expression. I gave very clear signs from a very young age that I had a fascination with femininity and female clothing and it was kind of an ongoing joke in my family that I was going to be the next RuPaul, so that name, since I was a child, she’s always been a part of my life. She’s been a reference to go back to. When I came out of the closet at 14 and then started really delving into queer movies, she was in the movie But I’m a Cheerleader out of drag, and I can find all these little moments throughout my life where she’s been there.”
Michaels: “Pre-RuPaul, celebrity impersonation was the pinnacle of drag… of course there were different factions of drag going on at that time, but for the most part the drag shows you went to see in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, you saw Liza Minnelli, you saw Diana Ross, you saw Cher — you didn’t see the array of drag you see now. All the different styles and the houses of drag, East Coast drag versus West Coast drag versus Southern drag. He definitely shifted things. He propelled it in a direction where anything was possible. Overall, he opened people’s minds to going, ‘Oh, these aren’t just guys dressing up as celebrities. This is a fully realized character that is original.’ It opened the gays’ eyes as well as mainstream people, who were looking at him and saying this is something new, something we haven’t seen.”
Monsoon: “There are other drag queens who have made it as far as they could possibly make it. There’s an old guard of drag, like the queens who got as big as they could possibly get before there was a TV show dedicated to drag queens. So that’s people like Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Peaches Christ, Coco Peru, Charles Busch — all these performers, they got as far as you could possibly go before the industry and before mainstream culture were giving drag queens a chance… I truly believe her when she says she created Drag Race as a way for her to share her success with other drag queens, because she knew if you give drag queens a chance, if you give queer people a chance, they will show you that they have so much to offer. And through Drag Race, we’ve been able to be exposed to all of these other amazing drag talents that have totally surpassed what I used to think a drag queen could do… That’s all thanks to RuPaul giving us a platform, giving us the exposure, because she knew that there were queens out there who needed the exposure. All they needed was to be seen and then they could bring so much entertainment to the industry.”
Del Rio: “I don’t think he was intentionally plotting and planning the life he has now, but he’s especially grateful for it, and realizes how wonderful and successful it is, and uses it as a proper way… he’s aware of it now, but I can’t say he was working on this struggle. It’s not a Harriet Tubman situation where he’s building a freedom train, but I think that it just kind of happened by him living his life and being aware of how wonderful it is. He definitely set the standard, but, you know, I think he’s opened doors for me, and I don’t think he realized how many doors he’s opened for everyone else.”
Royale: “I know I’m black, but I wasn’t trying to make it as a black person, you know what I mean? Ru crossed all boundaries — race, gender, all of it. So it’s not about what color you are anymore, he’s broken all those barriers… people can turn to drag and Drag Race to get rid of the woes of [today’s presidential administration], and drag has a way of making people feel good about life and… gives them hope… we are here in the world, one day at a time, and people connect with us on a very emotional level, more than any other [cast] that’s out there, and no other reality show people tour the way the Drag Race girls tour. RuPaul is who made that happen; he’s created so many jobs in this time. We have jobs that were created by this phenomenon, and that’s pretty amazing.”