Or is the reign up for our longest-standing queen?
In these times of negativity, there are still a few forces that unite us. RuPaul may be the strongest, and is certainly the most fabulous. Way back in the 1990’s, RuPaul Charles spectacularly burst onto the scene with his Glamazon drag persona and the hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” The character served up all the glamour absent from pop culture of the time in a manner subversive enough to capture the fancy of the disaffected youth. The “Supermodel (You Better Work)” video played in heavy rotation, holding its own amidst a barrage of grunge and gangsta rap, and even hit number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. Generally, novelty acts pop onto the scene and fall out of favor just as quickly, yet somehow, RuPaul held on tight. Thankfully so, because if he hadn’t, the world would be sorely missing out on Mama Ru’s songs, books, and TV endeavors.
RuPaul barreled through a diverse medley of projects in the late 90s while chewing scenery in The Brady Bunch Movie, hamming it up on All My Children, and shilling for Webex. He also became the first face of MAC cosmetics, wrote an autobiography, released two more albums, and launched a daytime talk show on VH1. Perhaps overexposure should have been a concern. While the gay community’s love never completely faded, mainstream attention certainly did, at least until 2009, when RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered on Logo.
As a reality competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race subverts and elevates the standard structure of the genre. Each season, a passel of drag queens arrive, hungry to compete for the grand prize by showcasing their charms in four arenas: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. The girls consistently use their stage names, though their talking heads are shot while they’re out of drag. One might expect pure viciousness from a gaggle of drag queen, but these are performers who’ve chosen a career path that could get them chased out of town in large swaths of the country, and endanger their lives in others, so even rivals share a begrudging respect. Mama Ru offers her girls a safe space to showcase their talents while enthusiastically coaching as their fellow performer, and critiquing as their queen.
The fascinating thing about RuPaul’s Drag Race is the consistently playful attitude and upbeat air rarely found on American shows with a serious cash prize. My 85-year-old father, who spends his days alternating between the Outdoor Living Network and Fox News, could easily get sucked into Drag Race, because it would fascinate him (and probably take him a hot minute to figure out those women were actually those men…and vice versa). It presents an alternative lifestyle as normalcy–a fierce, fresh use of one of our most powerful mediums. In 2017, the show moved to VH1, and landed Lady Gaga as a guest judge; she seemed as excited to be there as the competing queens. RuPaul consistently serves up an atmosphere of flamboyant, supportive fun so successfully, he’s won four consecutive Emmys for hosting.
The recently wrapped season of RuPaul’s Drag Race stumbled into off-screen drama which led to a contestant’s disqualification from the show. The COVID-19 lockdown morphed the tell-all and finale eps into isolation extravaganzas. Apparently, Ru can’t do his own makeup, or won’t let us see him try, because he wore a weird blue luchador/sex mask and sad hoodie for the reunion, followed by a Zorro/Hamburglar mask with a Darkwing Duck hat during the finale—with nary an explanation for any of it. Can you imagine having that much confidence? That’s exactly how Ru rolls.
The upcoming fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars promises to grant us all a royal escape into a world where our favorite awkwardly endearing men try once more to be as stunning, powerful, and influential as their most supreme queen. Ru will make them work while leading them with a firm hand and hearty laugh. There are some promised tweaks to the existing rule book to throw in a little extra drama. But the good kind.
A lesser (wo)man would find one show, its various spin-offs, and fan conventions to be more than enough of an empire to wrangle, yet apparently, RuPaul never stops. In addition to the perpetual Drag Race duties, Mama Ru still releases music, co-hosts the What’s the Tee? with Michelle Visage podcast, wrote the inspirational wisdom/self-help tome GuRu, cameoed in a Taylor Swift video, and this past February, hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time.
Netflix gambled on the power of Ru as well, picking up a season of his dramedy, AJ and the Queen. In the show, Ru plays Ruby Red, an optimistic drag queen who loses her money and her heart to a callous grifter before hitting the road with a scrappy preteen stowaway. We often see the character RuPaul performing, which is an act, but we rarely see RuPaul Charles as an actor, and the decision to undertake a dramatic project was bold, though not carried out as successfully as one might hope.
The show veers between wacky madcap and sad crap, and tonal balance never fully makes it into the mix. On one hand, it’s exciting to see a performer undertake a new facet of his craft, on the other, it’s a bummer when all his effort fizzles. The show isn’t terrible, exactly, it’s just markedly more boring than a road-trip adventure featuring a drag queen and Tia Carrere as a villain with an eyepatch should be.
It’s a sign of the times and the longevity of his career that while RuPaul has amassed plenty of fans, there are legions of critics, particularly within the transgender community, who can find his stance too far removed from their current views. Similar complaints have arisen regarding his controversial statements on race. Perhaps defining the zeitgeist for three decades has wearied him, or maybe, as the world’s second-most renowned queen, RuPaul inherently understands when to explain and when to hold strong. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, and she certainly looks fabulous wearing it.