Every year seems to be competing to be RuPaul Charles’ biggest year yet. Thanks to nearly 10 years of success with the reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race, the most successful drag queen of all time has carved out a much larger cultural space for drag superstars from all walks of life to be seen by the biggest audiences of their careers. After the series moved from Logo to VH1 this year for Season 9, that audience doubled – hitting nearly one million viewers for both the premiere and finale – and is already promising to get even bigger this spring with the All Stars 3 romp – which premieres January 25th.
Drag Race is far from the only thing the Emmy Award-winning host has on his plate. RuPaul released the dance album American this year and continues to host a popular podcast, called What’s the Tee?, with lifelong friend and fellow Drag Race judge Michelle Visage. Plus, he’s dabbled in more acting than ever before, with appearances on Netflix series Girlboss and Bojack Horseman and a recurring role on the most recent season of Broad City.
On the phone with Rolling Stone earlier this month, RuPaul looked back on a year of empowering triumphs in the face of political turmoil and looked ahead to 2018.
I was going through some of your old interviews with Rolling Stone and one of my favorite answers you gave was in a 1993 interview. When the interviewer asked who you thought audience was, you responded “pre-teen kids who are just forming ideas about politics.” How do you feel that audience has stayed the same or shifted in the last couple decades?
This is our third year of doing Drag Con. We really got to see those pre-teen kids up close and personal, and they’re the smart kids, the ones who aren’t buying into the matrix, and they are looking for people who represent success in working outside the box. The contestants who come on our show are examples of that. And that’s why [these pre-teen kids] flock to Drag Con. They are attracted to our show because we all danced to the beat of a different drummer and it’s the antithesis of the Matrix. The Matrix will have you choose an identity and stick with it for the rest of your life, but we say “phooey” to that and decide what we’re going to be and how we’re going to be every single day. It could be different every single day.
What have been some of the most surprising responses you’ve gotten to Drag Race, even after all these years of it being such a consistent part of popular culture?
Well, it’s not really surprising to me. I’ve always lived in this world outside the loop. I was about 13 or 14 when I made the decision that I was never going to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, of what society wanted me to be, where I need to fit into something that they can digest.
I was never going to do that and I’ve always lived my life like that. Showing the different shades and different genres and different colors and tones of drag is a place that I feel very comfortable in. Queens like Sasha Velour, Sharon Needles and Peppermint showcase all these different ways to express yourself. So I’m never surprised by the people who have come on our show. I get to see the audition tapes and see who’s out there, and the moment someone does something authentic to themselves with their own natural rhythm, I immediately go “Wait, who is what?” Because most people do the exact same thing. It’s kind of sad, really.
Just this year, the viewership doubled, meaning that a lot of people are being exposed to the show and most likely drag culture overall for the first time. Something I remember being overwhelmed by the first time I watched the show was how much work goes into being a drag performer – doing your own make-up, making your clothes, the performance, the posing…
Well it’s interesting, because it really speaks to the role of the seeker and the person who decides – like myself at 13, 14 – to do life your way. And if you choose to do life your way, you have to learn how to be self-sufficient, and you have to learn how to do everything because society doesn’t support you unless you join in. So until you can find your own tribe who will lift you up, which thankfully most of us seekers do, you’re on your own.
I can imagine someone watching our show for the first time and seeing these amazing creatures who can create and pull these beautiful things out of their imagination but can also sustain themselves on many emotional levels. People say all kinds of horrible things to young people who danced to the beat of a different drummer. These kids are contestants coming to our show knowing how to create and also knowing how to deflect a lot of nastiness that society has for us. So it’s interesting to watch a fully-realized human being who knows how to create and be self-sufficient. And watching a room full of these people get together and compete against one another is even more amazing.
We’ve seen so many great queens have thriving careers after appearing on Drag Race, including Trixie and Katya, who now have their own Viceland TV series. You’ve said in the past that drag can never be mainstream: Do you feel that way even after seeing your contestants become bigger pop culture figures?
Everybody has this idea of what “mainstream” is. And when you understand what’s happened politically in this country, you realize how primitive we are as people. Even the things that are happening every day in the paper, you think, “Really?” Humans on this planet like to pretend we’re so advanced, but we are fucking Neanderthals. We are so primitive where the idea that a human being can not make the same amount of money as another human being. There’s fucking slavery still.
So drag becoming mainstream? Honey, please. That’s not going to happen, mainly because the mainstream wants you to choose an identity so they can sell you beer and shampoo. That’s just the way it is. In drag, we are shape-shifters. We don’t hear the rules. We change every day. People need a box to understand how to navigate their lives. They need a grid to go “Oh, I’m here and that’s there.” They’re not fluid in the way of saying “I’m both male, female, black, white. I’m earth. I’m united.” Drag says, “I’m fucking everything.” Not literally fucking everything. I don’t want that to be misunderstood [Laughs].
In the last few years, we’ve seen you as RuPaul Charles act more than ever before and take on different roles outside of RuPaul, Drag Superstar, most recently with a guest run on Broad City. Will we be seeing more acting from you?
The whole drag thing is an acting career, and I am an introvert masquerading as an extrovert. I’ve always been and, at a young age, I learned that I could use clothes and a persona as a tool to get myself out of the house. The truth is that people fucking freak me out. People are so fucking weird and they’re so crazy. I’ve learned a way to armor myself that made it OK for me to interact with human beings. Drag was definitely a way to do that.
With other acting, it’s cool. I dig it, especially if the story is funny or speaks to what I’m about. Broad City is friggin’ hilarious. The show is so well-written and I love those two women [Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer] so much. They really evoke what New York was to me in the Eighties. I love that spirit. I wouldn’t do a lot of things just because it’s not fun or it’s not speaking to me or moving the conversation forward.
For as long as I’ve been following you on Twitter, I’ve always adored your playlists that you post from your personal music library. As we’re entering 2018, what would you recommend for a survival playlist to ring in the new year and leave behind this one?
First, I think human survival is always hinged on knowing thyself. So when you know yourself, you’re able to heal yourself and feed the soul. Music has always been that for me. When I’m able to hear what my soul needs, I will create music that feeds that.
I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. When I’m on the subway, I listen to dance instrumentals and dub. I know what I need at any given time. In the car, I have an iPod that is on shuffle and it plays anything from Eydie Gormé to Thelonious Monk to the Jets. I like it all. I like to be able to lift myself up with music and use it as a tool. I actually like to use all the colors of the rainbow as a tool. With drag, I use clothes and persona. It’s enabled me to go out there with other people and sort of protect myself. Then with music, it’s the same thing. It’s like a chemistry project, seeing the right amount of ingredients to allow me to feel good. That’s what navigating this life is all about: knowing the elements you can use to enhance your experience. Music, texture, clothes, color, laughter – it’s important for me to remember how to use those things. It’s really like being a witch, being someone who understands elements.
Finally, do you make resolutions for the new year? If so, what are yours for 2018?
It’s hard to think of this life as linear. It’s all happening: We go forwards and backwards and sideways. I don’t really think of it as something I have to do in the new year. I am looking forward to the new stars who are coming through Drag Race. We have a set of 14 new girls who are going to appear next year. I feel like Jean Brodie. Every year we present a new set of queens through our show and they’re launched into the world. I love that. It’s like giving birth. Of course, I’ve watched these kids in their audition reels and I fall in love with them before I even meet them. To watch them blossom is like being a gardener who plants seeds and watches these flowers. I love that.