RuPaul Charles is arguably the most commercially successful drag queen in America. RuPaul became a national figure after releasing his hit song “Supermodel” in the early 1990s. Now, 20 years later, he currently hosts three television shows on Logo: RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality television show in which contestants compete to become “America’s next drag superstar,” and its two spin off shows, Untucked! and RuPaul’s Drag U.
Since Drag Race premiered in 2009, it’s received almost universal praise for its campy sensibility, its talented and funny contestants, and its celebration of gay culture. Its producers call it a “show in drag”: it consciously mocks shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model even as it participates in reality TV conventions — it just makes them, well, gayer. It gained mass viewership, especially among LGBT audiences, by mainstreaming a part of gay life — drag queens and drag queen culture — never before seen as the subject of a TV show.
While RuPaul’s successes are unprecedented in the modern history of drag, these achievements are no campy accident. From the beginning of his career, RuPaul has been a serious businessman. After his career began in Atlanta in the 1980s, RuPaul quickly became a master of marketing, branding, and self-promotion. In his 1995 memoir, Lettin It All Hang Out, RuPaul reflects, “I never thought of presenting myself as the premier drag queen for mass consumption. But that was the message people were sending me, and suddenly, it clicked.”
RuPaul became famous by transforming himself into a product for public consumption. In Atlanta, he jump started his career by wheat-pasting posters of himself onto the streets. Years later in New York, RuPaul adopted a “Supermodel of the World” persona to meet the demands of a growing market for drag queen performances. With this new glamorous image, he fashioned himself to meet mainstream audiences: he became the spokesperson for M.A.C. cosmetics and hosted his own talk show on VH1.
RuPaul has since updated his marketing methods to meet 21st century demands. RuPaul’s TV shows also use social media in strategic ways to promote their content. Drag Race promotes new Twitter hashtags in every episode and hosts American Idol-esque Facebook voting campaigns in which viewers help decide the winner of each season. RuPaul currently uses Drag Race as a platform to premiere his products, including new books and music singles, as well as the products of his corporate sponsors.
It makes sense that a master of branding and marketing like RuPaul would become successful in the world of reality television. In this genre, entertainment and commercialism go hand in hand. June Deery, a professor of Communications and Media Studies at MIT, proposes that reality TV is actually a form of “advertainment.” It becomes hard to distinguish between entertainment and advertising when product placement is woven into all aspects of a program.
The products of Drag Race are its contestants. In a 2011 interview with Vulture magazine, RuPaul stated, “What we're looking for is someone who can really follow in my footsteps: Someone who can be hired by a company to represent their product, someone who can put together a sentence on television and present themselves in the most incredible way.” RuPaul and the judges on his show award contestants who they think will be successful professional drag queens: those who have a unique persona that can sell products. Contestants who complete each challenge by marketing themselves accordingly win the competition.
Contestants look to RuPaul as their career role model. As a master of the type of self-fashioning that reality TV shows reward, RuPaul has created a show that is, at its core, about himself. His presence is always marked: when RuPaul enters the room, the contestants applaud. When RuPaul begins a witty banter with a contestant or another judge, he has the last word or the funniest line. He is active within every Drag Race segment; he hosts and judges every challenge. RuPaul also uses his expertise as a drag queen to advise the queens on their outfits and their performances. By mentoring his contestants, RuPaul has the power to shape their careers. RuPaul defines their success: at the end of each episode, he chooses which contestants are eliminated and which move forward.
When it first aired, Drag Race was a small, low-budget show. It has since become a well-funded franchise, and its contestants are quickly becoming celebrities. This narrative mirrors RuPaul’s life story: a young man from a low-income family, RuPaul became successful by studying celebrities like Cher and Madonna and following their career paths. He isn’t successful because he’s a pretty drag queen. He is successful because he’s a commercial chameleon and a shameless self-promoter.
On the surface, RuPaul’s success seems like evidence that counter-culture can be appealing to mainstream audiences. When you take a closer look, it’s clear that RuPaul isn’t promoting an alternative to our celebrity and money-obsessed culture. His career relies upon and reinforces these conventions.
His career does raise questions about the drag queens on the margins: what of those who resist the mainstreaming impulse that Drag Race relies on, those who have more transgressive ideas about what drag can be? RuPaul’s iconic status is a data point in the ongoing debate in LGBT communities about the consequences of moving from the anti-assimilationist margins to the center. What and who do we lose and what do we gain when LGBT culture becomes commercial?