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Nearly five years after launching her eponymous reality competition Drag Race, the world’s most famous drag queen is taking the cult hit for a second spin around the block. RuPaul’s Drag Race: The Lost Season Ru-Vealed premieres tonight — a replay of the first season that’s been bedazzled with insider-y introductions by RuPaul herself as well as behind-the-scenes secrets and trivia in pop-up bubbles. Before the flag drops on Ru-Vealed, Ru talked with EW about the series’ rich (and sparkly) history. So what did she have to say about the now-famous Lip Synch for Your Life elimination tradition, the tough love behind her catchphrase, and how President Barack Obama played into it all? Read on…
Though RuPaul had been an international icon long before 2009 — thanks to her 1992 dance hit “Supermodel” breaking into the mainstream pop charts, a series of film and TV appearances, and a gig headlining her own gabfest The RuPaul Show from 1996 to ’98 — the queen of queens was new to reality-TV producing when the idea for Drag Race began to come together. Flash forward to February 2009, at the show’s premiere party: “The enthusiasm surrounding the show was so great that I knew that we had a hit on our hands,” she recalls. “In fact, I never even got into the premiere party because it was so crowded. So actually I had a little party out in the parking lot — and even that was crowded.”
Though there’s no shortage of fun and games on Drag Race, Ru can’t help but point out that the success of an eye-opening show like Race had a much deeper undercurrent. “People were celebrating the return of drag,” she says. “During the Bush administration drag and gender issues had really had to go underground, especially post-9/11. Culturally, people had taken on hostility and a certain ill feelings. The Obama era ushered in [a drag resurgence] — not because of him but as a result of a bigger cultural change that had happened — and our show represented that resurgence and that way of thinking of feeling with a certain openness. That was a real celebration for me. I knew that happy days were here again.”
A year or so before that, though, Ru knew developing a drag-based competition would be an endeavor to handle with kid gloves (ideally evening-length). She decided to stick with what had always worked: “Part of my strategy for mainstream success [in my career] was to take sexuality out of my character… because the public is very threatened. I realized very early on that that was part of the reason people couldn’t get on board with drag — and the bitchiness, the sort of mean-spirited thing.” So, when it came to casting, “We were very careful with how we chose the kids based on… what Betty and Joe Beercan could possibly interpret as fun and non-threatening [in the different sub-genres of drag].”
Enter the likes of everyone from pageant queens to well-we’re-not-really-sure-what-she-is-but-we-love-her-anyway wackadoodles (hey there, Tammie Brown!). Ru felt a car wash theme for the first challenge was only fitting since water represents rebirth. And when it came time for elimination, well of course the ladies had to lip synch for their lives. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s as serious as the Olympics for drag,” says Ru of the do-or-die drag-off.
Before the contestants’ (hopefully) tour de force performances, Ru conceived of a very special four words: “Don’t f— it up.” She says she never considered any other catchphrases. “That was always the one. In terms of drag and cutting of through all of the façade of life and remembering that we’re not taking things too seriously, part of that is just cutting straight to the chase and saying, ‘You know what? Don’t f— this up. This is it, this is where we are. No more mucking around.'”
What has become a mantra for the host and her protégés, was borne out of decades of making it werk. “I’ve taken the role of the Dowager Queen,” laughs Ru, “because, the truth of the matter is, for 20 years, there was no other bitch in the game who was on my level. Listen, no tea, no shade, this is not ego, this is just the way it is. So it is my role to break it down for them.” Part of breaking that down is saying goodbye to the queens, and she admits, “It’s heartbreaking every single time. Through the audition process, I’ve fallen in love with each of them before I even meet them.”
But that heartbreak is exactly why Ru says she knew the show was clicking in the first place. “I knew that the show was working when I absolutely fell in love with each and every one of those girls. When I saw them out of drag and I looked them in the eyes and I’d see this human being there, that was lovely and a kindred spirit who believed in beauty and glitter. Seeing their raw, vulnerable hearts without the paint and palettes… the truth is, you’re born naked and the rest is drag. We are all doing that. For these kids to reveal that side of themselves — the Clark Kent to their Superman — is really what this is all about, and it’s what all of us really relate to.” She adds, “It’s the potential that lies in wait for all of us.”
Ru still sees that potential in her own Little Engine of a show, though she admits with some disappointment that, even after five years, Drag Race “is not respected for entertainment value with the bigger entertainment community, or even in just the public. It’s still an underground show. I would think that entertainment would win out, but people’s fears of… really, themselves supersede big, bright shiny love.”
But, as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good queen down for long. Ru qualifies, “Having said all that, I’m fine with it just being niche, underground. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had a great time at this. My philosophy throughout my career is, ‘You know what? I’m going to have a great time, and if people want to jump on board, right on.'” Now, with another season already in the can that features grander, more glittery, bolder performances than the last (not to mention guest judging appearances by Cher’s son/LGBT icon Chaz Bono and grandmother Georgia Holt), Ru figures to be having a pretty darn good time. “I think people will be gobsmacked when they see this season,” she predicts, then laughs, “We say this every year: ‘It absolutely is the best season yet.’ But it’s true!” Indeed, it does get better. Especially when there’s a couple of pride parade floats’ worth of glitter involved.
RuPaul’s Drag Race: The Lost Season Ru-Vealed premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on Logo.