A few weird things happen when you tell people you’re going to be a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
First, they get excited — which isn’t particularly weird, but definitely becomes weird when you realize that everyone thinks “Yaaaas” is the only appropriate exclamation to the news of your reality-TV participation. Some people should NEVER yas.
Then, they ask how it happened, and that answer isn’t too weird, either. I write Entertainment Weekly‘s Bullseye page, and I imagine that the inherent snark played a factor in my being asked to judge the sassiest of challenges: The annual “Reading Is Fundamental” challenge, in which the drag queens take turns insulting each other, and the winner is she whose burn scorches hottest. It’s a brief role, but a fantastic one that’s as much an honor to judge as it is an anxiety-inducing horror. But I digress. If you get a call asking you to appear on Drag Race, and if you have an open schedule and any gay pride whatsoever, you quickly oblige, because this is RuPaul, after all: a cultural institution and a continuously relevant icon whose influence as a commentator on the zeitgeist only swells alongside the growing perspectives on social equality.
So, that’s how I ended up spending a few hours on the Los Angeles set of Logo’s long-running, trailblazing reality series. But the process by which you get to be on Drag Race isn’t nearly as interesting as when you’re actually standing side-by-side with RuPaul — an almost magical encounter which I more or less imagine is what it must feel like to be a basic Hufflepuff called in to Dumbledore’s office. As you stand with RuPaul in that rarified air opposite the contestants, it’s hard to ignore that Ru (can I call you Ru?) is such an important beast of entertainment. You essentially do as Ru does, and hope you yourself don’t get read on the way out of the workroom.
Here’s what I learned from my day as the king of queens.1. You need a drag name.
If you’re going to appear on a TV show where the contestants’ names include Acid Betty, Kim Chi, and Bob the Drag Queen, you’d better come prepared with your own moniker. For some ludicrous reason, I wasn’t. So, by the time a fourth person asked me what my drag name was, I decided I might as well just pick something. I typically keep a list on my phone of two-word phrases I hear in the wild that I think might make a good drag name some day. (They include: Snatch Postal, Dusty Gem Mine, Piggy Exclusive, Iceberg Romaine, Rachel Bilson, Visa Decline, and Tattooine Water Pump.) But I didn’t have time to consult my list, so I panicked. But that very morning, I had just watched the pilot of my new favorite ABC show … so, meet Quantico Henley.2. Be prepared to emote.
In judging the library challenge, I was fully prepared to be shocked and horrified by some of the inventive invectives the queens would come up with to lob against each other. But my real challenge was in varying those 20-something reactions to the insults, which ranged from polite parlor repartee to straight-up arson of the soul. When all was said and done, you only see a couple of my reactions to the queens’ reads, but rest assured, I ran through the entire gamut of emoji reactions and tried to replicate them on my real face (a.k.a. God’s emoji). You’ve got to give the people options.3. You are not Ryan Seacrest.
Blame it on years of watching reality television that I assumed my delivery of the final verdict had to be loaded with suspenseful, pregnant pauses. (I assumed they might have wanted to cut to commercial break or something, as if the winner of this mini-challenge was that important that it needed to be padded by a 90-second spot for Broadway’s Waitress.) Anyway, when the time finally arrived for me to announce the challenge’s victor, I tried to be coy and make high-stakes eye contact with all of the queens as I unveiled their fate. “And the winner … of this week’s … mini-challenge … is …” But then a voice in my earpiece cut me off: “Marc, please just read the line normally.” Oh. Okay.4. There are no double takes in drag.
RuPaul, on the other hand, is a seamless host and doesn’t waste time on botched line deliveries. He may do an alternate joke here and there — my last name alone elicited a batch of improv I can’t repeat here, although a “Snetiker, please” GIF is currently haunting my group messages — but Ru is a well-(essential)-oiled machine and knocks out the processes of reality emceeing with basically one shot. He’s a legend among the cast and crew, all of whom have a favorite personal story about a time RuPaul was exceedingly generous to them. Upon meeting him, there’s an indescribable alchemy of kindness and intimidation, like if your school principal invited you over for cheesecake. I felt in safe hands as Ru all but held my hand through the shoot and guided me to match his energy and carriage. Also, Ru’s arrival on set is almost mythically awaited, with a palpable electricity when word gets around that he’s finally arrived. It’s almost as if Godot eventually did show up, but in a cute pinstripe tee and sailor hat.5. The real beauty is underneath!
The enigmas of drag apply to the material production on RuPaul’s Drag Race, wherein the extraordinary masks the ordinary beneath (to wit, there are hidden secrets about the workroom I won’t reveal here). But more importantly, what you don’t see on TV is how the show’s occasionally catty veneer can instantly wash away when the tape isn’t rolling. For as much as the show has united a world of outsiders for eight seasons through its brazen outspokenness and encouragement to live your best, loudest self, it’s the quieter moments — like when the cameras stop and the contestants apologize for getting too vicious — that win this Race.
Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcSnetiker.
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1410, on newsstands now or available here.