Heads are turning in the casino and lobby of the Las Vegas Flamingo as six drag queens — Asia O’Hara, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, Derrick Barry, Naomi Smalls, Kameron Michaels, and Yvie Oddly (below) — sashay their way from the hotel’s famed showroom to a storefront full of RuPaul’s Drag Race merchandise, which appropriately looks like the VH1 reality show’s Werk Room. While some gamblers’ eyes widen and friends turn to each other wondering what’s happening, others know exactly what they’re witnessing and are trying to contain their excitement. One woman can’t. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” she excitedly kinda-whispers as she turns back to the guy she was just standing with, motioning him to catch up to her as she follows the queens — naming two of them before leaving earshot — on their walk.
That Friday morning sighting is now one to be expected at the Vegas institution where RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! opened the night before in the theater now named for the brother/sister duo who occupied it the last 11 years, Donny and Marie Osmond. Debuting Jan. 30, the show plays out like an episode of the Emmy Award-winning television series, which is about to start its 12th season. Asia O’Hara acts as “host” of the show, while the other five queens engage in things you’d expect from an episode of Drag Race: a Mini Challenge, a Maxi Challenge, and then the famous segment where RuPaul orders them to “lip sync for your life” to avoid elimination. While the stage numbers are all set to popular music — Britney Spears, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ciara, Ariana Grande, and more — the show also incorporates four new original songs (including the grand finale “Losing Is the New Winning,” above) co-written by RuPaul, Tom Campbell, and Leland, as well as other video montages and interactive elements with the audience. Oh, and they have a six-man “Pit Crew” (think Thunder Down Under and Magic Mike) who dance, assist in wardrobe reveals, and so much more.
The show is a return of sorts to Sin City for RuPaul, who starred in his own, smaller show at Sahara Hotel in 1994 — he had just two dancers. One of them was award-winning choreography Jamal Sims, whose credits include last year’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin, as well as several Step Up movies and the 2011 Footloose reboot. Sims not only choreographed Live! but is also RuPaul’s co-director, helping bring to life this production fit for a drag queen. EW sat down with the two the morning after their big debut, as they spilled the tea about the road to Vegas, the most challenging aspect of the show, the thing that even surprised Ru (hint: it involves the Pit Crew), how he’s seizing every opportunity, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the mood backstage right before the show last night?
JAMAL SIMS: It’s funny because we had had several run-throughs up until that point and there was always something — there was a curtain not coming down at the right time, there was a microphone that wasn’t getting passed, you know — so I think everybody was really anxious and just wanted to do a perfect show. So you felt that from the dancers to the queens, you know, and even the crew backstage because this is a bigger type of show than they’ve had in this room. I mean, people drop from the ceiling, all that kind of stuff. So there was a sense of, Oh, God, please let nothing [go wrong]. You could feel that.
I looked over at you at one point, Ru, and I’m not sure a smile ever left your face.
RUPAUL: It actually didn’t. [Laughs] I love drag queens. I always have. They are my heroes and seeing drag queens on stage is such a thrill for me. But seeing this show and seeing these drag queens on stage, it has been a long journey to get to opening night and I am so proud. I think it checks every box, from the girls who are on stage — the girls who were chosen to be in the debut — to the storyline, which is a narrative that the audience understands because it follows what our show does from beginning to end. And then on top of that, you know, I had never really seen the dancers take their pants off.
JAMAL: [Laughs] Yeah, they did.
RUPAUL: Yeah, but…
That was a surprise even to you?
RUPAUL: That was a big, fantastic surprise. And they’re such beautiful buns. Buns that I had wondered about but I finally got to see them. [Laughs]
A great Ruveal. You mentioned how proud you are of them. The past few years, in particular, have been quite big for you. So where does this fit in? What does having a show like this in Las Vegas mean to you?
RUPAUL: It is the pinnacle of show business, really, because you want to service the audience, and our television show has been very popular for years and the audience has dictated what they want from us. So they want a great show on television, and they want it regularly. But they also want the T-shirt, they want the records, they want the meet and greets, they want the experience, the 360. The Vegas experience is a chance for people from around the world to come here and really experience the [TV show] — and the audience is the guest judge. So it’s really wonderful and I’m so proud and honored and fortunate to be in this business for long enough to have these experiences. You know, I hit the big time a long, long time ago, I stepped away, and then to have the chance to come back and get a second bite at the apple has been really…
JAMAL: And this is a big bite. [Laughs]
RUPAUL: I thought, if I ever see that apple again… [mimics eating an apple]
JAMAL: I’m gonna devour it! [Laughs]
RUPAUL: [Laughs] Because that’s exactly what it is. You go away and you realize, Oh, I had it so good. You know, you take it for granted the first time but you get another chance and you’re like, f— this s—, I’m gonna beat that f—ing apple up! [Laughs]
Take advantage when you can! Now, the story of the show, the concept… was it the idea from the beginning that it was basically going to be like being at a taping of an episode, or did it take a minute to settle on that idea?
JAMAL: The idea was there was a Vegas show, you know, and then Ru and I sat down and Ru’s like, “Look…” — because I started thinking, “Okay, gosh, we have so much to compete against. We have people Cirque du Soleil…” I started going there — and then Ru was like, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s already Drag Race. That’s what we are.” And as soon as you [looking at RuPaul] said that, everything just opened up. You’re right. Like, why are we trying to do something else? This is the show. It’s already here. Now let’s just incorporate the audience, make it an interactive thing, and make everybody feel part of the show and get the experience because that’s what they want.
Will it always be the same two who lip sync or will it change from night to night?
JAMAL: We plan on rotating it. We’re not going to say whether it’s going to be daily or weekly or monthly, but it will rotate.
RUPAUL: And that is the nature of drag. Things change. And we have 150 girls who have come through our television show, so we have a lot of girls eventually who will be on that stage.
And many have proven to be really great performers. The six you started with, they were all a knockout last night. You must be so happy you brought Vanjie back for season 11.
RUPAUL: Well, you know, honestly, Vanjie brought Vanjie back.
JAMAL: She sure did! [Laughs]
RUPAUL: It had to be done. It was so clear that she is such a star that it was undeniable.
Once you settled on the concept, and after you got into the thick of choreography and all of that, what was the hardest number to make work and get right?
JAMAL: When the girls do [individual numbers]… this [theater crew is not] really used to flying people from poles and flying them in on bungees, so I think it was incorporating those kinds of things because these queens…
You mean Donny and Marie Osmond didn’t do any of that in their show?
JAMAL: No, they didn’t have Marie flying in, but Derrick Barry flew in. Those were the things that are a bit challenging in teaching everybody how to do this in this new age kind of way with these big video walls that we had never worked with before. So there were a lot of challenges, but I think it pays off when you do stuff like this because, you know…
RUPAUL: The audience expects it. It’s Broadway level, it’s West End level entertainment. It’s actually, you know, Madonna or Britney concert level. And that’s what the audience expects. Our audience is very young. Oh my god, it looks so good. So good!
I was very impressed with the quick turnaround of sets, the costume changes. It felt like you guys have been doing this for years already.
JAMAL: Yeah, no. And not till yesterday did everybody have their costumes. [Laughs] It was the first time seeing Vanjie’s costumes actually. [Laughs]
Wow, cutting it close! So on the flip side of the most challenging aspect, what was the thing you couldn’t wait for everyone to see?
JAMAL: This is a small piece, but there is a bitch slap competition in the middle, and I think it reminds us of why we love Drag Race. You know, it’s just Ru teaching people how to bitch slap, it’s fun and it’s funny and you can laugh. I think that’s the spirit of the whole show, to me, and it’s not even a number but it feels like, okay, this is why we’re here, it’s so much fun. And you know, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. [Laughs]
Ru, you, of course, won’t be here in the audience every night, but your presence is felt all over the show. Will you ever be in the show?
RUPAUL: I’d love to do the show. I think I will eventually. I really do. We’ve been talking about putting a tour together for me, a world tour that could end up here or at Caesars or something like that — since we’re in the family. (Note: Flamingo Las Vegas is a Caesars Entertainment property.) But I’d love to. Maybe if Asia needs to go on vacation, I could do the emcee role. That would be really fun.
Asia was fantastic. That’s not an easy role.
RUPAUL: She carried the whole rhythm, the pace, the tempo of the whole show. She carried that.
Last thing: 25, 26 years ago, the two of you were here in Vegas at the Sahara. How do you even look back on that and compare it to now?
RUPAUL: It feels like family with him. From that first run that we did in November of ’94 — because you had your birthday…
JAMAL: In January.
RUPAUL: In January. And I think we had mine in… well, anyway… He brought his family up and it felt, when I saw them, it felt like a Charles family reunion. [Laughs] All of the rhythms and those sort of things. And it explains so much of our working relationship because we can finish each other’s sentences. We know each other’s references. And that is why it’s so easy to work and collaborate. And you see he’s a lovely person, a lovely person — and I love lovely people. It makes it easy when you’re working on something that’s pressurized and challenging.
Well, congratulations on this. And good luck this coming week hosting SNL. Do you have tons of ideas for them?
RUPAUL: I have a ton of ideas. I’m sure they have tons of ideas, because for the past few years they’ve been incorporating our show in their show. So I talked to them yesterday, and they’re chomping at the bit to do a lot of things that they would normally not get to do with a host. So I’m game. I’m excited.