RuPaul's Drag Race: The origins of 'lip-sync for your life'
Check out the complete oral history of RuPaul—and revisit 25 years’ worth of game-changing LGBTQ movies, TV, and music—in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
In putting together an oral history of RuPaul, unexpected revelations came to light — especially from the folks who worked closest with RuPaul in creating the now-iconic RuPaul’s Drag Race. World of Wonder founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and Drag Race executive producer Tom Campbell lent their voices to EW’s piece on our LGBTQ cover star, and in doing so, the trio revealed some fun tidbits about certain origins of the drag series.
Long before the show’s format materialized, Ru had to first broach the hot topic of reality television itself, a nascent concept that he had resisted for several years in the early 2000s. “Randy and Fenton had asked me for years to do a reality show but I wasn’t interested because I felt it was mean-spirited, and I didn’t want to do anything mean-spirited — only something that would celebrate drag,” he tells EW.
Campbell, hired in 2006 as head of development at World of Wonder, brought up the obvious question — “Why aren’t we doing something with RuPaul?” — and got a similar response, albeit with some slight progress. “When I met with Ru, Ru was like, ‘I’ll do anything but a competition elimination show,’ so we spent three or four days together coming up with a loosely scripted show — like Strangers with Candy,” recalls Campbell. “We loved it, and we were pitching it to Randy and Fenton, and Ru goes, ‘This is great, but you know what? We should do a reality competition show.’”
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It was Campbell who happened upon the core pun (and RuPaul loves puns) that would sell the idea — that sweet double entendre of drag racing. Still, the format of the competition needed to be finessed, and by sheer serendipity, one of the lynchpins would emerge unexpectedly from an unsuccessful reality series that World of Wonder had just completed: The short-lived 2008 reality show ¡Viva Hollywood!, which starred Maria Conchita Alonso and Carlos Ponce looking for America’s next big telenovela star, sparked the creativity for Drag Race’s dramatic lip-syncing finale.
“The innovation on ¡Viva Hollywood!was that the bottom two contestants of the week had to speak to the judges and plead for their lives, and then we’d take them away and they would both shoot a telenovela death scene in Spanish. They would be fighting, they’d hit each other at the top of the stairs, and then they would both roll down the stairs and they would both be dead, with the camera above their heads… and then one would gasp and come alive. That’s how the audience found out who was safe or not safe,” Campbell recalls. “And as for the other contestant, we’d zoom in on their dead body, and they’d be watching in another room and Maria would say, ‘I’m sorry, my dear, it’s muerte.’”
From that outrageous idea, Drag Race‘s ‘lip-sync for your life’ was born. “That’s how weird and unsuccessful things lead to amazing things,” Campbell continues. “In the room with Ru, we said it needed an ending like¡Viva Hollywood! And what do drag queens do? They lip-sync. And we gasped and said, ‘They don’t just lip-sync. They lip-sync for their lives.’ And it was just crazy from there. ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ and all those other great ideas just came flowing out.”
After being pitched to Logo several times, the first season of the show began modestly — modestly being a kind word here. “I could feel that it was something really, really phenomenal,” Ru says, “but you would never know it by that first day of shooting because if you saw the studio that we were in, you would be like, ‘What the f— is this?'” Barbato says the control room was a closet and the Untucked room was a hallway. Campbell recalls queens having to walk through the writers’ room to get to the set. Logo’s SVP of programming Pam Post says, “It was probably one-eighth of the size of what we shoot in now, and producers were on top of each other trying to not get in each others’ way. We did stuff across the street from where we were shooting. We really tried to utilize everything that was at our fingertips to make this show work.”
Post recalls the story of Logo’s decision to greenlight the series: “Drag had been pitched around a bit prior, but as soon as you have RuPaul in that conversation, it changes it, because you actually get the magnitude of it. Somebody who had had international success, really, is the only person who could be the cornerstone of a franchise like that. You take that and you combine it with World of Wonder, who understands that world through the pop culture lens, and it’s just magical. It was the first of its kind, and quite honestly, the group of people who auditioned for the first season were really pioneers in their own right along with Ru.”
That’s because Drag Race, though starting small, was fairly set in its DNA from the get-go. Season 1’s challenges were mostly borne from obstacles that RuPaul himself had to conquer early in his drag career. “The first season was really, ‘Ru did it, and now you have to,’” says Campbell. “Like, the drag-on-a-dime challenge. ‘When I started off, I had no money, so you need to make something drag out of nothing.’ When you watch the first season, you realize, as low budget as it was, the heart of the show was already there in the challenges, the lip-syncs, the language.”
So was RuPaul’s laugh, which has proven to be a fascinating intro and outro for the show before and after every commercial break. Ru’s cackle and giggle is part maniacal scheming, part infectious fun — but it’s more than just a throwaway interstitial the show uses in lieu of looping the opening credit jingle. The laugh is as important to RuPaul’s persona as his early days on the club circuit. “It’s his signature calling card,” explains Bailey. “It’s the most incredible laugh, and it’s one of the first things I remember about him. This laugh that you could hear across a club with bumping disco music. You would hear that Ru laugh and you would know, fun is nearby.”
Ru’s early roots (and the history of gay culture) are something that you could expect to be magnified again in coming seasons of Drag Race, now that the show is on an unprecedented platform. There are plenty of viewers who are just discovering RuPaul from Drag Race, and while they’re getting a world-class version of their host, younger viewers might be unaware of the colorful history cherished by those who know him best. “One of my favorite things that people have gotten to know about him since Drag Race is how goofy he is, especially in the workroom,” says Barbato. “He’s such a nerd and I think sometimes you get glimpses of that part. It’s part of his personality that we all know, and I think you’re just starting to get that as a result of Drag Race.”