RuPaul, Drag Race producers spill secrets of casting queens who conquer the world
The people behind RuPaul's Drag Race tell EW behind-the-scenes secrets of how they orchestrated a firecracker season.
Before the queens of RuPaul's Drag Race re-enter the Werk Room for another shot at the crown as All-Stars, Mama Ru and his team of producers have to sissy that talk before they agree on which queens are ready to sashay another day.
"We track the queens and their careers and stay in touch with them as they’re conquering the world," series co-showrunner and executive producer Mandy Salangsang tells EW. "We know who’s expressed interest in coming back, and that’s something we look at: Who really wants to play? Who has experienced a real glow-up? We just start throwing names out. It's people we want to see and watch on TV competing against one another."
If anyone knows how to assemble a spectacular cast, it's Salangsang, a reality TV titan from Hawaii, who’s worked on projects ranging from Flavor of Love and Rock of Love to RuPaul’s Drag Race, where she landed back on season 4, and plays an integral role in helping RuPaul and fellow EPs Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey shape the cast. That process, she says, often begins with the chosen family of colleagues sitting in a room, throwing names out and seeing what sticks in their minds: "We look at who’s going to come in on this platform and take advantage of it," she continues, "and who’s going to give a great show for us."
From there, the crew also look at diversifying its representation of different drag aesthetics, ranging from the comedy-leaning queens of the Pacific Northwest to southern beauty queens and New York City showgirls. But, even after mounting successful careers around the world, the queens aren't always ready for a televised comeback.
"Committing to do an All-Stars season, it’s a commitment. I appreciate when a queen says she's not ready," Salangsang explains. "When people waffle about it or don’t feel they’re ready to perform at their best, I don’t think that makes for the stiffest competition or the most authentic work room experience. They know that they’re going to be tested and scrutinized in a different way. The challenges are a little harder and we expect more from them…. They're going to compete against fiercer competition, all at the height of their careers. So, they have to be ready for it and come in swinging!"
All-Stars 5 also posed a unique challenge for the production team in that the format was in need of an energy boost. That came in the form of a drastic alteration to the competition's structure. Normally, the All-Stars judges pick two weekly challenge winners, who lip-sync for the ability to single-handedly choose who, among the bottom-finishing queens, will be eliminated that week. On All-Stars 5, at the end of each episode, RuPaul still names a challenge winner and the bottom queens of the week. But, the top queen now lip-syncs for their legacy against a returning lip-sync assassin from Drag Race’s past. If the All-Stars 5 queen wins the duel, they get $10,000 and the power to eliminate one queen from the bottom. If the lip-sync assassin wins, a majority cast vote (held before the lip-sync) decides which bottom queen is eliminated, and the $10,000 tip rolls over until an all-star queen triumphs.
"The whole team felt we needed to shake up the format. We felt like the audience wanted that, too," Barbato remembers. "The girls we invite back are stars, so we wanted to treat them with respect and give them a platform that does them well, so when you’re trying to think of how to tweak the format, you want to do it in a respectful way, but you also want some juice. Making it more democratic creates an interesting layer of social experimentation on top of the heels, wigs, and makeup."
It all adds up to an experience that, as RuPaul admits, makes him proud of the work his drag children have done in expanding the brand on a global scale.
"With great power comes great responsibility. My all-stars have competed before and experienced the rollercoaster ride of fame that comes after that global exposure. When they return for All-Stars, every aspect of the competition is turned up to 11. If Drag Race is a talent competition, then All-Stars is a masterclass in surviving show business," he says, further joking that the medium's rebellious spirit is still alive and well as it continues to spread to even bigger commercial stages: "Next year, I’m hoping we get to perform an original Drag Race Rusical at the White House."
For more on RuPaul's Drag Race, read EW's new digital cover story, in which Bailey and Barbato (as well as the All-Stars 5 cast) discuss how the queer community's resilience and innovation is keeping the drag industry afloat amid a global pandemic.