Werkin' Girls: Nothing can stop RuPaul's all-star queens
[Editors' note: This photo shoot and its accompanying interviews were conducted prior to protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and police brutality. To help combat systemic racism and transphobia, consider donating to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Color of Change, and the Equal Justice Initiative.]
You wouldn't know it just by looking at Shea Couleé — the cool confidence in her eyes, the textured gown (a gift from Marc Jacobs) cascading down her lithe body — but the world outside her window is in utter chaos.
It's a bright morning in mid-May, and the drag superstar is shut inside her home, socially distanced and sheltered due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak that's kept her from performing in public after nationwide venue closures (no theater gigs or world tours) and restrictions on gatherings (goodbye, tips) issued a potentially catastrophic halt to her career. With a team of producers coaching her through EW's latest digital cover photo shoot via Zoom, Couleé — soundtracked by SZA's "Supermodel" — seems unbothered as she strikes poses in front of a self-made backdrop. The clear plastic chair propping her up briefly edges into frame, between swishes of black feathers (a see-through prop never clashes), and it's apparent the RuPaul's Drag Race season 9 finalist has thought through every aspect of this production. Even the threat of a pandemic can't stop a queen from finding a way to turn any old seat into a throne.
A few days later, Couleé and her royal court of sisters-in-drag huddle together on a virtual video conference. The 10 members of RuPaul's fifth All-Stars cast — Couleé, Alexis Mateo, Blair St. Clair, Derrick Barry, India Ferrah, Jujubee, Mariah Balenciaga, Mayhem Miller, Miz Cracker, and Ongina — are gathered and glowed-up like the Gay United Nations for a digital summit on their return to the VH1 competition series (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT). Regal as they appear phoning in from disparate locales, however, not one of these cover girls is a crowned queen in RuPaul's kingdom. In fact, the reason they're each vying for a spot in the Drag Race Hall of Fame is because, well, they broke Mother Ru's cardinal rule: They f—ed it up the first time around.
"We all f— up some days, and sometimes those are the days that get you sent home," Couleé says, reminiscing about her first grab for the Drag Race crown back in 2017. "I'm glad that we get the chance to redeem ourselves."
In reality, whether hailing from distant Drag Race history like Ongina (season 1) and three-time competitor Jujubee (season 2 and All-Stars 1) or representing young queens raised on the show's commercial drag aesthetic (season 10's Blair St. Clair), each All-Stars 5 personality was invited back because they embody Drag Race excellence, both on the air and through what they've achieved in their post-show careers. And these legends are returning with two goals: to entertain us during dark times and rewrite their own destinies as the tenacious stars they were born to be — all against unprecedented obstacles to their livelihoods.
"I say it every episode: With great power comes great responsibility," RuPaul muses from his home in Los Angeles, where he recently filmed the season 12 reunion and its virtual finale while in quarantine. "My all-stars have competed before and have 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."
That testament to endurance couldn't have come at a better time. Even without the challenges of a public health crisis, it's not easy for a queen to sustain herself long term in Drag Race's massive — but increasingly crowded — economy.
After 11 years on the air, the pool of potential drag superstars (in short: the competition) continues to grow. With 153 queens having duked it out across 12 regular seasons on two different networks, the Drag Race phenomenon has morphed into a global brand that has reaped 13 Emmys and now includes global conventions, international TV spin-offs, and a permanent Las Vegas theater show (currently on COVID-related hiatus). Regardless of whether they won the competition or packed their bags on the first episode, all of those opportunities can foster the brand's contestants into reliable celebutantes with a steady income. Still, the chance to return for another televised plot to snatch the crown is a gift the All-Stars 5 crew doesn't take lightly.
"Instead of doing it for someone else, like my drag family or friends, I did it for me, now," season 3's India Ferrah explains. For her, All-Stars is a chance to increase her bankability on the real-world circuit and reintroduce her to Drag Race's growing group of younger fans. Bridging the generation gap is key, a decade after her first play to become America's Next Drag Superstar ended abruptly one week after Mimi Imfurst, Ferrah's season 3 foe, hoisted her over her shoulder during a lip-sync. It was a shocking (and wickedly entertaining) moment that ultimately sent Imfurst home, but would haunt Ferrah's career for years. "Every show I went to, it was, 'What did you think when Mimi picked you up? Do you hate her? Do you still talk to her?' It was always about Mimi Imfurst, it was never about what I was bringing to the show. That can f— with you, mentally…. Luckily, All-Stars 5 gave me [redemption], and I can show my growth and show India 2.0."
All-Stars 5's Ricky Martin-assisted premiere episode kicked off aptly last Friday, having given its experienced showgirls a clean slate to reintroduce themselves in a spectacular talent show. On display throughout the season's first challenge were the kinds of multi-hyphenate skills required to stand out in an overcrowded industry, like pole dancing, singing, choreography, comedic impersonations, and even a rap number inspired by Miller's eye-conic meme. It was all very polished and marked a glamorous point of evolution in the art form's expanding history, a notable departure from the aesthetic of drag's gritty, anti-establishment foremothers like transgender queens Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who fought for LGBTQ equality and gave face to the gritty, rebellious scene that raised RuPaul in the '80s and '90s. Standing on the shoulders of such activists, Drag Race is revolutionary in its own right, having changed the face of queer representation in mainstream media. But, just as Drag Race took low-budget reality competition shows to new heights, All-Stars 5's premiere showed exactly how its competitors have evolved through the last decade, molding themselves into self-sustaining icons some of their drag ancestors may have only dreamed of becoming.
"We don't go to college and major in drag," says Derrick Barry, a season 8 alum known for Britney Spears impersonation who is now determined to shed that performative skin. The Vegas showman credits the chosen-family dynamic of Drag Race with helping him learn better makeup skills and enough business savvy to carve a lane as an individual artist versus a celebrity clone. "We're self-taught, and we learn from each other…. Nobody taught us how to do anything in school when it comes to drag and branding yourself."
In that way, Drag Race is the prestige drag university and a self-sustaining employer recycling graduates back into the machine. Being a RuGirl often means joining both a family and a commercial haven churning out new live events and TV projects with World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race. But what began in 2009 as a campy romp filmed "in the garage of someone's house," Ongina jokes, rapidly expanded to become an almighty dynasty.
"This franchise has always had a life of its own. It's like a crazy drag queen — a young crazy drag queen, and we're there to keep growing her," says Randy Barbato, Drag Race co-creator. Alongside executive producers Fenton Bailey and Tom Campbell, Barbato helped devise the show as a transitional project for RuPaul's career in the mid-2000s, after the drag icon took an eight-year hiatus from the spotlight to revamp his personal and professional lives. Still, the group had no idea they'd ride the phenomenon well into 2020, as it gained followers and momentum by taking for itself what society wasn't willing (or ready) to give it on its own. "The show defined for us that it was going to be a global brand, it wasn't us engineering."
Barbato attributes the success to the queens' addictive (and varied) takes on their progressive art. Six years into Drag Race's run, it became clear to him that passion for the show had grown too big to contain within the bounds of a TV screen, and it needed a physical hub. So, World of Wonder brought fans together to support their idols. And that's how RuPaul's DragCon was born.
"It felt like the right thing to do in providing a service for the fans and an opportunity for the queens to make money," Bailey explains. DragCon (basically a queer Comic-Con) attracted 10,000 attendees and 115 vendor booths to its 2015 Los Angeles debut. Between L.A. and New York City editions, that number grew to 100,000 four years later, and generated $8.2 million in merchandise sales from 441 total vendors in 2019.
Monetary might isn't guaranteed without a commodifiable product at the franchise's core, and the Drag Race masterminds knew that heading into All-Stars 5, they'd have to tweak the recipe to stoke fan hunger just as much as the queens must reinvent themselves to entertain on a global scale. Key to shocking the established system is casting a buzzworthy ensemble, as evidenced by the work of co-showrunner and executive producer Mandy Salangsang, a reality TV titan 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. "We look at who's going to come in on this platform and take advantage of it, and who's going to give a great show for us," she says, explaining that part of the fun is scouting diverse styles of drag and the equally eclectic souls underneath.
And then there's the gag of the season: the All-Stars 5 twist, perhaps the biggest adjustment to the competition's format to date. Normally, All-Stars anoints two weekly challenge winners, who lip-sync to determine which among the group will be eliminated. On All-Stars 5, at the end of each episode, RuPaul still names a challenge winner and the bottom-performing 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 battle, they get $10,000 and the power to eliminate one bottom finisher. If the lip-sync assassin wins, a majority cast vote (held before the lip-sync) decides which of the bottom two is eliminated, and the $10,000 tip rolls over until an all-star queen triumphs. It might be a spectacular goop for viewers, but the twist added a level of paranoia for some All-Stars 5 queens. "You can privately vote in America," Miz Cracker says, flashing her signature, mischievous grin — nestled under a cloud of blond wig hair fit for a Woman™. "But on Drag Race, the truth will come out, and the truth will not always set you free. It will sometimes send your ass home, so it's a much scarier democracy on Drag Race!"
Though they're sisters in art, competing against your Drag Race coven in the real business world outside the televised contest can feel like a bitter duel of market value. While exposure isn't a problem — even for first-eliminated queens like season 10's Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, who became a community A-lister after her iconic one-episode stint — the venues booking a RuGirl (and at what rate) are at least partially dictated by where she placed on TV.
Take St. Clair — a former wide-eyed, Broadway-obsessed theater kid — who finished ninth back in 2018. She has since risen above what her middling performance on season 10 suggested about her star power, emerging as a recording artist whose 2019 single "Easy Love" marked the first release in drag management agency Producer Entertainment Group's landmark publishing deal with Warner Music. "It's an investment when you come back [to All-Stars] to do this, because you're saying, 'I'm going to put my career on the line for everyone to scrutinize and judge.' Because this is going to eventually come back to me and my career,'" she says.
Even if that commitment pays off with an All-Stars crown and its accompanying $100,000 check, drag artists still fight to be taken seriously as entertainers, despite raking in the numbers to back up their status as some of the most profitable artists in the world. They command screaming fans who crowd their shows in droves — Drag Race icon Shangela led a 184-city tour of venues ranging from nightclubs to 1,000-seat theaters throughout 2018, while season 6 champion Bianca Del Rio became the first solo drag queen to headline London's 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena in 2019 — often to the shock of heteronormative suits.
"A lot of these venues are like, 'Oh, you're doing an old drag show? Great,'" Trixie Mattel, All-Stars 3 champion, folk singer, and comedian, previously told EW backstage at a February stop on her Grown Up tour. Mattel also fronted a feature-length documentary, the YouTube series UNHhhh, and three independently produced albums (she says the latest, Barbara, recouped its costs two weeks after release). "We show up and sell $10 billion in drinks, sell out the venue, sell out the meet and greet, and they're like, 'Huh?' We end up being a lesson. We sell a million tickets and $15 per head in merchandise, while your little band sells four [shirts]."
Mattel's point is an exaggeration, of course, but it's rooted in reality. Before the show's boom in popularity, drag simply wasn't commanding the massive numbers, ticket sales, and mainstream support it garners now. And things like DragCon and Drag Race's rise through the commercial ranks have helped "put on the map that we are fully realized entertainers," St. Clair observes. Mariah Balenciaga, season 3's no-nonsense diva, further credits Drag Race with contributing to and changing the business for queens, enough so that they can get to a place where investing thousands of dollars in fashion, makeup, and hair for an All-Stars comeback is even possible.
"Before Drag Race, the pageant girls were top tier in the pay scale," Balenciaga says, referencing the performers who, like the widely known Miss America or Miss Universe pageants, gained industry fame through more standardized, glamorous beauty queen contests. "When we came along, we didn't know what our market value was or what our worth was. We didn't know how much the clubs were bringing in based on our names being on a reality show."
After her season 3 elimination, Balenciaga remembers being scammed out of money by fake talent scouts thanks to — unlike today's field — a lack of credible drag management agencies and, despite her newfound TV fame, being taken advantage of by club owners who, she says, paid her less than what other reality television personalities commanded.
"Snooki and the Jersey Shore cast...didn't have to do their own hair or makeup. They were catered to and didn't have to do anything when they went to the club, but would get a $10,000 appearance fee," Balenciaga theorizes. She adds that hustling on the circuit both as a television personality and a self-governing drag entertainer forced her to apply a stern attitude to earn respect on the scene. "[Now] I'll walk into a bar or club, and I have a general idea of what their price point is, I see how many tables are full. I know better because I know [how much money] the night is bringing in."
The show's impact has also trickled down to the local scene. There's now more interest than ever in art from queer performers of all genders and sexualities. "I don't think it's fair to say that Drag Race came and saved the world of drag," says Cracker, a New York City queen. "But it did create an economy of expectation so that girls could say, 'Hey, I'm worth something as a drag queen. Whether or not I've been on a show, I deserve that X amount of money.' That wasn't there before."
Admittedly, the All-Stars 5 cast has distinct privilege in that, for as long as they stay in the competition over the next two months, their faces will be nationally broadcast on VH1, but many drag performers have taken devastating hits as performance spaces remain shuttered in the wake of COVID-19. From drag's top earners to local entertainers hustling for dollars outside the mainstream spotlight, there's no easy spin: industry players have suffered. New York City's Vigor Mortis, a transmasculine drag king, tallied around $1,500 in lost earnings from one month's worth of paid-gig cancellations, and the Bronx-based Catrina Lovelace missed out on $2,500 in booking fees over the same period. On the upper end, before L.A.'s DragCon was postponed (and later held online as a digital presentation), Drag Race season 11 contestant Soju was hoping that merchandise sales would bring in a similar amount as last year, around $10,000. Season 9 winner Sasha Velour also says she forfeited at least $100,000 upon nixing European dates from her Smoke & Mirrors tour in March.
But there's been an uptick in innovation from drag performers, too. Biqtch Puddiń, who won The Boulet Brothers' Dragula season 2, spearheaded the online Digital Drag Show revue, which has broadcast virtual performances (incorporating advanced projection and graphic presentations) while encouraging audience tips every Friday night on the Twitch streaming service, since March 20.
"Drag queens are incredibly resourceful," World of Wonder's Bailey says. "That all goes back to not having money or resources, and not getting cultural respect. It's been a do-it-yourself artistry, and it's all the more inventive and vital for that." Barbato agrees: "So many mainstream drag queens are just arriving, and they're not going anywhere…. The entertainment industry has just started to open their doors to them. And you can't open a door to a drag queen and then think it's going to shut in their face."
As Balenciaga observes, the current necessity to overcome coronavirus-related limitations and make money "is the mother of all invention," and the perseverance that queens, kings, and LGBTQ drag performers have embodied as societal outcasts prior to Drag Race's reign allows them to adapt to the present while building new, sustainable avenues of income that might thrive even after the pandemic ends. In quarantine, Ongina feels she's now fully showcasing her talents as a production manager, editor, and creative director, something Couleé says is inherent to the profession.
"At our core, we're producers," states Couleé. "We create shows. We know how to take a little bit and turn it into a full-on fantasy…. We had to make a shift and get around this learning curve, but when it comes to the at-home content we're seeing from creatives, drag queens are at top of that totem pole because we're setting the bar so high. We already know how to produce on a dime."
And from her perch as drag's supreme leader, mother proudly watches her children thrive. "When the going gets tough, the tough reinvent," RuPaul says. "In my lifetime, drag queens have been on the frontline of Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, and the fight for marriage equality. It's going to take a lot more than Miss Corona Virus to keep us down. Where there's drag, there's hope."
Looking forward, Bailey and Barbato foresee more additions to the Drag Race empire. In addition to existing adaptations in South America, Canada, the U.K., Thailand, and Australia, there are at least three other international territories that might receive original Drag Race incarnations. And that's not all. "The craziest thing [ever pitched] is Randy's idea of a Drag Race theme park," Bailey cracks. Barbato maintains it's a serious proposal: Consider that Tyra Banks' California-based, fashion-themed Modelland — which built on the success of America's Next Top Model — was set to open in May before COVID-19 postponed those plans. A more realistic fantasy they both agree on, though, is the dream of building a Drag Race casino in Las Vegas, perhaps adjacent to the Drag Race Live! residency show that launched at the Flamingo in January.
The queens predict they'll continue to man (and woman) the frontlines with help from the rebound of exposure afforded by their latest mainstream platform, and will utilize their global stage to disrupt everything from "normal life outside the theater," as Cracker hopes, to the Hollywood fortress and the strongholds of fashion that have long cherrypicked from drag performers instead of including them in the process.
Even beyond the realm of the show, drag is now a legitimate part of cable and streaming programming in ways it would have been impossible to imagine pre-Drag Race. The aforementioned Boulet Brothers' Dragula — a horror-themed mix of Fear Factor and Drag Race — has gained popularity on Amazon Prime and Netflix; bite-sized streaming service Quibi tapped Velour's NightGowns docuseries as one of the platform's April launch titles; TLC recently capped season 1 of its drag makeover project Dragnificent! (co-hosted by All-Stars 5's Jujubee); and HBO chronicled Drag Race fan favorites Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, and Eureka as they traveled across small-town America during season 1 of their We're Here reality program.
"I want to see us portrayed as true drag artists," Ongina says. "I don't want to be 'Murdered Drag Queen Extra.' I want roles specifically made for drag queens in serious [projects]." Adds St. Clair: "I want to see drag disrupt publications and magazines [as] working models. We use so many cosmetics…. We've influenced designers from a fashion standpoint. I'd love to see us have space in publications versus, 'Oh, I got an idea from a queen, but I'm going to put it on a working model versus a drag queen.'"
All of that, Jujubee projects, will create safer spaces for a queer "child out there who wants to be taken seriously in the arts. We're clearly artists, [but we want] to be taken seriously as performers," while, as Miller stresses, he can't loosen his grip on the family bonds vital to steering the community as the world heals.
"We've always been able to come together, unite, rise, and thrive to the occasion. Once this is over, everyone is going to get back to work, and it's going to be just as fierce, if not even better, because everyone has had time to reevaluate what's important," Miller says. "Everyone will come together as a community knowing we have to get back to work supporting each other, going to our bars and our clubs, and making sure we're all taken care of. That's the next step."
RuPaul, whose penchant for drag's renegade spirit hasn't dimmed, even in quarantine, has his sights set on fighting back by shoving his art square in the face of those most resistant: "Next year, I'm hoping we get to perform an original Drag Race Rusical at the White House," he jokes.
Go on; f— it up, sis.
For even more coverage of RuPaul's Drag Race, go to ew.com/dragrace.
Cover produced and directed by Robin Roemer & Carly Usdin for Scheme Machine Studios. Additional production by Good Company.