RuPaul is pop culture’s only drag queen superstar who has conquered music, film and TV. The former VH1 talk-show host serves as mentor, host and inspiration for his hit Logo show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, starting its fourth season tonight. Each week viewers tune in to watch contestants do battle in a competition that is part America’s Next Top Model, part Project Runway and all one big drag.
BET.com chatted with RuPaul about what audiences can expect from the new season, how his drag image propelled him to superstar status, brought him incognito fame and why America is ready to crown a new queen.
How will Drag Race up the ante and keep the formula fresh this season?
First of all, there’s $100,000 dollars [to compete for] this season, so the stakes are higher for each and every one of the kids who are contestants. This season, the kids’ performances really come into their own during the drag race run. They are the first real drag race generation, so they know how to play the game, they know what’s expected of them and they come prepared.
Your show has featured some very colorful contestants over the past seasons. Do you ever have personal favorites?
We get audition reels from all around the United States and I fall in love with each and every one and that’s why they end up on the show. And some disappoint, but some excel and go far beyond expectations. But the big story here is watching someone overcome his own self-imposed limitations. We offer a challenge to these people and some can rise to the challenge.
Did you ever put self-imposed limitations on yourself? If so, how were you able to overcome them?
It happened when I hit the big time in show business. I’ve been doing this for 30 years but it was when I realized that I could become famous in drag. I toyed with it, but I thought if I’m really going to go big time I have to put that aside. But then it occurred to me that I could do it in drag and then I thought, "Where did I get the idea that I couldn’t?" I carried that idea with me from childhood. On our show watching someone have that “Ah ha!” moment where they break through is a huge thrill for me and the audience watching at home.
Diana Ross was a huge influence on your drag image. Which female icons today are inspiring the next generation of drag stars?
That’s an easy question because through the audition reels we get to see who keeps popping up over and over again. And of course those people for the new generation it’s Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.
Britney still ranks even though she’s slightly off the pop radar these days?
Britney still resonates as a superstar. It’s less about music or how current they are. It has more to do with a certain feeling. People choose to put on a certain music source because of the feeling or aesthetic that the performer evokes in them. It’s much more than just being on top.
You’re pop culture's only drag superstar. Do you think the climate has grown too conservative to produce another?
On some level we are more conservative. I grew up in the 1970s and I watched pop culture evolve and I wanted to experiment. Watching gay people experiment only to watch people regress into their fears. My personality is very non-threatening and I desexualized a genre of drag that threatened a lot of people. And I’m clearly a kind person. I’m sassy, I don’t do bitchy. And those elements allowed people to come onboard. Those were the elements that came into play that allowed me to go ahead of the pack. But there is definitely room for someone else. I think our show is a platform for the next drag superstar.
Because of Drag Race a whole new generation recognizes you both in drag and out. Have you ever felt trapped by your drag image, particularly during the 1990s?
I never felt trapped by it because I did get to have some anonymity. It allowed me to really live a human experience without being under a microscope. I remember once I was featured in the window at Barneys in New York. I was wearing a parka when I went to look at it — it was winter during Christmas time. And I could hear the people standing right next to me talking about me. And my knees started to buckle. I was like, “Oh my God… I don’t want them to say anything I don’t want to hear!” They actually spoke of me quite lovingly. And I still have that anonymity to a degree now — more people recognize me and my voice out of drag.
So which Ru would we meet if we bumped into you on the street?
When I go out I’m always dressed up. Not in drag but always prepared to be "on." Just in case somebody’s going to take a picture. Everyone has a Facebook page, so no matter what, I’m prepared to service the public.
Season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race premieres Monday, January 30 on Logo.
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(Photo: Courtesy Logo TV)
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