RuPaul, Inc.: Advice From a Business-Savvy Drag Queen
"You better work," goes RuPaul's familiar catchphrase, and no one has earned the right to it more than he has. Over a two-decade career, the world's most famous drag artist has made his (or her, he's not pronoun picky) mark in the realms of music, modeling, memoir-writing and more. But Ru, 52, has found his most successful showcase yet in the form of Logo's RuPaul's Drag Race. The show -- a low-budget, highly addictive reality TV decathlon that squeezes aspects of Project Runway, Face Off and America's Got Talent into one tidy, tucked package -- has seen consistent ratings gains (its January premiere had the most viewers in Logo history) and explosive growth across social media. With Drag Race studio World of Wonder landing at No. 22 on The Hollywood Reporter's Reality Heat List, THR thought it was a perfect time to catch up with the reigning queen of "she-larity."
The Hollywood Reporter: Who do you think is the audience for your show?
RuPaul: It's obviously people who dance to the beat of a different drummer. And then outside of that, it's specifically women, anywhere from 13 to 49, who love the art of makeup and putting yourself together. At its core our show is really about the tenacity of the human spirit. So anybody who really understands what it takes to get yourself up and out of the house can relate to the show.
THR: There are people who criticize drag as being detrimental to the "normalcy" the gay community is trying to achieve. How do you speak to that?
RuPaul: Actually, I don't. I've lived long enough on this planet to know that bitches are gonna bitch. [laughs] That's what they do, you know? And the ego mind is always looking for a fight to strengthen itself and if you're standing up and out there and you're doing your thing, you're definitely going to be a target. But listen, this country elected [George W.] Bush twice, so we make a lot of bold choices that ultimately are like, "What the f--- was that?" You know what I'm saying? So, do I pay attention to that stuff? Oh, hell no. People are f---ing crazy.
THR: Let's talk about your journey as a reality TV star.
RuPaul: I worked with [Drag Race producers] Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey] for like 300 years. Probably in '98, they said, "Let's go out and do some reality stuff." And I said, "I cannot." I thought the climate was too hostile and reality TV seemed too mean-spirited. I finally relented because it seemed like the timing was right and it seemed like the hostility towards people who dance to the beat of a different drummer had lifted a bit. The Bush Administration was over, and there seemed to be this easiness in the air. The fear-mongering from 9/11 had died down, and so we took this show out. And it was pretty much bought in the room when we pitched it.
THR: Do you often stop to consider the show's reach?
RuPaul: I have a ranch in Wyoming that I go to constantly and on the television in the middle of nowhere, our little show comes on and I can imagine some of the kids in the area flipping around and landing on our show and getting an education, a real education. Not just gay kids, but anybody who wants to go out in this world and face their cross to bear. Whatever that cross may be.
THR: Does the social media component play into Drag Race's success?
RuPaul: Oh, absolutely, I've live-tweeted every episode so far this season. I always go back to Apple computers when this conversation comes up because Apple is the template for a great business model in the 21st century. The public wants a great product, but they also want more layers of value. So it's lifestyle, it's takeaway, it's entertainment. It's all of those things and social media facilitates a big chunk of that, because they want to touch and feel you, they want to talk to someone about it, they want to join a community of other people who dance to the beat of a different drummer. When you choose to see life outside the box, or, in terms of The Matrix, when you take the red pill as opposed to the blue pill, it can be very, very lonely. And when you find your tribe, you want to connect with them through social media.
THR: You recently signed with CAA. What was the thinking behind that?
RuPaul: Well, that's a good question. I had been with William Morris many years ago and what ended up happening there was, I got the jobs, and they did the paperwork. After a while I was like, "Well, what the f--- is this?" Listen, I've never been some 17-year-old ingenue who you could stick in a sitcom and collect royalty checks. I've always created my own work for myself. So in coming onto CAA, the real focus isn't for acting, it's really all the other opportunities. Because the show is global and social media [allows us to] reach everybody, and there are advertising and merchandising opportunities. They have a great system over there that can facilitate that, and that's one of my goals, is to get that crackin'.
THR: Do you ever walk into CAA in full drag?
RuPaul: That costs extra. Drag is just what I do for coins, for coinage in the mortgage. It's stopped being hilarity, or she-larity, once I got famous. I couldn't terrorize and be a terror in the streets anymore because people were watching, you know what I'm saying?
THR: Is drag a drug?
RuPaul: Once you can do, like, sexy drag, where people actually go, "Hmmm, that sh-- looks good!," you become this sort of superhuman, and you have superpowers that you didn't know you had. There's no way you could know you have this kind of power over people until you get into this kind of drag.
THR: The show bills itself as the search for the next drag superstar, but so far no one of your stature has come out of it. What do you think is missing from the equation?
RuPaul: I think it's a matter of time. I really do. We've developed a lot of big, big personalities and we've launched, I think it's 61 drag queens into the wild, to terrorize y'all's neighborhoods. I think it has to do with having all your ducks in a row and when they leave the show even the girls who get eliminated early on, they usually have a single on iTunes the next day. They know how it works -- they've taken a cue from Mama Bear over here. I was the only bitch in the game for 20 years before we did this show, and I feel like a vampire where I needed to make other vampires to play with and have fun with. You keep your eye on some of these winners, Sharon Needles and Raja and Latrice Royale. I think they're going to be around for a long time.