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In the annual Emmy Awards race, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a juggernaut of sorts. Now in its 13th season, the reality competition show that started out as a showcase for underground culture has become mainstream, racking up 46 Emmy nominations and 19 wins dating back to 2016.
Along the way, the series, which is the crown jewel of production company World of Wonder, has attracted judges as varied as Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to comedian Loni Love, who acted as moderator for a Q&A with executive producer/host RuPaul and producer/judge Michelle Visage for THR Presents, powered by Vision Media.
Needless to say, the show was a challenge to produce over the course of 2020 because of COVID restrictions, which made the result — culminating in seven current Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Competition Program — all the more remarkable.
“When we found out we were going to go ahead with the production, for me it was like, ‘Really?’,” recalls Visage. “We were all so shell-shocked: not leaving our house, not going to the grocery store. (But) you know this, Loni, since you’ve done the show, how looked after we are on the set. World of Wonder, the production company, has done such an incredible job, with not only testing us three to four times a week, but with having the staff in place, the COVID regulators, or the COVID police as we call them on set… There wasn’t a moment I didn’t feel protected. The queens were protected, if not more. They’re in a bubble to begin with, and they’ve only got each other and the people around them. So it was almost like we were on a different planet. It was our own little safe bubble. And then it came out and you can feel the joy. It was almost heightened… because it was done during the height of the pandemic, and it was done fully the right way.
Adds RuPaul: “We were actually in in London when the pandemic broke out and we had to stop production there. We came back to the U.S. and we were at home for two and a half months, maybe less, I’m not sure, before we started this. And we got into production and it was perfect. Because we were in this bubble… I really couldn’t tell that anything had changed, because it was the same people who came to work and we did our thing because we love this show and we’re here to entertain.”
Given the show’s flamboyant theatricality, Visage gives a shout-out to the show’s frontline craftspeople: costume designers, hair, makeup, lighting, et al. “I mean, this is a drag production, we are nothing without (those) aesthetics,” she says, to which Love chimes in: “Those lighting people made me look 20 years old! And as you know, lighting is everything.”
RuPaul points out that the role of these artisans comes from having a history with the show and its creators. “I’ve been working with (three-time Emmy-winning costume designer) Zaldy since 1992,” says RuPaul. “He knows what I can wear. He knows everything about my body and what works for me. And, of course, Raven (makeup designer and drag queen David Petruschin) knows how to do the face. And Curtis (Foreman) knows how to do the hair. So I’m surrounded by people who make me look good. And then on my part, I just don’t eat bread (laughs).
Love refers to Visage as the “tough love judge,” and Visage is quick to point out how she came to be both a mentor and no-holds-barred coach. “My mother was a tough Jewish woman who grew up in the streets of Brooklyn, and she kind of prepared me for the world,” Visage explains. “She never sugar-coated anything. She might have been perceived as mean but she wasn’t mean. It was more like ‘I’m going to prepare you for the world, because the world is not what you think it is. So here’s the reality: if you’re prepared, you’re going to land on your feet every time. I think we do our kids a disservice when we don’t set them up for the world out there, so I treat these queens like they’re my kids.”
RuPaul views the contestants as all bringing something unique to the table. “All of our challenges are really designed to see what the girls are working with—mentally, physically… how they are able to balance themselves,” says the Emmy nominated host. “Because I think in life, having a balanced equilibrium is what it’s all about, because life comes at you from all different directions. And they have to be willing and able to meet the challenge.”
This edition of THR Presents was sponsored by VH1.
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