Like any good drag queen, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” snatches up a little bit of everything in service of a more fabulous ensemble. There’s a dash of “Project Runway,” a spritz of “America’s Next Top Model,” a little “The Price Is Right” and a whole lot of “Paris Is Burning.” And like any good drag queen, the show stomps the razor-thin runway between gaudy recycling and sublime transformation.
Monday, the reality competition — which pits a catty gaggle of drag queens against each other in a series of challenges geared toward gauging star power and generating drama — graduates to the elites, as it debuts its first “All Stars” season. Old favorites and loathed ghosts return — including Latrice Royale, Boston’s own Jujubee, Shannel, and Mimi Imfurst (you sort them out) — to scratch it out for a $100,000 prize. This season’s campy camp of judges includes the Gossip’s Beth Ditto, comedian Cheri Oteri, and Mama herself, Vicki Lawrence.
Extensions will be yanked, mascara will run, shade will be thrown, and heels may well snap under the pressure. For his part, show creator, host, guru, and namesake RuPaul couldn’t be more . . . pumped.
Q. I have to say, I’m excited for “All-Stars.” I imagine you are as well?
A. Yeah, oh my God, yeah, it’s been a long time coming. We knew that eventually we’d do “All-Stars,” but to actually have it is great.
Q. That speaks to the faith you have in the longevity of the show.
A. Listen, drag is here to stay. Drag has always been here. Drag has always represented the shaman, the court jester, the witch doctor, who reminds a culture to not take itself too seriously, and that we’re all playing a role here. I think that’s why drag has come up against opposition throughout history, especially in an ego-dominated, identity-dominated culture. The ego doesn’t want to be reminded that it’s really a hoax.
Q. “Drag Race” is wild and fun, but it often has a shade of gravitas. We learn a lot about the contestants, and the difficulties that have made drag so important in their lives. Is that contrast part and parcel with drag, or a story you’re trying to tell with the show?
A. I think it’s both. These are courageous people who have overcome adversity, and overcome the biggest sin in a masculine patriarchal culture: to dress up like a girl, to parade femininity. That’s like an act of treason in our culture. For these people to overcome that and say, “You know what? I’m doing it anyway!” That alone ensures that these people have character, they have a story to tell, there’s a lesson to be learned from them.
Q. You, among reality TV hosts, have the unique freedom to be both Tyra [Banks] and Tim [Gunn] in one show. Is it liberating for you to be able to enjoy so many roles on “Drag Race”?
A. You know it is, and actually, what you see on the show is the closest I’ve ever come to really expressing what my close friends can see of me. I feel very comfortable doing all of that. That’s actually what I’ve done my whole life. As a kid, you know, I was a chameleon. Whatever the customer wanted — that’s a joke — and almost to a fault, where I’d be a pleaser. I could read the situation and give it what it needed. The other night on “Watch What Happens Live,” Andy [Cohen] surprised me with some footage of me from 1984. I was 23, and it showed me in New York on the street, and I’m talking to the camera and saying, ‘You know, I moved to New York so I could be a star, so I could be this stick of dynamite that’s ready to explode!’ And I could see the hope in this kid’s eyes, and I was really taken aback by it. There’s a big part of me that I can see in that kid. I spent so much time trying to please other people, and to not intimidate them with my intellect or my love or my whatever. So it comes into play in my job on “Drag Race” where I’m able to be all things for all people, but now it’s actually on my terms. It’s not like when I was a kid, where I forgot myself in order to make other people feel comfortable.
Q. That’s funny, I was watching [the 1995 documentary] “Wigstock” with my husband for the billionth time a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck by how seamless a RuPaul experience I’ve had over the years. It reminded me of advice you gave a contestant on the show: “Know who you are and deliver at all times.” What do you know now that you didn’t when people were first learning your name?
A. Well I knew those things on an intellectual level. I had studied metaphysics and things like that in my teens, and I grew up in the ’70s, so those kinds of books and that kind of experience in our culture was really big. But over time, I was able to own it on an emotional level. I had my doctrine, my platform for my career early on: “Everybody Say Love.” But to actually, really put it into my daily practice — and I still do a daily practice to make sure that that is my life — that’s what’s different.
Q. Despite the name, reality TV is based in giving us a certain kind of illusion. Drag seems altogether different: The illusion is the reality. It’s so foregrounded in the show. Can you identify a difference between “reality” and “realness”?
A. [Laughs] Well “realness” is code for the façade that we have all collectively agreed on. In the ballroom world, realness is: Can you pass as the façade that we have all agreed is “real”? We dress as women, but women don’t dress like that! [Laughs] But “realness” is in reference to what we’ve all collectively agreed on is the code for what a woman is. In reality TV, it’s more about emotion and rawness and the ability for someone to let their guard down, and for the viewer to feel that realness through the person’s vulnerability.
Q. After so many seasons on the air, what kind of effect do you think “Drag Race” has had on the rest of TV?
A. That’s a good question, especially since the only shows I really watch are “Judge Judy” and “Jeopardy.” [Laughs] So I’m not sure what effect our show has had on “Judge Judy” [Laughs]. But I do know that my name has been a question on “Jeopardy,” so there’s one thing. I see that our show has influenced other shows, I think on “American Idol” they had something like, “You better sing for your life,” so they lifted our catchprase, which is perfectly fine. That’s the nature of drag, we take a pinch of this, a dash of that from somewhere else. Drag is about sampling. It’s sampling the world. So it’s only fair that the rest of the world samples from us.Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.