Once again, Realscreen highlights several individuals whose work is impacting the non-fiction screen content industry, and the entertainment world in general. From exposing injustice to celebrating and promoting diversity on camera and behind the scenes, these Trailblazers are taking risks that are paying off, and paving the way for progress. Look for more of our Trailblazers for the year here, in the days ahead.
There are multi-hyphenates, and then there’s RuPaul Charles (pictured).
The host and executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race — the multiple Emmy-winning competition series that crowns top drag queens and, in the words of The New York Times, “skewers expectations and attitudes about gender” — has been, over the course of a career in entertainment spanning several decades, a model, an actor, a singer and songwriter. From the looks of things, he’s nowhere near finished adding to the list.
Born RuPaul Andre Charles in 1960, the San Diego native moved to Atlanta with his sister and her husband in his teens and took the first steps to stardom via appearances on a local program, The American Music Show, frequently fronting his band, Wee Wee Pole. By the mid-Eighties, Ru sought a bigger runway and found it in New York City, where he met and began working with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — first on musical projects, as Bailey and Barbato were recording and performing as the Fabulous Pop Tarts, and then on visual content. Bailey and Barbato would go on to found World of Wonder, the California-based prodco behind Drag Race and myriad unscripted and documentary projects.
By the early Nineties, RuPaul had a hit song in the clubs and on MTV (“Supermodel”), and a talk show on VH1, The RuPaul Show, by 1996. But as the new millennium arrived, Ru was ready to enter the reality space, and with World of Wonder’s Bailey, Barbato and Tom Campbell, took Drag Race to the world — first via U.S. cable net Logo, then on VH1, where it has aired since 2017, and now to multiple territories including the UK, Australia, Thailand and Canada as a format.
Factor in the success of DragCon, a drag-centric convention held in LA and London, and one wonders how RuPaul actually finds time to breathe, let alone sleep. “I wake up every day between 3 and 4 a.m.,” he tells Realscreen in an email interview conducted just before embarking on a brief vacation. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate that my jobs include a lot of laughing, dressing up, and playing with all the colors in the crayon box.”
2019 marked 10 years of Drag Race, and in the last couple of years the series has become a global format. Back in the early days, did you even entertain the notion that the show would last for a decade, and spawn international versions? Or did you always think this would happen?
Since my days working at clubs in the East Village, I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded people that dream big, like Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey at World of Wonder. Over the past 25+ years we’ve taken drag where no drag queen has gone before. That’s taken equal parts talent, tenacity and delusion. So, yes, world domination has always been part of the game plan.
How have you kept the series fresh over the course of its run? What changes do you see coming in the near future?
The #1 thing that keeps Drag Race fresh is the queens. Every season a new crop of sweet, sensitive souls share their stories and express their creativity in ways that never fail to surprise and entertain.
This past year has also seen a wave of drag-centric programming both in the U.S. and around the world — no doubt inspired by and spurred on by the success of Drag Race. How do you feel about imitation — sincerest form of flattery or…. ?
Knowing that our success has helped executives see drag as a bankable commodity makes me happy.
Is there anything else you’d like to try your hand at in the TV space? Or film?
Right now, my cup runneth over. AJ & the Queen, my first scripted series, drops in January on Netflix [the first episode airs tomorrow, January 10 - Ed.]. I’m currently developing a feature film, and have a cosmetics line (Mally x RuPaul) on QVC. But what I really want to do is be a paid audience member on Judge Judy.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.