Check out the complete oral history of RuPaul — and revisit 25 years’ worth of game-changing LGBTQ movies, TV, and music — in the special LGBTQ issue of Entertainment Weekly, available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Upon its 2009 premiere, RuPaul’s Drag Race helped usher in a new era of fabulous for its Emmy-winning host, who’s comfortably settled into his sky-high stilettos as America’s reigning First Lady of Drag. Across 116 episodes to date, the reality competition series has broadened the world’s perception of drag not only as a form of entertainment but as a legitimate art that — in the cultivating hands of Mama Ru — continues to expand and evolve with each new contestant who sashays into the program’s storied work room.
While 115 queens from around the world have seen their artistry soar to new heights as part of the Drag Race cast, four of the most prominent graduates — season 6’s Bianca Del Rio, season 5’s Jinkx Monsoon, and season 4 sisters Latrice Royale and Chad Michaels — have arguably made the most of their time on the show, fronting international comedy tours, starring in elaborate stage productions, and acting in films and television shows, with the ripples of RuPaul’s success lighting the way. Now the queens are opening up to EW about RuPaul’s hand in making them superstars on the drag circuit, recalling everything from the first time they saw his “Supermodel (You Better Work)” music video to the impact he had on their budding sexuality as awareness of LGBTQ discrimination intensified in the early ’90s.
As RuPaul’s Drag Race prepares to conclude its ninth season on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on VH1, check out what fan favorite contestants have to say about RuPaul’s life and legacy below.
Del Rio: “I go back to MTV when they actually played videos. There was a video of Ru, ‘Supermodel,’ and I was like, ‘Who is this person?’… At the time, I knew about drag queens like Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey, who were much older, but they weren’t glamorous, and Ru just came out of nowhere… at the time, ‘Supermodel’ was the s—. It was the song that we all knew, gay and straight… I also witnessed Joan [Rivers] welcoming gay men in drag on her show, and it wasn’t crazy crap about them eating baby food or having some sick fetish. Joan presented them as entertainers. I thought that was kind of insane, it was the beginning of it all… obviously it was something magical happening.”
Royale: “He made me feel like we were being seen, and people knew that we were a viable career choice and not just a joke or an afterthought in the nightclubs. For me, I’m always looking at things from the business side, so this is now putting us in a situation where we can actually be a viable job. He represented a career that can now be seen as something tangible… [his presence told me] you can actually be a brand and become more than just a drag queen. You get a face and have a voice. He was doing all of that by stepping out and trailblazing.”
Del Rio: “I was 20-years-old and finally settling into my life. I was going through life being called gay or a f—– and looking at it as a bad thing, because it was definitely a freeing point in my life, just to be a gay man functioning in the world. It brings back fond memories on that level. I am fascinated now just to see how young gays experience all of this stuff or are basically living their lives, but it was such a different time back then. It was a big deal to be gay and discrimination was far worse than it is now. It was a huge turning point, especially for me in my little life… it was huge then, and no one had really done that. I’ve known many drag queens then and since, but no one had that exposure that Ru did, so there was definitely something magical there that was going on.”
Michaels: “His rise started when I started doing drag. I wouldn’t say I started doing drag because of RuPaul. I’m a child of the ‘70s, so I’m very into pop culture and it was always Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman on TV, Princess Leia, all these hyper-feminine role models. I had an obsession with Madonna, too. This celebrity impersonation thing is what pulled me into doing drag. However, RuPaul was the fire underneath it all, going, ‘This makes it possible.’ There’s a viable career there if you work for it and really want it… It wasn’t shocking; it was exciting. It was shocking because we hadn’t seen it before, but it also felt like home… This is what it’s supposed to be… Look at this person who’s completely doing their own thing no matter what anybody’s views were at the time regarding drag or female impersonation… it was the start of an era.”
Monsoon: “Not only has her music always been in the drag bars that I’ve worked in since I was 15, but she was in The Brady Bunch Movie, so I think of times when I saw her at 8 or 9-years-old and I didn’t realize then that she’d one day be a huge part of my life. I think back on all these little things that, at the time, I took for granted, but now I think she’s the only drag queen to break the glass ceiling so immensely. Drag has come a long way and people are respecting it, and giving drag queens and other people who defy gender norms more chances than they’ve ever been given before, but it’s thanks to people like RuPaul, especially, who set that momentum going… I don’t think I knew Ru was a drag queen when I would see her in The Brady Bunch Movie. I don’t think any part of me thought, ‘Oh, that’s a man dressed as a woman.’ My family was always accepting of my own self-expression. I gave very clear signs from a very young age that I had a fascination with femininity and female clothing and it was kind of an ongoing joke in my family that I was going to be the next RuPaul, so that name, since I was a child, she’s always been a part of my life. She’s been a reference to go back to. When I came out of the closet at 14 and then started really delving into queer movies, she was in the movie But I’m a Cheerleader out of drag, and I can find all these little moments throughout my life where she’s been there.”
Michaels: “Pre-RuPaul, celebrity impersonation was the pinnacle of drag… of course there were different factions of drag going on at that time, but for the most part the drag shows you went to see in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, you saw Liza Minnelli, you saw Diana Ross, you saw Cher — you didn’t see the array of drag you see now. All the different styles and the houses of drag, East Coast drag versus West Coast drag versus Southern drag. He definitely shifted things. He propelled it in a direction where anything was possible. Overall, he opened people’s minds to going, ‘Oh, these aren’t just guys dressing up as celebrities. This is a fully realized character that is original.’ It opened the gays’ eyes as well as mainstream people, who were looking at him and saying this is something new, something we haven’t seen.”
Monsoon: “There are other drag queens who have made it as far as they could possibly make it. There’s an old guard of drag, like the queens who got as big as they could possibly get before there was a TV show dedicated to drag queens. So that’s people like Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Peaches Christ, Coco Peru, Charles Busch — all these performers, they got as far as you could possibly go before the industry and before mainstream culture were giving drag queens a chance… I truly believe her when she says she created Drag Race as a way for her to share her success with other drag queens, because she knew if you give drag queens a chance, if you give queer people a chance, they will show you that they have so much to offer. And through Drag Race, we’ve been able to be exposed to all of these other amazing drag talents that have totally surpassed what I used to think a drag queen could do… That’s all thanks to RuPaul giving us a platform, giving us the exposure, because she knew that there were queens out there who needed the exposure. All they needed was to be seen and then they could bring so much entertainment to the industry.”
Del Rio: “I don’t think he was intentionally plotting and planning the life he has now, but he’s especially grateful for it, and realizes how wonderful and successful it is, and uses it as a proper way… he’s aware of it now, but I can’t say he was working on this struggle. It’s not a Harriet Tubman situation where he’s building a freedom train, but I think that it just kind of happened by him living his life and being aware of how wonderful it is. He definitely set the standard, but, you know, I think he’s opened doors for me, and I don’t think he realized how many doors he’s opened for everyone else.”
Royale: “I know I’m black, but I wasn’t trying to make it as a black person, you know what I mean? Ru crossed all boundaries — race, gender, all of it. So it’s not about what color you are anymore, he’s broken all those barriers… people can turn to drag and Drag Race to get rid of the woes of [today’s presidential administration], and drag has a way of making people feel good about life and… gives them hope… we are here in the world, one day at a time, and people connect with us on a very emotional level, more than any other [cast] that’s out there, and no other reality show people tour the way the Drag Race girls tour. RuPaul is who made that happen; he’s created so many jobs in this time. We have jobs that were created by this phenomenon, and that’s pretty amazing.”
Del Rio: “Oh, she is? No, I’m kidding. My response has to be #fakenews. I’m kidding! Because I think that Ru definitely is, because Ru is a hard-working bitch and hasn’t given up. I’ve witnessed the ups and downs of my own career, which Ru has had in his, but he’s always come out on top. Look at the success of the show; look at the success of drag in general. He’s got a huge hand in that and has been a huge part of that. He’s a responsible, kind person who gets it, who’s funny as hell, and I think that he’s very deserving of it, because he represents us very well. I was also told if I say anything bad, I won’t get paid again.”
Monsoon: “You can recognize her in an instant, but she has also continued to adapt and shift as drag has continued to adapt and shift, so she’s still the top drag queen, and I don’t think anyone is rivaling her for that position right now. Even the most successful [Drag Race] winners are still not RuPaul. She’s a mature queen; she’s had a long, fruitful career. I think she wants drag to continue to explode, because as it does, it makes it better for all of us. If one drag queen penetrates the mainstream and opens up a new avenue for us to take with our careers, that means all of us can potentially do that.”
Michaels: “You hear a lot of people out there today giving advice, but I think RuPaul doesn’t say things lightly, and I think RuPaul has a good grasp on reality. His keynote speech this year at DragCon was, for me, powerful… his message the whole time from the beginning has been it’s all up to you and anything is possible, so stop sitting around and waiting for it to happen. He continues to bring an important, positive message to anyone who’s willing to listen. If you come to him, you get acceptance and love, and that’s something that’s shorthanded today but important that he’s providing to our culture.”
Michaels: “It’s groundbreaking and awesome and everything it needed to be for the time. It was an introduction to RuPaul and an introduction to glamor and all of those wonderful things that, again, rekindled that flame of drag. There were so many touchstones before RuPaul… but he was becoming the new touchstone of drag at that time, so it was cool to connect those dots.”
Monsoon: “I started doing drag at age 15, and there was an all-ages gay dance club that I worked at, but I also lied about my age and performed at a lot of bars, so it’s just one of those things where it’s engrained in me. RuPaul’s music, especially that album, is internalized. Now I can hear the first two seconds of the song and I’m just flooded with sense memory and unconscious memory of every time I’ve ever heard that song. It’s one of those things where it’s like, there are certain songs where once you’ve seen drag queens perform a song so many times, it’s almost like you become numb to it. Now, I don’t even register when I’m hearing the song because it’s so internalized for me.”
Del Rio: “I think it was a huge reflection on what was going on at the time. It was a great song and it was extremely catchy at the time when everything was about visuals on MTV. You were nobody if you didn’t have a video, and it was the height of the supermodel era. Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell were the s—! The timing was magical, and it was sung by this 8-foot tall blonde glamazon. You could enjoy the song without knowing it was a gay man or a drag queen. I don’t think it pushed people away… but it shifted things and [bridged the gap between gay and straight].”
Michaels: “It was funny and again, there’s RuPaul not taking any s—. No matter who it is. Even Uncle Miltie who, obviously at that time was much older, but a very treasured part of Hollywood and respected by everybody, a living legend, and there’s RuPaul going, ‘Uh uh, you’re not talking to me like that. In front of God, and everybody…’ That was amazing. I get that Uncle Miltie was probably a little uptight. He was probably also a little insecure, but, you know, it set a precedent for [drag queens saying] you can’t talk to us like that. That’s still going on today.”
Del Rio: “It was genius. I’m a comedian and I look at life as everything is funny and nothing is off limits, and here’s Milton Berle who’s made a career out of making fun of people throughout his life, and I think it took him by surprise. I thought, ‘You know what? He’s up there with a drag queen. He’s playing with fire. And I do believe the setup was kind of nasty from his perspective, and I guess he didn’t expect Ru to lash out, but I thought, ‘F— it. Do it. Why not? You shouldn’t hold your tongue!’ If someone has been a comedian for 50, 60 years at that point, you should be able to get a joke.
Del Rio: “She was all spelled out in red patent leather! It was amazing. I didn’t even buy MAC makeup, but I wanted the red lipstick because Ru was wearing it… Now, I’ve put it in perspective. I realize what MAC was doing for the [MAC AIDS Fund] … it all makes sense now. The stuff he was doing was unbelievable for that time because nobody else was doing it, and to know he’s on top of his game now is just fascinating. To look back on it, I don’t think people realize that at that time, no one was doing it, much less for a good cause. Unbelievable.”
Monsoon: “It’s not at all accurate… I mean, no drag queen would want to sit in her corset and full costume in a car for however many hours… I thought it was sensational and important that, if you’re going to have three straight men play drag queens – and I think all three of them did great jobs – to [have] RuPaul in [the scene with the] Confederate flag dress. It was like saying, ‘Yeah, these three straight, famous actors are now playing drag queens, but they still have to bow down to RuPaul.’ Because every other drag queen on screen literally bows down to RuPaul [in that scene]. That was the clear-cut moment when we realized, of all the drag queens in the world, there is one queen to rule them all.”
Del Rio: “I was a huge fan of the show because it was very much reminiscent of The Sonny & Cher Show, and I wasn’t necessarily old enough to watch the show when it aired, but VH1 was airing classic Cher shows, which was genius because there was [The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour], and then there was the Cher show, and then Sonny had his own show, and then Sonny and Cher got back together… and then Ru was doing basically the same format, which was really 20 or 25 years later. It was brilliant. When you have Diana Ross on your show, when you have actual Cher on your show, that’s a big f—ing deal. I remember watching it and loving everything about it. He looked amazing and it was just fun. Now I look back and here was this major corporation saying yes to a drag queen and [I was] unconsciously realizing if this can happen, anything’s possible in the future.”