You Better Work!

By Dan Avery

Originally published on Advocate.com January 30 2009 1:00 AM ET

Long before
Project Runway’s Christian Siriano
uttered his first “tranny fierceness,” RuPaul
was turning heads at international hotspots,
headlining her own VH1 talk show, and burning up the
dance charts with singles like "Back to My Roots" and
"Supermodel (You Better Work)."

Now, the 6-foot-7
glamour girl is poised to conquer reality TV with
RuPaul’s Drag Race, a cutthroat
competition that sees her putting nine female
impersonators through their paces in a bid to be
crowned the next drag-queen superstar. With her team of
judges -- and help from celebrity guests like Bob
Mackie, Destiny’s Child’s Michelle
Williams, Lucy Lawless, and Tori Spelling -- Ru quickly
separates the boys from the queens.

But as the
Supermodel of the World herself would say, beauty
ain’t always pretty: Each week the bottom two
contestants must duke it out in a “lip-synch
for your life” showdown that determines who gets to
prance for another week. The last diva standing gets
$20,000 in cash, a photo spread in Paper
magazine, a print ad campaign with Greg Gorman and
L.A. Eyeworks, and other fab prizes.

In anticipation
of the eight-part series’ February 2 premiere on
Logo, Advocate.com chatted with RuPaul about putting
the show together, some of Drag Race’s
less-accomplished applicants, and her thoughts on
Obama.

Advocate.com:So many people loved the drag episode of Project
Runway
you appeared in with Varla Jean Merman
and Hedda Lettuce. Was that fun to work on?
RuPaul: Well, I don’t know about fun -- it
took something like seven hours to film just a few minutes
of film. Even on our show, there are a ton of things
that have to happen behind the scenes to make it all
look effortless. Television is like drag: There’s a
lot of illusion involved.

Did the Runway episode inspire your show? No, we’d been planning it for some time
already. But it was great exposure for a lot of those
girls.

How did you pick the contestants for Drag Race?We were looking for queens who had charisma, uniqueness,
nerve, and talent. There was a lot of discussion about
what kind of contestants we were going to feature. Are
you gonna do trannies, or pre-op or post-op girls? We
decided they all had to be showgirls. None of the
contestants have had any surgeries. But it was really
hard to choose, actually. There were tons of video
submissions to RuPaulsDragRace.com, but we ended up
picking just one [of those]. We had a casting director
choose most of the girls. 

 Ru PAUL'S DRAG RACE Shannel Xlarge (LOGO) | ADVOCATE.COM

The best part of American Idol is when they
show the train wrecks and rejects. Were there a lot
of hot messes in the submissions for Drag Race?
There were plenty of disasters -- and I wanted
them all on the show. But fortunately other people had
some say in the casting. It would’ve been a
very different show. [Laughs] I love a good train
wreck and I don’t think there’s really a
wrong way to do drag. Anytime someone celebrates the
human form it’s a good thing. The worse the better.

With nine drag queens in one room there must’ve
been a lot of drama.
Tons and tons of drama. It was a really diverse
group -- queens from all over the country ranging from
their early 20s to late 30s. So of course
they’re going to get heated. But mostly I
wasn’t prepared for how emotionally involved
I’d get in them as people. Yes, there’s paint
and powder. But what you really walk away with is the
courage of the human spirit. What kind of person would
go against our culture’s last taboo, messing
with gender roles? What lengths will people go to live in
beauty and love?

In the first episode the girls have to create
brand-new outfits out of thrift store clothes. Are all
the competitions based on their ‘look’?
No, there was a lot more to them. If
they’ve gotten as far as being on the show,
they should have the look down. In one episode they have to
write a rap to my latest single, “Cover Girl.”
Another time they have to read the news from a
TelePrompTer, sell a product on TV, and then interview
a celebrity -- all in just a few minutes. There’s no
time to rehearse; it’s really about seeing what
they're made out of. The challenges sort of follow my
own career. I want to see how well they can do what
I've done.

Getting back to Project Runway for a second,
how did PR contestant Santino Rice get
chosen as a judge? Does he have a drag background?
I’d met Santino a few times before -- we went ice
skating together last year -- and we had a good
connection. I don’t know if he’s done
drag, but he has an amazing background in fashion and pop
culture. Our other regular judge, Merle Ginsberg, is a
fashion journalist who’s been in the biz for
years and she cowrote Paris Hilton’s Confessions
of an Heiress
. Honestly, though, I think
anyone with a clear vision can relate to drag. We all do it
to some extent. You’re born naked and you die
naked. The rest is drag.

Ru PAUL'S DRAG RACE Tammy Brown Xlarge (LOGO) | ADVOCATE.COM
  

Every good reality show has a great exit line.
What’s yours?
Shante…you stay; sashay…away.

Ouch. Being read by RuPaul must be a fate worse
than death for a drag queen. Why do you think the
contestants put themselves through such a fierce competition?
Well, there’s obviously a big cash prize
and sponsorships from M.A.C. and Absolut. But really,
it’s about the fame. We all want it. And millions of
people will see them on Logo or download them off YouTube or
wherever. Our society is still so fixated on gender
roles and crossing those lines. On one hand
we’re obsessed with masculinity, but we love them
drag queens!

Are you a fan of any other reality shows? Is Judge Judy a reality show? That and
The Golden Girls are really all I watch. I just
love Judy. In a world of so much bullshit, you get an hour
of straight talk. Someone who bases their decision on
the law, not on fashion or emotion. She’s for
real.

You recently released an amazing photo-illustration
of yourself as both Michelle and Barack Obama. Are you
excited about the Obama presidency?
C’mon, you know how I feel about that! We
have a saying on the show: “If you’re
watching this, it means a Democrat is in the White
House.” His election signaled a real shift in
our culture after all this coldness and fear. But
we’re in such a bad place right now. I really hope he
gets a chance to turn things around.

Do you think you’ll be invited to stay in the
Lincoln bedroom?
That’d be great! [Laughs] Keep
your fingers crossed!