The Mainstream-ification of Drag Thanks to Drag Race

RuPaul has always been the primary champion of drag in the mainstream. His rise to prominence after releasing “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1992 resulted in a more accepting embrace of drag queens in general–though the true pioneer of getting drag culture out into the open was Madonna via her grafting of vogueing from the documentary Paris Is Burning.

Cover for RuPaul's "Supermodel (You Better Work)"
Cover for RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)”
As RuPaul continued to make appearances both in film, television (he had his own talk show on MTV from 1996 to 1998) and as a drag performer, his persona became something of a household name, being mentioned on shows like My So-Called Life in the mid-90s at one of the crests of his fame.
Titles for The RuPaul Show
Titles for The RuPaul Show
With the premiere of Drag Race in 2009, RuPaul achieved a new level of filtering drag into the collective cultural consciousness. Plus, it was the first watchable show to appear on the LOGO Network. Moreover, the repetition of catch phrases formerly exclusive to the gay and drag community, such as “reading is fundamental,” “sashay away,” “Shantay, you stay,” “no T, no shade” and “serving up fish,” were more commonly used by straights than ever.

By season four, the competing drag queens themselves started to eclipse RuPaul’s grandiose personality and aesthetic, with the likes of Sharon Needles, Chad Michaels, Phi Phi O’Hara, William and Latrice Royale stealing all the attention. And while the show may have peaked about two seasons ago, transforming into something of a NASCAR event for gay men, its lasting influence on the outsider perception of drag cannot be denied. Indeed, many underground queens undoubtedly begrudge Ru for “bastardizing” their art. In this way, he is very much the Madonna of the drag world.