‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Spawns a Host of Spinoffs and Imitators, But Is the Runaway Big Enough?

“Drag Race” proved what’s possible. Now everyone wants a piece of the action

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12

Given the massive success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” over the last decade, it’s no surprise that the show has almost unilaterally defined the mainstream understanding of drag artistry. But now that the show has done the hard work of getting people to pay attention, what becomes of drag as an art form? And can “Drag Race” continue to thrive now that everyone wants a piece of that success? Since its debut in 2009, “Drag Race” has gone from a reality show pseudo-parody on a niche cable network to regularly coming in as the most-watched cable show among young adults on Friday nights. The multi-million dollar franchise has raked in the cash for producers World of Wonder, expanding to include not only spinoff television series, but also several digital series, the $3.99 per month streaming service WOW Presents Plus, and live events like the 95-city “Werq the World” tour and a lucrative pair of annual conventions in New York and Los Angeles. The queens themselves are certainly benefiting from the surfeit of opportunity. As performers and entrepreneurs and TV stars, former “Drag Race” stars have proven disproportionately skilled at parlaying their success into other ventures beyond the show. This week alone, HBO and TLC have debuted new programs showcasing the talents of “Drag Race” veterans. Both take a rough “Queer Eye”-style makeover/life-coaching format and feature a set of queens — Alexis Michelle, BeBe Zahara Benet, Jujubee and Thorgy Thor on TLC’s “Dragnificent,” and Eureka O’Hara, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen on HBO’s “We’re Here” — who travel around the country to help better the lives of quote-unquote everyday Americans. On “We’re Here,” that involves mostly queer people living in small towns; on the much more light-hearted “Dragnificent,” the subjects are women preparing for a big day like a wedding or a class reunion.
The cast of “Dragnificent” (TLC)
“For us, ‘Dragnificent’ really fit what we call that ‘TLC lens,’” said Wendy Douglas, vice president of east coast production for TLC. “Shining a light on extraordinary people, opening a door to a fascinating world. We’re all about embracing people of all walks of life and authenticity and relatability for our audience. That really encompasses what drag queens are all about.” “They have so much confidence and they themselves celebrate inclusivity and being your best self,” she continued, also praising a unique ability in the “Dragnificent” cast to make people feel comfortable. “They somehow disarm people. You can see a willingness from the people they work with to really open up.” “We’re Here” showrunner Peter LoGreco expressed a similar sentiment, honing in on his cast’s ability to connect with others in an honest, compelling way. “They’re all really, really great,” he said. “Not just as performers, but as people who can share part of their experience and use that to connect with someone. I was impressed from the moment we started doing that on the pilot … And that’s not something that you can necessarily teach. I think it just has to do with who they are and how they’ve come to where they are.” That’s a different skill set than what’s demanded by “Drag Race,” a show that already demands a lot of its contestants — as Season 6 champ Bianca del Rio put it, “If you can’t sing, dance, do comedy or sew, you don’t belong on the show.” But it’s a testament to the versatility of drag as an art form, which can lend itself to formats as varied as stand-up comedy, scripted television or music.
We're Here
“Drag Race,” meanwhile, is still betting on a more-is-more strategy, super-serving fans with a steady stream of content, including yearly installments of both the flagship series, the weekly aftershow “Untucked” and its “All Stars” spinoff. Not to mention several international editions and the steady stream of content offered through YouTube and the SVOD service WOW Presents Plus. The franchise has been such a strong performer for VH1 that even ViacomCBS sister network Showtime is trying to get a piece of the action by picking up loaner seasons of “All Stars,” making the big bet that fans will be willing to shell out a monthly fee to keep up. A new four-episode limited series will see celebrities get drag makeovers from the show’s roster of queens and compete in their own version of “Drag Race” for charity. Much of company’s the drag-oriented content, especially World of Wonder’s digital offerings, is driven by drag queens who first appeared on the franchise. Beyond “All Stars” and the mentors featured on “Celebrity Drag Race,” there’s the recap show “Pit Stop,” which features rotating pairs of past contestants recounting the latest episode. Two of the show’s most beloved finalists, Raja and Raven, host a “Fashion Police”-style “Fashion Photo Ru-view.” The fan-favorite chat show “UNHhhh” has become so popular that Season 7’s Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova have managed to establish themselves as a comedy duo now courted by the likes of Vice and Netflix. But even if “Drag Race” finds no shortage of new talent to mine (casting is already underway for the next season), what becomes of the franchise’s nonstop expansion when the people it relies on to anchor that content have more options than ever? Thus far, the all-in approach has paid off, pulling in strong ratings for VH1 and a boatload of Emmy nominations along the way. But having more eyes on the franchise is not without risks. The currently airing 12th season of “Drag Race” became embroiled in a misconduct scandal earlier this year when one of the contestants admitted to posing as a casting director and coercing men into recording themselves in sexually compromising positions under the false pretense of an audition. The contestant, Sherry Pie, was quickly disqualified from the competition and the season — the majority of which was filmed well before the misconduct came to light — was apparently re-edited to minimize her screen time.
"RuPaul's Drag Race" Meet The Queens Event - Feb. 26, 2020
Sherry Pie (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
That’s one of the biggest adjustments queens have had to make as drag has skyrocketed in popularity — and at a time when even minor public figures face ever-greater scrutiny. “Now as a drag queen, you have to be careful about what you say,” said Eureka O’Hara, a runner-up on “Drag Race” Season 10. “You have to be mindful about your humor. People hold drag queens more accountable now than they ever used to … as we grow as a culture, drag has to evolve.” But what does that evolution look like when all these corporate interests come into play? Are the days of Divine’s shock-and-awe tactics best left in the past, traded in for the feel-good sentimentality of shows like “We’re Here” and “Dragnificent”? Maybe not. “It is ever-changing, because that’s just how art works. People are always thinking of ways to make it new and different,” O’Hara said. “But that rebellious, s—ty part, that part you kind of have to hate but you also kinda love because only drag could make it interesting? That’s kind of the point. Upending your societal standards and how you think you’re supposed to conduct yourself. That’s what drag is all about.”
RuPaul's Drag Race
Set of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Photo: VH1)