So I know there’s a lot of Big Stuff going on in the world right now, and September 2016 was a hugely significant month, but really all I want to talk about is how RUPAUL WON AN EMMY. RUPAUL “YOU BETTER WORK, COVER GIRL!” RUPAUL FROM “THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE.” RUPAUL WHO MADE A BLAXPLOITATION PORN PARODY IN THE ‘80S CALLED “STARRBOOTY”... STAR SPELLED WITH TWO “R”S!!
RuPaul IS the supermodel of the world.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” in addition to be the best show on television, has been airing since 2009 on Logo TV, the first advertiser-supported commercial television channel geared towards the LGBT community which launched in 2005. The month Drag Race premiered was my first winter post-college, and I was living with my parents. They went to bed early, and I stayed up late because OMG CABLE IS AMAZING. I discovered a gay cable channel, showing the first episode of a new show about drag queens, and the rest is history.
For those not in the know, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is one part parody reality show, one part homage reality show, and one part actual reality show. The format is based primarily on skill based shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway,” complete with ridiculous mini-challenges and catty drama and runway critiques. Part of what takes it into the next realm of reality TV entertainment is how RuPaul seamlessly goes from playing a Tim Gunn type out of drag to give critiques as the queens get ready for the runway to a Tyra Banks type in drag, the game show host who takes NO SHIT on the runway. Mix in the skills of makeup, improvisation, costuming, and tucking your penis into your butt, and now, you’re welcome. Now you understand. Why this is the best show on television.
On September 18th, 2016, RuPaul Charles won the Primetime Creative Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program, beating out Ryan Seacrest, Tom Bergeron, Jane Lynch, Steve Harvey, and Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. I mean, I remember when we were all up in arms that there even WAS a reality TV category included in the Emmys (is this a thing other people were up in arms about, or just me?), but I’m pretty sure this category exists just FOR RuPaul to subvert it.
When I found out the news that RuPaul won an Emmy, I was on a family vacation to Italy with my mom and my brother. I excitedly went on and on about the significance of a marginal, avant garde show infiltrating the mainstream, to which my brother responded: “Who’s RuPaul?”
I know. I get it. To me, RuPaul IS the supermodel of the world - an amazing businessman who created not just a career out of what used to be and in some places still is the underground art of drag, but has also created and built up an entire culture giving other drag queens an opportunity to work. RuPaul has hosted his own talkshows, released ten studio albums, has a podcast with Drag Race cohost Michelle Visage, is now in the third year of running a drag convention called DragCon (it’s coming up in April - I’ve never been; send me a message if you wanna go, it’s in LA, it’s probably expensive, we’d get to meet Katya), and this past April he started hosting a new trivia tv show called Gay for Play. RuPaul, which is his real birth name, is not only crushing the game, he made the game.
The thing that fascinates me about RuPaul is that business mind. How he’s able to not just survive, but flourish and thrive with each passing year. He’s like David Bowie in that way - able to adapt, regenerate, grow, while still keeping one thumb on what the culture is into and wants to see, while the other thumb makes sure that has to do with what he’s selling. RuPaul famously was proud of NOT being recognized by the Emmys year after year - trying to keep the underground underground and the weird weird. And what even are awards? Amy Poehler talks about it as “the pudding” that doesn’t mean anything but that you find yourself wanting, and RuPaul has said “I’d rather have an enema than an Emmy.” But this is certainly a more mainstream recognition of a niche show on a niche channel. And what does that recognition mean?
We have gay stories increasingly more in the limelight - and gay stories of People of Color as well - the people on the American fringe fighting for self-expression. The people who in 1969 were demonstrating and fighting in the Stonewall Riots, and this pain is still felt today in modern homophobia and transphobia. And I recognize that a silly award - the Emmys are probably one of the least significant of the industry awards - doesn’t carry the same weight that legislation does, but it does show that our media is recognizing more stories. Our very media that at once shapes culture and is also shaped by it. A man in a dress is becoming less the butt of the joke, and more the butt we all want to be.
But, this significance runs both ways. On the positive side, it’s beyond moving and amazing that this show is successful and starting discussions and getting awards and making jobs for drag queens and increasing bar sales on Thursday nights for those who go to watch Drag Race IRL, but on the flip side, what does it mean when the marginalized goes mainstream?
There’s a YouTube series called “RuPaul Drives” (I know, does the man ever sleep), where he drives people around and has conversations with them. Say goodbye to the rest of your night because that’s the rabbit hole you’re going down when you get home tonight I know. In conversation with John Waters, the KING of the avant garde low camp disgusting underground, they discussed the following:
RUPAUL: That’s why camp and that’s why the irreverent is so much fun. Because we’ve recognized the pattern and now we’re ready to play outside and around and have a twist on phrases with the patterns.
JOHN WATERS: And I think now, that we’re both lucky. The public gets it a lot more.
RUPAUL: The irreverent behavior bohemian, it sort of became the popular culture.
JOHN WATERS: Well it’s now everyone wants to be an outsider. When we were young, nobody wanted to be, but now, you and I, we should be insiders - that’s more perverted! And in a way we are. So in a way, that’s the ultimate revenge!
And I think that’s it - that’s what’s truly at the heart of RuPaul’s historic Emmy win - it’s what made me cry over my pasta and prosecco in Rome, that RuPaul, and the team he’s wisely surrounded himself with, can do some pretty amazing good from the inside. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Maybe drag kings? Seriously, Ru, where are the drag kings.
Upon winning his Emmy, RuPaul said: “I know I said I’d rather have an enema than an Emmy, but thanks to the Television Academy, I can have both!” In conclusion, RuPaul for president.