Against all odds, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a massive pop-cultural force. After 10 seasons (plus three all-star seasons), it’s surprisingly bigger than ever, racking up its highest ratings yet this year. Musical contestants like Adore Delano, Blair St. Clair, and Trixie Mattel have landed albums on the Billboard charts; Drag Race catch phrases like “not today, Satan!” and “hieeeee” have become part of the mainstream vernacular; the RuPaul’s Dragcon conventions draw thousands of fans on both coasts; RuPaul Charles has won two consecutive Emmys for Best Reality Host; and now the show has a very good chance of sashaying away with this year’s big Emmy prize, for Best Reality Competition.
Longtime Drag Race judge Michelle Visage tells Yahoo Entertainment that the slowly building success of the series surprises her. “It’s just the queerest show on television. Yes, even queerer than Queer Eye. You can’t get anything gayer than RuPaul’s Drag Race!” she says with a laugh. But the tough-loving judge and pop singer, who found salvation and acceptance in the gay community when she was a troubled teen in the ’80s, believes that behind all the colorful costumes, racy one-liners, and fierce lip-synchs, the show serves a more serious purpose: helping troubled young people and bringing families closer together.
“It comes down to the fact that we creative minds — loving, compassionate, sensitive souls — are in this fight together,” says Visage, an LBGTQ ally and doting mother of two daughters, one of whom is queer and has publicly struggled with depression. “And that’s really what this show is about. It’s about heart and integrity and journeys. It’s not about boys dressing up like girls. I mean, it is a little bit, but there’s so much more to it.”
Yahoo Entertainment: I am always amazed, when I go to RuPaul’s Dragcon or Drag Race events, by how young the show’s audience skews — and by how so many of the fans are actually straight, cis teen and tween girls. Any theory as to why girls love and look up to these queens?
Michelle Visage: I think the young girls that connect to this are usually the same kind of girl. These girls are all kind of the same horrible age, which is usually 11, 12, 13, 14. I know those years were the most self-harming years of my life. They were when my eating disorder kicked in. I wound up hating myself the most. I felt so alone. I was an adopted kid into a Jewish family, and this neighborhood and school system had no Jews. Not that I identified as one, but my family did, and I didn’t understand why we were different. I was really into punk rock, but also into musical theater. I did not fit in the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Ozzy Osbourne mold. I really didn’t. I felt fat, I felt ugly. No boys liked me; girls weren’t even an option at the time. It didn’t make sense why this was happening or why I was alone.
I feel like the girls that love our show are those exact girls. Now, they have a little more opportunity to explore sexuality today than they did in 1982, ’83, or ’84, but they’re still confused, and they still don’t like who they are or the changes in their body. They think they’re too fat, too skinny, all those things. So, I think identifying with these drag personas lets them be somebody they are not, and the drag queens make them feel that they are loved no matter what. I think that’s a critical point in a girl’s life. That’s why the fanbase is the age that it is.
How in general do you think RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped young people, especially LGBTQ youth?
A lot of our kids that watch the show don’t have maybe the people in their life that understand. Now, a lot more mothers and families and people have understood them through the communication of the show, the method of the show. There’s still a lot of kids that don’t feel comfortable in telling their family, and they feel that they’re alone. They are afraid to be who they are, and maybe saying, “Hey, watch this show with me, Mom” can help them come out. So it’s helped a lot of families understand who their child is. … What it does for trans kids and other kids — nongender, nonconforming, or gender-nonbinary kids — is amazing, because these conversations weren’t happening on mainstream TV before.
Of course, it definitely depends on the parent. There’s a lot of parents who would be completely appalled and disgusted, and that’s a reality that we have to face. And it’s my job as an ally to try to change that, especially as an ally and a parent and a parent of a queer child [Visage’s older daughter, Lillie] to do my part in changing people’s viewpoints and stances. At least if you can’t change it, try to open their minds to education, instead of hate or yelling or shaming.
Drag Race has indeed opened up the conversation of all of these things that matter. I’ve had lots of parents come up to me and say, “Thank you for helping me understand what my kid was going through.” That’s what our show does. Our show helps parents understand their children that never really fit in. Now the parents say, “I love my queer, gay, bi, trans, gender nonconforming” — the list goes on and on — “child.” You have no idea how that makes me feel, just parent to parent, to look them in the eye and say, “Thank you for loving your kid no matter who they are.”
You have many troubled or lonely young fans that look up to you as a mother figure. That must be a heavy emotional responsibility to take on sometimes.
Well, for me it’s an honor. I would never try to take the place of anybody’s parent, but there’s a lot of these kids who don’t feel like they can talk to their parents — or, more importantly, have been shunned, kicked out, or disowned by their parents. Why would they feel like their parents love them if they’ve been thrown out on the street and told that until they either stop transitioning or live their lives like a “normal person,” they’re not allowed back in their lives? It always breaks my heart when I hear that, because I’m adopted. I lived in foster care until I was 4 months old. If my parents didn’t adopt me, what would have become of my life? I met my biological mother and she had to give me up, for various reasons, but more importantly my father told her to have an abortion and he left her. She was 18. I think of me, and then I think of these kids, and I’m going, “Oh my God. They’re not wanted. I wasn’t wanted.” Different scenarios, but my heart is undeniably connected to theirs.
So, them unloading on me is the least I can do and the least I could offer and expect. If I can offer one little nugget of advice or help, then it was worth it. I can do my own detoxing and emotional cleansing at home and burn my sage and meditate, fill up with all the love and joy of my daughters, but these kids are going back onto the street. These kids are going back into their car, living in their car, because they’re not welcomed anywhere. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t have a magic wand and I’m not Glenda the Good Witch, but if I could, I would have a place for all these kids to take shelter. I told my husband, “I would love more than anything to adopt one of these younger kids.” When I was on [New York City’s] Christopher Street [back in ‘80s], I remember kids as young as 11 out there every night. It’s not fair for any kid, because of their sexual identity or gender identity, to not have love in their lives.
You mentioned Christopher Street and your awkward adolescence. Can you talk about the New York nightlife that, as an insecure young girl, introduced you to the drag scene, the LGBTQ community?
When I moved to New York City to go college, my mother said, “If you want to be recognized, you need to go out to a club.” Because we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have social media, we didn’t even have cellphones. So you had to go out to be recognized. My mother got me a fake ID and I went out to a club called the Underground. I went with my roommate. We were petrified; we had never gone out to a nightclub in New York City. This one beautiful brown-skinned Puerto Rican boy came up to me and he said, “What’s your name?” And I’m looking around, like, “Are you talking to me?” He said, “You have the most beautiful face I have ever seen in my entire life.” And I literally have never thought I was beautiful, so for me it was a moment. He said, “Come with me, come with my friends.” And I felt like I was safe. He brought me back to this little backroom where all these people were the biggest weirdos and freaks and misfits that I’d ever seen, but they were doing something … at that time, I didn’t know what it was called, but it was voguing.
I always say, Dorothy clicked her heels three times and ended up back in Kansas. I clicked my heels three times and ended up on Christopher Street. I knew that I was home. I walked back there and a sense of calm just washed over me. I was like, “Holy s***, these are my people. These are people that are never going to judge me.” These are the people, apart from my mother and my first boyfriend who thought that I was beautiful. And they didn’t want anything from me. They definitely didn’t want sex. It wasn’t that. It was like, “Holy s***, this is it. This is what I came here for.” That’s where it all began. That’s where I feel my life as an ally, began because that’s when my education began. It began on a Christopher Street pier. I can’t even explain it, but it was a very transformational time in my life.
Is it true that were the first biological female to vogue in the ballroom scene competitively?
Back then, that’s what I was told. Biological cisgender females didn’t vogue. … There wasn’t a category for biological girls in 1987. There just wasn’t a lot of us in that ballroom scene, especially ones with my complexion. That’s why it was a big deal for me to be in my house, because my house was all Dominican, Puerto Rican, and people of color. I was the only white person, period, in my house.
What do you remember as your ‘education’ from that time?
I remember talking to trans women about transitioning, when transitioning wasn’t even called “transitioning” — you were gay or you were a queen, but you lived your life as a woman. I remember talking to [famous transgender performer and founder of the House of Xtravaganza] Angie Xtravaganza on the pier, talking about taking hormones and what it was like. And even getting hormones was so difficult for girls back then. And dangerous. This was all new to me, this middle-class, white, heterosexual girl from central New Jersey. It was crazy but so interesting and so intriguing, and I wanted to help and I wanted to be part of it. And that’s kind of where it all started. Then I started going to Pride marches and balls and defending and standing up for things I believed in. And I haven’t stopped since 1987.
Obviously, things are a lot different now than they were in ‘87. And a lot of people think Drag Race has helped bring these issues to the mainstream.
You know what? I think “mainstream” is such a big word. It’s bigger than we actually think it is. Mainstream is like Roseanne. I hate to say it. That’s mainstream. I think that [Drag Race] is where it should be, which is on the lips of everybody who understands pop culture. But we don’t bring in the sheeple. We just don’t and we never will. We are so proud of the art that we create and the dialogue that we’ve opened up, but at the core we are a queer-centric show, and we cater to that. Those are our people, that’s our tribe. That’s what we’re always going to cater to. If the regular folk want to come along, we welcome them, and yes, I absolutely believe that there’s been a shift. But the shift is not just for RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s also been a paradigm shift because of the current administration, giving people basically the OK to be completely bigoted, hateful, racist, anti-Semitic, transphobic, xenophobic … the list goes on and on. To be a**holes, basically. There’s both sides of that pendulum. You’ve got the one side that has opened this conversation. The dialogue is here now about trans people, trans life, gender equality, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, everything that’s f***ing necessary and life-affirming. Versus the other side, which is … well, you know what it is.
Then there’s another school of thought, with some naysayers complaining that drag has become ‘too mainstream’ and ‘too PC’ because of the show.
First of all, I don’t think drag has become too PC. If you go to a drag bar, you’ll see that it’s not. I think we, as a human race, have become too PC, because of everything that’s happening in the world. You can’t blame that on drag queens! When I grew up where I grew up, things were very, very different and nobody had a filter. And that’s what brought us together. We could all make fun of things, give a big middle finger to society, and be like, “This is who we are!” Becoming too overly politically correct is what’s killing society in general. We can’t blame that just on drag.
So, yes, the topic of drag has become more mainstream. But if we have people like [drag queen] Ada Vox on a mainstream show like American Idol, why is that bad? That’s our community infiltrating. It’s not Milton Berle or Flip Wilson. It’s a queer person loving what they do and who they are and feeling confident enough to say, “F*** you. You can’t tell me who to be and who I am. I’m going to sing with my privates tucked and my breasts made of foam, and I’m going to go out there in heels and change the world!” To me, that should be celebrated. I don’t think that’s watering down anything. I think that’s us finally getting recognition for what we’ve been doing for a very, very long time.
The way I came up in drag, drag was marginalized, not accepted, kind of in the gutter, and looked at as a joke. It was not considered an art form. But I always believed that it was an art form, and it always mesmerized me. And I was always obsessed with drag and drag queens, because I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever.” It still, to me, is the coolest thing ever.
So if RuPaul’s Drag Race won the Best Reality Competition Emmy this year, what would the significance be, especially in the year 2018? What message would it send?
I think there is a big message to be sent, and the message is the message that the community’s been fighting since the beginning — since [LGBTQ activists] Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, everybody we’ve lost to the AIDS virus, and all the great brothers and sisters before us, that have fought for equality and a voice. When you try to tell us we don’t matter, we fight louder, we fight stronger, and we fight harder. This award is a voice for all those people who don’t have one.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.