Attention Emmy voters: This won’t be your typical opinion piece making the case for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to win the Outstanding Reality-Competition Emmy Award. It’s the second year the VH1 hit has been up for the honor and there already have been a number of major outlets touting the program’s importance to the LGBTQ community, it’s social relevance, its seemingly never-ending ability to surprise its viewers (you may never look at a butterfly the same again) and the importance of drag in the current political climate. O.K., so maybe we’ll touch on a few of these subjects, but when considering yet another vote for “The Voice” or the three other nominees it’s worth considering how only one of the contenders has created a burgeoning pop culture movement that is resonating around the world.
“I do think they are the new pop stars,” Executive Producer Fenton Bailey remarks. “I think sometimes it’s a bit like when rap came along. I think a lot of people thought at the time, ‘Oh, you know, rap, it’s a trend. It’s a novelty. It’s a fad.’ But, of course, in the fullness of time rap is basically the new rock and roll. It might be a misperception to see drag as a fad and actually, it’s a whole new level of artistry that is finally being recognized and embraced by audiences.”
Nothing demonstrates that than looking at how the show’s queens have been embraced in numerous forms of media across the globe. The Emmy-nominated 10th season found Blair St. Clair earning a no. 1 album on the dance charts (an impressive feat for a contestant who was eliminated sixth) while Vanessa “Vanjie” Mateo’s exit line “Miss Vanjie” turned into of the biggest memes of the year after she was the first eliminated queen. But what the alumni of previous seasons have accomplished over the last 12 months alone is even more remarkable.
Embarking on her third worldwide tour, season six winner and stand-up comedian Bianca Del Rio has sold out venues on four continents including three nights at London’s Eventim Apollo Theater performing for 9,900 ticketholders (almost unfathomable for a drag performer). Trixie Mattel, who won “All Stars 3” earlier this year and had a no. 1 album on the US Heatseaker Album Charts , is nearing the end of a 60-city North American tour that has sold out one theater after another. Mattel and fellow contestant Katya also finished the first season of their own series, “The Trixie & Katya Show,” which has aired on Viceland in the U.S., U.K. and France. Former contestants Shangela and Willam Belli have roles in Bradley Cooper’s Oscar contender “A Star is Born” arriving in theaters in October. Queens such as Sasha Velour, Alaska 5000 and Detox have performed in every major city in South America and locales as unexpected as Beirut, Lebanon, Singapore and the Philippines. Season 8 finalist Kim Chi regularly performs in Asia including stops in Seoul, South Korea, Hong Kong and Bangkok, Thailand. Fan favorite Alyssa Edwards recently wrapped a solo-reality series that is rumored to be headed to Netflix. And that doesn’t even take into account the multi-queen tours such as Werq the World and Hater’s Roast which have sold out numerous 1,000+ seat venues in the U.S. and Europe. Or the millions of Instagram followers, the ever-growing LA and New York versions of RuPaul’s DragCon and queen’s merchandise being sold in Spencer’s, Hot Topic and even Urban Outfitters (again, almost unfathomable two or three years ago).
Before “Drag Race” very few drag queens could dream of the fame Dame Edna or RuPaul himself achieved. Even landing a regular summer show for the gay tourists in Provincetown that eventually might play for limited runs in New York, LA or San Francisco was an option for just a handful of queens. The have changed considerably since the show’s debut in 2009 and few know it better than season 10 finalist Asia O’Hara, a professional drag queen for the past 15 years.
“When I started was doing drag, I was like, ‘I want to be a regular cast member at this [establishment], I want to win the pageants.’ And that was the ultimate goal which is what anyone at that time that was doing in drag. But now that has definitely changed,” O’Hara says. “I mean I did achieve those goals, but now the horizons are broader. There are so many more opportunities for me personally that weren’t there prior to it. “
O’Hara is relishing the opportunity to travel the world (we spoke after she’d finished a multi-city tour of the U.K.) but sees a much different future for herself than before she was on the show.
“The fact that girls like Bianca or Trixie are now about to write and produce their own shows and sell out theaters all across the world giving nothing but their own original art and talent, that’s definitely ground breaking for the world of drag,” O’Hara says. “That’s something that I think everybody’s kind of aspiring to be at this point. That’s definitely the goal now for a lot of people.”
The production company behind “Drag Race,” World of Wonder, is at the epicenter of much of this new content and continues to expand the brand worldwide. Earlier this year the first season of “Drag Race Thailand” aired (a second season is already in the works) and other international local versions are in development.
“I think the fact of the matter is that the language that ‘Drag Race’ speaks is something that transcends whether you speak English or not,” Bailey says. “It’s this sort of universal language that hinges around this idea [of the] sort of tenacity of the human spirit. I think ultimately what makes it so universally relatable is the fact that we’re all a little bit queer, not necessarily from the point of view of our sexuality, but from the point of view of feeling like an outsider or feeling unique.”