Bowyer-Chapman, a die-hard fan of the show who is a frequent guest judge, later told me that he felt the scene was cutting commentary on both the racial discrimination of “The Bachelor,” which has never had an African-American star, and the way television warps people. The contestants “became caricatures of themselves in ways that were the polar opposite of what usually happens on ‘Drag Race,’ which is about finding the authenticity of yourself and showcasing it,” he said. The show reveals, Bowyer-Chapman argued, that regardless of gender and orientation, “we all have more in common than not.”
Drag has been featured in popular culture for decades. Movies like “Kinky Boots,” “Tootsie,” “The Birdcage” — even “Mrs. Doubtfire” — have showcased men, some gay, some not, who dress and perform as women. But most tended to treat drag as high jinks. Nothing about the inner lives of queens has hit critical mass quite like “Drag Race,” not even the 1991 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which followed the black and Latino drag ball circuit in New York during the 1980s. “It is a popular movie, but it didn’t reach everyone the way a weekly television show does,” said Lady Bunny, a drag queen in her 50s who is often regarded as one of the legendary figures of American drag culture. “Many people have never had any interaction with a drag queen, and barely know what it is,” Bunny continued. “Anytime Middle America gets a taste of a community that they’re not familiar with, it does normalize the L.G.B.T. experience.”
Charles has said that he feels he is beyond categorization — he’s black but he’s not; he’s gay but he’s not. These days, when someone says that, it’s usually met with a polite eye roll, the kind reserved for out-of-touch elders. The personal politics of this moment are almost entirely defined by naming. There’s space for every pronoun, every hyphen and every politically correct portmanteau. But Charles belongs to a different generation, one that fought so hard for visibility that they feel they’ve earned the right to eschew all political decorum and enjoy the anarchy of reinvention, co-opting and bending language beyond recognition. When “Drag Race” first began, it seemed like a fun window into an underground culture, but over the nine years it has aired, the show has evolved to reflect America’s changing relationship to queer rights and acceptance.
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Drag, to Charles, is about the perversion of our understanding of gender, and by extension, ourselves. “We queens take on identity, and it is always a social statement,” Charles explained to me. “It’s all nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We never believe this is who we are. That is why drag is a revolution, because we’re mocking identity. We’re mocking everyone.”
Anyone familiar with reality television will recognize the premise of “Drag Race”: Loosely modeled on “America’s Next Top Model,” hosted by Tyra Banks, the show features 12 (or so) contestants who gather to compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and a cash prize that varies per season but can be as much as $100,000. To determine who will advance to the next round, the queens are given elaborate challenges, like creating haute-couture runway looks from scratch or starring in music videos. “Drag Race” is entertaining in the way that every show that structures itself around transformation is: There’s a pleasant thrill that comes from watching a bland room metamorphose into something out of Architectural Digest, or the creation of an impossibly elaborate meal in under an hour, or a generic-looking man morphing into a gorgeous and statuesque woman.
In 2009, the year that the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was broadcast, the buzziest reality shows on television tended to be the most melodramatic and cattiest — “Survivor” or “The Hills.” “Producers were just looking for the nasty side of the human experience, and I definitely didn’t want to be a part of that,” Charles told me. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, founders of the production house World of Wonder, talked him into it. The trio had been collaborating since the 1980s, when Barbato and Bailey were in an electro band called the Fabulous Pop Tarts. Charles appears in one of their videos in a skin-tight leopard dress. They produced Charles’s VH1 variety show in the 1990s. “I knew they loved drag the way I loved drag, and they would celebrate the art of drag,” Charles said. Tom Campbell, head of development at World of Wonder, told me that the idea for the show was to create a competition that would groom the next generation of drag superstars by replicating all the major milestones of Charles’s career — model, television personality, performer. “This was his turn to give back and create his legacy,” he said.
At first, “Drag Race” wasn’t an easy sell. “Everyone felt like it was too much,” Barbato said. Even when Viacom’s L.G.B.T. channel, LogoTV, picked it up, Charles had to fight to realize his vision for the show. According to Charles and the producers, in the first season Logo resisted including a queen named Tammie Brown, who called to mind a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Prymaat, the matriarch in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Coneheads.” Charles felt it was important to reflect the oddballs of drag, a staple of the culture.
Despite airing on a niche cable channel, the show found a loyal audience that included an elite coterie of celebrity fans who appeared regularly as guest judges, including Lily Tomlin, Debbie Reynolds, Vanessa Williams, Margaret Cho, Amber Rose, Rosie Perez and Khloé Kardashian. It was the most-watched show in the history of Logo. Last year, the show moved to VH1 and grew significantly: The ninth season averaged nearly 1.2 million viewers per episode, more than double that of Season 8, according to data collected by Nielsen. In 2016, Charles won an Emmy for host of a reality show, and in 2017, he won again and the show picked up two more. Time magazine recently named Charles one of its 100 Most Influential People of the year.
“Drag Race” has become a staple of modern television for the way it skewers expectations and attitudes about gender, much as a show like “black-ish” works to challenge stereotypes about black families in America. That isn’t to say contestants on “Drag Race” don’t bicker or trade petty insults, as in other reality-TV shows, but the program doesn’t leave viewers with the same existential dread about the future of humanity as, say, any of the “Real Housewives” franchises. In Season 5, for example, a contestant named Jade Jolie criticized her competitor, Alyssa Edwards, for having back fat. In a cutaway reaction, Edwards cocked an eyebrow, recoiled in disbelief and managed to completely defang the insult with a single word: “Backrolls?” — signaling that the word was both ludicrous (she is rail-thin) and so untoward that it could not be taken seriously. Some five seasons later, “backrolls” still pops up on the show as a kind of venomless meta-reference.
Each season is imbued with a sense of optimism in the face of relentless adversity; Charles believes that is central to the gay and queer experience. “There is a sisterhood here,” he told me. “It has to do with the shared experience of being outsiders and making a path for ourselves.” The camaraderie Charles describes is evident: Even after their season ends, “Drag Race” contestants work together, live together, travel together. Their Instagrams are full of photos of one another. The kinship feels real, and it’s what initially caught my attention and endeared the show to me.
Amid the glitz and glamour of drag, the show doesn’t obscure the violence and terror that accompanies the life of the marginalized. On the first season, a contestant named Porkchop described being shot at while standing outside a gay bar. In Season 8, Kim Chi, a shy Korean-American queen known for elaborate outfits, talked about hiding her colorful drag persona from her parents out of fear of shaming them. Trinity K Bonet talked about living with H.I.V. Last season, Cynthia Lee Fontaine revealed that if not for a last-minute change in her schedule, she would have performed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando the night of the mass shooting there; one of her friends, Martin Benitez Torres, unaware of the change, came to see her and was killed in the massacre. When I asked Charles if there was a deliberate decision to infuse the show with overt political messaging, he shook his head. “It’s inherent in our experience. We don’t have to do much to infuse a consciousness into the show. It is such a part of our story, and we walk with it.”
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As “Drag Race” matures, it continues to find a broader and younger audience. Charles told me that some of the most dedicated viewers are women, especially teenagers and women in their 20s and 30s. “There is so much programming by social media, and how you have to construct your sense of self in line with how everyone else is constructing their sense of self. I think they see our show as a handbook for a navigation, and think, How can I rig this conveyor belt where I don’t have to go down that thing?” That awakening feels familiar to him because he went through it himself at 13. He looked like a girl, with sharp cheekbones, a soft brow and a red Afro that he let grow so big that it flopped down. “When I first started doing drag in clubs, it was like the blurry picture that people had of me became clear,” he told me. “Some of the queens were kicked out of their homes, bullied or ostracized from society, and here they are looking gorgeous and confident. I know that’s what kids are relating to. They’re having a great time, but they’ve overcome the pain too.”
Charles thinks these new fans who follow him and the queens on Instagram or who show up at live events for the show are embracing the spirit of drag and the freedom it offers. “They are shifting the balance of masculinity and femininity. And that makes me so optimistic.” I was slightly skeptical that so many young people were watching the show, but as we sat over breakfast at Palihouse in West Hollywood, I noticed a middle-aged woman hovering with a nervous grin, waiting for her moment to approach. As Charles stood up, unfolding his lanky frame — sheathed in a slightly iridescent emerald-green suit — and leaned down to pick up his brown leather handbag, the woman rushed over. She wanted a photograph. “It’s not for me, but for my kids,” she explained. Her children were 9 and 5, she told Charles. “They watch you every week,” she gushed. “They love you.”