No one can stop RuPauls All-Star Queens on working with their wigs amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
RuPaul’s fifth All-Stars cast — Couleé, Alexis Mateo, Blair St. Clair, Derrick Barry, India Ferrah, Jujubee, Mariah Balenciaga, Mayhem Miller, Miz Cracker, and Ongina — were visible on United Nations for a digital summit on their return to the VH1 competition series (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT).
“We all f— up some days, and sometimes those are the days that get you sent home,” Couleé says, reminiscing about her first grab for the Drag Race crown back in 2017. “I’m glad that we get the chance to redeem ourselves.”
Moreover, All-Stars 5 personality was called back to kick-off once again because they embody Drag Race excellence, both on the air and through what they’ve achieved in their post-show careers. And the Queens will entertain us during dark times and rewrite their own destinies as the tenacious stars they were born to be — all against unprecedented obstacles to their livelihoods.
“I say it every episode: With great power comes great responsibility,” RuPaul muses from his home in Los Angeles, where he recently filmed the season 12 reunion and its virtual finale while in quarantine. “My all-stars have competed before and have experienced the rollercoaster ride of fame that comes after that global exposure. When they return for All-Stars, every aspect of the competition is turned up to 11. If Drag Race is a talent competition, then All-Stars is a masterclass in surviving show business.”
The highly-anticipated show airs for 11 years and breeds talented drag superstars with 153 queens made it to the show across 12 regular seasons on two different networks.
Respectively, the show earned 13 Emmys and now includes global conventions, international TV spin-offs, and a permanent Las Vegas theater show (currently on COVID-related hiatus). Hence, the chance to return for another televised plot to snatch the crown is a gift the All-Stars 5 crew doesn’t take lightly.
“Instead of doing it for someone else, like my drag family or friends, I did it for me, now,” season 3’s India Ferrah explains. For her, All-Stars is a chance to increase her bankability on the real-world circuit and reintroduce her to Drag Race’s growing group of younger fans. Bridging the generation gap is key, a decade after her first play to become America’s Next Drag Superstar ended abruptly one week after Mimi Imfurst, Ferrah’s season 3 foe, hoisted her over her shoulder during a lip-sync. It was a shocking (and wickedly entertaining) moment that ultimately sent Imfurst home, but would haunt Ferrah’s career for years. “Every show I went to, it was, ‘What did you think when Mimi picked you up? Do you hate her? Do you still talk to her?’ It was always about Mimi Imfurst, it was never about what I was bringing to the show. That can f— with you, mentally…. Luckily, All-Stars 5 gave me [redemption], and I can show my growth and show India 2.0.”
“We don’t go to college and major in drag,” says Derrick Barry
Mateo was known for Britney Spears impersonation. The Vegas showman credits the chosen-family dynamic of Drag Race with helping him learn better makeup skills and enough business savvy to carve a lane as an individual artist versus a celebrity clone. “We’re self-taught, and we learn from each other…. Nobody taught us how to do anything in school when it comes to drag and branding yourself.”
According to Mateo, beingRuGirl often means joining both a family and an opportunity to open yourself for bigger doors. But what began in 2009 as a campy romp filmed “in the garage of someone’s house,” Ongina jokes, rapidly expanded to become an almighty dynasty.
“This franchise has always had a life of its own. It’s like a crazy drag queen — a young crazy drag queen, and we’re there to keep growing her,” says Randy Barbato, Drag Race co-creator. Alongside executive producers Fenton Bailey and Tom Campbell, Barbato helped devise the show as a transitional project for RuPaul’s career in the mid-2000s, after the drag icon took an eight-year hiatus from the spotlight to revamp his personal and professional lives. Still, the group had no idea they’d ride the phenomenon well into 2020, as it gained followers and momentum by taking for itself what society wasn’t willing (or ready) to give it on its own. “The show defined for us that it was going to be a global brand, it wasn’t us engineering.”
“It felt like the right thing to do in providing a service for the fans and an opportunity for the queens to make money,” Bailey explains. DragCon (basically a queer Comic-Con) attracted 10,000 attendees and 115 vendor booths to its 2015 Los Angeles debut. Between L.A. and New York City editions, that number grew to 100,000 four years later, and generated $8.2 million in merchandise sales from 441 total vendors in 2019.
The show focuses on how they will bring joy to their viewer amidst the crisis they are facing right now.
“We look at who’s going to come in on this platform and take advantage of it, and who’s going to give a great show for us,” she says, explaining that part of the fun is scouting diverse styles of drag and the equally eclectic souls underneath.
Blair St. Clair
Take St. Clair — a former wide-eyed, Broadway-obsessed theater kid — who finished ninth back in 2018. She has since risen above what her middling performance on season 10 suggested about her star power, emerging as a recording artist whose 2019 single “Easy Love” marked the first release in drag management agency Producer Entertainment Group’s landmark publishing deal with Warner Music. “It’s an investment when you come back [to All-Stars] to do this, because you’re saying, ‘I’m going to put my career on the line for everyone to scrutinize and judge.’ Because this is going to eventually come back to me and my career,’” she says.
“A lot of these venues are like, ‘Oh, you’re doing an old drag show? Great,’” Trixie Mattel, All-Stars 3 champion, folk singer, and comedian, previously told EW backstage at a February stop on her Grown Up tour. Mattel also fronted a feature-length documentary, the YouTube series UNHhhh, and three independently produced albums (she says the latest, Barbara, recouped its costs two weeks after release). “We show up and sell $10 billion in drinks, sell out the venue, sell out the meet and greet, and they’re like, ‘Huh?’ We end up being a lesson. We sell a million tickets and $15 per head in merchandise, while your little band sells four [shirts].”
Mariah Balenciaga, season 3’s no-nonsense diva, further credits Drag Race with contributing to and changing the business for queens, enough so that they can get to a place where investing thousands of dollars in fashion, makeup, and hair for an All-Stars comeback is even possible.
“Before Drag Race, the pageant girls were top tier in the pay scale,” Balenciaga says, referencing the performers who, like the widely known Miss America or Miss Universe pageants, gained industry fame through more standardized, glamorous beauty queen contests. “When we came along, we didn’t know what our market value was or what our worth was. We didn’t know how much the clubs were bringing in based on our names being on a reality show.”
After her season 3 elimination, Balenciaga remembers being scammed out of money by fake talent scouts thanks to — unlike today’s field — a lack of credible drag management agencies and, despite her newfound TV fame, being taken advantage of by club owners who, she says, paid her less than what other reality television personalities commanded.
“Snooki and the Jersey Shore cast…didn’t have to do their own hair or makeup. They were catered to and didn’t have to do anything when they went to the club, but would get a $10,000 appearance fee,” Balenciaga theorizes.
“[Now] I’ll walk into a bar or club, and I have a general idea of what their price point is, I see how many tables are full. I know better because I know [how much money] the night is bringing in.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Drag Race came and saved the world of drag,” says Cracker. “But it did create an economy of expectation so that girls could say, ‘Hey, I’m worth something as a drag queen. Whether or not I’ve been on a show, I deserve that X amount of money.’ That wasn’t there before.”
“Drag queens are incredibly resourceful,” World of Wonder’s Bailey says. “That all goes back to not having money or resources, and not getting cultural respect. It’s been a do-it-yourself artistry, and it’s all the more inventive and vital for that.” Barbato agrees: “So many mainstream drag queens are just arriving, and they’re not going anywhere…. The entertainment industry has just started to open their doors to them. And you can’t open a door to a drag queen and then think it’s going to shut in their face.”
“At our core, we’re producers,” states Couleé. “We create shows. We know how to take a little bit and turn it into a full-on fantasy…. We had to make a shift and get around this learning curve, but when it comes to the at-home content we’re seeing from creatives, drag queens are at top of that totem pole because we’re setting the bar so high. We already know how to produce on a dime.”
“When the going gets tough, the tough reinvent,” RuPaul says. “In my lifetime, drag queens have been on the frontline of Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, and the fight for marriage equality. It’s going to take a lot more than Miss Corona Virus to keep us down. Where there’s drag, there’s hope.”
“I want to see us portrayed as true drag artists,” Ongina says. “I don’t want to be ‘Murdered Drag Queen Extra.’ I want roles specifically made for drag queens in serious [projects].” Adds St. Clair: “I want to see drag disrupt publications and magazines [as] working models. We use so many cosmetics…. We’ve influenced designers from a fashion standpoint. I’d love to see us have space in publications versus, ‘Oh, I got an idea from a queen, but I’m going to put it on a working model versus a drag queen.’”
Miller said “child out there who wants to be taken seriously in the arts. We’re clearly artists, [but we want] to be taken seriously as performers,” while, as Miller emphasized the healing of the world.
“We’ve always been able to come together, unite, rise, and thrive to the occasion. Once this is over, everyone is going to get back to work, and it’s going to be just as fierce, if not even better, because everyone has had time to reevaluate what’s important,” Miller says. “Everyone will come together as a community knowing we have to get back to work supporting each other, going to our bars and our clubs, and making sure we’re all taken care of. That’s the next step.”
RuPaul, whose penchant for drag’s renegade spirit hasn’t dimmed, even in quarantine, has his sights set on fighting back by shoving his art square in the face of those most resistant: “Next year, I’m hoping we get to perform an original Drag Race Rusical at the White House,” he jokes.