RuPaul on 'Drag Race,' Brand-New Album & the 'Gayest' Show on TV

Mathu Andersen
RuPaul

As the seventh season of RuPaul's Drag Race nears, we caught up with host and executive producer RuPaul to talk about all things Drag Race. The new season -- which premieres March 2 on Logo -- is "so good, so good!" says RuPaul, and the diva promises fans "will not be disappointed." During our chat, we discuss how the reality competition series is cast, how the show is about "the tenacity of the human spirit," changes to show's judging panel, a new Pit Crew lineup and so much more.

We also dish on RuPaul's new album Realness (due out March 2), favorite TV series ("Workaholics is the gayest show I've ever seen in my life"), love of music (Kiesza's album "was the best thing since sliced bread") and the possibility of going on tour.

What is it about the show that continues to be fresh and interesting for you? On one of your What's the Tee? podcasts I was listening to earlier, you were saying something about "staying engaged." So I'm wondering, what's keeping you engaged in Drag Race year after year?
Well, I love drag and I love people who gravitate toward it. Because the people who do drag are people who dance to the beat of a different drummer. And I think that's really the attraction for people who have tuned in year after year after year. It's a show about the tenacity of the human spirit. We see ourselves in each of those girls. Even if the people at home watching haven't followed through on their dream of doing some outlandish thing that they assume people laugh at them for, they still relate to the people who follow through. And that's what our girls are. That's who they are. And that's why they're so interesting. And that's why I stay interested.

(Above: the judges of RuPaul's Drag Race, season seven. Left to right: Ross Mathews, Michelle Visage, RuPaul and Carson Kressley. Photo credit: Denise Malone)

Is that what you find the most rewarding about the show? Seeing these girls come on and discover themselves and that kind of feedback you get from the audience? Or is there something more intangible about it that you're personally getting from it?
Well I certainly love that part of it, watching their personal breakthroughs and finding out that they could do things that they didn't even know they could do. But even more than that, watching them get propelled onto a world stage because of this show. I think that's what I'm the most proud of, because they are traveling the world. They're actually doing all the things that I had done when I got a lot of attention 20 years ago. And now I get to, through my career, pass that on to them.

Speaking of the queens on the show, when you're casting for the series, are you thinking of perhaps a vibe or blend of personalities? Are you looking for very specific things like, "I really need this kind of performer" or "I really need that kind of performer"? Or is it even too difficult to say, like it's an "X" factor thing that happens differently every year?
Well, when the show initially started, we wanted to get a cross-section of different genres of drag. And that was important for the people watching at home to be introduced to drag. Certain things that we introduced on the show years later couldn't have been introduced on the very first couple of years, because we needed the audience to get up to speed with what we knew of drag. But now what happens is, we look for the best, first. And then it sort of takes on this other criteria, where if two people are doing the same kind of a genre. If there are two ingenues who show lots of body, we choose the one that will actually fit in the ensemble the best. And the one who didn't make it, we keep her in mind for later. Because you know, a lot of people audition each year and didn't get on until this year. So we keep all of that in mind.

Typically, how many people sent in audition tapes for this season that's about to start? Hundreds?
Yeah. There were hundreds… In fact anybody who has a pussycat wig and a pair of cha-cha heels…

[Laughs]
…thinks that they can get up there and make it happen. But there's a lot more to it than that. And then on top of all of that, you know, you have to be a personality that pops on television. The first rule is: We are making a television show.

You know, when I was watching the trailer for season 7, what struck me is that in the past couple of seasons, you see more queens now that have learned drag -- or were sparked into doing drag -- by watching Drag Race. So now you see the contestants referencing earlier Drag Race catchphrases and winking and nodding at previous years. It's amazing that drag now has been influenced so much by what you've brought into the universe with the show itself, you know?
Yeah, I do. It was interesting when we first started seeing the Drag Race generation [start] to audition for the show. It was really weird. That's an ongoing tradition in drag, where drag samples pop culture. Drag has always been the thing you turn to, to remember to not take yourself too seriously. And that's why drag is so important in society. It's important to remember that you're born naked and the rest is drag. This is all like a play that we're collectively putting on. Drag breaks the fourth wall, which is why it's never been quite accepted, because nobody wants to be told that they are really a caricature of themself and to not take yourself too seriously. In fact, I have a new album coming out on March 2 also, and it's called Realness. And when drag talks about realness, it's always with a wink because, you know, here I am, a drag queen talking about looking and feeling real, which is the joke itself.

It's like a weird meta moment. The facade talking about facade.
Exactly. Exactly. That is the creed, that's the mantra, that is an ongoing storyline in drag. That's what makes it so interesting.

Because you mention it… you have a new album coming out? Is that a brand-new album? What can we say about it?
It's a brand-new album and it's a bit of a departure because Lucian [Piane, who produced RuPaul's last three albums] has only done two songs on this record and I've visited some old friends. Like, I'm reunited with Eric Kupper, 22 years later. [Kupper produced RuPaul's debut album, Supermodel of the World, which includes RuPaul's iconic single "Supermodel (You Better Work)."]

Wow. Wow! Crazy!
Well, 22 years from when we first got together. I think we did a few things on an album in the mid-'90s [Foxy Lady]. But yeah, he's great. He actually did the title track with me, "Realness."

I think that's the fastest that you've turned around an album. Your last album, Born Naked, came out last February. So it's been just a year, and normally we have to wait a couple of years, so I think people are going to be super stoked that they can get more RuPaul music on such a quick turnaround.
Yeah! Well, you know, we just basically perfected the process. Usually it's just Lucian and I. And then Lucian and I will do another album next year. But, you know, he's working on projects and he's just got two songs on this one.

What can we say about the album? Are there dance tracks? Are there ballads like last time [on Born Naked]?
Trust me. It's what's happening right now. I'm doing '90s house. [Laughs] I'm doing early '90s house/late '80s house beats. And Eric Kupper, you know, is the master of that. So we basically went back and took what was ours to begin with. You know, my marketing philosophy is: Someone turns 18 every single day… That's why the Kiesza album [Sound of a Woman] was so fresh to them.

Yeah, and Disclosure and Kiesza… they're referencing stuff from the past that's new to today's listeners, even though we know it's not that new. But it's still cool.
Right, right. So, the future belongs to those who can remember the past, and I certainly do.

I want to ask about the judges on the show, because the chemistry that you have with them obviously is super important -- especially with Michelle Visage. How much input do they have in the process of your decision making? We see a lot of the debate on the show, but at the end of the day, it's still your decision [which contestants are sent home]. Are they that influential on your ultimate decision?
Oh, absolutely! They will bring up things, important things, that I may not necessarily overlook, but I need to be reminded of. And also I love reading other people. They become sort of my sensors, my sensory devices. So yeah, they do influence me, and I pay attention. I pay attention to that.

Speaking of which, I love your cover of "New York City Beat" [with Visage] on the CoverGurlz2 album. It's so much fun and it's so good to hear a pumping dance track from the two of you. It's the perfect fun combination.
Thank you, thank you. I love it too. She and I have another song on my album, the Realness album, and it's a lot of fun too. 

Good! While we're talking about the judges, you brought in two new judges this season: Carson Kressley and Ross Mathews. What prompted the change in the judging panel lineup?
Well, the intention was always to switch it up, change it up. We switch out the girls, we switch out the Pit Crew. We want to keep it fresh.

So everything's cool with [outgoing judge] Santino Rice? I see that he's a guest judge this season, so everything's still good?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, we even bring back Merle Ginsberg [who was a judge during the first two seasons].

You mention the Pit Crew [Drag Race's barely clothed on-air assistants]. Are we going to see more of the Pit Crew… I mean, not literally. OK, maybe. But are we going to see more of them this season? They had a fun web series last year. Are you going try to incorporate more of them into the show?
Oh yeah! Well, they have a web series this year also. You know this is what we've learned from doing media in the 21st century. In 2015, you have to do it all. The music can't stand on its own. The TV show can't stand on its own. The web series… the podcast… you have to do it all. Because the audience is insatiable, and if they're with you, they want all of you. And so also because there's so much content out there, if you have an audience, you have to satisfy them and you have to service them. It's like having a husband, you know…

[Laughs]
…you have to get over there and make sure he's happy

You're a full-service operation, Ru, that's really what you're saying.
Absolutely.

Are there changes to the Pit Crew? You tweeted something about a potential new member. Is there a different lineup this year?
Yes, we've added Bryce [Eilenberg] who is a redhead, who is lovely. A sweet, lovely man. And he seems very innocent. [Laughs] I'll just say that... And he's absolutely gorgeous.

So we have five Pit Crew members still? The same four from last year, plus Bryce?
No, we have three. We have Jason [Carter], Miles [Davis Moody, both returning members] and Bryce. (See an exclusive image of the three Pit Crew members from an upcoming episode of Drag Race, below.)

Wow. Oh, no more Shawn [Morales]? Aww…
Yeah, Shawn was there for a long time. But you know, you have to switch them out. It's like Barker's Beauties on The Price Is Right.

Yeah, I know… change is good. It's all right.
No, change is very good! This is the thing about Drag Race though. Through different formats around the world, people are still just now discovering it. And it lives on Netflix around the world. So the other contestants, the other Pit Crew members, the other judges -- they're all still there. Time and space don't even really matter anymore. It's just really about putting out content that people will enjoy. And that's what I believe we've done.

Drag Race is obviously must-watch TV for many. What are some of your must-watch TV shows when you are not crazy-busy? What do you actually watch on TV?
Whether I'm busy or not, I always see Judge Judy and Jeopardy. Always… Right now I watch Empire, which I love, because I'm a big fan of Dynasty. And I love that sort of Dynasty/Dallas-style soap opera. I love the irreverent shows on Comedy Central, like Workaholics and Tosh.0. And I love It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Obviously I'm watching Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. But that's about it… A lot of these things I'll buy on iTunes or something so I can watch it. Like Veep. I love Veep. It's so funny… It's very drag in its mentality. And so is Workaholics… Where we are in this post-modern art place in culture is, you know, people are cynical, people want to see what's beneath the surface. And all of the shows that I just named have those elements to them. Judge Judy cuts to the core. There's no bullshit. So, drag, which breaks the fourth wall, has always been about that. And all the shows I just named sort of spill the tea on life, on the facade and the hypocrisy that we all grew up with. You know, all the straight male comedy today deals with the taboo of being gay. So, Workaholics is the gayest show I've ever seen in my life. It's gayer than Drag Race. And the same with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Same with Veep. And that's why Sex and the City was such a hit, because they took gay vernacular and put it in the mouths of straight women. So it took on this whole other acceptable irreverent spin that was refreshing. And it's continued, because as you well know, gay culture and the way gay people see things trickle down to mainstream culture years later. That's why all pop culture today is gay culture. And so you watch E! or any type of entertainment show or blog and they're all saying, you know, "Ooh, the shade!" "Oh, she threw shade at this one!" And the approach to the material is from an irreverent, gay, outsider point of view.

Switching gears for a second… are there any particular songs or albums that are must-gets for you right now?
Well, I have really, really, really been into the chopped and screwed movement… 

Hmm!
…and that's what my new album is all about. It's songs that have been chopped and screwed, where you take a bridge and you turn a whole song into it. Like that Philip George song "Wish You Were Mine" [which reworks Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour"]. I've been into those kinds of songs where a lot of the lyric is repeated over and over… And so you'll see that a lot on my new album. I absolutely love that. I can't get enough of that. So, in the car on the ride to the studio I'm listening jazz and Anita O'Day. Jazz people who are doing Burt Bacharach's catalog. When I'm at the gym I'm listening to boom-boom-boom, you know my dance music…

…I was gonna say, "Boom Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room)"!? Paul Lekakis?
[Laughs] …Well, he's on the playlist, but you know, all things like that. So lots of dance stuff. A lot of times, when I'm at the computer, I'm listening to soundtracks. Like Hans Zimmer's Interstellar soundtrack. Different music for different moods. Now, of course, as you well know, and I tweeted this, I was crazy-nuts for that Kiesza album. I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I had a list of my favorite singles from last year, which people didn't really pay attention to. Like, "I Was Gonna Cancel" by Kylie Minogue was just stellar. It was stellar. … That's one of our lip-sync for your life songs this year…

Ooh!
…That was really good. 

Last thing. A lot of the girls from the show go on to mount their own tours. We had the Battle of the Seasons tour [with many Drag Race contestants touring together]. I haven't been fortunate enough to see you on tour. I would love to see some sort of RuPaul stage spectacle of some sort. Do you have any interest in touring or doing a stage production at all?
Yes, I do. In fact, I've been talking about doing it. It's just really a matter of time. You know, I've been in the business for a long time. And what happens is when things are hot for you, you have to strike it while it's hot. So, I've been working in television and it's been really good for me. So, that really does keep me in Los Angeles. And I do other TV shows as I do Drag Race. So, once I get a moment to actually go on tour, I will. I was actually talking to someone, a production person, about it just the other day. Because I'd want to do -- not nightclubs -- I'd want to do 2,500-seaters. 2,500- to 5,000-seaters. And do an actual multimedia storyline, where I bring people with me on a bus, where we wouldn't have to get on an airplane. That would make it so great.

I'd settle for three dates and you record it for TV. You know, like An Evening With RuPaul at the Wiltern.
Sure!

And then air it on TV, you never know. It could happen!
No, no. It absolutely could! I would love it. I would love it. You know, put it on Amazon or Netflix.