RuPaul photographed on March 20, 2015 in New York City.

'RuPaul's Drag Race' Is a Cultural Force, But When Will Emmy Voters Recognize That?

RuPaul and Alaska dissect season 9's popularity and chances for an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.

After nine years on television, could RuPaul’s Drag Race earn its first Emmy Award nomination in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program race, a 14-year-old category long dominated by The Amazing Race, briefly swiped by Top Chef and most recently snatched by The Voice?

That’s up to the Television Academy, whose voters only just last year gave Drag Race its first taste of Emmy love in any category, with RuPaul winning outstanding reality host for his work on season 8. Drag Race has momentum entering the 2017 Emmy voting season (June 12-26) after moving from Logo to the more widely watched VH1 for its current season 9, earning its highest-ever ratings thanks in part to Lady Gaga’s guest judge appearance, being the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit starring Chris Pine, and winning Best Reality Competition at the 2017 MTV Movie & TV Awards.

Courtesy of VH1
RuPaul and Lady Gaga on the season nine premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In its ninth season so far, Drag Race went beyond the creative drag and lip-sync battles, as the contestants addressed hot-button topics such as Russia’s systematic anti-LGBTQ crackdown that lead to the gay concentration camps in Chechnya, the mass shooting that killed 49 innocent people at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, and the widespread discrimination against transgender people not only in the general public but within the drag community.

“Against all odds, these gorgeous and courageous kids come on our show and live their lives with no apologies to the status quo. People who watch our show, who are not drag queens, can relate to that,” RuPaul, 56, told Billboard on June 9 just hours before taping the season 9 finale. “Everybody in the world has had a dream that society or family would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ But here are our queens who are really doing it with the last taboo in our culture, which is men using femininity as a template for freedom --  it’s really punk rock. Our show has come to stand for freedom in this era of divisive politics.”

Some episodes reminded older viewers and taught younger ones about LGBTQ history, such as the decades-long toll of the AIDS epidemic, the impact of New York City’s 1980s and 1990s underground “Club Kids” on queer aesthetics, and the importance of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which set in motion the gay rights movement and annual Pride celebrations. 

“These courageous girls are dropping wisdom that educates younger people,” said RuPaul, who himself is a fixture and role model in the LGBTQ and entertainment communities since the early ‘90s. “We educate people and bring them up to speed on what the gay rights movement has been all about, and in doing so, it sheds light on all human rights movements. It speaks to the courageous people who came before us and fought for these freedoms. On the surface, our show is light and fun, but not so underneath the surface is a real political standpoint.”

Last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards was a standout year for diversity in nominations and winners, especially for LGBTQ talent, and adding more Drag Race nods to the Emmys mix, based on merit, would signal continued progress for award shows and the television industry. Aside from RuPaul’s hosting win and Drag Race’s other nod for costumes, openly gay actors Sarah Paulson (The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) notably won their respective categories, while Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie) earned nominations, alongside The People v. O.J. Simpson creator Ryan Murphy, Portlandia writer Carrie Brownstein and Boyish Girl Interrupted writer Tig Notaro. Popular LGBTQ TV characters also were recognized by Emmy voters in recent years, including Jeffrey Tambor winning twice for his portrayal of a transgender woman (Transparent), Uzo Aduba also winning twice for playing a lesbian prisoner (Orange Is The New Black), and Laverne Cox earning the historic first-ever nod for an openly transgender person in Emmy history for her role as a trans prisoner (OITNB).

“Diversity in nominations is, of course, highly valued by The Academy,” a spokesman for the Television Academy told Billboard when asked about Drag Race. “The rapidly expanding nature of the television landscape and the subsequently nominated shows has certainly reflected that.”

‘The Drag Queens Are the Marines of Reality TV’

The combination of Drag Race’s educational moments and serious dialogue intertwined with the drag queens vying for the ultimate title of “America's next drag superstar” could finally propel the series into Emmy contention this season. For the uninitiated, the contestants compete in challenges that test their skills in fashion design, makeup, dancing, acting, writing, modeling, singing and throwing shade a.k.a. directing a subtle insult toward another contestant. Drag Race has competition elements similar to America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway -- the latter of which has been nominated 12 times for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.

“The drag queens are the Marines of reality television, and an Emmy nomination or win would recognize all that these brave queens achieve each season,” Drag Race Executive Producer Tom Campbell told Billboard. “No disrespect to Project Runway, but in the course of one episode, those contestants make one dress. Our girls make dresses, lip-sync for their lives, do death drops and put on their own makeup and wigs. Often times TV shows have one gay character, but we have several, all the colors of the rainbow.”

For Emmy consideration this year, VH1 submitted two episodes to Television Academy voters, Billboard confirmed: the season 9 opener “Oh. My. Gaga!” and episode five "Reality Stars: The Musical." Lady Gaga served as a guest judge in the March 24 season premiere, expressing her longtime love for drag. “I have always admired the craftsmanship that goes into what you all do,” Gaga told the stunned contestants upon her arrival. “Drag for me has been an opportunity to leave myself when I didn’t want to be me. … Drag has been part of my life for the longest time.”

This guest spot from Gaga could bode well in appealing to Emmy voters, who previously gave nominations to two of Gaga’s live concert specials for Outstanding Variety Music or Comedy Special in 2011 and 2015.

Gaga’s appearance and the move to VH1 attracted Drag Race’s highest-ever TV ratings and social media interactions, with the season 9 premiere netting nearly 1 million viewers and 224,400 social media interactions across Facebook and Twitter from 135,900 people across the United States, according to Nielsen data. In comparison the season 8 premiere on Logo tallied 377,000 viewers.

“What I loved about Lady Gaga being on the show was that she wasn’t talking down to the queens, she was telling them that we are the same, we are family, and drag is what she does as well,” said Alaska Thunderfuck, winner of Drag Race: All Stars 2 in 2016 and runner-up of season 5 in 2013.

Meanwhile, in the other Emmy-submitted episode, the contestants performed in an elaborate Kardashian-themed musical, a unicorn onsie-clad Meghan Trainor guest judged, the queens discussed eating disorders, and Eureka O'Hara was unexpectedly eliminated because of an injury.

Courtesy of VH1
Eureka gets removed from the competition due to an injury while on the show.

An average of 708,000 viewers have tuned in to watch the first 11 episodes this season compared to the 331,000 average viewers last season. The June 23 finale will crown Peppermint, Sasha Velour, Shea Couleé or Trinity Taylor as “America's next drag superstar.”

Drag Race’s increased visibility didn’t stop with the transition to VH1. More people became aware of the show when Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring Star Trek and Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine as an auto mechanic whose guilty pleasure is Drag Race. “It was huge because anytime you’re appearing on SNL, you know you’ve made it,” Campbell said. “It was a compliment that they know the show. … When we first shot the show in 2008, George W. Bush was still president. That thought takes you back to a time when we weren’t understood.”

The SNL skit aired just a few weeks before one of RuPaul’s favorite season 9 moments from episode 10 in which RuPaul challenged the show’s crew members to dress in drag.

“The crew members are all straight guys who’ve worked on our show for many years and who’ve watched the emotional transformations of the girls on our show,” RuPaul explained. “Hearing our crew members’ stories of what it meant to them, their children, their fathers, their family members, and their show of solidarity with our contestants, it was absolutely beautiful. That’s really what it’s all about; that’s what it comes down to. For years I’ve said, ‘We’re born naked and the rest is drag.’ Our show is a very special show because on the surface it’s about hair, makeup and prancing around looking fabulous, but underneath all of that is something very important and very useful to the world and to every human on the planet. At its core, our show is about the tenacity of the human spirit and how it can not be kept down if it’s driven to shine and to expand on its own beautiful power.”

‘Life Is Not About Snatching Trophies’

Unlike a drag race for cars that ends in mere seconds, RuPaul’s Drag Race has persisted for nine years with no signs of slowing down. The show has spawned an All Stars spin-off series and a Comic Con-like convention for drag queens and fans called DragCon.  

“My legacy is RuPaul’s Drag Race and launching the careers of 113 queens who are circling the globe and entertaining around the world as we speak,” RuPaul said. “Of course, they had their careers before Drag Race, but our show has propelled them onto an international stage. That is my legacy.”

For RuPaul, an Emmy nomination or win isn’t the finish line or cause for a victory lap.

“I celebrate life every day, and I understand that this life is not about snatching trophies or making more money. It’s about being in this moment right here and enjoying every second of it,” RuPaul added. “I’d be honored if the show was nominated, but my focus in life is to live life to the fullest. That really is the greatest award I could ever get.”

But for All Stars 2 winner Alaska, she knows she’d react quite differently to Drag Race’s potential Emmy success.

“If Drag Race gets an Emmy nomination, I will put on a red glittery face mask over my mouth and I will lip-sync to an Ariana Grande song,” Alaska said, jokingly referencing season 9 competitor Valentina's "iconic" lip-sync. “The thing is RuPaul already won an Emmy. That’s not luck. That’s merely a testament to how f--king astounding he is at running that show. It’s remarkable watching how masterful he is at the helm. It’s obvious that this show as a whole needs to be nominated for an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony, all of that.”  

Emmy nominees will be revealed July 13 and winners will be announced Sept. 17.

Courtesy of VH1
Valentina removes her mask after RuPaul stopped her lip-sync performance.

Gay Pride Month 2017