For the ever-expanding fan base for RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are a number of places to turn for more scoop on the show that put the tea in reality TV -- drag queens’ social accounts, Reddit, media outlets, and obviously the companion series Untucked. Even so, there’s an essential part of the RuPaul’s Drag Race universe that rarely gets the attention of obsessive fans.
No, we’re not referring to some queens’ music careers -- we’re talking about the backstage crew, people who have witnessed years of Drag Race herstory but whose stories rarely get told, and whose faces -- save the makeover challenge on season 9 -- are largely unknown to the rabid fan base.
With ten seasons of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent on the books (so far), we decided to talk to three behind-the-scenes players on Drag Race to hear what it’s been like watching the show’s evolution.
While Drag Race is a ratings blockbuster in 2018, for its first few years, the show was seen as having little more than niche appeal to an exclusively LGBTQ audience -- and that was when people thought of it at all.
“I remember the first few seasons I worked on the show, people would ask what projects I was working on,” recalls Jenny Bloom, who joined the show as a lighting best boy on season 2 and worked her way up to lighting director, the position she now holds. “When I would tell them [RuPaul’s Drag Race], I would get a blank stare.”
Initially, that lack of awareness about Drag Race extended even to the show’s crew. “We did have quite a few crew members who found things surprising,” Bloom reflects. “They would come in and wonder where the quarter mile [of the drag race] was. Or at one point, I had a crew member come up to me on their first episode, with all the queens lined up on stage, and he whispered in my ear, ‘So they're all dudes?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that's kind of the concept of the show.'"
While that exchange is almost unthinkably laughable in 2018, it’s a testament to how far RuPaul has pushed drag into the mainstream over the last decade.
“Now, people jump up and down and want me to get them on set for a taping,” Bloom says, quickly adding, “I can't do that.”
“In terms of what I work on, it is one of the shows that garners the largest, most joyful response,” says director of photography Michael Jacob Kerber. “My mom works at a law firm, and multiple people there that she's told, they're like, ‘What? Are you kidding me!? That's amazing!’"
Kerber, who started as a camera operator on the show’s first season before quickly taking over as DP, says he was familiar with RuPaul prior to the show, but not with drag culture overall. “The showrunner at the time had us watch Paris Is Burning,” he remembers. “That documentary, for anyone who hasn't seen it, is incredible. It's just a remarkable film no matter what your knowledge of drag is. That was a reference point coming into it, but I tried to approach everything with an open mind, as it was all kind of new to me.”
Ten proper Drag Race seasons and three iterations of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars later, the crew -- many of whom have stuck with the series for most of its run -- has gained a detailed appreciation for the art and technical challenges of drag. And a few crew members know the struggle intimately.
“Heels are a cruel, cruel mistress,” sighs assistant director Duncan White. An AD on the show since season 3, White got in front of the camera on season 9 for a challenge where the queens were tasked with putting crew members in drag. White was paired with eventual winner Sasha Velour (“I'd like to think that I'm drag royalty, thank you very much,” he dryly jokes) and the experience “completely changed my respect for the queens standing up on stage… Sasha and I had the simplest bit of choreography and I think I spent, like, four or five hours that night rehearsing.”
His drag debut actually changed his behind-the-camera job. “Now as soon as they've talked to Ru [on the runway], I want to get them out of those heels, 'cause I know what that feels like,” he says.
Mitigating the pain of high heels is just one of the myriad unique challenges facing the Drag Race crew, the likes of which most other reality shows don’t face.
“A cooking show or design show or house building show, there’s a [consistent] way to deal with that in every episode. In this show, we're doing something new all the time,” points out White. “It's like, 18 different shows in one.”
“One day we can be doing a reality show, the next day we're shooting something that's like a sitcom, the next day we're shooting a music video,” Kerber adds. “It runs the gamut and it keeps everyone on their toes.”
And while most reality show crews are tasked with learning new faces and names every season, that challenge is doubled on Drag Race.
“On the first day of the shoot, I will say to the queens, ‘I apologize. It's gonna take me some time to learn your names, because even though there's 12 of you here right now, I really have to learn 24 people,’" White says. “Because drag queen looks are often so different than their everyday looks.”
Perhaps the most emotionally difficult task, however, is keeping some professional distance from the queens.
“Back in season 2, I was the person standing behind the light for the queens if they were being gracefully escorted off the show. So I've been in the room with all the girls at some point while they're having a really tough time,” Bloom explains. “It can be difficult to remain totally detached because you're with the girls all the time and you see what they're going through. I'm a protective person by nature and of course I wanna reach out and give a hug, but you have to remain detached and be professional.”
“We honestly begin to care about everybody who comes through there, because we're spending 10 hours a day with them, even if we're not directly interacting,” White says. “One of the hardest parts of the show is just maintaining a professional distance from people that are going through such an emotional journey, and giving so much and exposing so much of themselves. But at the same time, maintaining that distance [makes sure] they don't feel like someone's getting singled out or that someone is getting preferential treatment. I think that equality in treatment across the board creates a sense of trust and comfort.”
Even with that sense of separation, the crew is bound to get caught up doing what keeps fans riveted with each passing challenge -- guessing who’s a winner (baby) and who’s going to sashay away.
“I think half of the fun is being on set and seeing what the girls are doing. I always make a game of it for myself, like, who would I pick?” says Bloom. “But you could never, ever take my guess to the bookie because I'm pretty much wrong all the time. [Season 10 winner] Aquaria was the first person I thought would win that actually won.”
“There are definitely people who right away have a chemistry with the camera that is undeniable,” Kerber says, noting that on season 1 BeBe Zahara Benet had “a grace and elegance and ease to her ways that was very recognizable.” Even so, he makes a point not to “write anyone off ever… there are people that I've seen grow and become better throughout a season, or come back for All Stars and they've just gotten better at that ‘It Factor,’ if you wanna call it that.”
Speaking of people drenched in that ineffable star quality, the crew’s love for Ru is apparent throughout talking to them about the show.
“There's so many things that made it on camera to be proud of, but a lot of my favorite moments are things that never make it on air,” Bloom says. “Back in season 2 and 3, Ru used to roller skate around the set when there wasn't any sets being built. And you can never forget the best sound in the whole world is hearing RuPaul laugh from somewhere off in the distance.”
“I love hearing Ru laugh,” affirms Kerber. “Any chance to be on set and hear him laugh and riff is magical. It's just a magical thing.”
“The crew and the people behind the camera have a great appreciation and respect for Ru, for drag culture, for what the show stands for,” says White. “First of all, you don't wanna let Ru down. You wanna do well for Ru.”
And that’s part of what pushes the crew to “top ourselves and outdo ourselves every season,” according to Kerber. “The responsibility has grown as the show and the audience have grown.”
“Every episode I'm amazed with what we pull off,” says White. “Some days I think, ‘why do we keep making the impossible possible?’ But it's because we love the show. We love seeing it on TV. And we have a great team of people that have been here for a long time that are all excellent at what they do.”