RuPaul and Michael Patrick King Break Down the Stunning Drag Numbers From 'AJ and the Queen'

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Beth Dubber/Netflix
RuPaul and Michael Patrick King on the set of AJ and the Queen.

"People can be more complex than you expect," says Ruby Red, the drag superstar played by RuPaul in the third episode of Netflix's new show AJ and the Queen"You can be a hunter from Ohio, and still enjoy a fabulous drag queen. Nobody's just one thing."

That quote may as well be the ethos of the new series, created by RuPaul and Sex and the City writer and The Comeback showrunner Michael Patrick King. In the series, Ruby (known out of drag as Robert Lee) is swindled out of his $100,000 in savings by a grifter (Josh Segarra), and is forced to attempt to recoup those lost dollars on a tour through the American South, ending at the Miss Drag USA pageant. But when Robert realizes that 10-year-old AJ (Izzy G.) has stowed away in his RV, he is confronted with the new responsibility of taking care of this troubled youth.

During their southbound trip, the duo meet dozens of new characters who, on any other television program, would be drawn as over-the-top characatures of homophobes and racists. Instead, they're portrayed as slightly more nuanced, accepting individuals, who aren't there to stand in opposition to someone's happiness. "Americans are lovely people, and we wanted to remind people of that," RuPaul tells Billboard. "We wanted to shine a light on that aspect. That light, that American concept is really what's going to get us back on track."

Not only does AJ and the Queen offer up a heartwarming message about American optimism and self-love, but it also sees RuPaul delivering a series of fabulous drag numbers for the first time in years. Every episode of the show features a different performance from the star, as seen in a new supercut from Netflix (premiering below); sometimes you'll get to see Ru sing an original track, and in other scenes, he performs jaw-dropping lip-syncs to an eclectic mix of tracks. Whether it's Sia, Kim English, the original Broadway cast of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or any of the numbers featured on the show's soundtrack, each performance shows off Ru's raw, unfiltered talent.

RuPaul and Michael Patrick King chatted with Billboard ahead of the series' release about how they chose the songs used in each episode, their favorite performances from the show, and how they hope the message of AJ and the Queen impacts their audience.

You two are not only showrunner and star, but you're are co-creators and writers of the show. What was the thing about the other person that made you say, "I want to create something with them"?

RuPaul: Oh, I know this one! I did a cameo on the second season of The Comeback, and I recognized one of my tribe members when I worked with Michael. He made the smallest adjustment on my performance, and I thought, "Oh, I got it!" The passion, the intellect, the talent, it's all there. We speak the same language, and I understand everything he says and even doesn't say. So I thought, "That's where I want to go." That's what deciding about being creative; creativity, and being able to finish each other's sentences is part of what collaboration is all about. 

King: And I wanted to work with Ru for three reasons. One, he's a true original. Two, humor. And three, and I think most importantly, the message of "If you're not gonna love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?" I think that's such an important, fundamental message for me to have heard, and for other people to hear. I wanted to build this in that same church of getting the idea of loving yourself. It's all I've ever sort of tried to write. Ru is basically the spokesperson for that. 

Now Ru, with all of your success and projects over the last decade, you haven't necessarily been out lip syncing in the clubs anymore. What was it like, getting back into that mindset while filming all of these massive performances on the show?

RuPaul: Honestly, it felt like riding a bike, it's never left me! I worked in clubs for so many years, longer than I am willing to admit to. [Laughs.] It is way back up in there, and lip syncing turned out to be very easy for me. The hard part is that, we were shooting it like a film, and there are all of these other elements that make it more of a challenge. But the performance part, that was great. And we do have a couple of original songs in this show, so we got to also do that, with me lip-syncing to myself, and writing and producing some of the music.

I was fascinated at the absolute breadth of music the show uses -- everything from an original club track to the Broadway cast recording of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. How did you guys go about picking out the music for each of these performances?

King: For the club numbers, we would be in the writing room, and all of a sudden ... like in the wet T-shirt contest session, all of a sudden, Ru just starts singing "Catch Me, I'm Falling" [by Pretty Poison]. It came through him! Any time the wind just came through Ru, we went with that song. He has such a vast, encyclopedic connectedness to pop culture songs and vibes and feelings, that it was effortless for us in the room to watch a song come through him. And we would just say, "Yes, we'll be doing that one." And then there were other songs, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" [by Judy Garland] that we wanted for its emotional impact, but it was mostly completely following Ru's vibe of what the story in that episode would be an interesting contrast to. 

RuPaul: That's exactly right. It was this feeling -- we were so immersed in this purity that these two people were making. A lot of times, the cities that we were in would dictate what the songs should be. But, you know, Michael said it: We opened ourselves up to this ... enormous, passionate inspiration that this show is, and we lifted our wings, our skirts, and flew on it. We just made ourselves available to it.

King: The other thing, too, is Ru is such a showman, that he knows that we were making a show for a lot of different ages. Ru always likes the best of the past and the present, and what's new. So there's this very eclectic vibration to this show that spans even the decades. I mean, we even do flashback to '80s night just so we can get Salt-N-Pepa in. It was just fun, and that was the number one aspect for us. We even have some tropes, like, "I Will Survive" and "It's Raining Men"! Because why not?

If you were to pick, which performance on the show was your favorite?

RuPaul: For me, I think the opening number, which is "Ruby Is Red Hot," it's so important for setting off the story. I think it was the first thing that we shot for this whole show. It set the tone for all of it, but... I mean, I also have very very deep feelings for the Deniece Williams number, "It's Gonna Take a Miracle", because that is the emotional heart of this show. For someone like Ruby Red to open herself up and to have this courage to love and love again is nothing short of heroic, and that's what that song is all about.

King: The thing that I'm most tickled by is seeing the Tina Turner "Proud Mary" throwdown in episode two. The idea that Ru is yelling out "Yes, bitch, I'm Tina Turner" to Mario Cantone in this Tina-Off, it's just so good. Like throwing that down really early was awesome, and it's just so funny to me.

The message of this show has a lot to do with something Ru's character says in episode three, which is "Nobody's just one thing," where you have Ruby/Robert meeting all of these characters in the South who you could assume would discriminate against him, but don't. Why was it important to spread that particular message, especially in the current climate we find ourselves in?

King: Because it's important to let people know that we're all individuals, and maybe we should stop thinking in terms of groups or tribes, and rather in terms of how complicated people are when you meet them one-on-one. They're more open. Ru talks a lot about the America we were promised, and it was important for us to show that people are basically nice and accepting, and that sometimes our greatest enemy is ourself not the other person.

RuPaul: Yeah, I've traveled from coast-to-coast in this country probably 50 times, in a car, driving myself. I've also traveled around the world, and generally speaking, Americans are actually very kind people. Americans are very optimistic, and definitely in the South, culturally, there's always room for "eccentrics" in Southern culture. So yes, there are horror stories that come with our culture, as with all cultures. But generally speaking, Americans are lovely people, and we wanted to remind people of that, and we wanted to shine a light on that aspect. That light, that American concept is really what's going to get us back on track. 

King: It's interesting, too, that you felt that tension -- that was on purpose. The fact that nothing bad really happens is on purpose as well. We wanted to stop thinking about us and them and start thinking about us, meaning all of us.

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