A month before the first season of RuPaul’s DRag Race premiered on then five-year-old gay niche cable network Logo, RuPaul and three of the first season’s contestants appeared at a press junket in Los Angeles to promote the new show. When asked about the reality competition’s inspiration, RuPaul let loose: “The universe called and we answered that call! This was a show that had to be made. Whether it came up at a toilet stall at Illusions on Santa Monica Boulevard, I mean, really, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that we have this show that is going to turn TV upside down.” At the time, it just seemed like typical hyperbolic claims from an enthusiastic TV producer and star. But 14 years and a global empire later, the tea had been served.
BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Let’s face it, there’s a whole lot of fucking drag queens. I think that the overt queerness, the overt fem-ness and faggy-ness that RuPaul’s Drag Race uplifts has really allowed a lot of people to be so much more themselves. When I was a kid, if me and all the other gays at school had Drag Race to fawn over, we would have found each other. Instead, we had to hide around The Sound of Music in the theater department.
NINA FLOWERS: Everybody wants to be a drag queen these days, everybody. Do you remember the movie The Gremlins? They were wet and reproduced. That’s what happened with queens after RuPaul’s Drag Race, honey. RuPaul’s Drag Race wet all of us and we all reproduced. There’s so many legendary children now. That’s the truth. People are taking drag more seriously, and they see the art behind all the hard work. I think it’s fucking awesome.
LAGANJA ESTRANJA: Drag is the culture, honey! We are the culture, honey. The only reason to go to bars, at least when I was out, on Monday nights was because of RuPaul’s Drag Race. We became the new norm. We are what queer people look up to. Now there are plenty of queer people who don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and specifically maybe in the lesbian category, because my sister and her wife, girl, please. They watched it for me and that was it. It has influenced everything. It has influenced beauty and makeup, it has influenced the way we use social media because the queens are so savvy. It has influenced vocabulary. It has influenced acceptance.
RAVEN: Drag now has so many different fan groups in social media. It’s not just RuPaul’s Drag Race, but fans of drag. And there are people now who understand it’s not this creepy weird thing that guys do for sexual pleasure. So everyone wants to do drag and then there’s queens who think, because they’re in drag, they have to get onstage but it’s boring because they have no stage presence. But you don’t have to get in drag and be onstage. You can get in drag and go try and make money at being a model, you can be someone who is a host at a party, or run the bingo or something else. It’s an art form now with a lot of possibilities.
BEBE ZAHARA BENET: There is this fusion now between pop culture and drag where a lot of pop culture is taking a lot from the drag art form and the drag art form is taking stuff from pop culture. We get the opportunity now to bring up many different interpretations of drag. Even cis women now want to do drag. They are so inspired. That’s why I say don’t say “drag queen” because I feel like that term has evolved and people are becoming drag artists. People are using this heightened version of whatever that is to create and to celebrate and to elevate. And I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that they can watch Drag Race. They don’t have to go to the clubs. They can just turn on the television and they can get to see entertainers do all these different things. It’s so beautiful to see how Drag Race has also really helped drag have a stamp on pop culture.“Drag is the culture, honey!”
ASIA O’HARA: Prior to Drag Race, drag would have to find inspiration in mainstream culture and mainstream music and fashion. And now, thanks to Drag Race, pop stars and designers can look at drag and be inspired by that to make mainstream art.
JINKX MONSOON: Before Drag Race existed, you got into drag because there was something dark you needed to overcome. You didn’t get into drag because you loved makeup. That might be an aspect of it. You didn’t get into drag because you wanted to be famous. Certainly not, because we were all treated like shit in our own community. We were stigmatized and discriminated against and people treated us like freaks. You didn’t get into drag because it was fun and everyone was going to celebrate you. You got into drag as a suit of armor to protect you from something dark. And that has decreased and I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good that people are getting into drag as a way to celebrate themselves and a way to celebrate drag as an art form.
JUJUBEE: There’s so much more respect for drag now. Before, the only people who did drag were people who couldn’t get a job, people who couldn’t cut it as a man, people who didn’t have any aspirations, and they assumed that we were just dirt. And now the aspiration is to be this great queen. I think that people felt uncomfortable with drag because of the idea that we empower femininity when society has told us for centuries that femininity is weak. As queens, we’ve done a great fucking job showing that femininity is power. And drag is this form that’s showing the world that femininity and queenliness is available to everybody.
SASHA VELOUR: It refocused what pride around being queer was all about for me and celebrated gender play and imagination and queer gender expressions as part of what it means to be part of this community and protect in our community. Drag Race and the messages and the people and the stories that have been shared for the past 14 years have taught people around the world about the kind of fluidity that exists within them. And I think it’s opened up new conversations about gender, not just in terms of who’s represented but what all kinds of people might experience in their lives and be able to tap into and play with.
ADORE DELANO: It has changed the queer community in terms of identity. It’s not just black and white. There’s nonbinary folk, there’s trans people. RuPaul’s Drag Race helps you understand a human and get to see their personality. We’re not sexual beings. We’re actually people with stories and families and backgrounds and lovers. But it’s in pop culture in general. Like, yes girl, mama, okrrrrrr, it’s everywhere.“As queens, we’ve done a great fucking job showing that femininity is power. And drag is this form that’s showing the world that femininity and queenliness is available to everybody.”
DETOX: It’s made queer culture a huge part of pop culture where people are looking at queer people a lot differently and more celebratory, which is amazing. You see drag popping up in all kinds of things, you see queer culture popping up in all kinds of things, whether it’s a Pepsi commercial or television programs or movies. I think that it’s done really amazing things to get our message out there as a queer community that we should be celebrated, that we have creativity, that we have value, that we belong in a mainstream society. To be a part of that history has been really an amazing and rewarding opportunity.
BLAIR ST. CLAIR: It has just meant the world to me to be a part of a social movement of gender equality and gender identity and also sexual orientation which is now publicized all over the world. I feel I have such an important job to do in the world, to help keep pushing us for more social change.
VICTORIA “PORKCHOP” PARKER: All those kids, who were nine or ten when I was on the show in 2009, have grown up watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Whether they are gay, straight, lesbian, whatever they are, they have an understanding and they have an appreciation of everyone and they are not shocked or appalled or taken aback by someone who dresses as a woman to be an entertainer or someone who is a trans or someone who is gay because they have learned and had that experience from the time they were a small child to be accepting of everyone because everyone has a destiny that they have to follow. They have learned to appreciate people. And RuPaul is a large part of that.
LATRICE ROYALE: It has brought families together. You have had questions about your kids and you don’t know why they act a certain way and then you sit down and you watch an episode of Drag Race and, all the sudden, the lightbulb comes on and now you’re bonding over something and you have a newfound love. It’s been remarkable as far as families ties. I really appreciate it because I wish I had something like that when I was young, something I can look on TV and say okay, my people. I think we need more of it.
DARIENNE LAKE: The hugeness of the show changed my life completely. But the greatest thing that I got from it was definitely the change in my parents and their relationship with me. I feel that was really the turning point for them to really start caring about who I was as a person.
BENDELACREME: Drag Race has created an international community. Drag has always been a sistership, long before it was popular. There has always been a sistership to this common experience but now that sistership has connected all over the world. I have been able to make connections with queens everywhere and with fans of drag, everywhere.“I feel I have such an important job to do in the world, to help keep pushing us for more social change.”
SHANNEL: When you receive emails from kids and they’re 11 years old and they say I feel like I’m gay and I watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and you make me feel comfortable in my skin, that’s amazing. Our generation didn’t have that. There were no social media platforms that would allow people to understand who you are. So aside from the monetary gain of being able to go out and make more money, it allowed me to have a voice in places with people that I probably would not have been able to.
COCO MONTRESE: I have been allowed to not only grow in my art but I’ve been allowed to travel the world and take care of my family, take care of my husband, and build my own empire and become this person. All the pictures on my wall are Drag Race girls. Alyssa’s up there in that corner. Chad is right there, Yara Sofia. These are people that mean the world to me and it’s just been the ride of my life.
ALEXIS MATEO: We have been inspiring people everywhere. We got to open doors and visit people everywhere in the world and inspire them. I think people are changing the way that they see themselves through the art of drag. Gender is not even followed any longer. We got to open that barrier and allow people to be free in their sexual expressions and their gender identification and their human rights. We have been shifting the way that people look at the world, period.
AJA: I think Drag Race is very influential and it created a lot of safe areas for queer communities. I’ve been to a lot of countries, like the Philippines or places in South America, where there is high crime on trans and LGBT communities. For them to have a safe space to gather together because of Drag Race, because of their love for drag or because they want to congregate and celebrate it, Drag Race has impacted that and forced that to happen quicker.
ALYSSA EDWARDS: This changed so much of my life because I feel like I’m more open. I feel like that fear of what people would think in Mesquite of how I lived my life, that judgment, it’s all gone. It was so interesting because everybody embraced me. If I wouldn’t have been on this show, I don’t think I would have had the life experiences that I’ve had. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve met so many people. I’ve learned so much about drag. I’ve learned so much about myself. Talk about self-discovery, I didn’t even know I had some of these magical powers inside of me.“Drag is not one thing. It is many things. It’s talent, it’s beauty, it’s art, it’s gender, it’s confusion.”
MAYHEM MILLER: For the longest time, I was very upset and down because I was constantly compared to my peers and my hard work for so long was being overlooked. And when I finally got my validation and got on the show, lots of doors opened up, and I got to see more of the world that I had never seen before. I had a fan base that grew substantially. So even though the bad seeds in the fan base have made it not easy, the good fans have made it amazing. And Drag Race has truly just really been a great thing for me.
ACID BETTY: Fifteen years ago, people were throwing shit at me and trying to hurt me on the street and calling me names and now they see me and they’re like, “Art!” I’ve gotten better visually but I have always looked like a freak. I have not really changed the way I look, it’s just that people’s attitudes have changed.
MARIAH PARIS BALENCIAGA: Now people realize we are not two-dimensional characters. We are multifaceted, we have depth, we have opinions, we have creativity, we have hearts, we have real relationships, we desire the same thing that most people want, which is just happiness and being able to live. I think the show has helped humanize what other people see or are taught to see as alien. It gives people a visual tool to be able to relate and to articulate things that they might not have the vocabulary to describe or to relate to family members.
JOSLYN FOX: This experience has made me feel worthy and that is really important to me. I’ve had people tell me that they decided not to kill themselves because of my story. Nothing can top the platform that I am blessed to have.
DIDA RITZ: It makes me more proud to be part of the earlier seasons because I am a part of the start. I’m looked at as the OG. At that time in my career, I needed that in order to go to the next level and to be able to be respected, where people were like oh she’s good enough, she got on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now there’s a formula and I think some of the girls in the drag industry know the formula and they have used it to get on the show. But back then, we didn’t know the formula, we didn’t know what they were looking for.
MANILA LUZON: Drag used to be the lowest denominator when you would go to the gay club if you were looking to hook up with anyone. You’d go to the gay club and you’d see all the gay boys and they’re like hey, I’m attracted to men so I’m going to go for the men. No one ever looked at the drag queens. And then we started seeing the people that would never have done drag, who always thought it was too flamboyant or feminine to do drag, getting more comfortable talking about drag and experimenting in drag. You could be a muscle queen. You could be a big, butch top and have the confidence to give it a try and to see how gorgeous you can be. It’s actually really funny how many people ask me to put them in drag, these super-hot muscle daddies. I’ll paint you, baby! Heck yeah! I’ll paint you, I’ll get up real close to your face. I’m gonna touch your lips, babe.“This show will be just like The Golden Girls and Friends, where it’s on reruns for decades.”
BIANCA DEL RIO: Everybody wants to go on Drag Race now and they assume they’re going to have fame and travel the world. That might happen but you have to hustle. Drag is overexposed, so the opportunities don’t always exist for everyone. I wonder where things will be five years from now.
RAJA: I did drag when I started because I wanted to fucking look gorgeous, drinking to all hours of the morning, making out with men, looking stunning, lights onstage. The behind-the-scenes of it: the dressing room, the gossip, the glamour, the danger of it. That part is missing from drag for me now. And it’s hard. There’s a part of me that loves how everyone has access to it now. But part of me misses what drag meant to me when I was a kid. It was something you had to research. You had to be smart and charming and interesting and gorgeous and everything was word of mouth. I miss that. I sound like the old fogey talking about it, but I remember it in a different way.
THORGY THOR: I really, really, really do miss and believe that drag is an underground, two in the morning on a Monday night in a dark club kind of thing. I love that. I was that night creature for years and years and years and I like that. If somebody wanted to come see my drag show where I could curse and talk about pornography and do whatever I wanted to, I could do that and you had to come out on a Monday at one in the morning to see it. Now it has become so mainstream, that has washed away some of the grit that I fell in love with. I have to use different words, clean things up, and I feel like I have to act a certain way a lot of the time or I don’t get booked.
SHEA COULEÉ: I love having the opportunity to have a platform to share my story and my art and myself with people and to see people respond in such positive and supportive ways—people that I have been fans of since I was young, people whose pictures I had on my walls, seeing them comment on something on Instagram or see that they see you. It’s just so wild. Every day I wake up feeling so blessed to be living my dreams.
VALENTINA: I am always going to be grateful and humbled to know that RuPaul paved the way and created this show and became a drag queen superstar so that people like me and us can be respected and be in an industry and have a career and have this platform. I will always know where I come from and I am so grateful to know that it’s Drag Race, one of my favorite shows and that I got to be a part of, that catapulted me to be the star that I have always dreamt of being. I’m so honored to be a part of the golden era of drag.“That’s what matters most to me—that these kids are being validated as artists.”
MICHELLE VISAGE: I always knew how incredible drag queens were from the very beginning of my life when I would see them perform. But people in my circle, even gay people, were like, why are you so obsessed? I’d be like, why are you not? It was always such an incredible art form to me and I never understood why it was not looked at as this incredible valuable source of art. So the bigger this show got, the more appreciated drag became and still is becoming, and that’s what matters most to me—that these kids are being validated as artists.
IVY WINTERS: Drag is not one thing. It is many things. It’s talent, it’s beauty, it’s art, it’s gender, it’s confusion. There’s so many levels that it touches upon that I feel like straight men, straight women, gay men, whatever, they can find a part of it and relate to or enjoy. The reality TV show and the drama is enjoyable to watch and it’s addicting. But besides the drama, it really shows so much more than that. It touches everyone. Even though I’m not even doing drag anymore, I’m still thrilled and brag about what an amazing journey that was and what an amazing journey it still is for society these days. What the world needs now more than ever is just happiness and creativity and art and love. And I feel like Drag Race has really put a big splash in that market.
ALASKA: We are still in the midst of this phenomenon and we won’t really know the impact that it has had for years to come, but it’s immense. For myself, the world of drag has changed. [In the past] if you decided to do drag, you were throwing away any chance at having a normal life or happiness or anything. It was like you were giving up everything. Now everybody wants to be a drag queen, everybody. It’s a viable career choice suddenly, and that’s because of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It has shined a light on this culture that runs so deep and has been around for so long. It’s an important art form. It’s celebrating feminine energy, which is what the world needs. The planet needs that and that’s why drag is such a huge thing right now, because I think it’s correcting an imbalance in the world.
PANDORA BOXX: I had always wanted to be an entertainer full-time and Drag Race has allowed me to do that. It’s crazy to me that Season 2 was 13 years ago and I’m still working and people still talk about this show, still make me say “raspberries.” I would’ve tried to think of better taglines! It’s very rare for a show to get more popular as it goes on. That’s just crazy that it’s become this global phenomenon. I’m excited that I’m a part of it. No matter what, I’ll always be a Ru girl.
TRINITY THE TUCK: This show will be just like The Golden Girls and Friends, where it’s on reruns for decades. So, long after this show is no longer being filmed, I am going to be part of that. To be one of the torch holders that forwards on Ru’s legacy is amazing.
RUPAUL: I know that inside of every human being there’s a child that loves colors and sparkly things and things that are exciting. What’s brilliant about drag is that it is actually the truth of who we all are. We are all shape shifters. We change. For that to be mainstream, everybody would have to be open to being a shape shifter and accept who you really, really are. For everybody to be able to get that would take a lot, but what’s so brilliant about drag is you can be whatever you wanna be. Lift up your skirt and fly.
Adapted from And Don’t F&%k It Up: An Oral History of Rupaul’s Drag Race (the First Ten Years) by Maria Elena Fernandez. Copyright © 2023 by World of Wonders, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.