From its humble beginnings on Logo TV to its current status as an Emmy Awards darling (it's won 19 awards and counting), you can’t really have a conversation about drag without talking about RuPaul's Drag Race. The show has been on TV screens for more than a decade, and with spin-offs and international versions, RuPaul’s search for the next drag superstar has taken the world by storm. Here are some surprising facts about the beloved reality series.
1. RuPaul's Drag Race pays tribute to queer history and culture.
A great example of this is when a queen gets eliminated from the show and leaves a farewell message in red lipstick on the mirror. This is a reference to the film BUtterfield 8, starring the original gay icon Elizabeth Taylor. In what is considered an iconic scene, Taylor scrawls a message on the mirror saying "No sale" when a lover leaves money for her.
2. RuPaul's Drag Race's reading challenge is inspired by the legendary film Paris is Burning.
Another aspect of the show relating to queer history is the reading challenge, where the queens "read" each other by throwing out hilariously insulting comments. "Reading" entered the mainstream consciousness via the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Previous contestant Lemon told Attitude that "When I arrived, I saw everyone in the workroom, and that night I went back to the apartment and I wrote everyone's name and started making a read. Everyone knows the reading challenge is coming! It's my personal favorite challenge on Drag Race, so I'm like, 'I can't let everyone down watching at home.'"
3. Many of RuPaul's most memorable Drag Race phrases came from his mother.
RuPaul ends each show with the phrase "If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?" Which is responded to with a resounding "Amen!" Where did this catchphrase come from? His mother, of course. "It's a mantra," Ru told NPR in 2020. "You need touchstones and totems. And, actually, it's a tradition my mother passed on to me, which is having sayings that can help realign you in this life, a life with advertising that says, you're not really clean unless you're Zestfully clean." Another classic line that came from Ru's mom? "Unless they're paying your bills, pay them bitches no mind."
4. RuPaul's Drag Race's judges have changed a lot over the years.
Drag Race's original lineup of judges included RuPaul, fashion designer (and former Project Runway contestant) Santino Rice, and fashion writer Merle Ginsberg. Today, you have a celebrity guest judge plus either original Queer Eye star Carson Kressley or TV personality Ross Mathews (who rotate the seat).
There has been one constant since season 3: singer/actor/DJ Michelle Visage. When asked by Gay Times whether her time on the show had helped her be able to predict who might win, she admitted that, "It’s virtually impossible really. Because as you know with Drag Race, you say 'There’s the winner' and then the twists and turns that come are just unbelievable. You just don’t know what’s going to happen ... That’s the beauty of Drag Race."
5. The judges' critiques on RuPaul's Drag Race are getting harsher.
No, you are not imagining it—the judges are getting harsher as the show goes on. Something that they probably would have let slide in season 2 or 3 just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Just how much criticism the contestants can take is getting more important as well. "I judge what is needed, what is fit for the situation," Visage told Digital Spy in January 2021. "If they are indignant, or not learning, or belligerent, then I get a little tougher. If they understand and are open, then I'm kinder. It's really about what I'm critiquing in the moment."
6. RuPaul's Drag Race winners have gone on to do major things.
Season 3 winner Raja served as the makeup artist on nine cycles of America's Next Top Model. Season 5's Jinkx Monsoon did voice work on Steven Universe and Mighty Magiswords and appeared in Happiest Season (2020) as well as AJ and the Queen, a Netflix series co-created by RuPaul and Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King. Season 10 winner Aquaria, who was known throughout her season for her high-fashion looks, went on to sign with IMG Models (she has appeared in Vogue) and was named Entertainment Editor of Dazed Beauty.
7. RuPaul's Drag Race has brought some contestants back to compete again.
In the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race, just because we see a queen sashay away doesn’t mean that we will never see them again on the main show. Some queens do get a second chance and a shot at that famous "RuDemption Arc." This happened to both the forever "Halleloo"-ing Shangela and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, a.k.a. Miss Vanjie, who boasts the most memorable Drag Race exit ever.
"I really wanted to come back and show that I am America’s Next Drag Superstar—not because I’m specialized in one specific area, just because I work hard in all of the different areas," Shangela told Socialite Life in 2018 of her return to the show. "I feel like I’ve been in 'drag boot camp' over the last year! So, I was excited to put in an audition tape and hopefully come back and I was just lucky that RuPaul felt the same way."
8. Not every contestant has been happy about their time on RuPaul's Drag Race.
While many contestants have credited the series with affording them new opportunities in their careers, not every Drag Race contestant has been happy about how they were portrayed on the series. When asked to describe the experience of watching herself on the show in 2016, former contestant Phi Phi O’Hara told Vulture:
"It’s like watching a completely different show. Because it’s nothing like what happened on set ... People truly don’t understand how context comes into play, and they’ll cut off something and add it to another thing and then make this whole different story. It’s really upsetting because I put so much faith in this show [that] it was going to keep its word on this redemption for Phi Phi, and they’ve just made me look like another backstabbing manipulative monster ... It let me know how ugly the industry can be, and it let me know who actually has my back."
Phi Phi has since distanced herself from RuPaul and the franchise.
9. RuPaul has stirred up controversy with the transgender community.
Back in 2018, Ru got in trouble for making an anti-trans statement. In an interview with The Guardian, Ru was asked if biological women could compete on the show, to which he responded: "Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture."
After his comments were met with an immediate backlash, Ru apologized, tweeting: "Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers."
10. RuPaul's ultimate plan? World domination.
The show has always been massively popular outside of America, but international versions of the series are now popping up faster than you can say "everybody say love." We now have RuPaul's Drag Race UK, Drag Race Holland, Canada's Drag Race, and Drag Race Thailand, with RuPaul's Drag Race Down Under currently prepping for its first season.
"It’s been a long process," Drag Race executive producer Fenton Bailey told Variety in 2020 of the series' ongoing expansion. "I think what we’ve seen is a reframing of drag as a cultural/artistic phenomenon. Look, every country has a rich tradition of drag, and it’s different in every country. But I guess what is true in every country is that it hasn’t been a television proposition, really. I think it’s taken broadcasters in different territories a little time to adjust, to recognize that."