The reality-TV genre almost defies parody (how do you invent a funnier version of Snooki than the real one, or outdo the already-outlandish America’s Next Top Model?), and yet RuPaul’s Drag Race nails all the jokes while still serving up a competition that’s fun and gripping on its own. And while there are a lot of skilled reality hosts on TV — and yes, we’re giving American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest his due — nobody can beat RuPaul’s quicksilver tonal shifts: Whether he’s got to gently prod one of his girls for an emotional backstory or nail her to the wall with an acerbic line reading, he always delivers. As the show heads into the home stretch of its third season, Ru rang up Vulture to discuss Drag Race’s most frightening lip-syncs, the behind-the-scenes companion show Untucked, and his sympathy for The Kids Are All Right’s Oscar-less Annette Bening.
One knock against the judges — especially against Santino Rice — is that you guys prize the high-fashion contestants over the ones with big personalities. How do you respond to that?
What we’re looking for is someone who can really follow in my footsteps: Someone who can be hired by a company to represent their product, someone who can put together a sentence on television and present themselves in the most incredible way. Yes, Santino comes from the fashion world, and that’s something he focuses a lot on, and [guest judges like] Mike Ruiz and Billy B, they’re also visual people.
For example, do you still feel good about Tyra’s win last season, even though Pandora was the fan favorite?
Oh yeah, Tyra was the full package. She was able to marry old-school drag with a new-school aesthetic. She’s a young kid — I think she was 21 when she won — but she had clearly learned from a drag mother who has taught her some of the gimmicks of drag that I remember from when I started. I saw drag legends doing certain tricks like having three outfits in one in a runway walk. Things like that are old-school, so for someone like that to be able to bring old-school and new-school in one package is pretty brilliant. Those are the things that allowed her to get to the top, and had she not in succeeded in the challenges, she wouldn’t have been there.
She did kill it in her finale lip-sync, so much so that I think the first few lip-syncs of this season were trying to outdo the precedent she’d set.
When the stakes are high like that, kids get real desperate: Wigs come flying off and they kind of lose themselves! Those were some scary lip-syncs, to the point where we had to tell the girls, “No more leaving the stage. You have to do your shit up there.” [Laughs.]
From season one to two, it’s clear that your budget was upped and you got to realize a lot of the aspirations you had for the show. Was there anything further that you wanted to accomplish between seasons two and three?
I think we did it, and I think the big challenge is going to be between seasons three and four. Three is really all our dreams realized, but I’d love to be able to bring the kids on location more or see more of them living together. Maybe we can get that done next season.
What do you think of Untucked this season? It seems much more dramatic.
It has been! You know, Untucked has really come into its own as its own show. I think the contestants understand reality TV, too, and they understand how this footage is being used. These drag queens are very savvy — little boys who grow up and decide they’re going to do drag have been through a lot! Our culture is so masculine-dominant that anyone who’s going to do that has to be so clever and courageous and cunning, but you know, it’s not until I see the footage from Untucked that I see these sides of them. Sometimes I’ll go, “Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” When I see them, it’s always, “Hey, Ru! Hiiiiii.”
Do you feel like the girls are a little meaner this season, with this Heathers vs. Boogers girl-gang thing happening?
Well, there’s a Heather in all of us, and there’s also a Booger in all of us. It’s just about how we’re going to regulate it.
It surprises me that the girls would compare themselves to the Heathers. Don’t they remember that the Heathers basically got dispatched one by one?
[Laughs.] Yes! You’re right.
What I love about the show is that it has this innocent, even bubbly spirit, and yet every so often you guys will slip in something so subversive or dirty. Is there anything you ever wanted to do that Logo said no to?
Oh yeah, all the time! But you know, that is really the one thing that drag and gay culture does better than anyone else. Listen, we have been put in a corner in society, ignored, and ostracized in our culture, so we have the ability to be irreverent in a funny way. We can celebrate things, and at the same time, we can read them like nobody’s business. If I can’t make fun of this stupid-ass bullshit world, I don’t want to be here, honestly. Talk about a drag! So we have found a way to make life interesting, and we can make fun of the mundane and the self-righteous aspects of our culture. That’s not just a strength but a survival technique, and our show has the opportunity to pass on a word or phrase or way of looking at something to a younger generation.
Including Miley Cyrus, who says she’s obsessed with the show. Have your people reached out to her people?
We have not reached out, but here’s someone who grew up in show business who understands that there is onstage life and there is backstage life, real life. Drag exemplifies that. Drag is, “I’m putting on a character, but when I go offstage, that’s not who I am.” All show people understand that intrinsically and they understand the difference between the two, and if you grow up in show business, you long for someone who can understand that difference. It’s hard to play America’s Sweetheart 24/7 when you realize that you’re a part of a business that manufactures dreams and you’re part of other people’s fantasies. Most times, those fantasies don’t intersect with your own reality, and that’s why people like her or show people in general gravitate toward drag and understand it better than anyone else.
When you think about it, wasn’t Hannah Montana basically a drag act anyway? I mean, the wig, that name …
[Laughs.] Hell-o! You are so right. You are so on the money with that, and that’s exactly why she understands it. I’d venture to say that the Miley who’s in public life is very different from the Miley who doesn’t have cameras on her.
Were there any behind-the-scenes hookups this year?
I wish there was! The reality is that the kids work so hard and they barely get any sleep. We do this show so fast — in fact, they aren’t allowed to be near each other unless there’s a camera rolling. The only way they can talk to each other is if there’s a chaperone present, and they can talk about other things but they can’t talk about the show.
How are the girls different after the six weeks it takes to shoot a season?
Oh my God, they understand television. In fact, even on Drag U, which we just finished shooting the second season of, I continue to train them on how to speak fluent television: how to speak in sound bites, how to think about what to say first, how to incorporate the question into the answer, all of those things. They are my kids, my charges, and I continue to teach them. I tell them, “After the competition ends, the competition doesn’t end. You are still being judged.” They have to understand that it’s important to be kind. Even with the company that does the show, some kids behave very well towards them and understand the medium, and then they’re asked to continue on with other shows that we do here.
Do you think an Emmy nomination for Best Reality Host could ever happen? Or is the show just too hip for that room?
You know, you’re right, it probably is. When I was in ninth grade, I won awards for Best Afro and Best Dancer, and I’ve got to tell you, I really was the best dancer and I really did have the best afro, but that’s not what got me the award. As you well know, it’s about politics, it’s about who’s in the in-crowd, and that’s why I won those awards. Don’t get it twisted, I understood that! Actually, at breakfast this morning, I was talking about how Annette Bening must be so angry right now. She was fucking robbed!
And she’s on the board of governors for the Oscars, so she should know Oscar politics.
Oh, she knows, she understands it. But at some point, you have to say to yourself, “Fuck these bitches!” It’s ridiculous. Just that one scene of her at the dinner table when she comes back [after learning of Julianne Moore’s affair]? That, my friend, is what a skilled, intelligent actor does. That’s art. But you know, the two notes from the girl who won for [Black Swan] … Like, are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? [Laughs.] That’s what it is. So I would hope that Annette Bening understands it, and Emmy shmemmy. You know what, I’ve been around, and I’ve been doing this for 29 years. Whether I won Best Afro or not, I’ve prevailed.