If you’re ever in need of perspective on whether our society is in true upheaval or if we’re only experiencing the same cultural battles that have raged forever, old Geraldo clips on YouTube will always offer some clarity. Recently I found myself binging on the talk show’s coverage of “club kids,” a scene of 1990s New York City partiers who wore fantastical and frequently gender-bending outfits. In various episodes over the years, Rivera invited them on and then scoffed at their floral masks and harlequin makeup, their coy references to drug use, and their queerness. Once, they inspired him to ask, somewhat in earnest, “It’s four in the morning—do you know where your children are?”
Last week, RuPaul retweeted a link to one of those episodes, from 1990, which featured him a few years before he became America’s most famous drag queen. Midway through, Rivera asked whether dressing outlandishly is an art, and RuPaul gave an exuberant yes. “I dropped out of society when Reagan got in office,” he added, then took the opportunity to rally the audience: “Everybody say ‘love!’ Everybody say ‘love!’”
Remarkably, RuPaul doesn’t seem to have changed much since that 1990 appearance—and the story he’s woven about drag has stayed remarkably consistent too. He was using his current catchphrase, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag,” back then. During the ninth-season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which aired Friday, RuPaul repeated his Geraldo routine: “Everybody say ‘love!’” he commanded. And just as RuPaul was drawing a contrast between Ronald Reagan and himself back then, he’s doing so with Donald Trump now.
Owing either to the new president or to record viewership numbers or to both, Season 9 of the cheeky crossdressing competition has been accompanied by a heap of publicity noting drag’s political implications (guilty!). The finale leaned into that hype, hard. Contestants walked out of an entrance in the shape of RuPaul’s lipsticked mouth over which the word “American” was written. RuPaul was introduced as “our commander in chief” and arrived with dancing Secret Service agents in hotpants. Throughout the hour, he joked about the president: “Now take that to your special prosecutor and investigate it,” he cackled at one point.
In Drag Race fan world, though, the finale will likely be mostly remembered for its format. For the first time, the finalists to be America’s Next Drag Superstar had to spend the last episode of the season locked in battle, performing head-to-head lip syncs to pop songs in order to win RuPaul’s favor. This added a heavier dose of suspense. It also meant an early upset when the two seemingly favored contenders for the crown—the attitude-packed Chicago dancer Shea Coulee and the cerebral Brooklyn artist Sasha Velour—went head-to-head in the first round, guaranteeing that one of them would not be in the final two.
Velour beat Coulee and ended up the eventual champion, also triumphing over the New York City nightlife fixture Peppermint. Ostensibly her victory was thanks to her clever set pieces during the lip syncs: First Velour unleashed a swirl of rose petals stored in her gloves and wig, and later she cracked open a white skull cap while pantomiming agony. That Velour forwent lip-sync staples like splits and high-kicks while still delivering something fun to watch is no small feat, and on YouTube, clips of her moody, highly art-directed nightclub shows are similarly electrifying. The go-to move for the 30-year-old is to widen her eyes and grin with the same maniacal glint as Annie Lennox, a primary influence.
Lip syncs aside, though, the outcome for Season 9 fits exceedingly well into the narrative RuPaul has always spun about drag’s social relevance. Both finalists could signify cultural progress: Peppermint would have been the show’s first openly transgender winner, and Velour is among the most high-minded, politically outspoken drag queens to ever compete. The Vassar-educated Fulbright scholar is the child of professors, and whatever stereotypes you might apply to that description apply to her: “I try to write an essay every time I speak,” she joked to The Observer. During the finale, Velour even acknowledged a tweet about her that went, “If you tell your saddest gay story while doing your makeup Sasha Velour appears in your mirror and gives a Queer History lesson.” She now wants to use her platform for queer activism; accepting the crown on Friday night’s broadcast, Velour issued a call to “change the motherfucking world!”
Velour’s ideology also takes the form of aesthetic. Throughout Season 9, Velour’s claims to being “the future of drag” were bolstered by her striking look: bald-headed, with outfits that tweaked cliches of femininity and referenced history. But she’s certainly not the first Drag Race winner to triumph on weirdness and intellect rather than traditional pageant prettiness. Past champions have included the horror-movie creature Sharon Needles, the camp comedian Jinkx Monsoon, and the relentlessly meta Alaska Thunderfuck. All of whom of course follow RuPaul, who began his entertainment career as a short-haired, politically engaged “genderfuck” artist.
If there is an evolution in Velour’s brand of oddity, it’s in its seriousness, which almost feels generational: As RuPaul has said about recent crops of Drag Race contestants, “Everyone is getting woke.” Velour’s signature quote from this season might have been “Don’t joke about that,” a rare thing to hear from a drag queen (uttered by Velour in response to a crack about eating disorders). Her performances don’t really aim for laughs, and as noted, she is anything but coy about her politics. In an interview with EW, she precisely laid out her view of drag’s social role:
Drag resists conservatism in the most basic way possible, and also in the most effective way possible, because it’s improper when it comes to looks, which is everything in conservative systems. Conservatism is all about surfaces and labels and presentation, and drag says, no, we refuse to follow any rules about that.
As if to prove her point, a commenter below that Velour interview wrote, “Would you let this person babysit your children?” Reading that snippet of condescension made me think back to the suit-wearing Wall Street type in Geraldo’s 1990 audience who played foil to the carefree club kids, telling them, “When it comes to who’ll lead our country, prepare our country to go into the 21st century, I don’t want any of you in leadership roles.” RuPaul replied with only a grin, but it was clear he did have a leadership agenda—one that’s still in progress today. “Everyone at home touch your TV set,” he said back then. “This is the most important show you’ll ever watch.”