On a TV in an RV, Oprah speaks. “You have to start with beginning to love yourself,” she says. “You hear a lot of that in the ’80s. And what does that mean?”
Oprah’s guru guest, a feathered blonde in a blazer, replies that it means that you should stop beating up on yourself. “When you begin to love who you are, then you can love your neighbor, because you love yourself,” the woman says. “See, I don’t think we can really love our neighbor until we do love ourselves.”
This vintage talk-show spiel is being absorbed in the present day by Ruby Red, a drag queen who’s hit upon hard times in the Netflix series AJ and the Queen. In real life, the actor who plays that drag queen, RuPaul, has evangelized a very similar doctrine of self-love—as well as the art of cross-dressing. RuPaul may, in fact, be revealing the origin of the catchphrase that ends every episode of his smash reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
It’s telling that the motto has its origins in the can-do ’80s. RuPaul has helped push the ancient practice of drag into the politicized mainstream of today, where it is often portrayed as radical or even futuristic. Since Drag Race premiered in 2009, he and his colorful brigades have popularized a gender-agnostic, gay-is-okay paradigm that would have been unimaginable to many people even a decade earlier. But RuPaul has always been something of a nostalgist and a small-c conservative—a student of America’s supposed meritocracy rather than a saboteur of it. AJ and the Queen, the extremely uneven but often-lovable 10-episode comedy series co-created by RuPaul and Michael Patrick King, bears this out. Dopey yet teacherly, tepid and adorable, it bedazzles drag’s traditionalist streak.