At one end of the red carpet, Sadie Gennis, a TVGuide.com editor, asked each queen to play a game of word association with some names: Oscar the Grouch, Emma Stone, Donald Trump. The responses to Trump’s name were remarkable in their uniformity. Sasha Velour: “Already a horrifying drag queen.” Eureka O’Hara: “Girl, that hairline’s a mess. You ain’t never heard of lace glue?” Shea Couleé: “Girl, look how orange you fucking look, girl!” (The last line, which quotes a now-legendary Drag Race squabble about makeup, has shown up on anti-Trump protest signs.)
This notion of Trump as a drag queen is a common punch line, thanks not only to his Technicolor tan, bouffant hair, and love of insults, but also to his exaggerated display of masculinity. And yet when I put to RuPaul the idea that the president is a drag artist, he drew an important distinction: Trump “actually believes he is that thing. As drag queens, we know we’re putting on a facade and we’re always aware of it, which is what scares the status quo. He believes he looks good. He believes he’s looking like a real man.”
However visceral RuPaul’s distaste for Trump, he isn’t quite your typical Hollywood progressive. Yes, he thinks the guardians of straight white orthodoxy should lighten up, but he feels much the same way about, among others, liberal types who want him to apologize for using the word tranny. Though RuPaul supports federal protections for transgender people and welcomes trans contestants on Drag Race, he can sound downright conservative when talking about the self-seriousness of liberal identity politics (he declines to describe himself as a liberal). And Drag Race’s cheeky flirtation with gender and racial stereotypes—to say nothing of how it reappropriates terms like bitch—hasn’t always rated as politically correct. “I’ll make a joke about something and people will print it out and it sounds awful, when it’s really clear my standpoint is ‘Live your life, be free, do what you feel you need to do,’ ” he told me.
As the premiere party got under way, RuPaul appeared onstage, startling the sold-out house—the advertised lineup of performances by Drag Race personalities hadn’t included his name—and received the loudest applause of the night, despite the fact that he was the only one whose outfit wouldn’t have drawn a second look on the street. Introducing a clip of Season 9, he explained that the first episode would feature Lady Gaga. He turned to the drag queen Lady Bunny, a longtime friend. “We tried to get Lady Bunny [for the show], but she turned us down,” he said, letting out a high, knowing laugh. “Lady Bunny, you are a whore.”
The video that followed boasted much of the frivolity and bizarreness fans of the show have come to expect. The cast’s first meeting quickly gave way to sniping about eyebrow shapes; one queen was done up like a voluptuous rodent. But the opening episode, which aired later in March, also reflected an engagement with larger issues. One contestant sobbingly told Lady Gaga that her career had helped save lives; another wore a leotard scrawled with #blacklivesmatter. Though the episode had been filmed before November, it was not hard, watching it, to anticipate the turns that Drag Race might take in the future.
“This whole election thing was probably the best thing that could have happened,” RuPaul had remarked to me earlier in the day, before leaving his hotel. “Because everyone is getting woke. These bitches are waking up.”