Why Drag Is the Ultimate Retort to Trump

RuPaul versus the White House

John Cuneo

RuPaul Charles, America’s most famous drag queen, sat on a gold lamé couch at a luxury hotel in Midtown Manhattan one Tuesday in March, doling out advice for the white working class. Wearing a patterned suit jacket and black slacks—one of his signature out-of-drag looks—he made a hand motion to suggest widgets being moved from one part of an assembly line to the next.

“If you were a factory worker and your job was to put this to this from 9 to 5, we don’t do that anymore,” he said, his soft voice carrying the imperious, jokey edge familiar to viewers of RuPaul’s Drag Race, his reality-TV show. Then he referenced a viral video from Ts Madison, a transgender activist and former porn star: “You better step your pussy up. Get on a business, bitch!” He delivered this spiel with the clipped, decisive tone of a therapist on the clock. “Nature will not allow you to just sail on through doing some factory job,” he said. “We don’t do factories anymore.”

At 56, RuPaul is in little personal danger of being phased out; he is, to the contrary, one of gay pop culture’s most enduringly relevant figures. Over the past quarter century, he has done more than anyone to bring drag to the American mainstream. At the same time, he has used his platform to act as life coach to the queer masses, counseling self-love and hard work to combat social stigma and inner doubt. (Catchphrase: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”) But lately, thanks to political developments, this inspirational package has come with a dose of indignation, and a sharpened sense of social purpose.

In November, RuPaul tweeted that he was “finding it hard to carry on ‘business as usual’ after America got a giant swastika tattooed on her forehead,” and he told New York magazine’s Vulture website that Donald Trump’s win felt “like the death of America.” By the time I met up with him in March, right before the premiere party for Drag Race’s ninth season, his mood had improved considerably, but his focus was still on the political scene. “My optimism is back. I understand what it is we must do,” he said. “We’re going to mobilize young people who have never been mobilized, through our love of music, our love of love, our love of bright colors.”

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Such mobilization would seem to already be in progress, thanks to Drag Race. Tuning in is like entering a fluorescent cocoon of camp, where men who perform as women battle in a wild reimagining of Project Runway. Launched on Logo, Viacom’s queer-focused network, in 2009, the show is ubiquitous in many gay-friendly circles; this spring, it moved to VH1, in a bid to bring drag to a wider audience.

The moment seems ripe for it. An ad for Season 9 features the tagline “Drastic times call for dragtastic measures” and RuPaul saying, “We need America’s next drag superstar now more than ever”—the implication being that cross-dressing has taken on a special charge under Trump. Which isn’t to say the show wasn’t socially engaged before. In the Obama era, Drag Race cheered on gay rights and reveled in gender identity’s vagaries just as gay rights were making significant gains and many Americans were beginning to grapple in earnest with transgender people’s existence. Still, the rejection of a woman president in favor of a man who reportedly prefers his female staffers to “dress like women” and whose supporters rail against “cucks” and “the pussification of America” places drag in a more obviously defiant context: The pussification of America—the freedom of men to partake in that which society has marked as feminine and vice versa—is exactly what RuPaul wants.

The early months of the Trump presidency have seen drag flourish as a form of political critique. The signature pop-culture send-up of the administration has come not from Alec Baldwin’s pursed-lip Trump on Saturday Night Live but from Melissa McCarthy’s wild-eyed Sean Spicer—a parody of macho huffiness that reportedly infuriated Trump because, a source told Politico, he “doesn’t like his people to look weak.” This reaction led some critics to call for SNL to drag up the entire administration; Kate McKinnon has since portrayed Jeff Sessions, and Rosie O’Donnell has offered to play Steve Bannon. Underscoring the sense of gender panic in Trumpland, one of early 2017’s defining memes came when a conservative Twitter user added the words “This is the future liberals want” above a picture of a niqab-clad woman and a drag queen—two bogeyladies of the culture wars—sitting comfortably on one New York City subway bench. The fact that for many liberals this indeed was a perfectly lovely vision prompted much hilarity; one of Drag Race’s stars, a deranged-Russian-prostitute character named Katya Zamolodchikova, tweeted the same caption with a photo of herself crouching grotesquely in a green bodysuit and Birkenstocks.

RuPaul’s own Twitter feed has become a steady source of gif-laden jabs against the “Manchurian pumpkin,” his preferred term for the president. RuPaul: What’s the Tee?, the motivational and comedic podcast he co-hosts with Michelle Visage, a Drag Race judge, has begun devoting more time to current events. The title track of his new album, American, uses thumping dance pop to assert that gay black drag queens are as American as anyone else. He’s deejayed events to benefit Planned Parenthood and the ACLU in recent months. When I suggested that his level of political engagement had increased, he replied that he’d long been outspoken about politics but not policies. “Now I’ve been happy to talk about policies,” he said. “Because the world’s gone batshit fucking crazy.”

In person, RuPaul is very much the same self-possessed bald beanpole that Drag Race audiences have watched dispense advice and shade to contestants—except his freckles are more noticeable, and his shade can be turned on you. At one point, while discussing the virtues of transformation, he eyed my outfit and suggested that drag could teach the squares of the world to live a little, sartorially speaking: “When you think you’ve landed on this look with the black jeans and blue shirt for the rest of your life, we’re here to say, ‘You know, it’s just clothes.’ ” (For the record, my pants were dark green.) As we talked, RuPaul seemed to be looking over my shoulder into the hotel lobby; he was, he explained, watching for his husband, Georges LeBar, who was on his way with a chicken panini.

The two married in January, partly out of concern that same-sex marriage could be rolled back under Trump. Though the wedding was in some ways a formality—they’ve been together for 23 years—it contributes to the sense that this is a time of personal flourishing for RuPaul. In a nod to his popularity (as well as to how insane politics has gotten), John Oliver proposed on Last Week Tonight that the drag queen could run for president as the progressive reality-TV-star retort to Trump (hypothetical slogan: “Make America fierce again”). In April, RuPaul debuted as a recurring character on the Netflix sitcom Girlboss, playing the main character’s crotchety neighbor; J. J. Abrams is developing a dramedy based on RuPaul’s years as a fixture of the New York City club scene.

The source material is rich. After a childhood split between San Diego and Atlanta, in the care of first his mother and later an older sister, RuPaul worked as an entertainer and shape-shifting party presence, donning loincloths and dabbling in David Bowie–esque androgyny while fronting the new-wave bands Wee Wee Pole and RuPaul and the U‑Hauls. Eventually, he settled in New York. By 1993, he’d shellacked himself into the 7-foot-tall (in heels) “glamazon” character who rocketed to fame off the dance single “Supermodel (You Better Work)”; this, in turn, led to a talk show on VH1. Now Drag Race aims to subject less established drag queens to some of the same trials of “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent” that he once faced. “My career has been built on the fringe of the status quo,” RuPaul told me. “There was no blueprint for what I do.”

Of course, drag as it’s commonly practiced today did exist before RuPaul, mostly among queer folks whose pageants, any decent social theorist will tell you, delighted in exposing the artificiality of both femininity and masculinity. RuPaul’s rise to stardom was part of a public coming-out for the practice, which coincided with a wave of ’90s‑era drag-themed movies, including The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the acclaimed documentary Paris Is Burning. Though the decade was a boon to his career, he thinks back with some frustration on various cultural gatekeepers who treated him more as a curiosity than as a social critic. He says he’s always approached drag as “punk rock”—as an instrument of resistance. “Just being someone’s punch line is not my idea of fun.”

Today, even as he finds himself at new heights of acclaim, RuPaul sometimes feels that same sense of being misunderstood. Before a recent TV appearance promoting Drag Race, a producer asked whether he’d be willing to teach the show’s host how to walk like a supermodel. The request offended him. “I’m not doing drag to give you makeup tips,” he told me. “This has always been a political statement.” That political statement doesn’t exactly lend itself to specific action items, of course; RuPaul is as fluent in righteous woo-woo as any outspoken celebrity. “Following your heart is the most political thing you can do,” he told me at one point.

RuPaul in 1979, at age 18. He says he’s always approached drag as “punk rock”—as an instrument of resistance. (Tom Hill / WireImage / Getty)

Yet he seems sincere in his conviction that it is worth seeking out the deeper meaning of things that appear superficial. On a recent episode of What’s the Tee?, he quizzed the actress Leah Remini on her acrylic nails and then, without pausing, asked, “I wonder what the subtext of having nails is? … Psychologically speaking, what’s underneath that?” And he seems equally sincere in his belief that lewd puns and piled-high wigs can fight everything from gender essentialism to consumerism. “Our culture is about choosing an identity and sticking with it so people can market shit to you,” he said. “Anything that switches that around is completely the antithesis of what our culture implores us to do.”

Outside Drag Race’s season-premiere party, at the PlayStation Theater, in Times Square, the latest crop of contestants mugged for the cameras. Nina Bo’nina Brown wore facial prosthetics designed to resemble a gorilla; Jaymes Mansfield had on a Muppets-inspired bodice; Kimora Blac sported breasts evoking a pervy video-game designer’s version of the female form. Though some of the queens talked up their “fishiness”—the joyfully crass drag term for seeming like a real woman—their outlandish getups illustrated one of RuPaul’s central assertions: that drag’s real purpose has less to do with passing for another gender than with highlighting gender’s artificiality.

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.”