RuPaul sashays into the mainstream

Michelle Obama throws shade at John Boehner. Nicki Minaj dons wigs. Has everyone become a little bit queeny?

By Daniel D'Addario

Published January 28, 2013 7:57PM (EST)

          (Logo/Mathu Andersen)
(Logo/Mathu Andersen)

The question of whether or not Michelle Obama was "throwing shade" at John Boehner after last week's inauguration likely hadn't been asked of a first lady before; the term, which originated in the drag world, has officially entered the language. Before there was Michelle's eye roll, there was a winter of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey reading each other in clips from the nation's most popular television show. Recently, Prince threw shade at Madonna. "Dissing" someone is so 2004!

"RuPaul's Drag Race," the show that helped to bring drag culture into the mainstream, returns for a fifth season tonight, and the question is: Is everyone a little bit queeny? Has "shade-throwing" -- the sort of sly, cutting insults that, coincidentally, tend to clock in under 140 characters -- become a national pastime? And is there anything risky about drag queens when everything from their language to their costumes (the proudly, comically outré Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) is mainstream?

"I knew the window was open. When the window was closed, I stayed away from the canvas," said RuPaul. "I'm a very perceptive person -- you have to be, if you live a life people are afraid of."

The host was referring to the climate of fear and loathing that existed in America immediately following Sept. 11, during which time RuPaul turned down several reality-TV opportunities; the show debuted in the first months of the Obama administration. "Right now," he said, "we're experiencing that window being open, like it was in the late 1970s or early '60s. It closes, it opens. This vernacular -- even just the idea of plays on words, portmanteaus, or clever pronunciations being OK -- we're experiencing that right now."

Part of that openness has to do with growing acceptance of gays and lesbians -- but part of it may just be loopy, fun notes in the culture at large. (An episode last season featured straight men dressing up in drag for a day, a sort of play on gender that would have been difficult to imagine even a few years ago.) The Bush administration brought us the deathly earnest "America's Next Top Model," with its promise to improve the lives of hardworking aspiring models. The Obama years, at least at first, turned the "Model" model on its ear.

"We saw that drag was really very broad; even though it might come out of gay culture, it's really a parody of all pop culture," said Fenton Bailey, executive producer of the show. Thus the show features "Project Runway"-style clothing manufacture challenges in which each contestant must make an outrageous parade float, or "American Idol"-style sing-offs in which the queens rip off their wigs as they lip-sync. There's all the human drama of the best reality TV, with a subversive edge.

And yet despite its wrapping itself in irony, the series ends up delivering narratives as moving as those on "American Idol" -- whose current star judge, Nicki Minaj, is a wig-wearing, overly made-up creature unimaginable before drag entered the public consciousness. "It's a show in drag," said Randy Barbato, another executive producer. "It gives you a wink. At its heart are these incredible artists."

Is it serious or is it ironic? "Absolutely both," said RuPaul. "Both definitions are correct. The show is not to be taken seriously, and to be taken seriously."

"Language is always looking for new ways of expressing ideas. This speaks to the creativity of drag. It's about language and ideas," said Bailey. "Many of the ideas used in drag catch on because they're valid and connect to people. 'Throwing shade' isn't something only a gay person can relate to." (Michelle Obama knows this now — all too well.)

RuPaul isn't troubled by the straight embrace of drag culture, something that might be seen as condescending by less forgiving eyes. "I think conservative ideas -- they're spawned from a fearful mind that believes in a limited amount of love or resources on this planet. Bring it on, children, all are welcome!"

Eventually, though, the pendulum will swing back, RuPaul said, and drag culture will recede in popularity and importance. "The question is, how long will people be able to have fun and live it up before they start missing fear again? Will I retreat? Probably! The scariest thing on this planet are fearful people, so I'd go back to the woods, back underground! Back with my own kind."

Maybe Ru shouldn't be so worried. Said Barbato: "Hasn't pop culture always been gay? Look at the Village People." Maybe people will be throwing shade at baseball games for years to come.

Daniel D'Addario

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