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.
The rejection of a woman president n favor of a man whose supporters rail against “cucks” gives drag new salience.
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.”
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.