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How RuPaul’s Drag Race went from cult favorite to inspirational teenage dream

Some teens obsess over pop stars. But this reality show has led many to find their icons in drag queens.

Naomi Smalls with two teen fans desperately trying to keep their shit together
Caroline Framke / Vox

A throng of breathless teens craned for a look at their idol, or at the very least, a glimpse of her hair as she whipped around a corner. Some of them had been lining up for hours to take selfies, buy her branded merch, and, most importantly, get 30 seconds of face time with someone who means the entire world to them.

That someone, as it so happens, was a drag queen named Naomi Smalls, who stands 7 feet tall in heels and sports eyelashes so long and bedazzled I could see them sparkling from three booths away. Everyone screamed as she got to the front of her line, inspiring her to fluff her hair and flash a bright smile that indicated she was ready for her close-up. She turned to the first people in line — two teenage girls who only barely reached her chest — and wrapped her arms around them. Each of the girls tried (and failed) to keep from sobbing through the picture.

This was the spirit of DragCon, a sprawling shrine to all things drag but especially to alums of the reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which wrapped its ninth season on June 23 by crowning Brooklyn queen Sasha Velour as America’s Next Drag Superstar. The first ever DragCon in 2015 attracted about 15,000 attendees for a weekend of panels, pictures, and painstaking choices over which queen’s shirt they should buy (i.e., which queen deserved their allegiance). The third annual edition attracted triple that first audience this April, as some 45,000 people swarmed the Los Angeles Convention Center with the kind of frantic enthusiasm usually reserved for boy band photo calls.

Then again, to many of these Drag Race fans, that’s exactly what DragCon is: a place where anyone and everyone can come within 6 feet of their most beloved icons.

But when I went to the first DragCon, I was struck by how many of these screaming, sobbing teens — many of them the cis girl teens you might otherwise expect to fight for an autograph from a Harry Styles rather than a Naomi Smalls — swarmed the floor. I knew Drag Race was popular, but I didn’t realize how much it had traveled beyond its initial cult audience of queer men and women already ensconced in drag culture to reach this younger, hungry generation of fans.

The same held true — even more so — at 2017’s DragCon. Time and time again, I watched as kids with braces and fledgling attempts at facial contouring traded intel on which queens would be signing things where, swarmed a Teen Vogue panel (“Resistance in Trump’s America”), posed for pictures while their beaming parents stood by, and struggled to hold back rapturous tears in front of their favorite queens. When they did get the chance to actually ask a question, sure, some took the opportunity to show off their encyclopedic knowledge of which queen threw shade during which challenge, or to ask for the kind of behind-the-scenes gossip not even the infamous Drag Race subreddit might have.

But for the most part, these kids just wanted advice.

After RuPaul’s keynote (the final event of the con), one 19-year-old girl summoned the courage to go up in front of hundreds of fellow fans and ask her idol, through so many sobs we could barely understand her, “How do you wake up in the morning and tell yourself you’re beautiful?”

It was a startling moment, but one I’ve come to expect from Drag Race fans after watching, loving, and researching the show’s larger impact for years. The series has always leaned into the human ache to find self-acceptance, and it came up again and again throughout DragCon.

At the “Call Me Mother” panel for “junior fans,” in which the standing mic kept having to be adjusted lower so the tweens standing on tiptoes could reach it, queens answered questions about how they combat stage fright, project confidence, and even stay sober. At one point, Adore Delano — who modeled her persona after the Southern California girls she envied in high school and has more than a million Instagram followers — looked out at the room, teared up, and admitted, “You give me confidence I never had.”

And when one tiny girl in a flower crown asked what it’s like for the queens to know that so many young fans watch the show, Joslyn Fox’s painted face immediately softened into a warm smile. “I see me in you,” Joslyn said, “and me being myself is what inspires you.”

And she’s right. For these hordes of glitter-faced kids, DragCon was a chance to meet the people who not only make them gasp and laugh in awe, but show them what it looks like to live life as someone who’s both entirely yourself and completely spectacular. But well outside of the walls of the con itself, Drag Race has catapulted drag culture far beyond its traditional confines of clubs and bars through word of mouth and the simultaneous rise of social media.

So while the show has broadened drag’s audience in general, its younger audience in particular has exploded into a community all its own.

RuPaul’s Drag Race began as a cult favorite, but it quickly evolved into a legitimate phenomenon

When RuPaul’s Drag Race debuted in 2009, it embodied the determined spirit that drag has been thriving under for decades. With self-proclaimed Supermodel of the World RuPaul playing host, judge, and mentor, Drag Race first aired on Logo, a so-called “niche” channel prioritizing gay programming for just a couple hundred thousand viewers per episode. The series spotlighted the many skills required to be a truly legendary queen, making it a sort of American Idol meets Project Runway hybrid that also required its contestants to crack a joke at a moment’s notice.

It was scrappy, ready to make something out of a seemingly minuscule budget — and inevitably so dazzling that you’d have to be an entirely joyless person to tear your eyes away as towering talents like BeBe Zahara Benet and Nina Flowers strutted down Ru’s catwalk. Challenges ran the gamut from turning 99-cent store items into haute couture, hosting talk shows, and voguing down the runway à la the seminal New York nightlife documentary Paris Is Burning.

From the start, the key to the show’s success — not to mention drag in general — was its unfailing ability to find joy and wit in anything and everything. As RuPaul’s guiding mantra puts it: RuPaul’s Drag Race rarely takes life, or itself, very seriously at all.

But the show isn’t all about irreverence. From that very first season, the queens let their meticulously crafted personas fall away to let viewers, each other, and even themselves understand the real people underneath. They revealed heartbreaking histories of being shunned for who they are; they shared the joy of finding love. Some came out as transgender, as HIV positive, as struggling with eating disorders. They bonded with each other, finding kindred spirits in their mutual commitment to being beautiful and unlike anyone else, no matter what narrow-minded bullshit life might throw in their way.

So, yes, Drag Race can make for some high-powered bitchy fun — but more than anything, it means watching some smart-as-hell artists fight for the right to be the very best versions of themselves and love themselves for it. As RuPaul says at the end of every single episode: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?” (Amen.)

This combination of smarts and heart launched RuPaul’s Drag Race from cult favorite to bona fide phenomenon. Its ratings have steadily increased year over year, with this year’s season nine moving from Logo to the more readily accessible VH1. The show’s alums — of which there are well over 100 at this point — often go on to sell out shows, attract many thousands of Instagram followers, star in music videos and web series to millions of views, and even headline worldwide tours. To their most dedicated fans, the queens’ lives almost become another show outside the show itself; as with any huge pop or movie star beloved among #teens, no detail is too small to obsess over.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — longtime friends of RuPaul and co-founders of World of Wonder, the production studio that first guided Drag Race to the airwaves — say they always believed in the potential of Drag Race, especially with RuPaul leading the way.

“It’s RuPaul that makes drag accessible and fun and something that everyone can enjoy,” Barbato said in the week before DragCon. “It’s just taken a few minutes for him, the show, and drag to arrive at the place that we always thought it was destined to arrive.”

Or as Bailey put it, rather more bluntly: “He’s a motherfuckin’ star ... it’s really just been a question of waiting for the world to catch up.”

3rd Annual RuPaul's DragCon - Day 2 Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

The season of Drag Race most people point to as the game changer is the fourth, which aired in 2012 and featured such series standouts as the simultaneously no-nonsense and hilarious Latrice Royale, paper-dry comedian Willam, and eventual winner Sharon Needles (tagline: “when in doubt, freak ’em out”). But longtime judge and RuPaul confidant Michelle Visage says it was in 2013, between seasons five and six, that she really saw a difference in the Drag Race audience start to emerge.

As she and the queens started to do more gigs outside of the bar scene in order to accommodate more fans, Visage told me recently in a recent phone interview, they’d see “lots of young kids, little boys dressed in drag with their moms, a lot of teenage girls. … Drag Race went from [serving] a cult gay following to a necessary television show that opens the dialogue of ‘I'm not normal and it’s okay.’”

As Visage and others like Barbato and Bailey see it, Drag Race has made a concerted effort to open its community to a younger generation that’s been traditionally limited in terms of how it could interact with the proud freaks of drag. Even if queer kids longing for community sneaked into drag clubs — as they have for years — they hardly got to see their queen fantasies in broad daylight on convention floors alongside parent chaperones, their safety all but guaranteed.

“This is so much more than just a television show to these people,” Visage said. “This is bigger than any of us could have imagined. It's only grown, and grown, and grown.”

With new fame came a new, younger fan base than what drag queens have been used to

“Before Drag Race, most of my fans were anyone who was old enough to hang out in a gay bar or club,” season nine finalist Peppermint — a New York City drag staple for going on 20 years — said in an email. “Now, that’s completely changed.”

On this point, literally every single Drag Race queen I interviewed for this piece agreed. Season 9 winner Sasha Velour said her fans used to consist of people who lived within “a 20-block radius of my house and came to my drag show … which was also in a 20-block radius of my house.” Now, she says, “I’m able to talk to people literally across the world, people who I’d be best friends with, people I deeply connect with."

And if you don’t believe her, believe the stats: Sasha had fewer than 2,000 Instagram followers before appearing on the show; after she won, she had over 400,000, many of them ferociously dedicated teens pledging their allegiance to “the House of Velour.” Much to her own thrilled surprise, Sasha has found that having younger fans means having fans who rarely question that a drag look can center on gender-bending weirdness and a prominent unibrow.

“Teens can be really forward-thinking when it comes to drag aesthetics,” Sasha said. “I never felt that I had to defend my style of drag or my more androgynous fashions.”

Between the immediacy of social media, drag’s increased focus on all-ages events, and Drag Race making a concerted effort to appeal to its younger audience with educational segments and younger contestants, today’s teenagers — whether they’re loitering on New York City corners or finding community in the Deep South or partying in Brazil — can now be involved in the drag scene as they’ve literally never been able to before. They can find the queens they love on Instagram, laugh at their YouTube series, tag them in fan art, and find other fans on Tumblr. They can, in other words, find a community of fellow freaks in a minute flat of Googling.

As for the teen girl fans … well, there was no one better to ask about them than Visage, who found her way into drag’s subculture as a restless teen girl herself.

“I realized, these little girls are me. This is who I was as a kid,” she said. “They are the girls that don't fit in; they are the girls that are awkward.”

To find her chosen family, teenage Visage — blue mohawk, musical theater obsession and all — had to leave New Jersey for New York’s East Village, where she snuck into clubs, met RuPaul, and became part of a girl group. But now, she said with some wonder, girls like her can turn on the TV or open Instagram and in an instant find the fabulous freaks she struggled to discover.

At DragCon, Acid Betty — a season eight alum with 16 years of drag experience and a penchant for elaborate mohawks — marveled she’s never seen drag be “more accepted and more mainstream” than it is today.

“Now we’re out in fluorescent lights having conventions all weekend long with kid zones,” she said, eyes flickering to the corner with bouncy castles and a designated parking section for strollers. “It’s fantastic.”

For what it’s worth, RuPaul himself doesn’t quite agree with the “mainstream” label. As he told Vulture in 2016 while season eight was airing, he believes that drag will always be “the antithesis of mainstream” by its very nature of trying to fuck with the status quo. But he also conceded that Drag Race’s popularity may be “the most mainstream [drag] will get,” especially as a new generation of would-be drag queens get inspired by his own show. In his eyes, season eight — starring Naomi Smalls, popular Instagram artist Kim Chi, and “the people’s drag queen” Bob — became what Ru called “the children's Drag Race,” featuring “the kids who grew up watching it.”

Naomi Smalls, who told me in a recent interview with some amused confusion that her fan base seems to consist of kids from 4 years old to 17, said she loves to be a more “accessible” kind of icon for her fans. “When I was their age, it wasn’t as easy to go and meet Lady Gaga,” Naomi said. “I think it's so cool that they have these accessible drag queens they can gravitate toward.”

And that accessibility goes beyond the simple logistics of time, place, and age restrictions. During Naomi’s season, Kim Chi became a fan favorite for being open about not being comfortable telling her mother that she does drag at all, and the struggle that came from growing up not just closeted but “fat, femme, and Asian.” When Ru asked Kim Chi at the end of the season to give her younger self advice, she broke down, but found a way to say that “the things that you're ashamed of are going to be the things people love you for” — which was true.

That ability to be a role model for kids who don’t see themselves reflected in pop culture and/or want to be as fierce as their gender-bending idols can be the true reward for queens involved with the show — especially because there’s something familiar to them about these younger fans’ enthusiasm.

“I always thought that drag is a natural thing for little kids [to be into],” Sasha told me at DragCon. “I feel most connected to my little kid self when I'm doing drag, because I know that that idea of play and flexibility with what my identity is, or could be, is something that children immediately connect with. I think we're going to have a whole generation of amazing adults from these kids that love Drag Race.”

And the kids are, indeed, growing up alongside the show. “Some people come to me and say, ‘I’ve been watching you since I was in the eighth grade,’” season two (and three) queen Shangela told me at DragCon, eyebrows raising in faux outrage before she burst into laughter. Having first appeared on Drag Race as a newbie 23-year-old, Shangela acknowledged that her drag persona “really did grow up in front of a lot of people’s eyes — and with a lot of people, too.”

The power drag queens now have to connect with people on such a large scale, through the show and the internet alike, is an incredibly powerful resource. But as countless celebrities have discovered before and since, the new ability fans have to reach their idols can go awry — and so it has at times for Drag Race, in a way the show is no longer able to ignore.

Fame in 2017 means being accessible — for better and for worse

Not every drag queen is so thrilled about how Drag Race has rebranded drag as a prominent pop culture fixture. Queens like Sharon Needles routinely try to remind fans to learn about the actual history of drag beyond the show, while season seven contestant Jasmine Masters famously declared that “Drag Race fucked up drag” by creating a culture wherein queens who haven’t been on the show get shut out in favor of anyone who has, regardless of their other qualifications or lack thereof.

To that point, one side effect of Drag Race becoming as popular as it has is that in many ways, the queens are no longer playing for the actual title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. Instead, they’re keeping an eye toward what happens after the show, and how to parlay their newfound fame into a lasting career.

People playing for their post-show careers, to be frank, has made for some less than exciting seasons of Drag Race. While the messier, more under-the-radar early seasons featured queens going off on each other at the drop of an eyelash, the contestants of later seasons tend to be much more cautious, much more aware of how any shady comment could get ripped apart by the show’s most enthusiastic fans — many of them teens — who can be eager to find (or stir up) drama where there might not even be any.

The queens’ heightened self-awareness made for some fascinating TV during 2016’s self-referential All Stars 2. Favorites like season seven’s Katya and season five’s Alaska Thunderfuck and Alyssa Edwards returned to the show, having already learned what their time on air had done for their careers, and figured out how to either change or exploit their reputations.

But All Stars 2 made it clear how much the game had changed offscreen, too. There have always been Drag Race fans who target some queens specifically, but the line between contestant and viewer has never been thinner than in the past couple of years, as queens have come to rely on social media more than ever to boost their profiles. And if a fan base sees a reason to go after someone … well, it can get ugly, fast.

At one point in All Stars 2, for example, Alaska’s perceived sneakiness led fans to descend upon her Twitter and Instagram comments with line upon line of snake emojis. Alaska, being a particularly smart comedy queen, almost immediately turned the controversy into a winking “fuck you if you don’t like it” set of videos, starring herself as the Queen of Snakes.

But while Alaska bounced back from that harassment, watching the way season nine has been received by fans has felt like watching a whole other show.

It all came to a head when Valentina, a fan favorite among younger viewers in particular, got eliminated far earlier than expected for not knowing the words to a lip sync. Some furious fans took to other queens’ social media to hurl epithets and threats their way, turning previously supportive spaces into cesspools of abuse.

Aja, a season nine competitor who once questioned why the judges loved Valentina in a scathing (and, frankly, masterful) run that’s since become its own dance anthem, was so bombarded with hate that she turned the experience (and the comments themselves) into an uncharacteristically somber act.

This season nine phenomenon was eventually addressed on the reunion episode, which was taped recently enough for the contestants to ask Valentina point blank why she wasn’t speaking out against the abuse.

“I don’t agree with that kind of behavior because that’s not the kind of person that I am,” Valentina finally said, at which point Peppermint threw up her hands and sputtered, “Why didn’t you say that on the media?!” After the reunion aired, Valentina asked her fans to put rose emojis on the other queens’ Instagrams as a sign of goodwill — a move that maybe tried to subvert the hate expressed through Alaska’s snake emoji onslaught, but some may have found to be more passive-aggressive than genuinely affectionate.

It’s the kind of conflict that even a few years ago might have felt hyperbolic. But now, as Drag Race celebrity has to contend with the same kind of passionate online circles that pop stars have been shying away from for decades, it’s something the queens have to consider from here on out.

“It makes me sad that these kids think it’s okay to put so much hate out in the universe,” says Visage. “Now more than ever, we need kids to post roses and mean it.”

But Drag Race inspires kids to embrace who they are, and that’s pretty fantastic

As with most online bullshit, though, that abusive faction of the Drag Race fandom is a vocal minority. While some fans abuse the fact that Drag Race contestants are so accessible, so many more are creating beautiful art and expressing real love for the queens in a way that reminds them of why they wanted to be on Drag Race in the first place.

After the season nine reunion reopened that firestorm of inter-fan fighting, for instance, other fans started supportive hashtags for their favorite queens to buoy their spirits. Searching the #SmilesForSasha hashtag reveals a whole host of beaming teen fans thanking Sasha Velour for being someone who “always makes me smile,” for “helping me to accept myself,” or, more simply, for being “my everything.”

There are, in other words, a whole mess of youth finding a piece of themselves in someone they may not have expected, but are endlessly grateful to have found.

Whatever ugliness might have arisen throughout the season, Peppermint wrote to me, she still loves to use social media “to connect with younger queer youth who may feel isolated and alone in their community.” After all, she continued, “that sense of community we feel in the bars isn’t necessarily available to those teens — but they still need someone to hear them.”

Maybe it’s as simple as that: These kids don’t just want to be listened to — they want to be truly heard, seen, and loved for the beautiful weirdos they are. They can look to people who embrace their strangeness like Sasha, are frank about their anxiety like Katya, allow themselves to be open about their struggles like Kim Chi. They can see these queens acknowledge their vulnerability and emerge more gorgeous than ever, even as they stitch together some last minute eleganza from literal scraps.

Sometimes — and especially when you’re a kid and everything feels like the best and worst colliding in your heart and brain all at once — you just need reassurance that you’re worthy from someone you think might actually understand.

So, no, I wasn’t surprised when that girl at DragCon let herself cry and ask RuPaul, Supermodel of the World, how he gets up every day and knows he’s beautiful — and neither was RuPaul. As the girl fought to keep her composure, he walked to the edge of the stage and held her gaze.

“I’m looking at you,” RuPaul told her, “and you’re beautiful.”

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