The Rise of RuPaul's Drag Industrial Complex

What are RuPaul and his judges really looking for on 'Drag Race'? A queen to follow in his footsteps—and that means queens who, above all else, are entrepreneurs.

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Mar 24 2017, 8:39pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

In the introduction to Magnus Hastings' photo book Why Drag?, Boy George unequivocally asserts that "few have taken drag to the heights that RuPaul has. Ru has literally dragged drag into every living room in America."

That's nowhere clearer than in his long-running stint as host and producer of RuPaul's Drag Race. Since 2009, the reality TV show competition has played a major part in elevating drag's cachet from a countercultural artifact, tucked away in gay bars and drag balls, to highly celebrated entertainment. If drag is not yet mainstream—and Drag Race guest stars, from Lady Gaga to Chloë Sevigny to Aubrey Plaza, would indicate that it is—it is certainly no longer underground. That's thanks in no small part to Ru himself, whose show has helped introduce the world to over 100 queens. (More are on their way tonight, as Drag Race premieres its ninth season on VH1.)

While the show has championed queens of all stripes throughout its run—with queens specializing in comedy, pageantry, fashion and more—what's become apparent is that above all else, Ru and his judges groom and uplift what we could call the "Branded Queen". Queens who excel on Drag Race, by and large, are entrepreneurs who exhibit a willingness to hustle above all else. The rise of the entrepreneurial queen, in turn, has helped bring drag out of the gay bars and into the streets, changing the art form in strange (and often exciting) ways.

Where decades ago many drag queens could barely scrape by, with scant gigs available in select urban centers (as chronicled in Esther Newton's Mother Camp), making a living in drag today is all but the norm in some circles. Through live shows and appearances, pageants, merchandise, albums, and a near-limitless array of other ventures, many queens today are one-woman powerhouses.

Drag's transformation from an eccentric slice of queer entertainment into a veritable global industry is exactly what Ru would have wanted—after all, his career has been nothing if not an impressive hustle. With his incredibly successful show, a podcast, a string of albums ("available on iTunes," as he's wont to remind us), a lengthy list of film and television credits, two books, a drag conference, and a hand in nationwide Drag Race tours, not to mention a line of chocolates, it makes sense that he'd be drawn to similarly driven queens. He's said as much himself: to win Drag Race, queens "need to be a fashion designer, an American Idol, and a Top Model all rolled into one," he told Perez Hilton in 2008. "What we're looking for is someone who can really follow in my footsteps," he told Vulture a few seasons later. "Someone who can be hired by a company to represent their product."

It's those capitalist terms—those of a business-savvy queen who can parlay her own image and skills into a career through constant self-promotion—which, above all, describe Ru to a tee. No queen in the history of drag has so skillfully turned the art form into an industrious and lucrative endeavor, a testament to his ambition as much as it is to his talent.

Drag Race challenges often stress entrepreneurship, from the third season's "RuVC" segment, where queens created and pitched marketable products, to the following season, where they made infomercials for Ru's albums. In season five, queens were tasked with creating, marketing, and filming a commercial for a signature fragrance. In Drag Race: All Stars, the brief was simpler: they had to create a product "worthy of your unique 'All Star' brand." It was the most explicit acknowledgment of the show's mandate: to be a successful drag queen, you must embody and sell your brand.

New York City-based queen Miz Cracker (who has written for VICE) noted that Drag Race's success has created a nearly unsustainable glut of queens. "And now the business side of it"—attempts to create and sell merch, for example—"has become part of the excessive competition out there," she said. Former contestants, almost without exception, sell slews of products; sites like DragQueen Merch and Huntees pawn merchandise for hundreds of queens. For performers who once relied on pageant prizes, meager bar tips and side gigs to eek by, the drag economy has ballooned into its very own cottage industry.

Seaon six contestant BenDeLaCreme noted that that emphasis on brand above all has drawn focus away from what was once a queen's bread and butter: booking live shows. For certain queens, "the real focus now becomes the web content, the social media, and the rest of it—which is what gets you the booking—and then the booking itself is not the focus of the industry," she explained.

 All that capitalist pressure inevitably produces real innovation. Miz points to a queen like BibleGirl666, with her sizable Instagram following and the recent release of her own drag mobile game, as an example of a queen who's successfully internalized Drag Race's model of success. As BibleGirl told the New York Post following the game's launch, "my boyfriend and I saw how drag was starting to evolve as an industry. It was becoming a real market to tap into. Drag Race found a way to do that through TV, and I wanted to see if I could do that through another medium, like video games."

Drag, which might still in certain corners be understood as an art form, a cultural fuck-you, or a means of self-expression (and more likely a combination of all of the above), is now also a potentially lucrative business. If nothing else, RuPaul's Drag Race, as both a platform and a pulpit, has made it easier to envision being a drag queen as a full-time paying job. And to many on the show who talk about the constant hustle and the economic hardships they face on a daily basis as drag performers, that fantasy is now more than ever a plausible reality. Good wigs ain't cheap, didn't you know?

Follow Manuel Betancourt on Twitter.

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