Making RuPaul
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Making RuPaul
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

When RuPaul’s mother was pregnant, she went to a psychic who said RuPaul would be famous.

That psychic was right. With Emmys, Tonys and 14 studio albums, RuPaul Andre Charles has become the world’s most famous drag queen. But before superstardom, Ru was just a kid in the big city, go-go dancing to make ends meet.

“None of us had any money back then. We were all shopping at thrift stores,” said friend and legendary drag queen Lady Bunny. “We were all kind of artsy-fartsy bums.”

Joining Lady Bunny are DJ and songwriter Larry Tee, author and drag historian Simon Doonan and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Shea Couleé in conversation with host Brandon Pope. A dive into the critical years that turned RuPaul into a supernova.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Making RuPaul
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Making RuPaul
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

When RuPaul’s mother was pregnant, she went to a psychic who said RuPaul would be famous.

That psychic was right. With Emmys, Tonys and 14 studio albums, RuPaul Andre Charles has become the world’s most famous drag queen. But before superstardom, Ru was just a kid in the big city, go-go dancing to make ends meet.

“None of us had any money back then. We were all shopping at thrift stores,” said friend and legendary drag queen Lady Bunny. “We were all kind of artsy-fartsy bums.”

Joining Lady Bunny are DJ and songwriter Larry Tee, author and drag historian Simon Doonan and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Shea Couleé in conversation with host Brandon Pope. A dive into the critical years that turned RuPaul into a supernova.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: I mean who would have thought that a 6 foot 4 Black drag queen with blonde hair would be an international star. Well, I would have thought that. And that’s what happened.


Brandon Pope: From WBEZ Chicago…


Brandon Pope: This is Making. I’m Brandon Pope. Today...

ARCHIVE: Wake up Pearl. 

ARCHIVE: Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.

ARCHIVE: I’ll be the judge of that.

Brandon Pope: It’s Making RuPaul. He’s arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. With Emmys, Tonys and 14 studio albums, RuPaul’s work is well known. But his legacy reaches far beyond Hollywood awards. He’s opened doors for the queer community and brought drag to a whole new stage.

ARCHIVE: The most influential queer show that has ever existed.

ARCHIVE: Of course Ru because she is the mother of everything.

ARCHIVE: You have changed the world of drag forever…

Brandon Pope: What does it take to change a culture? What were the “Making” years for RuPaul Andre Charles?

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: A drag queen?! A drag queen? I am the queen of drag!


Brandon Pope: From WBEZ Chicago this is Making, I'm Brandon Pope. Joining us to discuss Ru Paul's early years and sparkling legacy are four guests. First we have close friend and DJ Larry T, who wrote RuPaul's smash hit Supermodel (You Better Work). 

Larry Tee: You better work.

Brandon Pope: You better work! That's right. Next we have a queen that's been by Ru’s side since his Atlanta years, founder of Wigstock and legendary drag queen Lady Bunny.

Lady Bunny: Thank you so much. And please don't forget that I am Ru’s younger drag sister.

Brandon Pope: We also have commentator and author of Drag: The Complete Story, Simon Doonan.

Simon Doonan: Thanks for having me.

Brandon Pope: And last but not least, you may have seen her on Drag Race or All Stars right here from ChiTown, Shea Coulee.

Shea Coulee: I'm so excited to be here and I did not come to play I came to slay.

Lady Bunny: Work.

Brandon Pope: So, I want to go around and ask a warm up question to everybody. One word to describe RuPaul?

Lady Bunny: Gorgeous.

Larry Tee: Oh my god. Alien

Simon Doonan: Extraordinary

Shea Coulee: Magnetic

Brandon Pope: RuPaul’s mother visited a psychic when she was pregnant. That psychic said Ru would be famous.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: So I grew up with this idea knowing I would be famous, I didn’t know how.

Brandon Pope: He had three sisters. After his parents divorced, his single mom raised them all. It was a house full of women-in-charge. So by the time he was four, he began dressing like Diana Ross and Jane Fonda. Here’s his sister in a 2001 A&E biography.

ARCHIVE ROZY: There was one person across the street who said to Ru, you Ru should be the girl and you Rozy should be the boy because I was a total tomboy.

Brandon Pope: After flunking out of high school, Ru moved to Atlanta with his sister Renetta and her husband. He went to a Performing Arts school there but never graduated. Instead, he helped out at the family car dealership. Then one day.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: There was a public access television show I saw called the American Music Show. And I felt like I discovered America. I was like, okay this is where I belong. These people understand me. They were sarcastic, they were funny. So I wrote them a letter. And I said I need to be on your show.

Brandon Pope: It was public access TV, filmed at someone’s house with a budget of $5. He sent in a tape and they were sold. He appeared on the series regularly.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: This is the American Music show season fourteen number six, taped February 19th, to be shown February 22nd, 1985. Tonight featuring me, RuPaul! 

Brandon Pope: RuPaul finally found his people. Imagine the Atlanta nightclub scene in the early 80s. Just a couple of kids messing around and dressing like punk rockers.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: It was yesterday morning, I think I was tripping yesterday morning. Tripping on what? Just tripping on life. And I realized that I’m doing a lot of the thinking for other people that they don't have time to do because they are busy working or doing something else. And that’s what I feel I do. So I write books, I perform live on stage, I do videotape...

Brandon Pope: Eventually he created his own band. First, RuPaul and the U-Hauls. Then, Wee Wee Pole. At night, he’d perform in drag. Here’s RuPaul in 1983.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it, I don’t want it.

Brandon Pope: But in 1984, RuPaul’s roommate Lady Bunny founded the drag festival Wigstock in New York City. It was time for the crew to spread their wings and head to the Big Apple.

Brandon Pope: Just want to quickly point out. RuPaul has been pretty vocal over her career that she does not have a preferred pronoun of choice. She said you can call me he, she, they. So we’re gonna do a mix, just a clarification for our listeners. So Larry let's start with you. You were friends with Ru in Atlanta in those early days in the 80s. What was it like meeting RuPaul?

Larry Tee: You know, I remember at the time, when RuPaul showed up, I thought he had like fallen out of the sky. When I say I thought he was an alien. He was just so different from Atlantans that we knew. Here was this fully blown rock star character that just landed fully formed. And when he showed up at the American Music Show. They said, so what would you like to do on our show? And he said, Oh, I don't know. And so he would lip sync other people's songs. Maybe a Whitney Houston song. And, I mean, there was just nothing. There was nothing like him. There were no drag role models. There were no tall skinny gay dudes that knew they were going to be a star. And they - that would be the first thing that would tell you when you met them, is that i was practically "Hi, I'm RuPaul I'm a big star."

Brandon Pope: Now Lady bunny, can you tell me the firs time you met RuPaul in Georgia. How'd you meet Ru, and what was your first impression?

Lady Bunny: It was probably at a show for Larry Tee's band, The Now Explosion, where Ru and I were Go Go dancers. We didn't get paid. We just wanted to make the scene and we could get into the clubs for free. And that was… that was how we met. It's interesting to me to say, to hear his mom saying that, that he was going to be famous no matter what, because the funny thing is, none of us had any money back then. We were all shopping at thrift stores. One time we got a gig as extras on a film set and took the lunch money, left the set, and we went to the thrift store to spend that money. But you know, we were all kind of you know, artsy fartsy bums. Ru’s jobs in Atlanta would be few and far in between, as were mine. So we would do things like work at Popeyes, but not Ru. Ru would just wait for months and months and months until you know, there was a show. I'm glad he became famous because he works his ass off now. But he was not going to work at a job that was beneath him. Even though we had no money,

Brandon Pope: Putting a new emphasis on "You better work."

Lady Bunny: Exactly. Ru would just go up to people in clubs and say do you have $1? And it was so insane, that people would often give it to him. So, you know, it was, it was like you just weren't. You weren't really used to that.

Brandon Pope: Shea I’m gonna bring you in here. You weren't even born during this era of nightlife yet so I kind of want to get your reaction to this era. Does this sound any different than what drag is now?

Shea Coulee: Um, I feel like with people like RuPaul it's very few and far between that you meet someone that has just so much like recognizable star power just from like, the moment that you meet them. And it's funny to go through all of these descriptions that everyone is sharing with their firsthand accounts, because I've only experienced this through photos and videos. You know there's this very specific video of like a night out that's like somewhere on YouTube with like RuPaul in this like white, kind of like negligee, a kind of corselette top and this really short skirt and this trench coat that honestly I think of all the time because you can really see RuPaul being a working girl talking about their experience in the clubs, saying I let all these men touch on me for money, but girl, I gotta pay these bills. So and I was just like, and I've been there in the club when you're trying to get a couple of extra dollars. And there's a chaser there at the club, and you're like, you know, I mean, I guess you can grope my thigh and then give me a $20. Honestly, hearing all of this, it's like, look, the hustle is real. And it doesn't really go anywhere. It's like not everyone gets the luxury of being an international global superstar. So like the girls that are deep, you know, within the scene, they gotta hustle, and the hustle is real.

Lady Bunny: Wait are you telling me that you get $20 for someone to grope your thigh? I've gotta raise my prices.

Shea Coulee: You gotta negotiate Bun, Bun.

Lady Bunny: RuPaul just got $1 back in the day. He was very happy.

Shea Coulee: Inflation. It's crazy.

Brandon Pope: Sounds like an industry I need to jump into myself. $20 to touch my thigh. They say big thighs save lives. I've got them. Now, after Atlanta, RuPaul and crew decide to head to NYC. Larry Tee, you went with Ru. Why did you all decide to make the move?

Larry Tee: Yeah, you know, actually, after we, you know, made every movie done every song that we could write and done in the clubs until we were just bored out of our minds, we hit a point where we really needed to do something, but we didn't really know what it was. So we just loaded up all our stuff in a van and decided to move to New York. And I'm telling you right as we were crossing the Tennessee border, we had a flat tire. It literally blew out violently and the van flipped on the interstate. And literally our stuff was blown out of the back of the van like confetti. And it was like this warm November weird November day. And we were like scrambling around on this empty interstate gathering up our life's possessions. And most of it really didn't matter, like the outfits and the wigs and the glitter balls and the music equipment. But we did manage to save the important thing. And once we got the tire fixed, and we got the van rolling again, we drove to a Heritage USA, Jim and Tammy Bakker’s amusement park in Tennessee, because that was just like what we would do. You know, it was like that was our best idea at that point, was to go and see Jim and Tammy Bakker after nearly killing ourselves. So.

Brandon Pope: Were you hurt? Was anybody hurt?

Larry Tee: No, I remember actually, it's funny after the van flipped back over upright, I was like, I just sat there in the van. Like in sort of in shock, I guess. And Ru kind of nudges me and says, Hey doll, I think we should get out of the van. Like, I was just so, I was just like what happened? And you know, and I mean that should have been a sign of what's to come after that.

Brandon Pope: Things weren’t all glitz and glam in the big city. Ru and his friends struggled to make ends meet. Here’s his friend Flloyd on A&E:

ARCHIVE: We slept in Central Park. We slept in Abingdon Square Park. We slept in Tompkins Square Park. We would sleep in people’s houses. We would sleep in people’s houses that wanted to sleep with me. We would sleep in people’s houses that didn’t want to sleep with me.

Brandon Pope: But RuPaul hustled. He performed in drag and went go-go dancing every night to make himself known. Here is Ru at New York’s Pyramid Club in 1984.

ARCHIVE: New York City. Where slaves are slaves. And I’m a slave.

Brandon Pope: Soon, his name was known across the city. And in 1989, he was named club Queen of Manhattan. One day, his friend Cindy Wilson asked him to be in a music video for her band, the B-52’s. The song was “Love Shack.” 


Brandon Pope: It was his first national stage. Then, RuPaul released a song that changed it all.


ARCHIVE: My next guest not only can get away with wearing the shortest of skirts, but she can almost dunk a basketball too. Performing her hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work),” a girl who knows how to dress for success, RuPaul!

Brandon Pope: “Supermodel (You Better Work)” hit the Top 50 charts. It became one of the biggest dance club anthems of the 90s. RuPaul was officially national.

Brandon Pope: Every time I hear that song.

Shea Coulee: Every single time. Every single time. It was a hit then and it is a hit now

Brandon Pope: That’s House music for you, timeless. 

Shea Coulee: Yes. 

Brandon Pope: Simon Doonan, I'm gonna bring you in here - our drag historian here today. Paint the scene for me. What was the NYC nightlife like in the 80s and 90s?

Simon Doonan: What happened in the 80s was truly extraordinary. There was this unfurling of creativity, a collision, explosion of culture. There's graffiti, there's fashion, this style is music. It's all colliding for the first time. You know, you have people like Keith Herring, Madonna, Warhol changing the culture. And Ru is one of those people. And who are these people? These people are like Bunny, they're like, Larry, they're like, Shea today. But they're glamorous outsiders. They're audacious people from small towns who don't know what they're going to do, don't have an end goal in mind. They just know that that's something inside them is propelling them to be insane, and creative and demented and bonkers. And so you get this influx of these audacious, glamorous outsiders. No one was giving them an airline ticket. They weren't texting their mothers, please pay my Amex card. These are people who were scrappy, and crazy and creative, and it produced the 80s. And the backdrop of all this, the backdrop is the worst fucking decade of my life, where all your friends are dying. We were, we were in the midst of this terrible death and destruction of our friend groups and I often wonder if the unfurling of creativity that happened in the 80s, may be part of part of why it was so vigorous and so high voltage and why you had these extraordinary people like RuPaul come out of it. Maybe that had something to do with it, the misery and death that was going on as a backdrop for that.

Brandon Pope: Man, what a breakdown there Simon. I mean, yeah, the pain of that era and the AIDS epidemic. I think you see it in multiple communities, pain often creates really purposeful art, and really powerful art. And I think we saw that in the 80s and the 90s. Shea, I'm gonna bring you in here. You know, you've innovated a lot in this new era of drag. Do you take inspiration from the 80s and 90s era of nightlife and bring that into what you do now?

Shea Coulee: Oh, absolutely. I think, for me, what I always tend to go to are like my first introductions and associations with drag culture, house music, but I will never, I honestly will never, ever forget the first time I saw RuPaul. My sister, my older sister, Ayanna, may she rest in peace, was such a huge fan of RuPaul. And I remember, because she obviously knew that I was a special little child, sat me down because it was, the music video was playing on MTV for Supermodel (You Better Work) and she was like, come here, I want you to see this. And I remember sitting down like on the floor, and like looking up watching the TV and being so just entranced by what I was witnessing. I didn't, I didn't even know what a drag queen was. I just remember seeing RuPaul and being like, I don't even know, it was kind of like seeing an alien. I was like, I don't even know what it is that I'm witnessing right now. But whatever this is, I want to experience a piece of that. And I didn't really know at that time that such a deep seed had been planted. But it was definitely there. And those influences still, you know, really, really contributed a lot to my art and my point of view today.

Brandon Pope: Simon, there were so many drag queens in this era of NYC. What to you made RuPaul standout amongst the others?

Simon Doonan: Well, my first encounter with Ru, I thought, wow, you know, holy crap, she just looks incredible. First of all, you know, she was three-foot taller than me in these extraordinary heels with tunnel curls. So she was bringing some of that pageant glamour, but making it hip, making it groovy and being incredibly tall and most importantly, being immaculate. She was in a class of her own - sorry, Bunny - with the terms of the immaculate maquillage. 

Brandon Pope: Larry Tee, what do you think?

Larry Tee: You know, Ru didn't just come down from the heavens meticulously done. In fact, it was right up until her single was released that she was still really rough and it was just like she was just on survival mode. She would just throw it on and you know, just literally she could do her makeup in 10 minutes if need be. And because it was like survival drag at that point, but when she got that deal and she did the video for Supermodel (You Better Work) bitch, which I co-wrote, you know, it came out of the fact that we'd gone we'd gotten a gig in Milan and gotten to see a Versace show a Jil Sander show, and we were, we were fashion addicts, and we were like, oh my god, we got to see the supermodels. And, and I'm sure that's where it came from. Before then she didn't have the gorgeous curls. She didn't have the perfect hair. She didn't have the waist cincher. And that was really the beginning of the new RuPaul. You know when she does her look at the beginning of each show. And she says you know, this is the front and this is the back kind of came from the beginning of her career with the song Supermodel (You Better Work) bitch.

Lady Bunny: Yeah, and she didn't want to do this is the back before Supermodel because three inches of that big foot were hanging off of those mules.

Simon Doonan: Well, I think like glamor drag, and comedy drag, historically have always been quite separate. And I think the magic of Ru is this. She mashed it together. And it worked so well, because she's just an innately funny person. And I remember the people who were fun, which was Bunny and the Pyramid Club and the John Beethoven's in the Suzanne Barcia's of the world. And then there were these very sort of introspective people wearing brooches at the neck. And so I think that's an important distinction, because then Ru has fearlessly put together comedy drag and glamor drag.

Brandon Pope: Larry, Ru briefly moved to LA after struggling in New York for a bit, and then you made a call to bring him back. You remember that?

Larry Tee: Yeah, I do. You know, I remember at the time, when Ru left New York, I remember just thinking, Oh, this is, this is no good. And I also had been to LA enough to know that drag wasn't going to necessarily at that time be a key to stardom, because out there drag really kind of meant you were hooking. You know what I mean? And so, she went out there and she kinda hit bottom out in LA, and she was staying on couches and, and she had no money, and she was walking around LA and you know, you're in trouble when you're walking around LA. So I, I called the bitch and I said, Ru, what are you doing over there? Like, like a stern mother. And I said, “You need to get your ass back to New York.” And so I bought her a ticket back to New York. And she had this one moment where - and she can't talk about it without crying, and it's really like, it's the only time I see that girl cry is when she's talking about this moment where she really lost her faith that she was going to be a star. I don't believe she ever totally lost her faith. But there was doubt there. But then when she got back to New York, she just set herself straight.

Brandon Pope: Larry, can you break down what it meant for RuPaul to come back to New York City and be crowned Queen of Manhattan? 

Larry Tee: You know, that the king and queen of Manhattan was totally just Michael Alig, another excuse for Michael Alig to throw a party. There was no voting system, there was no group of judges deciding every year we would just get, we would sit down and decide, like who we thought was big enough to like be King or Queen of Manhattan, and we just needed somebody that was like, big enough of a personality that we could hang this thing around. So it was really just a scam.

Lady Bunny: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, this is a dubious title, which I also received Queen. I don't remember but I think it was before Ru. Yeah, this isn't something that we put on our press releases. This is something you know that the limelight did.

Brandon Pope: So, shortly after that, Ru is in Love Shack with the B-52's. Larry, walk us through the importance of that national appearance for RuPaul.

Larry Tee: You know, the in the love shack video was really Ru’s Farrah Fawcett moment because Farrah Fawcett was on a TV show where she didn't really say anything. But everybody said, “who is that?” I remember my dad and I waiting for Farah to show up on this TV show. And in the Love Shack video, she plays a Farrah Fawcett role where you're watching the video and it's cute and everybody it's like, you know, a bunch of normies dressed up in 60s gear. And then there's RuPaul. like doing this crazy dance and it was that moment where everybody in that saw the video and everybody saw that video. They went, who is that? 

Brandon Pope: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Now Larry, I'm gonna stick with you. You wrote supermodel, or co-wrote it. Did you know it was going to be a massive success when you when you did that?

Larry Tee: Oh god no, you know, you know I wrote supermodel because A: I love RuPaul and I wanted to see them be big and they got a record deal with of all things his hip hop label called Tommy Boy. An, I thought, well, if you're gonna do a song, why don't you take what is that theme of the moment and at the time, it was all about the supermodels. The supermodels would come to our Love Machine parties in a supermodel cluster, Linda, Christie and Naomi and they’d stand together so that you couldn't miss them under a light. Just fabulous. And all the Queen's would come up and say Cindy, Christie, you're my favorite, you know. And it came out so quick that we hadn't even signed the paperwork when it came out. And I remember at the time thinking, I don't know. And then I learned to love it. 25 years later when the money's still rolling in off that.

Lady Bunny: Larry, do you remember that mix? That was played in the New York clubs, which were more underground. They never played the radio mix. They just played one, and I never understood this, where all you heard was "work, doo-doo-doo, work, doo-doo-doo..." What's the name of that mix?

Larry Tee: Well, yeah, it was there was an underground mix. You know, it was on the most dance songs would have a life about three months. But this song stayed on the chart the entire year. And it was because halfway through MTV picked up the video. And then that convinced Tommy Boy to doing this remix that was more tribal. It was just tribal drums. And then so it stayed on longer than any other song that year.


Brandon Pope: Alright when we come back, we’ll chat about Drag Race. More Making, in a minute.


Brandon Pope: Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and RuPaul began a new project with a longtime friend Randy Barbato.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: And in his eyes, I’m going to say this without crying. I could see everything that I had done in my career, I could see reflected back in his eyes. I could see that he could see what my potential was, what I could do. I had never met anyone who could see that thing.

Brandon Pope: Barbato and Fenton Bailey had founded World of Wonder Productions. And they wanted to recruit RuPaul for a new reality TV show. Ru was hesitant at first. But one thing changed his mind: President Barack Obama’s 2008 win. He told Vulture in 2017 he felt a social and cultural change coming. And RuPaul’s Drag Race was born. 


Brandon Pope: But when the series piloted, it was very low-budget. They shot in a basement. The control room was a closet. Here’s a season one contestant, Shannel:

ARCHIVE: It was filmed through a Coke bottle, we know that. It was a very, very, very small set. I remember checking into the hotel and it was a very mediocre establishment and it was like eh, okay.

Brandon Pope: The show didn’t need money to be successful. It needed stories. And it delivered. One queen revealed she was HIV-positive, another discussed weight problems. 

ARCHIVE: I would like to send out to the plus size community, live your dreams, don’t let anybody stop you, don’t let your size stop you. Unfortunately, I’m the first to go, but I made it here.

Brandon Pope: And people loved it. It became known for its iconic looks and iconic lines. 

ARCHIVE DRAG RACE: Now, sashay away…

ARCHIVE LATRICE ROYAL: 5 Gs please. Good God, get a grip girl. 

ARCHIVE SHEA COULEE: My big fat, 14-inch clock.

ARCHIVE: I don’t have to be your friend to win this show. This is not RuPaul’s best friend race. No shit, Sherlock!

Brandon Pope: It now has dozens of adaptations across the world

ARCHIVE: Señoras y señores, a continuación una nueva temporada del estelar por todos los chilenos…

Brandon Pope: And 26 Emmys. 

ARCHIVE: And the winner is RuPaul’s drag race!

Brandon Pope: And in 2018, RuPaul earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

ARCHIVE RUPAUL: Everybody say love. Everybody say love. Now drive that down Hollywood Boulevard. Get your ass out here. This is absolutely the most important moment in my professional career. Thank you so much.

Brandon Pope: All right now we're talking Drag Race. So Simon, what was Drag Race’s turning point. How does it go from a show filmed in a basement to the supernova that it is today?

Simon Doonan: I think it's what you said in the montage that people don't really care about production values. They don't care that they played with a World of Wonder very cleverly played with a low budget. They knew that you can't fool the audience. But what they gave them instead were all of these incredible truths about people's lives, how they live. And, you know, the empathy that was incorporated into that show is priceless. And I think that propelled it forward. But not done in a more mawkish overly sentimental way. They never, it never becomes annoying. It's always incredibly real and like, I'm like, clutching the Kleenex in front of the TV because it's, I don't know, it's just the impact on the wider culture of something like that is just inestimable

Brandon Pope: So Bunny, as a queen and a friend, when did you start to think wow, this show is gonna be a big deal.

Lady Bunny: Well I guess I have a little bit of a different opinion from maybe Simon and you, because I'm too old to appreciate any reality TV you know. It’s not my era, but also I don't think the stories have anything to do with a competition. And I just don't understand, you know, I mean, if I, if I'm seeing people competing, I want to see people who are ready for a competition. I mean, there was one season where everybody was sick. And it has become very mawkish to constantly focus - listen, if you're not ready to compete that don't come on the show, you know, I mean, it's like, one had a cyst. And I'm like, Okay, it's reality TV. But I mean, this is - get somebody without a cyst. I mean, so, you know, drag race stresses the stories, and I guess they make some people feel good over the actual talent. I don't know, that's perhaps a little bit of a different take.

Brandon Pope: Shea?

Shea Coulee: I think that's also due to kind of, I feel like the cultural shift that the show in and of itself has created because if you look at like the earlier seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I felt like, you know, it really did, you know, try and show all the different aspects where drag talent can really allow themselves to flourish. I feel like because the competitors on the show have become so much younger, a lot of them lack that real life world experience of working a mic in a club, being able to command an entire audience. You know, because of the internet and social media, a lot of people, you know, receive notoriety by just doing their makeup and sitting in their rooms. So it doesn't give them the opportunity to become this fully rounded Drag Queen. And I feel like that's where we start to see a lot of those weaknesses that come forward from the contestants. And you know, we want to lean into the story because, you know, these are compelling people. But at the same time, I feel like, you know, in recent years and seasons, since, you know, a lot of the contestants now are all under 30. You don't really see that same type of like texture that I felt like really enriched and made those earlier seasons so impactful and game changing.

Brandon Pope: Larry, what about you? What do you think?

Larry Tee: Well, you know, again, I think the World of Wonder was clever enough to figure out that, that A: people wanted the stories and they wanted the lingo. I mean, the first two seasons, it might have been called Madame Tussaud’s Drag Race, because it was really stiff and really controlled. And very, Ru was very Judge Judy, but then really wonder focuses on these stories that and they kind of bring, like a lot of average gay people right into your home, which I don't think a lot of people had ever seen. And since a large percentage of the viewership is women, because it's like, it's like comfort food for women. But I also agree with Shea in that you know, a lot of the new contestants haven't had to actually hold a stage and keep a crowd and make them laugh. And at an MC, at a performance. And the new generation really doesn't have that kind of experience to really let the bitches have it like the old girls didn't because they really had to work. 

Lady Bunny: Yeah, I mean, I will say this. You know, like, Kim Chi is not the best live performer and she knows it. And we've discussed it. But I mean, she's got a makeup line out in a drugstore in LA, maybe elsewhere. So there are different I mean, there are Queens called look queens who do incredible things with their appearance, but may not be the best live entertainers. They're still talented. But I don’t know... 

Brandon Pope: I want to zoom out and talk about legacy. Super broad question here. I’m going to start with you, Shea. What was Ru’s wider influence on the culture?

Shea Coulee: (Whistles) I mean, there's so much influence there. You know, it's like RuPaul really is the blueprint for the way that we associate modern day drag stardom, you know, when you were reading off Ru’s credits earlier and you said that they have fourteen albums. My jaw dropped. Now I'm a fan of Ru’s music and you know, I'll stream the albums and I literally was like damn, there are 14 of these bitches. Like she's got more albums than Rihanna. What RuPaul has really solidified is that you can be a drag mogul you know you can dip your toe and all of these different industries you can be a television host you can be a model you can be a recording artist, you can be an actor, you can have cosmetics, you can have a candy bar, you can have a doll, you can really do it all, just as long as you put your all in it. And RuPaul has launched the careers of countless drag queens and it is just so incredible to see the reach, to see the way that RuPaul’s brand has continued to expand and inspire and the fact that like I can be out here now, being a full time drag queen and, you know, be a homeowner, you know, like have young kids who come up to me and say that they look up to me for what I do is just really a testament to how impactful RuPaul's career and contributions to the world of modern drag have been.

Brandon Pope: Well said Shea. Simon?

Simon Doonan: The black drag queen - I've got in my book, which I have here, I have a chapter devoted to the black drag queen because black drag queens are the source. You know, you can turn on CNN now and people are talking about throwing shade and blah, blah, blah. And it all goes back to The Black Drag queen as a cultural source and Ru being obviously the apex of that so I'll just read you the first little bit here because I wrote it . Avis Pendarvis, Kennedy Davenport, Jasmine Masters, Angie Extravaganza, Mona Foot, Nina Bo Nina Brown, Connie Girl, The Vixen, Chi Chi DeVayne, Che Calais, Peppermint. These are a few of my favorite black drag queens. Whether finger popping, reading, mopping, gagging, voguing, talking to the hand, twerking, working, throwing shade, serving genius and overness, being legendary or simply giving realness, the black drag queen is an enduring source of fascination and inspiration. And she generously and magnanimously enriches the culture, often receiving comparatively little in return. And we must all bow down before her, #gratitude. Yeah, and I think Ru is you know, Ru is the, you know, the Empress of that.

Brandon Pope: Larry, how about you? Let's talk about legacy. What's your take? 

Larry Tee: You know, one of the things that always astounds me is there's there's been a lot of TV shows and documentaries, around gender, in America and on TV, and they always leave RuPaul out, like I don’t know. Maybe because she stepped in it once or twice in the everchanging dialogue about he/she/they/them, about have trans on the show. One of the things that is clear RuPaul put her big pump in the door, opened the door just a little at first, to allow people to express themselves in whatever way they chose. But for a for a whole generation. I'll bet if you talk to any trans person, trans woman out there, that if you said, Do you remember when you first heard RuPaul's record, you know, they will remember like it was the Kennedy assassination. It was such a loud shot in the gender conversation throughout the world. It was like such a powerful moment of being seen for so many people, trans women, you know, a lot of times come through drag to get to their transness. You know, before they realize, Oh, I'm a woman. I'm not a drag queen anymore. And to me, just watching this and watching and watching her make mistakes. And to me the show has also been a learning moment for America and the world. 

Brandon Pope: Larry, you mention watching Ru make mistakes. She has previously gotten in some hot water for her comments about the trans community. That includes in 2018, she justified the exclusion of trans women from Drag Race. Shea, you come from a different generation here. So I'm curious what your take is, given what Larry just said about Ru also opening doors for trans women? 

Shea Coulee: So for me, I always have to at least try and give room for people's experiences. And you know, it's Ru Paul's experience coming up in the scene, it was a different time. And I feel like we needed to allow mother to have time to have this like learning moment without infighting within the community. Having a learning moment is important, but also being on the other side and creating a teachable moment without kind of attacking somebody, it's also really important too - being able to have like compassion in the way that you approach someone. I feel personally that the show has really made so many strides in it's inclusion of the stories of trans individuals. Now, we are seeing the inclusion of so many trans contestants on the show. And as a viewer, as a fan, had I wish we had had more people with trans experience on there sooner? Asolutely. But I am so happy that we get to have that now, I feel like really has opened up a lot of doors around those conversations of identity and how trans-ness relates to drag and how you can be trans and do drag. And you know, it's not this or that. But at the same time, I also wanted for people to have a little bit more compassion for Ru and their journey in learning about how to handle this.

Simon Doonan: I will say, I mean, that the change - the revolution in gender and trans has been quite rapid, you know, so we're all we're all sort of trying to keep up with it and make sure we're, we're expressing things in the in the correct way. And when I started writing my drag book, there was a firewall between drag and trans. If you wanted to insult somebody who was trans, you would call them a drag queen, you know? So that changed and that change was rapid. And I think RuPaul's Drag Race is a mirror of the culture, you know, and now has evolved with the culture and now mirrors the culture. And you know that mirroring process is complex and involves dialogue. And as Shea says compassion and, and listening and being like, oh, okay, yeah, right. And I get that, you know, that's so important.

Brandon Pope: I mean, this is quite a great conversation, a powerful conversation, and a nuanced one. And I really appreciate all of you for, for your bringing your full selves into it, and being a part of it. Before we say goodbye, does anyone have any final comments about what RuPaul means to you?

Larry Tee: Yeah, you know, she reminds me that really anything's possible. She can be a model. She can be an actress, she can be a singer. She can be a candy bar salesman. You know, she can be a man. She can be a woman. To me, it's like anything's possible. You know, when she did her - put up her her signs all over Atlanta and midtown that said, "RuPaul is everything." It couldn't be more true. RuPaul is absolutely everything she decides she's going to be.

Brandon Pope: Thank you so much, everybody. 

ALL: Thank you.

Brandon Pope: Making RuPaul was produced by Heena Srivastava and Justin Bull. I’m your host Brandon Pope. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. More episodes are on the way, so be sure to press that subscribe button. And we’ll see you next week. 

WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.