For a generation raised on RuPaul’s Drag Race—now on VH1 in its 10th season—drag culture is simply part of the creative culture at large. Its lexicon has become the language of memes and primetime punchlines, its fashion appears on stadium stages.
“Drag always has a way of permeating mainstream culture,” says Christopher Caldwell, known as Bob the Drag Queen. “RuPaul said that drag would never be mainstream, but I think that he may have been wrong about that. I think it’s probably happening…”
Caldwell is a comedian and performer, whose big break came after winning the eighth season of Drag Race. He says the glamour of drag is what reels viewers in, but it has developed an ever-expanding popularity because of how Drag Race appeals to viewers’ humanity. “Even though on the surface we seem different, deep down, most people want the same thing, which is to be loved, to be accepted, to be happy, and to be successful,” he says.
For television programming executives, putting the spotlight on the underground culture of drag wasn’t an obvious recipe for success—even for a channel devoted to an LGBT audience. (Drag Race aired on LOGOtv from 2009 to 2016.) “Every show is a risk to some degree when you decide to make it,” says Pamela Post, the SVP of original programming and head of West Coast for MTV, VH1, and Logo. “Drag was an additional risk because I think it questioned a lot of issues around masculinity. It was men wearing dresses. But we certainly didn’t invent drag.”
“Even though on the surface [drag queens] seem different, deep down, most people want the same thing, which is to be loved, to be accepted, to be happy, and to be successful.”
The roots of drag culture are long, but the late 80’s to the mid-90s was “when drag collectively started to break out of the underground and into the mainstream,” says Linda Simpson, a drag comic has been part of the New York drag scene for decades. “It faded because the media lost interest. And back then, there was no internet. You couldn’t DIY your own career. You were totally dependent upon others to keep that momentum going. So once showbiz and media sort of became tired of the drag trend, they moved on to something else.”
“Maybe now the world is actually in a place where they can accept [drag] more than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” says Caldwell. “Back then it was just so foreign and there was nothing like it in the mainstream or in media, for that matter, and then as you see it more you start to be like, ‘Maybe this isn’t so crazy.’…I think our generation today is ready to put away gender norms and conformity, and maybe explore more so what it means to be a good people than it is to be a good man or a good woman.”
In other words, for all the costumes and glamour, drag culture is another way of self-expression and the pursuit of an identity—something that’s universally relatable. “I don’t know if I think of Drag Race as being mainstream. I just think of Drag Race as being successful,” says Post. “The second that we think Drag Race fits in the mainstream then the show may not be doing what it was always set out to do. I think that it allows for individuals to find acceptance…For me, at the root of it all, Drag Race is a show about acceptance. Period.”
Learn more about drag’s place in culture in the second episode of the Viacom video series, Hype & Influence: