If you weren’t already aware, here’s some tea worth spilling: Pop culture owes a great debt to drag culture. From our slang to the now-ubiquitous “full-face beat” of beauty influencer culture, drag queens have long been trailblazers in a realm few are brave enough to don six-inch heels and tread.
But this week, New York magazine is giving 37 of the “most powerful drag queens in America their due with a series of covers showcasing the genre’s current stars, all of whom are veterans of drag pioneer RuPaul’s award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Our show is being seen around the world and it’s introduced drag to people who have never even heard of it,” RuPaul tells New York magazine sub-site Vulture, which spearheaded the epic list and cover series for Pride Month. “Before that, drag was in the subversive clubs. In fact, even in clubs, it was in a place where it wasn’t celebrated,” he adds. “Around the time that our show went on the air, there was nothing. Girls were performing at restaurants without even a stage. Without even proper lighting.”
As Vulture notes, the talents that once languished on the margins are now pop-culture phenomenons, as greater visibility has brought increasing mainstream success—and major advertisers. And now, events like the bicoastal DragCon attract tens of thousands of predominantly non-gay attendees, a fact RuPaul says “is the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s every flower in full bloom.”
“We’re talking straight, gay, black, white. We’re talking 8-year-old kids and 75-year-old women. We’re talking everybody. It’s a city of beautiful flowers. A utopia. They are loving it,” he adds.
But as one of the first drag queens (and perhaps the only one) to find enduring mainstream acceptance, RuPaul has never been inured to the persistent bias against men who dress as women, telling the New Yorker in 1993, the same year he released his album Supermodel of the World (h/t Vulture), “Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political act.”
He’s also never been oblivious to the ongoing fascination with drag. “I know that inside of every human being there’s a child that loves colors and sparkly things and things that are exciting,” he says. “Also, inside of every one of us there is the knowledge that we are all in drag. Now, whether humans can articulate that or not is neither here nor there.”
So, are drag queens at last out of the margins and into the mainstream for good, or are the 37 performers New York features simply benefiting from a cultural zeitgeist with an inevitable shelf life? That remains to be seen, but as the undisputed maker of this particular moment, RuPaul is deservedly taking credit for paying his decades of success forward for younger generations.
“That’s what I’m most proud of,” he says. “Creating a platform for these fabulous performers to launch a career that spans the globe. They’re out there working right now, and they’re making really, really big bucks doing it. They literally are getting rich. And I fucking love that.”