'RuPaul's Drag Race' judge Michelle Visage on how the 'queerest show on television' is helping troubled kids
Against all odds, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a massive pop-cultural force. After 10 seasons (plus three all-star seasons), it’s surprisingly bigger than ever, racking up its highest ratings yet this year. Musical contestants like Adore Delano, Blair St. Clair, and Trixie Mattel have landed albums on the Billboard charts; Drag Race catchphrases like “not today, Satan!” and “hieeeee” have become part of the mainstream vernacular; the RuPaul’s Dragcon conventions draw thousands of fans on both coasts; RuPaul Charles has won two consecutive Emmys for Best Reality Host; and now the show has a very good chance of sashaying away with this year’s big Emmy prize, for Best Reality Competition.
Longtime Drag Race judge Michelle Visage tells Yahoo Entertainment that the slowly building success of the series surprises her. “It’s just the queerest show on television. Yes, even queerer than Queer Eye. You can’t get anything gayer than RuPaul’s Drag Race!” she says with a laugh. But the tough-loving judge and pop singer, who found salvation and acceptance in the gay community when she was a troubled teen in the ’80s, believes that behind all the colorful costumes, racy one-liners, and fierce lip-synchs, the show serves a more serious purpose: helping troubled young people and bringing families closer together.
“It comes down to the fact that we creative minds — loving, compassionate, sensitive souls — are in this fight together,” says Visage, an LBGTQ ally and doting mother of two daughters, one of whom is queer and has publicly struggled with depression. “And that’s really what this show is about. It’s about heart and integrity and journeys. It’s not about boys dressing up like girls. I mean, it is a little bit, but there’s so much more to it.”
Yahoo Entertainment: I am always amazed, when I go to RuPaul’s Dragcon or Drag Race events, by how young the show’s audience skews — and by how so many of the fans are actually straight, cis teen and tween girls. Any theory as to why girls love and look up to these queens?
Michelle Visage: I think the young girls that connect to this are usually the same kind of girl. These girls are all kind of the same horrible age, which is usually 11, 12, 13, 14. I know those years were the most self-harming years of my life. They were when my eating disorder kicked in. I wound up hating myself the most. I felt so alone. I was an adopted kid into a Jewish family, and this neighborhood and the school system had no Jews. Not that I identified as one, but my family did, and I didn’t understand why we were different. I was really into punk rock, but also into musical theater. I did not fit in the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Ozzy Osbourne mold. I really didn’t. I felt fat, I felt ugly. No boys liked me; girls weren’t even an option at the time. It didn’t make sense why this was happening or why I was alone.
I feel like the girls that love our show are those exact girls. Now, they have a little more opportunity to explore sexuality today than they did in 1982, ’83, or ’84, but they’re still confused, and they still don’t like who they are or the changes in their body. They think they’re too fat, too skinny, all those things. So, I think identifying with these drag personas lets them be somebody they are not, and the drag queens make them feel that they are loved no matter what. I think that’s a critical point in a girl’s life. That’s why the fanbase is the age that it is.
How in general do you think RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped young people, especially LGBTQ youth?
A lot of our kids that watch the show don’t have maybe the people in their life that understand. Now, a lot more mothers and families and people have understood them through the communication of the show, the method of the show. There’s still a lot of kids that don’t feel comfortable in telling their family, and they feel that they’re alone. They are afraid to be who they are, and maybe saying, “Hey, watch this show with me, Mom” can help them come out. So it’s helped a lot of families understand who their child is. … What it does for trans kids and other kids — nongender, nonconforming, or gender-nonbinary kids — is amazing, because these conversations weren’t happening on mainstream TV before.
Of course, it definitely depends on the parent. There’s a lot of parents who would be completely appalled and disgusted, and that’s a reality that we have to face. And it’s my job as an ally to try to change that, especially as an ally and a parent and a parent of a queer child [Visage’s older daughter, Lillie] to do my part in changing people’s viewpoints and stances. At least if you can’t change it, try to open their minds to education, instead of hate or yelling or shaming.