It’s been 20 years since The RuPaul Show burst onto our screens in all its transgressive and explicit glory. In honour, we trace the moments that prove Ru has always been a star, feat. Lil’ Kim and Cher
RuPaul’s Drag Race is well-known for its combination of hilarious challenges, sickening runway looks and emotive biographies; a lesser-known fact, however, is that the show’s blueprint can be traced back to The RuPaul Show, a variety show which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The cult classic debuted in 1996 on VH1 and ran for a total of 100 episodes. In retrospect, the show was an early indicator of the potency of Ru’s star power – an impressive high-profile guest list includes the likes of Diana Ross, Cher and Lil’ Kim, all of whom made appearances to discuss life, female empowerment and, of course, fashion.
As Drag Race continues to grow in success – All Stars 2 smashed Logo’s viewing records and the show recently bagged a long-awaited Emmy – it can become easier and easier to forget the subversive origins of drag. It’s worth remembering that, despite his mainstream appeal, RuPaul is famous for marketing an art form whose intentions are to ‘perform’ gender to highlight the instability of both masculinity and femininity – hardly ‘mainstream’ in any sense. Still, The RuPaul Show seems even more brilliantly transgressive and explicit than its successor; here are five rare clips to prove it.
THE NSFW SKETCHES
Ever wondered where Drag Race comes up with the inspiration for its weird and wonderful acting challenges? Look no further than this ten-minute showreel which revisits a handful of The RuPaul Show’s most famous sketches. Flanked by his long-time sidekick Michelle Visage, RuPaul dances, acts and jokes his way through a series of skits, many of which have been dusted off and updated for inclusion on Drag Race. Highlights include Stud Trek – worth watching purely to see Michelle Visage as Dr. Spock – Skankwatch and the memorable trailer for Take That, You Honky Bitch! Tagline? “This summer, if you’re white, you’re dead!”
IT CELEBRATED BLACK WOMEN
Race was a frequent topic of discussion on the show, most notably during the “Blactress Extravaganza” episode which saw Lil’ Kim, Pam Grier and Millie Jackson frankly discuss their experiences of celebrity and relationships as strong black women. This was especially progressive in the context of a mainstream culture which still disproportionately celebrated the achievements of men and, more specifically, men in hip-hop. When Kim broke out in the 1990s, she (alongside Foxy Brown) was credited as inciting a revolution in female-led hip-hop by allowing women to celebrate and flaunt their sexuality – a fact alluded to by RuPaul.
“I think my mom just wished she had taken me to church a little more”, laughed Kim when discussing her lyrics, before explaining that men were often misled by her sexual lyrics and intimidated by her success. These discussions are still progressive today – in a culture still dominated by slut-shaming, cat-calling and archaic gender roles, Grier’s statement about the double-bind faced by women remains depressingly relevant: “(Men) want us to be assertive, but it’s like a Catch 22 situation – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
IT DISMANTLED BEAUTY STANDARDS
Before RuPaul became a glamorous, world-class supermodel, he was renowned for his prominence in the genderfuck drag scene of the 1980s. Easy to forget, given Drag Race and its heavy emphasis on femininity. He makes reference back to these beginnings in this episode featuring comedian Sandra Bernhard and singer Meredith Brooks; when Bernhard notices his natural nails and says they “betray” his supermodel persona, he explains “You know, for years I didn’t shave my legs or chest. That was called genderfuck drag.”
The two go on to discuss the unrealistic beauty standards placed on women, calling out the fashion industry for its apparent attitude problem – an extremely controversial move given that RuPaul worked within the industry, walking runways for the likes of Mugler. Brooks then furthers the discussion when she walks onto the set armed with nail varnish before discussing her hit “Bitch”, intended to give new meaning to one of the world’s most notorious gendered insults. Discussing and dismantling beauty standards over an on-screen manicure? Only on The RuPaul Show.
IT REVERSED MISOGYNY
One thing that The RuPaul Show did brilliantly was reverse misogyny, often objectifying men to prove the point that women are often unfairly objectified and praised for their appearance as opposed to their talent. This clip of Michelle Visage assuming the stereotypical role of the predatory male casting director is just one example; this interview with the legendary Cher is another. In a commentary on the disproportionate emphasis placed on women and their beauty, The RuPaul Show became famous for a game called “To Shag or Not to Shag?” designed to turn the tables on men praised often for their achievements as opposed to their appearance.
Throughout the segment, Cher dismisses Lenny Kravitz (“I don’t want a man who’s looking at his face in the mirror more than I’m looking at mine”), a Calvin Klein model (“I want to know that I can wake up with a guy who has something to talk about… He looks good, but who knows what he has to say) and Sean Connery. The dismissal of Connery comes alongside an anecdote which hints that he “uses sex as a tool for his work… I like him, but I know stuff about him that makes me like him less.” Brilliantly, The RuPaul Show reverses the social norm by looking at men as sex objects and frequently empowering strong, excellent female guests renowned for their achievements as opposed to their image. Most importantly, this segment climaxes with an excellent lip-sync of “The Shoop Shoop Song” and sees Cher reveal that she actually does use her Academy Awards as doorstops. #Goals.
IT SHOWCASED UNCONVENTIONAL GUESTS
She may not be a household name, but Drag Race fans will doubtless recognise the late Tammy Faye Messner from Ginger Minj’s impersonation in the All Stars 2 “Snatch Game” challenge. Despite being an evangelical Christian and co-founder of the PTL Club (Praise The Lord Club), Messner was famous for her tolerant attitude towards homosexuality and her Aids activism. Her appearance on The Rupaul Show is characteristic of an unconventional guest list which spanned the realms of music, entertainment, modelling, comedy, film, and even porn – one of the most famous episodes featured porn director and drag queen Chi Chi LaRue and porn actor Tom Chase discussing the realities of the gay porn industry in a way that was rarely seen on mainstream television.