When Von Nguyen, better known as Kimora Blac, got into drag at 18, he only knew the four people at his club who liked drag.
“It’s crazy how drag has affected lives and my life, because I just met this girl Kimora who’s fiercely loud and I’m boring and shy,” Nguyen said. “It’s this person I’m so comfortable being when I’m in this costume.”
Two producers and two former contestants from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” including Kimora Blac (Nguyen) who placed 13th on season nine, visited Hunter Hargraves’ reality television class on Tuesday to speak about the show’s impact on drag culture.
Drag originated as an underground phenomenon at nightclubs and was, for a long time, a joke or stereotype when it was featured on television. With “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” drag queens stepped into the spotlight of mainstream media.
“We’re lucky ‘Drag Race’ is on the air,” said Tom Campbell, the executive producer of the reality competition show. “We went to Bravo, E! and Oxygen and they all said no. They said ‘We love this but drag is too edgy for us.’ Then Logo said yes.”
The series started off on the small, lesser-known network but it was recently moved to VH1, which is owned by the same parent company as Logo.
The reality show provides an outlet for drag queens to show the world who they are.
“For me, I live a double life almost. Me out of costume, I love hair and makeup but I’m super calm and chill and quiet, but when I’m all glammed up and in my mode, I’m loud and obnoxious,” Nguyen said.
Not only is it a means of expression, but also a way to educate people about the different genres of drag.
“It’s great to have so many different representations because that person from that culture can address that issue or that stereotype,” said Elijah Kelly, better known as Mariah Balenciaga, the ninth place contestant from season three.
Besides the drag queens, viewers also come to appreciate this subgroup of the LGBTQ community.
“I just think it’s a super cool way for gay men that are in that scene to express themselves. I think it breaks a lot of barriers for the LGBTQ communitiy and it teaches you a lot about them that we normally don’t get to know,” said Cree Andrews, a cinema and television arts major.
Campbell and the casting crew carefully select queens each season to build a well-rounded, diverse group.
“It’s so important to find that mix of cast where there’s the newbie, there’s the art queen, the ballroom or pageant kind of queen,” Campbell said. “It’s not science, but an art form. We kind of put a collage of people up.”
Beyond showing a range of queens, the television show has also offered a personal view into these people’s lives.
“The first thought about ‘Drag Race’ was ‘It’s going to be a bunch of bitchy queens. The fur will fly, the claws will come out,’ but it became something so different,” Campbell said.
Spending so much time on their feet and being tired and worn down from competition and criticism often led to the queens becoming more personal and opening up, like when season one contestant Ongina confided that she was HIV positive on screen, Campbell said.
Regardless of whether a queen wins or is sent home, being on the show gives them recognition that they can carry throughout their career. By making its way into mainstream, “Drag Race” has also gained negative social media interaction.
“Everyone’s a new critic because they’ve seen two episodes of ‘Drag Race,’ now they know what your craft is supposed to be or who you’re supposed to act like or what they expect of you,” Kelly said. “So it kind of turns into the opposite of what drag is supposed to be, which is self-expression, enjoying life and being yourself.”
However, social media does let the talent and producers of “Drag Race” track who’s following the show, especially celebrities they may want to guest appear. Lady Gaga made an appearance during the ninth season and Miley Cyrus attended the seventh season’s finale. Cyrus also called upon some “Drag Race” queens to perform with her at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.
The show’s increased exposure of drag has welcomed more people into its community. Nguyen has noticed that females are using cosmetics to experiment with drag looks.
“‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has a lot of meaning to it behind just finding the winner,” Nguyen said. “There’s a lot of inspiration for everybody.”