The Library Is Open: Untucking Secrets From the First Decade of RuPaul's Drag Race

In honor of RuPaul's Drag Race's four nominations at the 2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards, we're spilling the tea on the hit show's first decade. Can we get an amen?

By Billy Nilles May 16, 2021 6:00 PMTags
Watch: 6 Hilarious "RuPaul's Drag Race" Celeb Impressions

Gather round, hennys, because it's about to be a celebration.

It's hard to believe, but it's been 12 fabulous years since RuPaul mothertucking Charles first put out the siren call for drag queens around the county to put their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to the test in the ultimate search for America's Next Drag Superstar, taking an underground art form that Ru himself has famously said would never be mainstream out of the club and onto TV, broadcasting into the homes of millions.

And in the years since RuPaul's Drag Race debuted on February 2, 2009 on Logo, the show has gone from cult favorite to a veritable industry unto itself, launching not only the careers of hundreds of the country's most talented drag queens, but multiple spin-offs, international editions and (in pre-COVID times) the bi-annual, bi-coastal DragCon event. In the process, the mothership has earned 19 groundbreaking Emmys, including the coveted Outstanding Reality Competition trophy for three years running, all the while still remaining the undisputed best thing on TV in any given week that a new episode airs. It's no wonder the just-finished season 13 racked up four nominations, including Best Reality Cast, at this year's MTV Movie & TV Awards: Unscripted, airing on Monday, May 17.

Ranking the Top 20 RuPaul's Drag Race Queens

Back when the show celebrated its 10th birthday, E! News called up executive producers Randy Barbato and Tom Campbell, whose company World of Wonder have a long history with Ru that includes her mid-'90s VH1 talk show The RuPaul Show—the first one hosted by someone from the LGBTQ community—for a little kiki on the first decade of Drag Race. And it was the gag of the season, honey. 

Gentlemen (and ladies), start your engines! And may the best tea win...

The Wrong Direction

By the time Tom Campbell had joined Randy Barbato and his partner Fenton Bailey at World of Wonder, the company had been out of the RuPaul business since The RuPaul Show was canceled by VH1 in 1998. "They were all still friendly, but we were like let's do a show with RuPaul. So we brought him in and RuPaul said, 'I will do any show except a competition-elimination show,'" Campbell told E! News in 2019.

"Around that time, they were a little mean, there was the prankster nature of some of those shows. So we went off into a corner and we developed something else, it was kind of a Strangers With Candy-type of show," he added, referencing Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert's cult Comedy Central classic that ran for three seasons from 1999-2000. "We presented it to each other, in the room we are sitting in now on Hollywood Boulevard, and we laughed and laughed and laughed, and Ru caught his breath and said, 'You know what we should do, a competition elimination show.' So we switched gears, and in that moment, around the table I would say 90 percent of RuPaul's Drag Race was born. We thought of the name RuPaul Drag's Race, we laughed. We were like, 'It needs a big end round...what do drag queens do?' Then I'm just like, 'They lip sync—they lip sync for their lives." And the rest is herstory.

Humble Beginnings

So, they had the concept, now they had to get it sold. The only problem? "Nobody took it seriously," Barbato explained. Nobody that is except for a little upstart network by the name of Logo, launched specifically to cater to the gay community. "Logo was the only network that was interested," he admitted.

"And we thought for sure, now, in 2008, drag is mainstream," Campbell added. "Part of our pitch would be Tootsie, and all the movies, and Mrs. Doubtfire, and Boy George, and anytime that kind of stuff is brought up, it's always fascinating. And we—with all due respect to our buyers at other cable networks—they were like 'Oh my god we love this, we love this team,' and we emailed—'We can't do this, it's still too edgy.'"

But Brian Graden, then-President of Programming at MTV, VH1, Logo, and CMT, got it instantly and bought the pitch. "You know, the ideas were solid. The budget, not so much, initially," Barbato said, with both he and Campbell agreeing that that groundbreaking first season was something more akin to the "blueprint" for the series, rather than the fully-realized thing.

Shooting in a tiny studio called Redemption Stages near the Burbank Airport, just north of Los Angeles, the control room was no bigger than a broom closet. "We were so close to the set, we couldn't talk or laugh during when we were shooting because they could hear us on camera," Campbell admitted. 

"We were incubating, shall we say, and it suffered a little bit, because it was very low budget initially," Barbato said. "But I think you got the idea instantly, and there are fans of the show who have been around since season one, and they completely understood what it was about from the get-go."

Finding Queens, Then & Now

While the budgets were low, the interest from drag queens across the country was not. "Drag queens have existed since the beginning of time and there are so many out there who are such amazing artists who don't have the opportunity to work outside of like the $50 bucks or $100 bucks they get working at the local bar, so while the show wasn't known, queens are always looking for a gig," Barbato said. "Casting now is very different because the show is so popular and there are so many more submissions, but it wasn't difficult to get great queens. There were great queens in season one."

"And they were brave because the other queens at least had some picture of what they were stepping into," Campbell added. "Those first queens had no idea, and they're our heroes for that. We couldn't have done it without them."

As interest in the show has grown exponentially, with some queens, like season 10 winner Aquaria literally growing up watching the show, the submissions Ru and the producers receive have gotten much more intense. "As this show has evolved, some queens produce these epic casting tapes, and sometimes it works and sometimes," Barbato revealed. "RuPaul, who is very involved in casting—he watches every tape, we have meetings, we talk in-depth about all the queens—it isn't the production value of their casting tapes, it really is that level of authenticity, that something special extra that is the deciding factor of who we chose. But since season 1 to now, it is amazing to watch some of them. It's like Gone with the Wind, the way they produce these casting tapes."

Challenges, the Good Kind

Starting with the very first challenge ever, the competing queens have rarely failed to amaze. "I remember the very first episode, it was 'Design on a Dime', and we were like, 'We're going to give them a bunch of junk and they are going to have to make dresses overnight," Campbell recalled. "And we were like 'It's never going to work,' and we were blown away by their creativity. And that happens every season. Fenton, who is not here, but he calls drag queens the Marines of reality television, which I think is brilliant because there is no task they can't match."

As for other favorite challenges over the years, Campbell points to the roasts—"The first roast was incredibly funny, just watching RuPaul flip his wig almost, laughing. If you make RuPaul laugh, we're the happiest people on the earth"—while Barbato is a fan of the various musical challenges, "from 'Can I Get an Amen?' to 'Kitty Girl' on All Stars 3, which was an awesome challenge."

And as for the ones that they might regret? "There was one mini challenge where they had to cut vegetables and hand model, and that didn't turn out so well," Campbell admitted, referring to season six's "Glamazon by Colorevolution" episode. "I love them all, but the pancake mini challenge," Barbato added, referencing season 10's "Resting Brunch Face" challenge in the "Evil Twin" episode. "You know, there was a winner, there was a loser," Campbell joked.

The Snatch of It All

Of course, no talk of challenges is complete without mention of the one to rule them all: Snatch Game. The annual event, which began in season two, takes its cues from the classic game show Match Game and requires each queen to impersonate a celebrity—and impersonate them well. "It's very high and low, it separates the boys from the girls," Campbell noted.  

"And that challenge is a really important challenge for RuPaul, because RuPaul, as the host of the show and the ultimate decider of who stays who goes...for a lot of show, he needs to keep a distance from the girls and needs to remain objective, and he needs to sort of watch from a far," Barbato added. "But for Snatch Game, he's in there and he really gets to experience the girls. And he can set them up. Ru knows how to land a punch line. It's funny to watch Ru do Snatch Game because you can see him testing the girls. He tosses them out, he sets them up for jokes. And If they don't catch it, Ru is taking notes. Ru is there like 'I lobbed her like three ones and she didn't respond.' So its really a very important challenge for RuPaul to kind of cross the line and really get to see what these girls are made of."

And because of how important the challenge has become to Drag Race, don't expect it to ever go away. "We've talked at times in the regular seasons, 'Maybe we should not do Snatch Game,'" Campbell admitted. "And it's like, 'What? Are you crazy?'"

The Lady Gaga Extravaganza

When the show made the transition from Logo to VH1 in season nine, it did so with a premiere that featured inarguably its biggest guest judge yet: Lady Gaga. And many believed that her appearance only happened because of the new network home. But the truth is that wasn't the case. "We had shot the entire season as if it were for Logo," Campbell said. "And part of it was Lady Gaga, who Ru had done a favor by being on her Thanksgiving Special for ABC with the Muppets, said 'I'm going to be on your show.' Every year we've asked, and then it came true that year."

In fact, Campbell credits Gaga's appearance as being the thing that enticed Chris McCarthy, the current president of MTV, VH1 and Logo, to make the network switcheroo.

And they're quick to point out that LG really was as incredible as she seemed while on set. "She was so invested," Barbato revealed. "She was like, 'Where can I go, I want to be with them.' She knew the show inside and out, wanted speak with and spend time with every single drag queen. it was pretty awesome. And she truly did have notes for all of them."

The Late Greats

While the show has had more than its fair share of incredible guest judges over the years—Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Christina Aguilera, Ellen Pompeo and Nancy Pelosi, to name but a small few—Campbell was quick to point out two stars who are no longer with us who brought some true magic to the runway when they graced Drag Race with their presence. 

"The late great Natalie Cole, was there, I think third season, watching Dida Ritz lip sync 'This Will Be,'" he gushed. "It's magic to be there as the queen comes alive in front of the artists. It's like our version of the Lincoln Center Honors."

Barbato added, "If you're going to do any links for this story, please link to that lip sync, because it is so magical on so many levels. It really was such a magical moment." He's not wrong. You can check it out for yourself here.

The other moment Campbell singled out happened in season two when Debbie Reynolds stopped by for the "Silver Foxes" episode, which tasked the queens with making over older gay men into Golden Girls, naturally. "[She] got there early and she burst into the control room to say, ‘Hello, hello, I'm Debbie Reynolds. I'm Carrie Fisher's mother, Princess Leia's mother. Hello, hello, could I talk to the executive producers or you would like for me rely on my 48 years of experience in entertainment?' with so much charm and with love," he recalled. "She was like 'Wig, makeup, lip syncing; I know this craft very, very well.'"

Holding Out Hope

While the show's increasing popularity has transformed the process of getting guests to agree to appear—something Campbell credits the glam squads around Hollywood for in the early days, as hair stylists and make-up artists who were fans of the show turned their clients onto it—there are still those few elusive celebrities who they haven't been able to nail down just yet. 

"I mean Mariah [Carey] and Dolly [Parton,] the obvious ones. Cher. And Madonna," Barbato told us. "Those are four, and Miss [Diana] Ross. They are all fans of the show, and maybe our level of fandom towards them scares them away. But they're all on the hit list."

Campbell added: "When Beyoncé gets a minute, we have a whole Beyoncé challenge ready to go."

The Game Changer

While the new network home beginning in season nine helped propel the series further into the mainstream, Barbato looks back a little further for the moment that the possibilities of what Drag Race could be broke wide open. "I think season four was a pretty critical season in terms of broadening people's perceptions of what drag is," he admitted. "That's the year Sharon Needles won, and I think it's a pretty milestone season just because Sharon Needles...just shook up our perception of what drag is. She's such a brilliant drag queen and it just tapped into this notion that drag can be anything you want it to be."

Justice for Season Seven

If there's one season that gets an unfairly bad rap in Campbell's eyes, it's season seven. "Even season seven, which people say is the worst season, is one of the best seasons if you go back and watch it. The John Waters Musical. Katya comes from that season. Kennedy [Davenport] comes from that season. Amazing, amazing stars. The incredible Violet Chachki, who is all over the runaways, stomping," he said. "It's funny—and maybe this is price of success, or it's just human nature—but every season it's like, 'Last season was better,' and by the end of the season, they love it so much."

The All Stars Hiccup

Of course, that isn't to say that they haven't made some missteps over the years. Take, for instance, the first All Stars experiment in 2012 that forced the returning queens to compete in pairs, a move that had fans crying foul and even contestant Latrice Royale boldly proclaiming on All Stars 4 that it was a "shoddy situation" and "doesn't even count." (Don't tell winner Chad Michaels that!) As Campbell admitted, though, that decision came from a genuinely good place. 

"The motivation behind it, as with all things Drag Race, is you want to give the queens as much exposure, as much as a platform as possible. And at that time, it was a brand new thing, it was on Logo," he admitted. So, with only a six episode order, the decision was made. "We're like, 'Oh there so many queens.' So our impetus, right or wrong, was lets have them play in pairs, like The Amazing Race meet Drag Race, which I do think provided some moments, [but] by losing two queens a week, it was too much for us to handle, for Ru to handle, and for America to handle. So we made a correction, but it was initially because we wanted to give as big as an international platform for as many as queens possible."

"We won't do teams again," Barbato added.

Proudest Moments

With all the success that RuPaul's Drag Race has achieved over the course of its first decade, what makes Barbato and Campbell most proud is, surprisingly, very simple and sweet. "For the world to know that talent of RuPaul might be the number one thing because if you look back at what Ru was doing 30 years ago, fully baked, fully realized, global superstar. It just took like 30 years," Barbato said. "That might be the number one thing, because without RuPaul there would be any of it. Then secondarily, for all the world to know all these stars. The world is a better place because of RuPaul's Drag Race."

It doesn't hurt that they've gotten to prove the naysayers wrong, either. "There were times when very powerful executives would say to us that RuPaul's Drag Race isn't the kind of show that is a breakout hit. It's like an anomaly, something that fills the gap until the next big thing come along," Campbell admitted. "And that is the prejudice against drag, or the uncomfortableness, or the ignorance around it. And I think Drag Race has helped, in its success with is an amazing 10-11 year case study almost for business school, that we started so small...It's a testament that RuPaul's vision that he's had, and World of Wonder's vision, for so long is actually being realized and the people that were doubters are celebrating the art of drag."

Can we get an amen?

To see if RuPaul's Drag Race takes home the Golden Popcorn, be sure to tune in to the inaugural Movie & TV Awards: Unscripted on Monday, May 17, at 9 p.m. on MTV.

(Originally published on Feb. 2, 2019, at 11 a.m. PST.)