Eight years ago, RuPaul Charles brought nine relatively unknown drag queens from across America into one workroom for a reality-based competition series best described as a hybrid of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.”
No one expected it to become one of the most successful LGBTQ television shows of all time.
On March 24, the ninth season of the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” franchise debuts ― but this time on a new network, in a new time slot with a new audience. For the first time ever, viewers will watch “Drag Race” on VH1 during primetime on Friday nights instead of Mondays on Logo, the largest exclusively gay network on TV.
When Logo announced the decision, the reaction was both polarizing and revealing of how intimately intertwined “Drag Race” has become with LGBTQ culture. The move not only affects the network and the show’s audience, but also local queer communities that have championed and sustained “Drag Race” from its humble beginnings.
“Drag Race” leaving Logo is monumentally significant for the network, whose relevancy has largely been predicated on the show’s success. But the hub of gay TV is much more than “Drag Race,” with programming encompassing documentaries, feature films, web series and other reality-based content. And now Logo and LGBTQ people everywhere must decide what the future of queer storytelling looks like as “Drag Race” finds itself on a more mainstream network.
The shift from Logo to VH1 speaks to a conversation in the LGBTQ community about visibility in a post-marriage equality world and the importance of safeguarding the queerness of spaces and culture. While there’s apprehension that something will be lost in this transition, both Logo and Ru are encouraged by the opportunity to expand the reach of the show.
While younger generations of viewers might be taken aback by the shifting tides, VH1, Logo and RuPaul share a history and all operate within the same corporate parent company: Viacom. In fact, the Supermodel of The World once hosted his own talk show on VH1 from 1996 to 1998, which helped solidify him as a household name.
“We’ve had a great time at Logo. Logo has been so good for us and allowed us to be ourselves, so in my heart Logo will always be a part of ‘Drag Race,’” RuPaul told The Huffington Post, adding, “I think the move to VH1 really reflects the broadening of our audience.”
Pamela Post, Senior Vice President of Programming and Original Development at Logo, echoes these thoughts from RuPaul and assures viewers that the nature of “Drag Race” won’t be compromised.
“I think as a fan you’ll watch it and you’ll see the context of the show has not changed, the jokes haven’t changed, the point of view has not changed,” Post told The Huffington Post. “I think all of that is very much intact. And that’s what we love about it – it’s point of view and humor and take on the world. And especially RuPaul’s point of view. So I think at the end of the day it’s just about exposing it to a larger group of people and hoping its fan base increases.”
The prospect of “Drag Race” on primetime Friday night TV is certainly exciting for the franchise, but it also presents challenges for queer spaces, like bars and nightclubs, who have built business models around the program.
For Steven McEnrue, the manager of two popular gay bars in Brooklyn, New York, the making over of “Drag Race” into a primetime VH1 show on Friday nights presents a set of challenges to his business. When “Drag Race” aired on Mondays, bars like McEnrue’s organized screenings on a night where foot traffic was typically low and nightlife industry workers, including local drag queens, were usually off. On Friday nights, bars tend to be busy with regular programming already slated.
“[Mondays] felt like a community experience with everybody watching this show and having a really good time,” McEnrue said. “I think it’s a little early to tell but I do think a bit of the magic of coming together on a Monday night might be lost. It’s definitely going to be a completely different dynamic this year in terms of the crowd and how the show is.”
This concern isn’t exclusive to local queer business owners, as former “Drag Race” contestants are already contending with the tension between the show’s ballooning popularity and the desire to preserve what feels precious to the LGBTQ community.
“It’s one of those confusing things that we see online and in our gay bars around the world that as the gay community becomes more mainstream, the need for exclusively gay spaces, be they television networks or brick and mortar gay bars, becomes seemingly less necessary,” season six finalist Courtney Act told HuffPost. “Obviously that’s a great thing because we’re becoming more accepted and more visible, but also at the same time it’s really sad because there is something so important about preserving and celebrating queer spaces and culture.”
Still, Act sees the power in having “Drag Race” become more accessible to a mainstream demographic in a television landscape largely devoid of multidimensional LGBTQ representation. “Drag Race” has always embodied a commitment to celebrating individuality and difference in a world that tells queer kids to conform.
In the words of RuPaul himself…
“Drag challenges the status quo,” RuPaul told HuffPost. “It’s always challenged the matrix – the matrix being ‘choose an identity and stick with it the rest of your life because that’s how we want to sell products to you, so we’ll know who you are and can put you in a box and then sell you beer and shampoo. Well, drag says ‘I’m a shapeshifter, I do whatever the hell I want at any given time.’ And that is very, very political.”
This message has never been more relevant at a time when minorities in America are under attack and the need for diverse representation ― and a commitment to looking out for one another ― is critically important.
Pamela Post also considers the migration of “Drag Race” to VH1 as an example of the allyship that this political moment demands.
“This is a time for allies,” she told HuffPost. “I think that whether you are somebody who is worried about your immigration status, or you’re a person of color who is finding that your life may be treated slightly differently than others, I believe that us as an LGBTQ community … should bond together and try to find some strength at a time that’s very difficult. I don’t tend to get political mixing it with television conversation, but I think inherently Logo has always been part cause and part entertainment.”
Despite the popularized notion that Logo puts its full resources behind reality-based programming like “Drag Race,” “Finding Prince Charming” and the upcoming “Fire Island,” this concept of allyship and commitment to diverse storytelling through a variety of platforms is very much at the heart of the network.
Just last year, Logo launched the Global Ally campaign, which strives to connect people along the spectrum of queer and trans identity around the world through storytelling. “Out of Iraq,” an Emmy-nominated documentary about two men who fall in love in Iraq only to be forced apart, was borne from this campaign alongside short-form videos highlighting queer experiences in places like Uganda and Jamaica.
Logo also centralizes their efforts to uplift stories of the LGBTQ community’s most vulnerable. The web series “Beautiful As I Want To Be,” which aired in 2015, partnered four young trans people with prominent trans leaders in an effort to help them fully express what it means to them to be beautiful and authentic. The network’s upcoming documentary “Strike a Pose” will follow the seven backup dancers from Madonna’s iconic Blonde Ambition tour and examine how their lives have been forever changed. Not to mention, Logo was also home to a seminal series about the lives of black gay men, “Noah’s Arc,” which premiered in 2005, a time when diverse queer stories were rarely told.
So why, despite all of this programming, does the LGBTQ community in 2017 tend to primarily associate Logo with whiteness, abs, debauchery and drag when all of these other stories are within reach?
”We as the queer community have fought so long and struggled to be seen as equal and to be respected in community,” said Courtney Act. “But now when we choose to show ourselves in a light that is bordering on the worst of humanity rather than celebrating our high points, it’s like, ‘Are we there already? Are we ready to show the world that were just as trashy and unhinged as the Housewives are?’”
While reality-based programming on Logo is not without merit ― whom among us wasn’t curious about a gay version of “The Bachelor”? ― these types of shows are not necessarily representative of the network’s big picture.
Are we there already? Are we ready to show the world that were just as trashy and unhinged as the Housewives are?
“I think all of us should be supporting stories that are enlightening, entertaining and showing the diversity of our community now more than ever,” Rich Ferraro, a former senior director of public affairs and communications at Logo, told HuffPost. “All too often so many of the diverse queer stories that Logo and other LGBTQ media outlets put out there fly under the radar because it’s not something that white, cis gay men often share over social [media]. But now more than ever we should be standing together … to find the creative ways to showcase those stories that will also hopefully drive positive change.”
Perhaps the cultural fascination and success of these shows over other programming says as much about us as a community as it does Logo as a network.
As Logo moves on to redefine itself outside of a “Drag Race” framework, now is an important time for queer people to ask themselves: what do we actually want to watch on TV? Whose stories do we want elevated? How do we want them to be told? What do we want the world to know about us?
“I don’t ever envision a post-’Drag Race’ world,” Post added. “’Drag Race’ is always going to be a huge part of the Logo line-up and people will still view it on Logo and we will still air it on Logo. At the end of the day I think we are always going to find new boundaries and areas we want to push into… I think that we are always going to find new, interesting and diverse stories and different ways to tell them.”
The desires of LGBTQ people to see themselves on screen have evolved. We are multidimensional people, living complex lives and navigating a multitude of different identities. It’s time that we as a community commit to sharing, engaging with and prioritizing the elevation of diverse, compelling stories that are representative of more than just a white, cis gay ideal. This has to begin not only within Logo but also the community at large through conversations we have with each other ― and what we choose to watch on a Friday night.