The global success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is something RuPaul himself couldn’t have imagined 12 years ago when the first gaggle of drag queens sashayed down the runway in 2009.
There are numerous international iterations from France to the Philippines, annual in-person conventions that welcome upwards of 50,000 fans and truck loads of top-selling merchandise ranging from chocolate bars to alcoholic beverages. It was also just announced Thursday that "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars" is the the most watched original reality series on the streaming platform Paramount+.
In addition to the undeniable star quality of host RuPaul, the competitors and their staggering stories of resilience make up the majority of the heart of the show. Many of these queens have been ousted by their biological families or face staggering health challenges. For them, drag is both a passion and a means for making ends meet.
But there’s another secret ingredient to the show’s indelible success that shouldn't be overlooked: The panel of esteemed judges.
Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley and Ross Mathews sit on either side of RuPaul, offering frank advice and witty banter that either make watchers belly laugh with excitement — or cringe with their displeasure that their favorite queen is getting read to filth.
The three personalities already had esteemed careers in entertainment before they got the "Drag Race" gig. Speaking to TODAY, they frame this job as the jewel of not only their career, but their lives as well.
“For me, it’s about focus, because this show has always been a show made by queer people, for queer people,” Visage told TODAY. “We were always doing what we were doing with or without accolades, because what it was doing for this talent was undeniable and something that needed to happen for all these incredible artists in this country ... them finally getting the platform that they deserve.”
Ahead of the Emmys, TODAY spoke to the show's judges — who are also producers on the series as well — from the set of Season 15 of "Drag Race," as they prepare for the show's 2023 return and 200th episode.
Michelle Visage: 'Life isn't nice. I want to be real'
When “RuPaul’s Drag Race” began in 2009, RuPaul invited Visage to join him on the panel, just like she had joined him on the couch for his mid-90s eponymous talk show. Visage is the Ethel to RuPaul’s Lucy, but an ironclad five-year radio contract prevented her from leaving her career of 17 years in morning radio and entering this next chapter. She was devastated.
“I watched Season One and Two from my house in Florida where I was doing morning radio and cried because I knew that I was supposed to be sitting there. It was devastating for me, and it wasn’t so much about the next level in my career. I was meant to be there with my best friend and go on this journey with him like I did 'The RuPaul Talk Show' on VH1 back in the day, like we did radio together. This was supposed to happen," Visage, 53, said.
After she was invited again to judge for Season Three, Visage acted on the advice of her other best friend, Leah Remini, who told her, “If you don’t call the president of CBS Radio, I’m gonna call the president of CBS Radio for you.”
“She forced my hand but I did it and I was able to join Season Three, but I lost my radio job,” Visage said. “It was a really good time for me because I felt like the universe was giving me the stage directions to follow. I’ve done 17 years (of radio) and I was ready to commit to the next step.”
When Visage entered the workroom, her tough love, no-holds-barred approach quickly defined her panel personality: a female version of Simon Cowell with bigger hair and even bigger breasts. (In 2019, Visage got rid of her breast implants after being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder where a person’s immune system attacks their thyroid gland.)
Today, Visage often goes viral for her blunt jabs and commentary, from reading the queen’s makeup choices to criticizing their use of the color green.
“I’m the tough love judge, so I think a lot of people don’t know who the real me is, or they don’t realize that this is the way that I am in real life,” she said, adding, “It’s a bit of a caricature of who I am in real life, because we are making a television show. I’m doing a job here. I know my position and I know my place."
Some critics of her judging ask why a cisgender, straight woman be the one to hand out such harsh critiques. When Visage is confronted with this, she points to her past.
After Visage moved to New York City in 1986, she got involved with the city's ballroom scene. She became immersed in this community of people — drag queens, trans people, gay hustlers, all gathering at the Christopher Street Piers — at the same time that AIDS was wreaking its staggering devastation.
“It was a very dark time in the gay community,” Visage wrote in an essay for a special edition of Entertainment Weekly devoted just to RuPaul. “We would love friends all the time. If it wasn’t to AIDS, it was to drugs, and if it wasn’t to drugs, it was through sex crimes. The light of that time was that we had each other. We were a family, all of us, even if we were competition on the ballroom floor. We all found ways to love one another at the piers.”
According to Visage, her image is crafted in the spirit of drag, and as drag continues to be an art form experienced by people from all identities inside and outside the LGBTQ umbrella, why shouldn't her expression be categorized as drag, too? RuPaul famously did say: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”
“I pride myself on being a drag queen,” Visage said. “For me, I grew up in this world. Drag is everything to me and that’s the truth."
Since “Drag Race” created a fandom for Visage, especially as a fierce ally of the LGBTQ community, she has served as a judge on two seasons of “Ireland’s Got Talent,” appeared on “Celebrity Big Brother,” and competed on “Strictly Come Dancing” in 2019, the BBC’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.” She also co-hosted numerous episodes of “The Wendy Williams Show” alongside Remini this last year.
“People think that they didn’t know who I was before and all of a sudden, I’m this overnight success,” she said. “Having been in the business since I was 19 years old, I love this new part of my career. It opens up my story for the future on whatever it is that I get to do. But the most important job that I have — besides being a wife and a mom to my two kids — is being a surrogate mom to these queens that are on the show and to the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole. That has done more for me as a human than it has thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to take my career to the next step.' I hope it stays my thing for the next 20 years."
Visage and her tough love does seem to work. So much so, for the first time ever, her own spin-off web series — “Whatch’a Packin’ — is even nominated for an Emmy award this year, in the category of outstanding short form nonfiction or reality series category alongside television titans like Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels. What started as a look into the suitcases of the queens leaving has evolved into a heart-to-heart exit interview in which the contestants open up about their experience on the show. It can get emotional, but Visage says this has always been par for her course.
“I’ve noticed over the years, not just on television, is that people feel this weird need to open up to me,” Visage said. “Whether it’s safety, comfort, or I think it’s more to do with the maternal thing. I’ve had people stop me on the street to open up to me, who didn’t even know who I was. So I have this thing where people trust me, and I don’t ever want to abuse that ... ever.”
Visage said that what we're seeing on "Drag Race" is exaggerated, it isn't too far off from what her loved ones experience in real life. With her kids — biological or chosen — her husband and with her friends like RuPaul or Remini, she doesn’t mince words.
“It’s how I parent. It’s how I am as a mother. It’s how I am as a friend,” she said. “It’s how my mother from Brooklyn was with me. I only know New York tough love because the world is not a nice place. The world is not going to cushion it. It’s not going to soften the blow. So I give the critiques the same way my mother would have given to me, the same way (I give them) to my kids. There are times in real life where my husband says I should say that a little nicer. And it’s like, no because life isn’t nice. So I try to be as nice as I can, but I want to be real.”
Carson Kressley: 'I still have the voicemail saved on my phone'
After a successful career in fashion, working years for beloved brands like Ralph Lauren, Kressley was recruited to join “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” in 2003 as its fashion guru. His unapologetic flamboyance and queer confidence was something rarely seen in non-fiction form on TV up until then, and this catapulted him into the spotlight that included magazine covers, cameos in popular television shows and a book deal.
After 100 episodes and five seasons, when that groundbreaking show came to an end in 2007, Kressley spent some time out of the spotlight, until a chance encounter with RuPaul years later in 2013 opened up this next chapter.
"I didn’t think they would want me,” Kressley, 52, told TODAY. “They had somebody that was doing kind of the fashion role. But then we worked together, Ru and I, and he said, ‘I would love for you to be on the show.’
"Sometimes life keeps you on the path you’re supposed to be on. I’ve been very, very lucky to be on two groundbreaking shows for young, queer, marginalized people who are different, that shows these people out there living their dream and being successful and being celebrated for exactly who they are," he said.
Kressley added, “I still have the voicemail saved on my phone of Ru asking me for real."
Joining in Season Seven in 2015, Kressley focuses more on the fashion elements of a challenge, providing context so contestants and viewers alike can fully appreciate the gorgeous looks the queens wear on the runway. Drawing not only from his background in that industry, he also uses his club kid days in New York in the '90s, time spent surrounded by drag queens, to frame his commentary.
"Drag has been my favorite art form since I was 17 years old, and I never understood why it didn’t have the same platform as a singer or a dancer. Now it finally does,” Kressley said. “This is something that’s been craved all along. This is something that’s been needed all along."
Kressley doesn't take the show's success for granted.
"All of us on this panel, if we had a show like 'Drag Race' growing up. I think our minds would have been in a better and a much different place," he said. "We would've known that we weren’t alone and know that things would actually get better. There were people like us represented on television, and all that representation matters."
Ross Mathews: 'The outside world caught up to us'
Mathews also joined "Drag Race" as a judge in 2015, the same year as Kressley. The television personality first rose to fame as “Ross the Intern” on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” back in 2001. Since then, he has authored two books, appeared on “Celebrity Big Brother,” “Chelsea Lately,” “Live from E!,” and currently works with Drew Barrymore on her talk show "The Drew Barrymore Show."
But on "Drag Race," Mathews may just be the most himself than any other vehicle he appears.
"We’re here and we’re making the same show that we’ve been making since Michelle joined in Season Three and Carson and I joined in Season Seven," Mathews, 42, told TODAY. "We’re just making each other laugh, making Ru laugh, telling these stories of these amazing queens. It’s like the outside world caught up to us a little bit, but we’ve just been consistently doing our thing here."
"I’m in awe of how the show’s evolved and how people have embraced it," he added. "The truth is this is the best gig in the entire world because not only is it fun, hilarious, colorful and bright, but (because) I really, truly believe we’re putting something worthy out there. Something that’s really kind of changing the game and changing people’s attitudes and minds."
Whereas Visage and Kressley are often biting with their critiques, Mathews always finds the glass half full in contestants' performances. He delivers effervescent and vivacious commentary through the lens of his bubbly personality.
"I sort of live in a world where a cartoon bird will land on my shoulder," he said. "I'm pretty happy-go-lucky. I put a little lubricant on all of my critiques. You just give a little compliment first so they can receive the critique. That's my way of love. Michelle is all about tough love, and it really works for her. I just love in a different kind of way."
Simple as it may be, those examples of authenticity is what makes "Drag Race" the groundbreaking show that it is. RuPaul has often been quoted as saying, at its core, “Drag Race” is about the "tenacity of the human spirit," and the tenacity of Visage, Kressley and Mathews is on display week after week, keeping viewers at home coming back for more.
Though the judges are an integral part of the show's magic, Mathews said it's ultimately not about them.
"It’s about showing people out there that they can be themselves," he said. "That’s the power and purpose of this show."