It’s hard to quantify just how much RuPaul’s Drag Race has done to bring drag into the mainstream over the past 10 years. But after watching RuPaul’s latest project, a daytime talk show currently in the middle of a three-week trial run on Fox, I am certain of one thing: This show is a total drag, and not necessarily the fun kind.
The new show, simply titled RuPaul, is the personality’s latest move in a long journey toward complete and total media domination. In the same format that transformed both Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil from outcast and irrelevant (respectively) into daytime TV deities, RuPaul is trying to penetrate the core of mainstream American culture, burying himself in the hearts and minds of children home sick from school, stay-at-home parents, the elderly, and the unemployed. Is this segment of the American audience ready for another openly gay, non-DeGeneres daytime television star?
If anything, the first few episodes of RuPaul show that Totally Normal and Approachable Guy is well within the changeling drag superstar’s wheelhouse. Contrary to what the title, set design, house music, runway, and presence of Michelle Visage and Ross Matthews might suggest, RuPaul is not about RuPaul, or at least not about that RuPaul. In the first episode, Ru emerges onto the stage wearing a fitted suit, dress shoes, and glasses, showing the audience a photo of himself in his familiar drag get-up. “Now, many of y’all know me looking like this, but starting today, I want y’all to know me like this.” This is daytime TV RuPaul, a totally relatable, occasionally flamboyant, (mostly) gender-conforming kind of guy who just wants you to finally learn to “love yourself.”
I will never forgive RuPaul for making me sit through a conversation with James Corden about the miracle of pregnancy, or for making me listen to a five-minute monologue from Cory Booker about his vision to restore “love” in American civic life, or for making me watch as Jack Osbourne explains how he thinks ghosts work. RuPaul himself is so interesting that watching him cede the spotlight to others is frustrating. It’s a problem for a talk show when the host is more interesting than the guest—especially when the host declines to press them with interesting questions. RuPaul would easily be more entertaining if the guests were interviewing RuPaul instead of the other way around. It hasn’t helped that the interview lineup has, so far, been less than thrilling.
I would much rather, for example, sit for an hour and watch Ru hangout with Visage—as he did on his talk show that aired from 1996 to 1998 on VH1. The VH1 show also featured musical acts, sketches, and a more eclectic variety of guests: Cher, Tammy Faye Messner, Duran Duran, Millie Jackson with Pam Grier and Lil’ Kim, even the Backstreet Boys. The show was unabashedly weird, unabashedly gay, and, most importantly, unabashedly fun. Yes, drag was an element of this show, but it was really the subversion of the talk show format in favor of weirdness that made RuPaul’s VH1 talk show captivating.
To be clear, I’m not trying to drag the new RuPaul. It may be the plight of every queer daytime talk show host that they must go to such lengths to make themselves more palatable to an often conservative, older daytime broadcast network audience. Even Ellen has struggled with daytime TV performance of approachability and the constant expectation to dance for her audience. RuPaul is still in its infancy, so there’s still room for improvement, and Friday’s episode with Loni Love was a step in the right direction. Drag or no drag, Ru and his team will have to figure out how best to thread the needle between the RuPaul we’ve known and the RuPaul we’re getting to know.