On Sunday, RuPaul won an Emmy for Outstanding Host for RuPaul's Drag Race, beating previous winners in the category Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, Jane Lynch, and Tom Bergeron -- and continuing the streak of someone from the LGBT community winning since 2012.
For longtime fans of the show, the victory felt overdue: Drag Race has been on the air for eight years, and, while the show itself wasn't nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, at last the Academy acknowledged its raison d'être.
RuPaul's certainly worked hard for the honor, doing triple duty on the show as host, mentor, and judge. But what makes him so great on the show is how he borrows hosting tricks from a different format: the talk show. His presence on the show feels, to me, akin to greats like Johnny Carson, Ellen, and Oprah. Like them, RuPaul created and offers a world for the audience to escape to, to feel welcomed, and to be entertained -- one episode at a time.
RuPaul projects comfort, warmth, and wisdom, from the self-motivating "If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" callback that closes off each episode to the discussion of "journeys" and "growth" in the chats over Tic Tac mints. It's a page right out of the Oprah playbook, and the years of experience RuPaul had as a talk show host (including two seasons anchoring the RuPaul Show on VH1 and host of podcast "What's the Tee") clearly show.
One important function of hosts is to act as calming figures, especially through times of uncertainty. Ellen foreshadowed her knack for hosting when she fronted the Emmys after the 9/11 attacks. She told jokes both silly and pointed, helping people move forward in their lives a little bit easier, even if just for a few hours. RuPaul has had a similar role, as Drag Race started in February 2009, less than a year after the crushing loss over Prop 8. The mood was a mixture of solemnity, frustration, and anger. And Drag Race was a salve, a remedy where, yes, men in wigs competed for a crown, but also on display in their very human and touching stories was the "tenacity of the human spirit," as RuPaul put it in his post-win interview.
A lot has changed since Drag Race began its run. In just seven years, same-sex marriage went from Prop 8 to a SCOTUS decision. RuPaul and Drag Race acted as a continuum, one that affirmed a part of gay culture through a bleak loss to a triumphant victory. A new generation found their voice through the show as it reinvented parts of gay culture for the social media age. The show created a revival for drag and introduced historical gay references to a new generation through vignettes like Snatch Game. (See: Jinkx Monsoon's Little Edie, and more recently Alyssa Edwards' Joan Crawford and Alaska's Mae West.)
The show has been the one constant in a gay culture that has changed quickly. I still remember as a teenager learning the old code, references to Dorothy and All About Eve that granted access to being part of the club. You're born with same-sex desires, but knowing all the words to "MacArthur Park" makes you gay. The code both bonded together those who knew it and quickly signaled the outsiders who didn't.
Clearly no one wants to return to the outside pressures that concentrated men in bars and shoved them into a common secret language, but as those references were thrown out or not passed down very little has replaced it. Greater acceptance -- supplemented by apps like Grindr -- prompted the diffusion of gay men away from villages and gayborhoods. Being out in more places and in more ways meant gay men could integrate their other identities, but with such freedom came ambiguity: what does it mean to be gay now?
Drag Race provides one vision, perhaps far more idealistic than the one we live in. On the show, there are a majority of contestants of color, giving Latinx, black, and Asian queens the opportunity to show off their talents. The show continues to poke fun of and deconstruct gender in a culture that has doubled-down on being "masc4masc." The show features contestants of different ages and varying body types. In short, the show is a rare showcase for the inclusion so many of us thought we'd find when we came out.
In some ways, I think of Drag Race as a kind of church service and we the faithful congregation show up to feel safe and to be around others. In Toronto, you can find as many as five happening in bars across the city. Every Thursday, friends and I attend Drag Race screenings out at bars, because there is a ritual around it. We call back to the screen sayings we know by heart and drink too much communion beverages. We love to be in RuPaul's world where individuality is valued, wit matters over looks, and a can-do spirit can win it all. We know the stories aren't always truth, but they're still gospel.
RuPaul understands the power of bringing a splintered community together, saying during his post-win interview: "I love the fact that our show is watched by groups of people -- it's event viewing. In an era where the nightclub business, especially the gay nightclub, has suffered, because of apps and people don't have to go to a bar to meet someone, our show has been used as a tool to unite people and get them to watch together. That's really what this show is about."
And even for those who don't go out to watch, they know they are part of something. They can talk to friends, arguing over if a win was deserved or not. They can attend live shows, like Battle of the Seasons. They can take a break from their worries, knowing that a great host -- an Emmy-winning host -- will be there for them.
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