Drag queens sashay down the runway, lip-syncing to RuPaul’s "Main Event," escorted by their drag mothers. The mother-daughter fashion show has begun, and immediately we realize: we've never seen anything like this on TV. The mamas are only mommies for a day -- older gay men plucked out of their quiet lives to be transformed into drag queens as part of a reality show challenge. They've never worn heels, makeup or dresses.
And a test it is. Heels prove a giant obstacle for a couple of "mothers" who have trouble walking in their own shoes because of disabilities. But there they were in a Culver City studio last July, filming an episode of the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on Logo.
Their "daughters" have shaved them, contoured their cheekbones, lined their eyes and lips, applied wigs, dyed their shoes and dressed them in their own likenesses. You know, to get the mother-daughter effect.
When the "ladies" first strut on stage, there is laughter. Guest judge Cloris Leachman spends the first 45 minutes cracking up. "I want to see that again!" she screams when one drag queen accidentally flashes the judges.
Guest judge Debbie Reynolds can't get enough of the sparkly showmanship of it all. "You are no contest for Ginger Rogers," she tells Golda Lamé, drag mother to 30-year-old tough cookie, Raven. In her normal life, Golda Lamé uses a walker for assistance, so when she lets loose to dance, Reynolds says what everyone is thinking: "I was praying you were going to make it. You're very funny. You're hysterical."
Then, just like that, a sentimental mood takes over. It turns out Raven bonded with Golda, a prominent gay rights activist, as they worked on their looks and performance together for 10 hours. When their rendition of RuPaul's single is over, Raven picks up Golda, who is clearly struggling, and carries her backstage, a gesture that touches the judges and the crew.
"She seemed so protective of her mother," RuPaul observes when they return to be evaluated. Raven is standing arm-in-arm with Golda, holding her shoes. "We haven't seen so many sweet sides to Raven." "The exchange was adorable," Reynolds adds. "I felt the mother overcame her problem with great courage and they were really funny. I felt their friendship."
If you've never seen "RuPaul's Drag Race," a show that on the surface fits the "America's Next Top Model" and "Project Runway" mold, all this touchy-feely talk might come as a surprise. But if you're in the legion who helped make the Logo series a sleeper hit last year, you know that emotion and honesty are the elements that have made this show about the power of personal transformation addictive, distinctive and meaningful. The grand prize is to win the title of "America's Next Drag Superstar" but what RuPaul hopes is that contestants and viewers alike find "the Superman to their Clark Kent."
"I stayed away from reality television for years because I didn't want to do anything mean-spirited," RuPaul said. "And I knew if we did this show, it would have to be with reverence and a love for these creative, courageous souls who do drag. Anyone who can follow his heart, buck the system, put on some lipstick and go outside is my hero. These kids were all little boys who were teased and who had to learn how to nurture the hero inside."
Of course, Leachman isn't the only one who giggles when RuPaul proclaims the now classic line, "It's time to lip-sync for your liiife!" to the two last-place contestants or when contestants get admonished for their poor tucking jobs. But for every hilarious moment, there are poignant scenes, too. Last season, for example, Ongina, 27, touched viewers after she won a spot as a M.A.C. Cosmetics Viva Glam spokesperson, broke down and revealed that she was HIV-positive.
"We're looking for someone who can fill Ru's shoes, who can be the next drag superstar and carry forward the art of drag, and it's a tough one because, still to this day, society and people marginalize gay culture and gay people marginalize drag culture," said Santino Rice, the second-season "Project Runway" fashion designer who serves as a judge on the show.
"This show really shows people that they need to own who they are as individuals and if a man can transform himself into a beautiful creation, a beautiful drag queen, anything is possible," he continued. "It's really your mind that's holding you back from anything you want to accomplish."
A hit is born
Not even gay-friendly Bravo would buy "RuPaul's Drag Race," even with RuPaul on board as the host, mentor, and chief judge -- roles he plays in and out of drag. In a way, RuPaul understood. Convincing him to be a part of it had been a tough sell, too. Politically, the country had become more conservative than when the 49-year-old became the first drag queen to land mainstream success in the '90s, and he didn't think they'd find a network "because of the culture of fear and hysteria."