Several alumni from RuPaul’s Drag Race — Adore Delano, Courtney Act, Ginger Minj, Alaska 5000, Jujubee, and most notably Americana/powerpop crossover artist Trixie Mattel — have proven that they can actually sing live, not just lip-sync for their lives. Delano and Act respectively even got their start competing on American and Australian Idol. But incredibly, the last drag artist to really make a mark in the mainstream pop world was RuPaul himself, almost 30 years ago, when his debut single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” went to No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold half a million copies in the States.
Now, a new American Idol-style drag singing competition, Queen of the Universe, has launched. Judged by Mattel, Vanessa Williams, Drag Race regular/former Seduction girl group singer Michelle Visage, and The X Factor U.K. winner Leona Lewis — and featuring an international contestant lineup that actually includes American Idol Season 16 drag queen Ada Vox and the above-mentioned Drag Race veteran Jujubee — the Graham Norton-hosted Paramount+ talent show hopes to find, well, the next RuPaul.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a drag competition. This is a singing competition,” Visage stresses. “This is about the vocals. This is about the performance. Drag is key here, but it is not number one. Number one is the vocal. So, I think the world is going to see a whole different point of view with drag music from this point on.”
“The drag component is really key though, because if you closed your eyes, for 80 percent the contestants singing, some of the vocal ranges are incredible,” adds Williams.
“Original keys!” gasps Mattel.
“All of the queens are using their real voices,” marvels Lewis. “And remember, we’re working with male voices that have transformed and are singing in this female range, and the work that goes into that and the effort that goes into that. As a vocalist, I am constantly working with vocal teachers and working on my vocals, but this is like a whole ‘nother level. … What I’m excited about is that we created this platform for amazingly talented queens to now hopefully take that and really make a career out of it. One of my hopes is that we found a drag queen that could be on mainstream radio, that could have a huge audience, and that could really, really do this,” says Lewis.
“And there are new songs that are going to be premiered on the show that could actually be hits. I mean, we were stunned not just by the amount of talent that we saw, but by what the new music that we heard. So, not only are there established songs that the queens will be singing, that we all know that are big hits, but also new songs that I think indefinitely be heard on the radio as well,” adds Williams.
So, is top 40 pop radio really ready for another drag queen to take over the airwaves, for the first time since Ru in ‘92? “I think it’s like the precipice,” says Lewis. “We are so almost there. and I feel like the show has come at the exact right time than it needs to.”
“We have had a lot of queens through the years that have sang on RuPaul’s Drag Race and can sing, but I think people completely just brush off drag queen music — ‘Oh, that’s just drag music!’ — and they don’t look at it like viable, real art,” Visage laments to Yahoo Entertainment. “Um, Prince was a drag queen, honey! Why is it because they’re in drag, they’re not a performer? Hello, David Bowie? We can go back to KISS. Drag has been around since the dawn of day, so this is nothing different. I think people want to just negate it for some reason; it’s really dirty. So, I’m really happy that this show showcases the talent of these people.”
“I can’t tell you how many times there was a network we pitched [Queen of the Universe] to that said, ‘Oh, we already tried the drag thing.’ And this was last year! Meanwhile, Drag Race is sweeping the Emmys every year. So, it’s a weird thing,” Mattel muses. “As somebody who travel with a guitar and plays in drag all the time, we’re constantly getting the [comment], ‘That was actually good!’ … I want for these competitors, and whoever ultimately becomes ‘queen of the universe,’ I want them to go into the world where people go, ‘Oh, that music is great. I love her look. Oh, I guess it is a drag performance!’
“It’s just funny that once you use the word ‘drag’ — it’s like, you know, when I’m up there doing [the new ‘60s-reminiscent single] ‘Hello Hello,’ I think I’m Nancy Sinatra. I don’t think I’m a drag queen; I think I’m a woman doing it,” Mattel continues with a chuckle. “But then with Prince or the B-52’s, once you start adding fake mustaches and wigs and dresses, where do we draw the line of what’s ‘drag’? And if we’re going to call this drag music, how can we not call this drag music too? It’s like, the people who say, ‘I’m not really a drag person’… Really? Do you like Mrs. Doubtfire? Do you like White Chicks? Then you are a drag person. You just didn’t call it drag.”
“I’ve been very inspired by drag for a long time, since I was a teenager,” says Lewis. “The empowerment that comes from that, a lot of the drag queens have faced so much adversity doing this. So, the fact that they’re doing this, that they’re sharing their art and expressing themselves, I just love it. I love the whole everything about it.”
“And let’s not forget, I could be killed for walking down the street like this in a lot of countries, or a lot of cities in the United States,” says Mattel. (The 14 Queen of the Universe contestants represent India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Denmark, England, France, Canada, and the USA.) “Some of these stories you will hear, some of these performers can barely even comprehend that they’re onstage and in drag, let alone focused on the competition.”
“There’s some amazing moments that you’ll see from the contestants that talk about their struggle, talk about being judged and not being accepted in different parts of the world. We’re not skirting around that. There are some heartfelt moments that you will see as an audience, which highlights exactly what we’re talking about: being accepted as who they are,” says Williams.
“And you know, just the representation on this show is it’s incredible. When you watch it and you see where all the queens are coming from, the international stories, some queens that can’t even perform in that countries,” says Lewis. “But on this stage, they get to do that and be celebrated and be told, ‘You’re fantastic, and you’re amazing, and we want to see you.’”
“A lot of these things just aren’t seen, again, as talent or viable. And it’s kind of like, ‘No! We matter too!’” says Visage. “Drag queens have mattered to me since I was 17 years old, so the fact that this kind of renaissance, or this heyday, or this moment is happening over the past 12 or 13 years, although it’s been very slow to get to where we are… it’s just music to my ears, quite literally. Because of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, there’s now more conversation and more understanding — parents understanding their queer child, maybe hopefully accepting them more. The conversations are starting. So, I’m not sure if the world is ready, but incredible shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race are testing the waters and preparing everybody for the future. And the future is drag.”
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by John Santo