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RuPaul answers tall order with 'Drag Race'

March 8, 2009 |  6:24 pm

Rupaulsdragrace300 The competition is on to crown 'America's next drag superstar,' and who better to preside over the proceedings than onetime club icon RuPaul.

RuPaul, the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7 (by his own varying accounts) African American drag queen who sashayed his way into mass consciousness in the 1990s with the club hit "Supermodel" and a VH1 talk show, is back on TV with “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” A reality competition show now about three-quarters through its first cycle on Logo, the LGBT-themed cable net, it aims to discover "America's next drag superstar" -- that is, the next RuPaul. It's a little bit "America's Next Top Model" and a little bit " Project Runway," and like drag itself, parodical without being a joke.

If it's highly unlikely that a superstar, even a subcultural superstar, will emerge from a third-tier cable game show, or at least solely because of it, "Drag Race" has done very well by Logo standards and is scheduled to be rerun on VH1, its higher-profile, gender-neutral cousin under Viacom. (The series is also available on the network website) Like its host(ess), who appears in drag and out of it, functioning as both (sharply dressed) Tim Gunn and voice of decision Heidi Klum -- now a mentor, now a judge -- the show is good-hearted and basically family friendly, adjusting for your family's tolerance for sexual innuendo and risqué acronyms. Challenges have included "Drag on a Dime," in which the contestants had to build a look from thrift store clothes, create a girl group to lip sync to Destiny's Child,channel their inner Oprah, and dress female martial arts experts as versions of their drag selves.

It's clear from the range of styles, attitudes and ambitions on display that there's nothing monolithic -- homogeneous, if you will -- about drag culture. Shanelle, a Las Vegas veteran, is all high-polished glitz; Tammie Brown, with her Bette Davis eyebrows and slathered-on lipstick, was like an echo of '70s-style downtown camp (and was soon eliminated). Nina Flowers, tattooed and muscular and made-up and bewigged like something not quite of this Earth, doesn't "even consider myself a female impersonator," while Rebecca Glasscock comes across mainly as a normally pretty girl. When the contestants were asked to do one another's makeup, most were unhappy with the results.

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JAUNTY: RuPaul is two-thirds through the run of “Drag Race” on Logo, but previous episodes are on the website. The show's contestant Ongina is pictured. Photo credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images