How 'RuPaul's Drag Race' helped mainstream drag culture — and spawned a brand bringing in millions

Various contestants from Drag Race, Seasons 1 to 9
World of Wonder

Each year, tens of thousands of people fill convention centers in Los Angeles and New York. Many are dressed in colorful wigs and fierce heels; they flock to panels for over-the-top makeup tutorials and fashion runway shows, or talks exploring gender binary and activism. Others wait in line to meet former contestants from hit reality TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race," and buy merchandise such as "Charisma" pins and "Oh, Pit Crew!" underwear. All that for a $40-a-day ticket.

This is DragCon, or more specifically, RuPaul's Dragcon, the multimillion-dollar extravaganza that's the drag industry's answer to comic con.

RuPaul Andre Charles at DragCon 2017
World of Wonder

Debuted on the West Coast in 2015 off the success of "RuPaul's Drag Race," DragCon now happens twice a year: May in Los Angeles, California (May 24 to 26 this year), and September in New York (Sept. 6 to 8 in 2019). And it's become big business.

"In New York at the Javitz Convention Center, DragCon sold out its first year" in 2017, Fenton Bailey, executive producer of "RuPaul's Drag Race" and co-creator of DragCon with fellow executive producer Randy Barbato, tells CNBC Make It. Andre Charles, better known as RuPaul, is a partner in DragCon, according to the company.

In 2017, at the New York and Los Angeles conventions, over $8 million worth of merchandise — particularly wigs, makeup and "Drag Race" merchandise such as T-shirts — sold on the convention floor, he says. That doesn't include the $40 entrance fee ($70 for the whole weekend) each of the 35,000 attendees had to pay in N.Y.C.

DragCon floor
World of Wonder

In LA, DragCon is growing fast; according to Bailey, the first conference there in 2015 had 13,725 attendees, and in 2018 more than 50,000 people went, though numbers for 2019 are not yet available. As a rough comparison, Los Angeles Comic Con had 91,000 attendees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. (That "con" was started in 2011, inspired by San Diego's decades-old Comic-Con International, which attracts crowds as big as 130,000.)

And the bicoastal drag celebration, spearheaded by Bailey, Barbato and RuPaul (who holds "Ru Talks" at the conferences), attracts a surprisingly broad audience. "We see families with their teenagers, and kids with their grandparents. Most attendees do not identify as gay, and over 60 percent are women," Bailey says, adding that 55 percent of attendees are under 30.

Drag Race star Farrah Moan meets fans at 4th Annual RuPaul's DragCon at Los Angeles Convention Center on May 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. 
Chelsea Guglielminon | Getty Images

"I'm a huge fan of 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' and I went to DragCon in New York City," Ricardo Teco, 35, a digital marketing strategist from Mexico City, tells CNBC Make It. "I was really excited to see my favorite queens from the show, like Gia Gunn, Laganga Estranga and fan-favorite Shangela."

Shangela (from season 2, 3 and "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" season 3) was particularly popular. "The line to see her was huge; I waited an hour," says Teco. "But she was really nice to everyone."

But for some, like Teco, DragCon is more than just a fun weekend. "I met a lot of cool people, not only gay, but also many straight people went to the event with their families and that's awesome," he says. "I think this event gives the opportunity to know more about the drag community, to break taboos."

How 'Drag Race' won over America

When "RuPaul's Drag Race" debuted in 2009 on Logo, it was meant to be a fun way — loosely based on reality show "America's Next Top Model" — to "celebrate the art of drag," according to RuPaul, who hosts and is also now an executive producer. Each week, up to 14 drag queens compete with runway looks and performance in challenges (like acting and dancing) as well as a lip sync battle (to decide which of the two bottom contestants is eliminated), all to crown a winner who gets a $100,000 prize.

The reality show has achieved both a mainstream and cult following. In September 2017, it won its ninth Emmy, and the season 10 finale in June on VH1 had a record 527,000 viewers in the important 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

Last year, RuPaul Charles won his third Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program.

As RuPaul writes in his 2010 book, "Workin' It! RuPaul's Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style," drag is "sarcastic spoof on culture, which allows us to laugh at ourselves, but in a way that is inclusive of everyone."

But in its decade on the air (the season 11 finale aired Thursday), it's not only entertained, it has also helped introduce much of America to drag and its community. The show features contestants outside of their drag clothes, talking about personal hardships like being unaccepted in society or their family. In addition to Emmys, in 2010 the show won Outstanding Reality Program at the GLAAD Media Awards, for fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the LGBTQ community and surrounding issues.

Performer Morgan McMichael sposes with fans at the 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Viewing Party during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at The Claim Jumper on January 25, 2018 in Park City, Utah.
George Pimentel | Getty Images

That has connected with America, especially among gay communities.

"Drag queens have always been part of the gay nightlife landscape, but 'Drag Race' brought them to the fore," Benjamin Maisani, who owns several gay bars and clubs in New York, tells CNBC Make It. "There's a greater variety that have been depicted, and as a result there's been greater interest in drag for everyone, not just gay people."

"One can argue that 'Drag Race' is responsible for the mainstreaming of drag," he said.

There's money in it, honey

It's also helped boost the drag economy.

"The show and the queens' growing and deserved success has turbocharged an entire industry," says Bailey.

Even before DragCon, "Drag Race" created a boon for gay nightlife, especially in New York and LA, increasing sales at bars, lounges and clubs that offer "Drag Race" viewing parties when the show airs, as The Economist reported. To name a few, Club Cumming and Atlas Social Club in New York, Palace Bar in Miami, Hamburger Mary's in West Hollywood and Roscoe's in Chicago have all had "Drag Race" events.

"'Drag Race' viewing parties have definitely become a communal experience," says Maisani, co-owner of gay bar Club Cumming (with actor Alan Cumming) in the East Village and owner of Atlas Social Club in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York.

"Every Thursday, regulars come together and watch the show," he says of "Drag Race," where new episodes air on VH1. "It becomes an event; people come specifically to watch with other fans. People take it very seriously. They root for various contestants; they're quite involved."

Maisani says in 2018 there was a 25 percent increase in bar sales compared with regular Thursday nights, and he booked more drag queens due to the popularity of the show. "We book them more because there's more interest," he says.

As for the "Drag Race" brand, World of Wonder (the show's production company, founded by Bailey and Barbato) puts on world tours in which contestants perform at theaters or concert halls. Ticket prices to the 2019 "Drag Race" Werq the World tour sell in the $50 range, depending on the city. This year, the tour, which runs through November, goes to major cities in the U.S., Canada, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The tour also sells merchandise.

That's all in addition to DragCon.

"Management companies, booking agents, music releases, product launches, commercial campaigns and brand tie-ins have all emerged as aspects of this new drag industry," says Bailey.

"The mainstream is catching on. From Hollywood to Madison Avenue, drag is becoming a recognized medium that can reward its artists not only with the recognition they deserve but also compensation, which they also deserve. The development is long overdue."

The queens are the secret sauce

Indeed, the queens are benefiting financially too. "The engine of the show is the talent, and each year a new batch of girls joins the roster of book-able queens," meaning those who can be booked to perform in venues like gay bars and clubs after the show.

Just being on "Drag Race" can launch a drag queen's career, and many of the 112 contestants featured so far have gone on to further success.

Trixie and Katya of the Trixie and Kayta show on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen

Alyssa Edwards, aka Justin Johnson, starred in his own Netflix docu-series about his life, which premiered in October. Trixie Mattel (Brian Michael Firkus) and Katya (Brian Joseph McCook) have their own series, "The Trixie and Katya Show," plus Mattel has two country music EPs and an album that climbed to No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart.

Alyssa Edwards 
 Chelsea Guglielmino | Getty Images

Others have landed ad campaigns, book deals, fashion shows and movie gigs. Alaska aka Justin Andrew Honard; Courtney Act aka Shane Jenek, and Willam Belli became models for American Apparel. Belli's book, "Suck Less; Where There's a Willam, There's a Way," has a foreword from Neil Patrick Harris. Violet Chachki aka Jason Dardo closed out a Moschino runway. Bob the Drag Queen aka Christopher Caldwell acted in the 2017 film "Rough Night" with Scarlett Johansson, which made $47 million at the box office.

"Many queens can now make a living touring. They can be paid thousands of dollars for making personal appearances, from gay pride floats to special events at gay bars, hosting viewing parties or being the face of campaigns," Barbato tells CNBC Make It.

Indeed, Barbato told the BBC some drag queens earn up to $10,000 per appearance and many "are making six figures a year — [they were] on a fraction of that before."

Alkaska at Dragcon
World of Wonder

Reality TV made ordinary-ish people like the Kardashians or various big-city "housewives" the new celebrities. It has done much the same for drag queens.

"Drag queens are the new pop stars," says Bailey.

A boon for LGBTQ

Glace Chase, a New York drag queen who sings, says "Ru Paul's Drag Race" and its spinoff industry have also brought drag and gender nonconformity to the mainstream.

"People are a lot less afraid and much more responsive," Chase tells CNBC Make It. "Being a drag queen before 'Drag Race' really was an exotic and freakish thing. People now have a shorthand way to contextualize you — you're less 'weird.'"

That's opened up the comedy world for Chase. "I've really embraced the straight bars and now the (mostly male) stand up comedy world in New York."

Barbato says its been especially helpful for LGBTQ youth.

"Back in the bad old days our enemy was the closet. LGBTQ people have always existed and will always exist in every country and culture. But in America, where discrimination, violence and hatred have been epidemic towards gay people, many have often chosen to remain invisible to survive," he says.

"Contrast that with being able to sit down and watch a show with an entirely gay cast," he says. "We know how great that could have been for us growing up gay. We also know from the letters we get that 'Drag Race' has inspired and actually saved lives."

And as Vox points out, DragCon has enabled teens to meet their drag queen idols in the flesh.

Boys wore dresses that 'dragged' on the floor

Men dressing as women to entertain is nothing new.

"Men playing women's roles on stage actually dates back to the very origins of theater in ancient Athens, when men performed all the roles on stage as early as 534 BCE," theater historian Peter Davis tells CNBC Make It.

Similarly, boys played female parts during the Elizabethan/Shakespearean age. "Women weren't allowed on public stages," Davis says. "Young men and boys generally played the female roles. But it should be noted that the practice was not considered odd or funny — it was simply the established convention of the day."

There were also female impersonators in vaudeville.

But the earliest documented use of the term "drag" in the more modern context comes from Reynold's Newspaper on May 29, 1870, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. ("We shall come in drag" was the usage, but no other specifics are given.) That means "it's probably slang that originated in the mid-19th century," says Davis.

Davis also points out that according to Cassel's Dictionary, another possible 19th century origin of the term "drag" may be a reference to men in ill-fitting women's dresses that dragged on the floor. (Former "Drag Race" contestant Chi Chi DeVayne aka Zavion Davenport described a similar origin in a February video from Allure.)

But the earliest use of drag with any connection to the gay community is found in the Oxford English Dictionary referencing an article from the Sunday Express dated Feb. 13, 1927, according to Davis: "A drag is a rowdy party attended by abnormal men dressed in scanty feminine garments, singing jazz songs in high falsetto voices," it reads.

In an August story for Popsugar, "Sashay Through the History of Drag Queen Culture," drag historian Joe. E. Jeffreys, who teaches theater studies at New York University, says drag culture "became inextricably linked with the gay community" starting in the 1930s.

From there, Jeffreys says, the first true drag queens emerged from gay bars, like Jose Sarria at San Francisco's Black Cat in the 1950s.

Since then, drag has been a cultural force in TV and film, according to Bailey.

"'Some Like It Hot,' with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, was a huge [film] hit in 1959," says Bailey. "In the '60s, drag queens like Jackie Curtis, Hollywoodlawn and Candy Darling were pushing cultural boundaries at [Andy] Warhol's [The] Factory. There was Dame Edna Everage, an Australian stage comedian in the 1970s who grew famous in London's West End, and [the film] 'Tootsie' in the '80s."

Culturally iconic movies in particular have captured the essence (and camp) of drag for decades, including "Pink Flamingos" (1972); "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975); "Paris is Burning" (1990); "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994); "The Birdcage" (1996); "My Life in Pink" (1997); "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001), and "Kinky Boots" (2005).

'Drag Race' is born

In 1993, Bailey, Barbato and RuPaul came up with the idea of a reality TV show competition featuring drag queens. "In 1993, no one was ready. People thought it was a joke," Barbato tells CNBC Make It. "We had pitched the idea of a drag competition to a few cable outlets I won't disclose, and they found it entertaining but did not think it was a serious pitch."

It wasn't that different in 2009, says Barbato. "We went to the same outlets who felt the same way. We were very fortunate there was a young gay network, Logo, that took a chance on us."

Logo had experimented with different kinds of gay programming when it launched in 2005, says Barbato. "I remember early on when we were pitching 'Drag Race' hearing that they weren't looking for drag. It was not part of their early notion of what that network would be. I think they finally arrived at a place where they thought, 'We should try this.'"

"Drag Race" was a success from the get-go, says Barbato.

"People were interested in it out of the gate. It found its audiences, and audiences found it, right away," he says. "Logo was not a network that could be found all over the country. So the audience that found it was small, but they were loyal."

Fast forward to today, and "I think if you put heels and a wig on any pitch, people will take it seriously. That's really where the landscape has shifted" and, he says, the show has had something to do with that.

It spawned a spinoff, "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars," in 2012, where fan-favorite queens from previous shows compete in a similar setup (though the top two contestants for that week lip sync in a battle, and the winner sends a contestant home). The season 3 premiere in January 2018 drew 895,000 total viewers per episode, making it the most-watched "All Stars" at the time, according to Deadline. "Drag Race" season 10 drew 469,000 viewers per episode in the 18-to-49 demographic and overall viewership of 723,000 per episode, making it the most-watched season in "Drag Race" history, the site reported.

Barbato says "Drag Race" has a huge global presence now.

"There are local versions of the show starting to happen in more and more places, like 'Drag Race Thailand,'" which has a welcoming LGBTQ community, according to Barbato, "and one in South America, and many more that will be announced quite soon." Barbato declined to comment further. World of Wonder has no affiliation with the South America show. Drag Race Thailand is under license and available on on Wow Presents Plus.

RuPaul's Drag Race is launching a U.K. edition some time in 2019, according to Entertainment Weekly.

"Our World Tour, where drag race contestants and winners tour the world doing shows, sell out theaters all over the world. It's kind of crazy, like The Beatles," says Barbato.

In fact, like all the members of The Beatles, RuPaul received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in March 2018. He is the first drag queen to get a star.

This story originally published on Sept. 28, 2018 and was updated on May 30.

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