Q on the tube: Inside Track

RuPaul is America’s most prominent drag queen. He’s played himself on numerous TV shows over the years, but now he’s hosting his own.

RuPaul’s new reality series debuts Feb. 2 on Logo. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is as it sounds — a contest to see who is the best drag queen, among nine contestants considered the top drag queens in the country. The contestants range in age from 24-year-old Akashia to 39-year-old Victoria Parker.

Before the queering of America, true drag was marginal. Of course men have dressed as women for centuries — just ask William Shakespeare. And in modern TV times, Milton Berle dressed as a woman for comedic effect on his variety show, as did a host of other comedians like Jack Benny and all of Carol Burnett’s friends.

Dustin Hoffman was still talking about his role as Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie” last week on David Letterman, where he was plugging his latest film. And “Late Night’s” Craig Ferguson continues to do drag routines almost every night.

But all of these men play(ed) drag for laughs. None were/are gay. None were bridging the chasm between the queer and straight worlds or even attempting to. In fact, at times, drag by actors and comedians has been a clear put-down of both women and queers.

But for more than a quarter-century, the 48-year-old RuPaul Charles has been turning drag into the art form he’s always asserted it is, and without trashing women. There’s far more disrespect for women on “America’s Next Top Model” than on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

RuPaul has always taken drag to a different level. Is it extreme? Yes — it is drag, after all, and drag is about glamour times 10. RuPaul is an entertainer — singer, actor, model. He was the first drag queen ever to be signed as a supermodel in 1994 by MAC Cosmetics. The ads featuring RuPaul read, “I am a MAC girl.”

While his gender identity appears to be fluid, RuPaul identifies as a gay man. Yet he has also long asserted he doesn’t care what pronoun is used to describe him: he or she. That was apparent when he posed in a series of photos as both Barack and Michelle Obama in December. (See him/her at eonline or TMZ.) He looked fabulous as both.

RuPaul is one of those trailblazers who doesn’t have an easy niche in which to fit. Drag has always been a problematic issue for lesbians and feminists, who have often asserted that drag queens parody women and that drag has always been a bastard stepchild for gay men — something they enjoy in clubs and pretend they’ve never seen in daylight.

Certainly “Drag Race” is over the top and trés gay and a lot of fun. The nine contestants are indeed divas, but are they any more or less so than the divas on “Pussycat Dolls,” “Top Model” or “True Beauty”?

Bebe hails from Minneapolis and will remind many of that other famous Minnesotan, Prince. Nina Flowers has the most dramatic transformation. Gorgeously sleek and glam in drag, out of drag Flowers is covered in tattoos, has a shaved head and looks like a super-butch leather top — showing once again how drag is, for many, an art form as well as a way of life.

A mix of judges will join RuPaul on the panel for “Drag Race,” proving that drag has definitely moved from the margins to the mainstream. Fashion journalist and best-selling author Merle Ginsberg and “Project Runway” breakout star and designer Santino Rice headline with celebrity guest judges. The celebs include designer Bob Mackie, “Xena: Warrior Princess” herself Lucy Lawless, lesbian model Jenny Shimizu, the irrepressible Tori Spelling and several others, like publicist extraordinaire Howard Bragman.

RuPaul has been quoted as saying, “What other people think of me is not my business … I think the problem is that people refuse to understand what drag is outside of their own belief system.” Whatever your belief system or impression of drag, RuPaul continues to be entertaining as well as provocative more than 25 years into his drag career.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.