‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ EP Tom Campbell Q&A On Keeping The Series Fresh & Creating A Safe Platform For Queer Performers

16 years ago, executive producer Tom Campbell remembers when almost no one would take a chance on a reality drag competition series. Now, RuPaul’s Drag Race has received 63 Emmy nominations, with 29 wins, and has just wrapped their highest rated season in the last four years. “Every award we get, or anytime we get to talk about the show,” says Campbell, “I just think it reinforces that hopefully there’ll be one more year of RuPaul’s Drag Race and telling those important queer stories that rarely, if ever, get told.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race sees iconic drag artist RuPaul search for America’s next drag superstar through a series of fashion, acting and musical challenges. Though the series has just finished its 16th season, the ratings have shown no sign of decreasing after both a move to MTV and a political climate where drag seems to constantly be under attack. Campbell attributes all the success to the queens, who feel comfortable and safe enough within Drag Race to deliver their personal stories in a way that connects to audiences with a touch of humor.

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'Rupaul's Drag Race'
'Rupaul's Drag Race'

DEADLINE: First off, congrats on the ratings for Season 16. What do you think it says about this series, that in a time where drag is kind of under attack, people are still tuning in to watch?

TOM CAMPBELL: I think it’s amazing that in the 16th season of a show, it gets its highest rating in a decade or more, and I’m not surprised by it. I think the noise from the far right, the people that have used LGBTQ+ people as targets and as inflammatory political insanity, they’re the minority. They make a lot of noise, but it’s good to know that as the show grows, people love it and I think they love a lot about it.

I give all the power to the queens, they’re what keeps this show especially fresh. Don’t get me wrong, we have an incredible producing team and an incredible story team. People work hard on this network for many years and we try to reinvent it every year and make it fresh and exciting, but what’s really irreplaceable and incredibly invaluable are the queens. They come with their stories, they’re on the cutting edge of pop culture, and with expressions, with fashion, with experience, and with attitudes that are still more relevant than ever and remain as fresh as they are surprising. The audience relates to them and learns from them. It’s a multi-generational experience.

'Rupaul's Drag Race'
'Rupaul's Drag Race'

DEADLINE: In terms of keeping it fresh every year, what is that conversation like before the season begins?

CAMPBELL: When the season ends, our minds don’t end and we are thinking all year round what can we can do to make it fun and how different drag samples pop culture. We also have this incredibly engaged audience. RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the most socially active shows on television. So, you get to read the tweets, the recaps, and you get moment by moment feedback on what people like and don’t like, and it’s a phenomenon of the viewing parties all across the country in person. And it’s such a benefit to be able to go to a live audience and see them react in the moment. I live in West Hollywood, and you walk down the street on Friday nights and every corner of the world has RuPaul’s Drag Race playing. You literally get people clutching their pearls, covering their mouths, falling to the ground. I mean, it’s really intense. So, we try every year to internally tear down the show and rebuild it to try to make it fresh. I think this year the queens, again, were the primary purpose. They were such an incredible, intoxicating group and their chemistry and their talent was amazing. And we tried to keep the competition going to the very, very last minute. I think this was a season where you didn’t know who was going to win until the last 20 seconds of the show, and it was quite a ride for people.

DEADLINE: So, we had the episode this year where the queens performed “Power”, which became part of the Werq the World tour. Can you talk about the inspiration for the song and bringing back songwriters Leland and Freddy Scott and choreographer Jamal Sims for the performance?

CAMPBELL: At this point, we have a really beautiful nuclear family, and Leland and Freddy Scott are part of that, and Jamal first met RuPaul when he was a backup dancer for Ru when he did his first Vegas show at the Sahara in, I don’t know, 1995? And if you ever watch The RuPaul Talk Show on VH1, it started off with a musical number and one of the two backup dancers is Jamal. So, he’s been part of the family for a long, long time, and obviously he’s an incredible choreographer and now director. We all have different superpowers, but when they come together, it’s like this dream factory and we can really make things happen quickly and elevate things, and I’m so proud and grateful to those people.

In terms of “Power”, specifically, reminding people to register to vote is an important part of our show, but we never want to be overtly political. RuPaul will say, “I make a political statement every time I batt a false eyelash”. So, it’s not like just by being drag queens are political. We want Drag Race to be an escape from a lot of the divisiveness of what’s going on. We want to include people, we want to feel the love, but also at the end of every season, whether it’s the presidential year or a midterm year, we have the signs at the end telling people where to register to vote. We’ve done debates and funny things with different kinds of challenges and we thought, ‘How can we do a musical challenge and have it live throughout the year?’

So, we came up with the idea of power. RuPaul said, “Don’t make it feel like homework. Draw people to you, be more of an attraction than a promotion.” So, Leland and Freddy came up with “Power”, which is the funkiest beat ever, and then we made a partnership with Werq the World, which is Brandon Voss and the queens’ tour of the country and the world, and also part of the family. This was a way to make it so it doesn’t just happen once on the television, which is amazing because it’s there forever to see, but it will be part of the Werq the World tour this election year and just remind people to have their voice be heard.

'RuPaul's Drag Race'
'RuPaul's Drag Race'

DEADLINE: You mentioned keeping Drag Race as a safe haven from the political divisiveness, but lately it seems that drag has been a specific target more than usual. Has that been something that has impacted the queens or the show?

CAMPBELL: I think RuPaul’s Drag Race is incredibly unique because it is a show that’s produced by queer people for queer people, except it goes beyond that because there’s such authenticity. And if we can, again, I give it all to the queens, but if I can give us any credit, what we’ve earned a reputation for is creating a safe space, an international platform where queer people feel comfortable enough, vulnerable enough to share what’s going on with them, whether it’s their HIV status or their DACA status or family issues. Over the years, so much has been revealed, and they’re not being drama queens. They’re telling their truth, they’re telling their story. And I think that is the most powerful way to relate to people. We add a lot of humor into it because I think drag, as we see drag and drag queens, doesn’t take itself too seriously. We’re kind of mixing things up and having fun, and I don’t know people that go to drag shows that don’t leave with a huge smile on their face, whether it’s a drag brunch or from the A-list to local queens, people love drag.

Politically, because we’re such shiny, bright, undeniable figures, we can be a target. RuPaul has said it the best, where it’s like they think our color and our laughter and our femininity and our mushiness is a weakness, but the fact that we use all the colors and that we’re unapologetic and expressing ourselves is our strength. And it’s not like we’re expressing ourselves while hurting somebody. Kindness and love are so important.

I worry every year, because no one wanted the show when we pitched it 16 years ago. Our friends at networks would say, “Oh my God, we love Ru and we love this idea, but we can’t sell this to ad sales.” That’s where we started. Logo was the first place to take a chance on us, which at the time seemed like, ‘Oh, Logo? Who has Logo?’ But the drag gods were watching over us because it ended up being the perfect place to build a show. Although the quality has increased a great deal since episode one, the bones, the heart, the spirit and the format have been alive since the first episode. We do live in weird political times, and I’m very protective of Drag Race, and I’m glad every time Paramount has been incredibly protective all these years. And Chris McCarthy and his team have championed our show and we’re grateful to them, but you just worry that something could happen where you can make it go away, where it won’t matter. So every award we get, or anytime we get to talk about the show, I just think it reinforces that hopefully there’ll be one more year of RuPaul’s Drag Race and telling those important queer stories that rarely, if ever, get told.

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