RuPaul's Drag Race had come a long way since its premiere in 2009, growing over the past decade into one of the most successful reality competition franchises in television history.
Currently nominated for eight 2022 Emmys, including outstanding reality competition program — an award the show has won for the past four consecutive years — the series has expanded well beyond its signature offering, with multiple spin-offs, a growing number of international versions and even a live Vegas show.
But executive producer Randy Barbato, who co-founded the show's production company World of Wonder, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive conversation that this is just the beginning.
"We've just gotten started with RuPaul's Drag Race," Barbato says. "We're on a mission; we aren't just making a show to entertain, but we're here to spread the message of the power of drag. So no, I don't see an end in sight."
"And I'll tell you, I say that taking my cues from our leader because RuPaul has just gotten started, too," Barbato adds of the show's host, head judge and fellow executive producer. "Ru pushes everyone to do our best. And all these years in, he's still as involved as ever, connecting with our queens, pushing them to evolve and learning from them himself. It's really pretty special."
Below, the prolific and acclaimed filmmaker — who helped helm the 2021 movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye — opens up more about Drag Race's future, its success and the legacy the show aims to leave behind.
PEOPLE: How has it felt to watch Drag Race grow into what it is today?
Randy Barbato: It has truly been humbling to watch the growth of Drag Race — and also incredibly rewarding. So many of the people who worked on the show in the beginning are still working on the show today, and what we all have in common is that we're huge fans of our queens. To be able to work on a show that actually has a tangible impact on the artists it features is sort of, it's like a dream. I can't imagine a better job to have than the one I do.
That's a great point about having a tangible impact on the artists, because unlike many other competition reality shows, it really seems like so many Drag Race contestants — regardless of whether they win or not — have become huge stars.
I love so many of the other competition reality shows, so I'm not dissing them, but there is a difference here because our show focuses on artists who have for so long been either ignored or marginalized. And you're right — everyone who comes through Drag Race winds up a winner. So many different opportunities are awarded them having come through the RuPaul's Drag Race stable, whether it be to showcase their individual brands or even create awareness for causes they care about.
What's interesting as a longtime viewer is that these queens have often expanded their talents to beyond the world of drag.
Exactly. Take Shangela, for example, who went from Drag Race to starring in A Star Is Born alongside Lady Gaga, and is now one of the stars of HBO's We're Here, which has also been Emmy-nominated. Or Trixie Mattel, who has her own series on Discovery+ as well as a makeup line, a recording career and a New York Times best-selling book [with fellow Drag Race alum Katya Zamolodchikova].
There's Ginger Minj, who's been in a number of movies like Netflix's Dumplin' and is going to be featured in Hocus Pocus 2 with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Bianca Del Rio starred on the West End in Everyone's Talking About Jamie; Gigi Goode modeled in Rihanna's Savage X Fenty show on Amazon Prime, as did Shea Couleé — who just announced she's going to be in the new Marvel series for Disney+, Ironheart.
And that's just to name a few!
Right, I could go go!
So why do you think the show has catapulted so many of these queens into the spotlight?
What's really happening here is, for so long, the entertainment industry didn't even recognize drag as an art form, let alone a force within Hollywood. And I do thing we are watching that course be corrected. And RuPaul's Drag Race contributes to that, of course, but it's really the talent of the queens. These are incredibly talented, versatile artists who have been ignored for so long, and now they've arrived. Believe me, they're not going anywhere anytime soon.
Well they appear put in the work, too, to get there. For those of us not in the room, just how strenuous is competing on Drag Race?
Being on RuPaul's Drag Race is really difficult. It is hard work. It is unlike any other competitive reality show out there. People have no idea how difficult it is to be a drag queen to begin with. I mean, just painting your face and getting into drag is challenging enough. But then we ask our queens to do that and to compete in these challenges. They have to sew, they have to dance, they have to sing, they have to act, they have to write comedy, they have to perform. This is by no means a cake walk.
VH1 The "B squad" joins the "winning" queens
What do you look for when it comes to casting a queen on the show? RuPaul cheekily talks about measuring their 'charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent' — is that what you're trying to find when you put together a cast?
The No. 1 thing we look for is authenticity. The success of Drag Race is really a combination of the talented artistry of our queens, and then, the heart and authenticity they show during the competition. Our viewers come to watch the spectacle but they stay because they fall in love with these characters. To be a drag queen is sort of like being a marine. It is a hard life, and those people who make that decision to do that, they have a story to tell. At the end of the day, we love the hair and the heels and the spectacle — and we push ourselves every year to surprise the audience and deliver extravaganza — but at the heart, we are storytellers and the queens that are featured on this show have stories to tell. So when we're putting together the cast every season, it is that combination of, "Do they deliver on stage?" and "Are they open enough that they're going to share who they are with us?"
In other words, "Are they going to have something to share when they're putting their makeup on for runway?"
Yes, the "Mirror Moment" is the moment when the queens bare their souls. They invite us in while still letting us know that we have so much more in common than our differences. In a way, that's also the legacy of the show. On the one hand it's great that the industry is shifting and these girls are working and they're traveling all around the world and they're buying homes. But also, I'd like to think that RuPaul's Drag Race is contributing to shifting our culture and progressing our culture to be a more open and loving one.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty for VH1
Season 14 was notable for featuring five transgender contestants, some of whom came on the show openly trans and others who came out during filming, while the show aired and after filming ended. Did you realize it was going to be such a milestone season going in?
Not at all, but that was so exciting. A lot of that unfolded while we were shooting and, as you said, during airing and afterwards — and it was a joy.
We're probably the queerest and most diverse show on television — and have been for some time, but seeing representation like this feels really special. And so little of this is by design because we don't really cast with an agenda. A lot of queens audition for the show for many years because they aren't ready at first. And we get to know them through their audition tapes because the tapes are pretty laborious — they're usually like 45 minutes or so. It just so happens, this was the group who we felt were right for the competition this year. And it really feels like the universe was speaking to us and to one another. It wound up being really magical for everyone involved.
There have been so many stars who have swung by the show throughout the years, many of them long allies of the LGBTQ+ community. Lady Gaga, Lizzo, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Shania Twain, Ciara, Kesha — the list goes on and on. Is there anyone who hasn't said yes yet that you've been after?
Our doors are always open for Cher and Mariah [Carey].
They've been asked?
We've talked to them and their folks. They know we're fan, we know they're fans, and it's just never quite worked out timing wise. But that will work out one day.
You've known RuPaul for nearly 40 years now. He's talked in the past about the trust he feels with you and how it's allowed him the freedom to be himself at all times. What's your working relationship with him like?
Our working relationship with RuPaul is deep. It feels like a kind of destiny. You know, Ru came fully baked. Many of the things he says now, he's been saying for the past 35 years. So I've always had a sort of blind faith in his guidance and his beliefs.
What's he like as a producer?
He's an excellent producer and he really understands television in a way people probably underestimate. He's very hands-on with all the details of RuPaul's Drag Race.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Let's talk All Stars 7, the show's first season to feature all previous winners. Some of the queens have mentioned on social media that they were critiqued throughout the season, but we as viewers never saw any negative feedback, only positive ones. What was behind the decision to edit that out?
With All Stars, we always give ourselves some creative leeway to reinvent it every season. And when we talked about doing an all-stars, all-winners season, we approached it wanting to celebrate these legends. So it was important the show reflected that.
Would we be wrong to expect another all-winners season of All Stars?
You should always expect the unexpected when it comes to All Stars. We intend to do many iterations coming forward. All Stars for us is the opportunity to celebrate the icons, to give former contestants a chance to reinvent themselves, to create redemption opportunities. It's always going to shift and the format will always shift.
Why do you think so many of these queens come back to the competition?
Probably the No. 1 reason they do that is because they know that the people making the show are their No. 1 fans! We really are. We love Drag Race, and we love these queens. Imagine going to work every day being surrounded by people who turn you into a teenage fan? That's how we all feel, day after day.
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Previous seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars are now streaming on Paramount+, while international version of the franchise can be found on WOW Presents Plus. The current season of RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race is airing Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.