It was Labor Day weekend, 2008, and RuPaul had escaped the heat in a friend’s Hollywood Hills pool, taking in the expansive views of Los Angeles before him. Production on the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race would kick off the next day, and in his usual introspective way, the drag superstar was thinking about the future. “I remember being in that water on such a hot day thinking, from this moment on, my life will be very different,” he recalled. “And it absolutely has been since that day.”

RuPaul, who became the world’s biggest drag star in the ’90s with the release of his single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” had been away from the limelight for about a decade when Logo picked up his show. But he sensed his third act might be his biggest. President Obama was about to be elected, and a new social and cultural order was in the air, the kind that made it possible to imagine drag thriving beyond underground culture. “I knew the show’s mission statement was to celebrate the art of drag,” RuPaul said, explaining his early optimism about the show’s appeal last month, four days before production on the show’s tenth season began in Los Angeles. “And I knew that drag has more significant meaning and power than just what it seems like on the surface — it speaks to the duality of our lives as humans on this planet.”

As it has turned out, he wasn’t fantasizing. Since Drag Race premiered in 2009, 11 seasons have aired, including two All-Star editions (a third was just picked up). The competition show with a car-race motif spawned three spinoffs, UnTucked, RuPaul’s Drag U, and RuPaul’s Drag Race: Ruvealed, and led to the creation of RuPaul’s DragCon, which has catapulted many of the show’s 113 contestants to international stardom. Last season, Drag Race made the switch to Logo’s sister network VH1, where its ratings doubled and popularity soared higher, jump-started by a Lady Gaga appearance in the premiere that clocked nearly 1 million viewers. In May, Saturday Night Live spoofed the cultural juggernaut during its most popular season in years, with a skit featuring Chris Pine and four other cast members as straight car mechanics who love Drag Race and engage in a lip-sync battle. Then came the kind of acceptance that RuPaul never anticipated, or even particularly desired: In July of this year, the series was nominated for a whopping eight Emmys, including outstanding reality competition. RuPaul also was nominated again for his work as host (he won the trophy last year), a job with several roles: tough taskmaster, therapist, runway slayer, judge.

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