And Don't F&%k It Up

An Oral History of RuPaul's Drag Race (The First Ten Years)


Other primary creator World of Wonder

By Maria Elena Fernandez

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A definitive history and celebration of the groundbreaking show RuPaul's Drag Race in its first decade, from a Burbank basement set all the way to the Emmy's, and every weave in-between, as told by its stars, producers and fans.

Told over the first ten years of a television mainstay, And Don't F&%k It Up tells a cultural history through the stories of the people who lived it: the creators of the RuPaul's Drag Race, the contestants, the crew, the judges, and even some key (famous) fans. It begins with RuPaul's decades-long friendship and business relationship with World of Wonder Productions, the entertainment company that helped launch him into superstardom, and later talked him into giving a drag reality show a chance. From there, it follows the growth and evolution of the show—and its queens—through a decade of gag-worthy seasons, serving up all kinds of behind-the-scenes realness. With a history as shady and funny as it is dramatic and inspiring, And Don't F&%k It Up shows how RuPaul's Drag Race is a mirror reflecting the cultural and political mores of our time. Its meteoric rise to becoming a once-in-a-generation success story is explored here as never before, in intimate, exuberant, unfettered detail.




RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE NEVER SET OUT TO WIN OVER CONVENTIONAL America, climb the ladder of mainstream pop-culture success, or conquer the world. Its first season was classic counterculture, developed and filmed while President G. W. Bush was in office but launched at a time when Obama fever was at a national high. Fourteen years and about a couple hundred drag queen contestants later, everything from its language and style has seeped into the culture, cementing its place in herstory, one tuck at a time. From the halls of Congress to Wall Street, from schoolyards to universities, from big cities to small towns across the world, who doesn’t throw shade or serve tea? Drag Race has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has become its own economy. With twenty-six Emmy wins, it is TV’s most awarded reality competition show, has spawned several spin-off series, and is blossoming internationally with eighteen shows across the globe and half a dozen more in the works. It also led to the creation of RuPaul’s DragCon, catapulting many of the contestants to international stardom.

Drag Race was conceived as a classic reality competition show that derived from and playfully mocked other popular shows in the genre. It was part America’s Next Top Model, part Project Runway, but made by your coolest arty friends. And as a show about personal evolution, where people representing every corner of the gender spectrum put their drag personas through unimaginable tests, the show surprised everyone with its uncanny ability to connect. It was fun. Through the process of queens “reading” each other, or writing musicals, or sewing intricate garments, the success of Drag Race has lived in how expertly it weaves entertainment, comedy, and emotional truth to tell the story of personal transformation. Nowhere else on the TV dial do reality show contestants have to sew their own costumes, beat their faces, do their hair, tuck their you-know-whats, write songs or scripts, choreograph routines, and prepare a lip-sync routine in less than a day.

At its core, Drag Race was built on RuPaul’s guiding principle: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” This is the story of the first decade of a phenomenon that became a franchise and evolved into an empire, changing many hearts along the way.

RUPAUL: Our show exemplifies the movement of a bigger consciousness arising. Drag is part of that. It’s having fun and understanding who you really are. I think the audience relates to that without even knowing specifically that that’s the thing. Watching a drag queen who was bullied as a kid becoming a star on her own terms is a rush for a lot of people because they, too, have longed for something but didn’t know what.

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TOM CAMPBELL: Drag queens have always been on the front lines of the big social changes in society and especially in the LGBTQ society, whether it’s Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, marriage equality. But drag queens are outsiders. They’re underdogs. But instead of buying into society’s bullshit, they’ve turned their insecurities and pain into something visual and powerful. Like butterflies, they stick out in a crowd, and their beauty cannot be denied. Their vulnerability and ferocity is an amazing combination, and it attracts all kinds of people.

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER AND CO-FOUNDER OF WORLD OF WONDER FENTON BAILEY: Drag is a part of music, it’s a part of theater, it’s a part of performance, it’s a part of film and TV. But drag has something else, which is this whole idea that Ru talks about, which is about not taking things too seriously and having that humor about things because life is hard and it’s frustrating and people are unkind and cruel. So the ability to turn around a negative situation into a positive or into something funny is a unique thing of drag.

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER AND CO-FOUNDER OF WORLD OF WONDER RANDY BARBATO: I loved everything about drag because I loved the glamour of it. Everything was larger than life. I loved the ingenuity, the creativeness. Everyone was scrambling to make a buck and making something out of nothing. The inventiveness often took my breath away. I just loved all the creative genius and I loved how engaged the art form was with the world around it. So much of drag then and now is this commentary on the world we live in.

MICHELLE VISAGE: Drag is saying F-you to society, drag is becoming somebody else wholeheartedly. Drag is performing, drag is making us laugh, drag is dancing, singing, acting. It’s all of the above.

RUPAUL: In male-dominated culture, using femininity as a palette is akin to treason. So when I was growing up—and even when I first started doing drag—there was a lot that I had to work through on a personal level to be able to do it. And things would come up in my psyche—and I would go, where did that come from? And I would retrace my steps and realize it came from my conditioning.

MISS FAME: A good drag queen will make you feel like you’ve lost every word in your mouth, that you have nothing to say. You’re just baffled by the beauty, baffled by the integrity of the work.

ALEXIS MATEO: People always say that watching a drag show is so much fun, but drag is liberating. Drag is liberating for me as a performer and it’s liberating for whoever is watching me perform in drag because you realize that you don’t have to be what people expect you to be. You can just be whoever you wanna be and you just have to be happy with who you are.

THORGY THOR: It was only later in college or late high school where I started to get into the form of drag, like how cool it is to just transform yourself because it’s entertainment, it’s Look at me and wooo. It’s also artistic and you get to become anything you want to. It was always inside of me. Drag was a nice medium to let out all of my energy and crazy ideas.

RAJA: I miss the rawness of what drag used to be. I miss no selfies, no videos. I was bad, I did a lot of fucking bad things. And I have zero regrets. There was no one there to record it, there was no receipt or anything. So it was a wonderful time to really explore drag, especially being as beautiful as I was in my twenties, fuck, I miss being her. I had a really, really, really good time.

BENDELACREME: Regardless of whether you want to be a drag queen or not, what draws people to drag is that idea of self-invention. It’s the idea of making your own rules. It’s the idea of creating the life you want with whatever you’ve been given. And I think that it is that sharing of stories. And it’s not just straight people understanding the queer community. It’s people in the queer community understanding each other.

TOM CAMPBELL: There is a great line that Ru says that makes me tear up: “The most powerful thing you can do is to become the image of your own imagination.” That’s really what drag queens do. They bring humor and they don’t take themselves too seriously. Drag queens went from being on the outskirts and pointed at and made fun of in the gay culture to being the savior.

JINKX MONSOON: Drag comes out of wanting to love yourself. Drag comes out of finding things about yourself to celebrate. And one thing I think we all share is we go to drag to experience that self-love, to get that attention, to get that validation, and to feel glamorous and fantastic and fabulous because we all have an experience in our life that made us feel the exact opposite way. Every drag queen I know has had darkness in their life.

SASHA VELOUR: I feel like if people aren’t prepared to hear about the real lives and experiences and emotions of queer people, then they don’t get to enjoy the lip syncing and the costumes. They’re so connected. My lip syncing is connected to the emotions that I feel because my experiences with images of my own body or grieving and thinking about my connection to my mom after her death—all of that comes into putting on an outfit, surprisingly, or putting on a show. And so I feel like you can’t have the one without the other with drag.

FENTON BAILEY: By the time they come to Drag Race, they have already been through so much.

NINA FLOWERS: Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, doing drag was like eww, you do drag? That was the kiss of death. People didn’t want anything to do with you. You were a freak. You were one of those cross-dressers—what are you, confused? Are you a man or a woman?

JUJUBEE: Queer art is very important, especially being a queer Asian man of color, left-handed, abandonment issues, an alcoholic, an addict. But I’m here, I’ve survived, and drag did that for me. Drag saved my freaking life.

REBECCA GLASSCOCK: Drag gave me the confidence to stay alive. Before I started doing drag, I was suicidal and I was at a bad place in my life because people tell you enough times that you’re going to go to hell, and that you are going to get AIDS and die, and some people actually wish this on you and you start to believe it. And then that really messes with your head and your inner being.

JINKX MONSOON: There was a time when drag was not easy, was not glamorous, was not a way to get famous. It wasn’t celebrated. It was stigmatized. To be a drag queen got you labeled as something, even within the LGBTQ community, as something negative. Activists told me that being a drag queen was holding our community back. I was told by women in my community that, because I was a drag queen, I was inherently misogynist when they weren’t considering the fact that maybe I was on my own gender journey and that drag was a way to discover my own truth.

ADORE DELANO: They used to make fun of me in high school because I was in full-on makeup and they called me RuPaul. They used to always call me RuPaul as an insult growing up. Down the hallways they’d be like, “RuPaul!” And I’m like, shut up. I told Ru that on the show and he was like, ha ha ha. Now if they call you RuPaul, you’re a boss. Isn’t that wild?

RuPaul’s mother always knew it, though. A psychic had told her when she was pregnant that her child was a boy and he was going to be famous. By the time production company World of Wonder conjured up a reality television competition featuring drag queens, RuPaul had served as Queen of Manhattan, Supermodel of the World, a pop-music hitmaker, a cult movie actor, a talk-show host, a radio deejay, and an author. By all show business standards, he was a star, as his mother had predicted when he was a boy. By drag queen standards, he was a superhero. Or a superheroine. With RuPaul, you could always choose your own adventure.

At the time, RuPaul had been lying low for a decade, and it was hard for him to picture what the next big thing could be. Enter World of Wonder’s new head of development, Tom Campbell, who had been entranced by the Queen of Drag since he first laid eyes on her during the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. It was now 2006 and Campbell was determined to find a new glittery project for RuPaul. Reality competition shows, like Survivor, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model, were hot in the early aughts, and the world’s most famous drag queen seemed a perfect fit for the genre. Problem was, RuPaul wasn’t having it. Until one day when Campbell pitched a competition show with a drag race motif and RuPaul was persuaded to gamble on the trust and friendship he had shared with World of Wonder co-founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato for two decades.

The rest is herstory.

FENTON BAILEY: When Randy and I were forming as the Fabulous Pop Tarts in Atlanta, one day Dick Richards of Funtone Records, the local independent label, was taking us around. I remember this figure in these thigh-high wader boots and a jockstrap and football shoulder pads with these tattered bin liners hanging off, wheat-pasting posters of himself. They said: RUPAUL IS EVERYTHING. He wasn’t waiting around for someone to discover him. That is my first memory of meeting RuPaul, but Randy and I sometimes argue about this.

RUPAUL: When I got into drag the first time, it was always punk rock. It was what boys were not supposed to do. It had more to do with pushing boundaries, not gender identity. So we were doing gender-fuck drag—smeared lipstick, combat boots. This was the Reagan ’80s. It was a social commentary. I’m not gonna fit into your blah-blah.

RANDY BARBATO: My recollection of first meeting Ru was him walking down the street in Times Square in ’86 in a pair of wader boots, football shoulder pads, shredded fabric. I feel like he had a jockstrap on and a dress, maybe. It was this insane, gender-fuck, punk-rock drag. Fenton and I had a band and we used to spend time making music and deejaying. Dick Richards was there at the New Music Seminar and another artist on his record label was RuPaul, who had his record “Sex Freak” that he was promoting.

RUPAUL: The New Music Seminar was an annual event in New York City where unsigned bands would go and meet with record company executives and indie labels to network and schmooze all the people who were doing what we were doing.

RANDY BARBATO: It took place every year at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, which had just been built. It was so fabulous. It meant going uptown. It was a really glamorous kind of schmooze fest.

RUPAUL: We were all devotees of the Warhol experience, as many of the people in the Village were at the time. We were from the church of Warhol. I grew up reading Interview magazine and thinking my path will be to go to New York, become a Warhol superstar, create a persona, and then move to Hollywood. I think everyone felt and thought that, so Randy, Fenton, and I came together on that.

RANDY BARBATO: We were huge fans of the drag scene. We were never drag queens, but so many of our friends were drag queens and virtually all of our extracurricular activity was spent watching drag queens and fanning out to drag queens. We knew Lady Bunny and Sister Dimension and Taboo. The hothouse for drag in those days in the East Village was the Pyramid Club. Fenton and I lived a couple blocks from the Pyramid Club, and many drag queens lived in our building. Our band, the Fabulous Pop Tarts, performed in those same circles.

FENTON BAILEY: In the East Village in the ’80s, there was this huge drag movement and it was unlike drag from other generations. Drag had been very Hollywood-focused and very much a soigné take on glamour, whereas this super drag was like everything and the kitchen sink. It was like taking all of pop culture and putting it into a blender. It wasn’t necessarily particularly feminine or necessarily even glamorous. It was taking on all of pop culture and turning it into a look, a look that on the one hand celebrated pop culture and on the other hand made fun of its ridiculousness. Up until then, drag queens and trans personalities had an aura of melancholy around them. Andy Warhol did a series about it. But what punk gave drag was this fuck-you energy. You could break out of the shadows of that melancholy. Divine was an example of a super drag personality. She was really more punk than your traditional drag queen, an assault on the senses.

CARSON KRESSLEY: I moved to New York City in my twenties and there was a lot of drag going on in the early ’90s. It was the Wigstock era. There was a club on the Lower East Side called the Pyramid Club that had a famous queen that I loved called Miss Understood. Of course I was a fan and was aware of Ru. He had his daytime talk show and it was quite a golden era of drag in New York City.

RANDY BARBATO: Drag queens provoked thought and they entertained on a level that I felt like I was in some secret club. On the one hand, it felt foreign in terms of the world I came from. On the other hand, it felt so familiar. It’s like, oh my god, this is a language I understand. We’re all in this club. And even in those days, I really felt like this is a world that the rest of the world needs to see.

FENTON BAILEY: Funnily enough, the Ru we met and talked to is very much the same Ru of today, that sort of soft-spoken, very gentle, really super quick-witted. Oftentimes when you remember meeting someone, you end up having a very different perspective on them, especially after thirty years. But Ru is actually the same. I suppose the look has changed but he was always this incredibly gentle and wise person.

RANDY BARBATO: I fell in love with him the moment I met him. I was obsessed. He was such a star. And there was an instant camaraderie. There was a shared fearlessness. We were out hustling doing our thing. We all had stars in our eyes. We all went and worked the rotating bar at the Marriott Marquis, which was a lot of fun. There were lots of people from the East Village scene there.

RUPAUL: When I met Randy, he looked at me with eyes that saw the position I’m in today. It was startling because I could see that he could see what I saw. I had had glimpses of that with other people, but he saw what I have become. My mother told me when I was a kid that I would be famous and a star, but to have that confirmation from another human being was amazing.

RANDY BARBATO: We first produced his album Starrbooty. Well, really it was Fenton and I and Ru, because Ru produces everything. And none of us really knew what we were doing. We were just all figuring it out. Ru had very specific ideas of what that album should be and even the cover. So much of what we know about Ru today, things he says, the kind of totality and the spirituality, the person was fully formed and fully baked back then. He was young and yet he was so wise already.

FENTON BAILEY: Randy and I met at New York University film school in ’82 on the first day of school. It was a pretty instant meeting of the minds. We became friends right away and we were working on each other’s projects. Then we became boyfriends. At the time that we started working with RuPaul, Randy and I still both had day jobs. I was working as a videotape editor in an investment bank in Wall Street and he was working on Madison Avenue at an advertising agency. We were realizing that our days as pop stars were probably numbered and we saw an opportunity to get into public access television in 1991.

RANDY BARBATO: We were complete failures as pop stars, but it allowed us to make music and meet all these people. And our intention all along had been to make money as pop stars so we could become film directors, so we just took our DIY aesthetic to the next level and sold our first TV series to the UK, Channel 4. It was called Manhattan Cable and it was inspired by Manhattan Cable’s public access, which was pre-YouTube, pre–social media. It was real people making crazy, insane TV, from Robin Byrd to Mrs. Mouth to Ed Wallowitch and all these people that we loved. We licensed clips from them, repackaged it, and then hired our friends to host it and to be roving reporters. It gave us the opportunity to give RuPaul TV time.

FENTON BAILEY: Ru did a number of woman-on-the-street roving reports for us from the streets of Manhattan. One I especially remember is from the Meat Market. Before its gentrification, it was pretty gay and had nightwalkers and streetwalkers. Ru did a bit for us walking the streets as a lady of the night in Manhattan and it was really good.

RANDY BARBATO: Ru would take everything so seriously. Ru would take any job; put a camera in front of him, and he would deliver as if it was prime-time broadcast television because he spoke all of that language so fluently. Ru was that alien who says he learned everything he knows from TV.

RUPAUL: I told myself I’m done with my Black hooker Soul Train dancer look. I’m gonna give these bitches glamazon! My friend Larry Tee, who was a deejay, called me up and said he noticed I was doing a supermodel look and he wanted me to hear the lyrics to a song he wrote.

RANDY BARBATO: Then Ru just came to us one day and said, “Would you guys manage me?” And we’re like, well, we don’t really do that. I was nervous about it because I just always thought he was in a different league. It was not something you could phone in. I knew it was a turning point.

FENTON BAILEY: RuPaul told us that he had recorded a demo with Eric Kupper and it was this song called “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which he wrote with Larry Tee and Jimmy Harry. We were just starting World of Wonder and he said he wanted us to get him a record deal. Maybe he came to us ’cause we had a fax machine and we had desks and computers. It was a loft on Varick Street, right by the Holland Tunnel. The front part of the loft was the office and we lived in the back, where there was a bedroom and bathroom and stuff. It looked like it was a real company.

RANDY BARBATO: Fenton and I had a conversation and one of us said, if we can manage RuPaul and have a pop hit, we would never have to do anything again in our lives. We will have made such a contribution to culture.

FENTON BAILEY: We sent the demo out to every record label and pretty much every label said no. But finally one day Monica Lynch from Tommy Boy Records called up, and we thought it’s gotta be a prank because we just couldn’t imagine Ru as a drag queen on this hip-hop label. But Monica totally got it, totally embraced it, and she ran with it. Tommy Boy then said we have a few dollars to make a video and we just figured we could make that money go the furthest if we direct and produce it as well ourselves. So we did. We did the “Supermodel” video.

RANDY BARBATO: And he did have a pop hit!

FENTON BAILEY: “Supermodel” was a great success and it was a wonderful, breakout hit for RuPaul. I think what wasn’t so great about it was that people didn’t get to see him as this sensitive person. They got the joke and the novelty and the humor of “Supermodel” and that almost precluded them from seeing Ru as a sensitive, insightful person. His ability to connect with people and to see what’s going on with them and to call them out on it and to encourage them is an incredible talent.

TOM CAMPBELL: There was a queer march on Washington in ’93 and it was a big deal because of HIV. There still wasn’t a treatment for HIV that worked and it was this big moment. I went with a group of friends from LA on a plane full of gay men and lesbians, all going to the march. It filled my soul and filled my spirit. We marched by the White House and we landed on the Mall. There were a million people there. And on the stage, at the end of the Mall, were all these entertainers and speakers, from all walks of life. Jesse Jackson spoke. Cybill Shepherd spoke. All well intentioned. But it became clear to me that there wasn’t a genuine leader of the gay movement. And then the announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the supermodel of the world, RuPaul.” RuPaul, a ten-foot-tall blond glamazon wearing a Wonder Woman outfit, takes the stage and starts to sing “Supermodel.” Every man, woman, and child stopped what they were doing and turned to watch. After Ru finished the song he cracked a few lines. “We’re coming back. And we’re gonna paint the White House pink!” The crowd went wild. At that moment, a thought blazed across my mind: A drag queen will lead us.

CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER THAIRIN SMOTHERS: He was a real gay superhero. [I was] an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest coming out of the closet; he was the popular gay celebrity that was breaking into mainstream, kind of how Madonna did in her time. But Ru was the gay god, the gay pop icon, busting in with “Supermodel.” I was fascinated by him. The way I look at him on the runway today in drag is the same way I looked at him back then as an eighteen-year-old. It’s hypnotic. You cannot take your eyes off of it.

BENDELACREME: I came out at thirteen and I knew I was queer and I knew there were gay people in the world but I didn’t know where or what they were like or whether there would be a place for me there. I remember when “Supermodel” came out and just being mesmerized. I didn’t understand what RuPaul was. I loved the song and danced around to it everywhere. But I didn’t get what Ru was. I knew there was something about her and I feel like I understood that there was gender complexity but I don’t think I understood drag queen exactly. There was this MTV red carpet where she was speaking. I think they asked Ru what’s the most sensual fruit and she said an apple. Just the way she said it, what she looked like when she said it, everything about it, stuck with me.

I didn’t understand why but I knew that there was something about this creature out in the world that was connected to who I was very deeply.


  • "For fans of the show, the book’s juicy specifics from cast and crew will provide a wealth of new background about their favorite unforgettable moments, as well as details about things left on the cutting-room floor."—The Daily Beast
  • "Journalist Fernandez’s fabulous debut serves the tea on RuPaul’s Drag Race. . .The behind-the-scenes stories feel as if readers are eavesdropping on the show’s “werkroom,” but this oral history really shines in its willingness to tackle weightier issues, as when RuPaul opines on the importance of queer representation and when performer Asia O’Hara reflects on dealing with racism from the show’s fandom. Hilarious and affecting, it’s an uproarious celebration of what has become a television institution."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "The heart of [And Don't F&%k It Up] lies in the candid, witty commentary of show producers, queens, judges, and RuPaul himself, as each shares memorable moments from the first 10 seasons. . . A commemorative celebration and a must-have for fans."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "[A]n immensely entertaining look at how a little TV show shot in a basement studio went from a cult favorite to a taste-making cultural juggernaut and global success. . . Loaded with heartbreaking and hilarious first-person confessions, this book’s a winner, baby!"—Library Journal, starred review
  • "Few stones go unturned, and readers will find here the origins of the most iconic lines ("Go back to Party City where you belong!") to the truth about how the queens really felt about each other. . . The audience for the show has grown, and with all the earlier seasons available on streaming, this will be an essential addition to any pop-culture collection."—Booklist
  • "10s 10s 10s across the board."—Andy Cohen
  • “¡Amo este libro! It’s dripping with cuchi, uniqueness, nerve, and talent!”—Charo
  • “Everything you wanted to know (and more) about the twisted minds behind the best mothertucking show on earth.”—Simon Doonan, author of Drag: The Complete Story
  • “The queens of Drag Race spill the tea on what it took to turn this queer little show into a global phenomenon.”—Loni Love
  • “Mama Ru proves once again that reading is what??? FUNDAMENTAL.”—Big Freedia
  • “Finally, the Drag Race book that sets the record straight. I mean queer.”—Alec Mapa
  • “Everyone who works in my stores spends all day talking about Drag Race. Now they can spend all day talking about And Don’t F&%k It Up. I can’t wait!”—Jonathan Adler
  • "If you want to know how drag changed the world, and might just save it, read this book."—Ronan Farrow, New York Times bestselling author of Catch and Kill

On Sale
Jun 6, 2023
Page Count
496 pages