RuPaul is the most famous drag queen in the world, with a career that’s not only endured, but exploded over the past three decades. He conquered the music industry in 1992 with the breakout smash “Supermodel (You Better Work),” and the talk show format with VH-1’s The RuPaul Show in 1996; a hit film in 2007 (Starrbooty) and a popular podcast RuPaul: What’s The Tee? followed. And, of course there’s reality TV and RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that not only changed the landscape of drag in the 11 years since its debut, but LGBTQ culture in general. Drag Race viewing parties are now a staple at local gay bars, and season finales where RuPaul crowns a winner play out like Super Bowl matches.
Right now, RuPaul is out to conquer a new frontier: scripted episodic television. It’s almost shocking that RuPaul has not had a scripted television show before, but AJ and the Queen (which kicked off its 10-episode first season last Friday on Netflix) marks something new for the star — co-creating, executive producing and writing with producer Michael Patrick King (the man behind the HBO’s The Comeback and Sex and the City).
In a phone interview with L.A. Weekly advancing AJ’s premiere, Ru reveals that it was a 2014 cameo in an episode of The Comeback that solidified King’s role in the show. “I’d known [Michael] socially before, but I never worked with him. He made an adjustment as the director to my performance, and it was so on point in the way he did it that it made me feel comfortable and I knew I could trust him,” he recalls. “I knew that he was super talented, super smart, super passionate and those are all the elements I’m looking for in a collaborator. And I felt safe with him. I knew that if I was ever going to reveal my emotional self to the world, I could do it in his safe, nurturing hands. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Six years later, with the show finally streaming on Netflix, RuPaul can look back and admit that it was one of the most challenging projects he’s ever worked on. “It’s a grueling schedule, not only being a co-creator, but pretty much being in drag almost every scene and doing drag and acting at the same time is very difficult because of the time it takes to get into drag and the time you have to stay in drag,” the queen reveals. “And then also memorizing lines and accessing elements of my personality and my experience to tell the story, it was [all] very challenging.”
The show centers around Ruby Red, a down-on-her-luck drag queen who travels club to club, from New York to Texas, in a rundown R/V with a scrappy 10-year-old stowaway, AJ. RuPaul says that there are definitely many similarities between her drag persona and Ruby, but that Ruby is perhaps a little more gullible. Ruby’s sidekick AJ is played by relative newcomer Izzy G., who many have noted conjures a young Madonna. “She is absolutely Madonna at 10 years old, she looks exactly like Madonna at [that age],” RuPaul says. “Working with her, that’s all I could think about!”
Ultimately, Izzy G.’s presence on set served as inspiration in a myriad of ways, beyond the physical. “She would remind me and everyone on the staff, even just by her being there, what’s important in life,” RuPaul says. “It really gave me the opportunity to repair and re-evaluate my own 10 year old that lives inside of me, that walks this journey with me.”
While RuPaul may have his Baby Madonna, he and Michael Patrick King definitely pay tribute to all the fabulous women who have inspired them — from Tina Turner and Cher to Oprah and Diana Ross. “Both Michael and I are around the same age and we pulled from all of the humanity we’ve collected in the years we’ve been on this planet, and it wound up in the show. All of the references, all of the things that have inspired us, it’s all there,” says RuPaul. “That tapestry that helped so many of us sweet, sensitive souls that hitched our wagon to these fabulous women who gave us so much hope and light, they would be very welcome in a second season of AJ and the Queen.”
It’s not just female divas spotlit on the show, either. Drag Race queens serve as guest stars in almost every episode. The season premiere features the most Drag Race alums, but the subsequent episodes offer them even meatier roles integral to the storylines. Fan-favorite queens like Katya and Ginger Minj are seen alongside lesser-known ones such as Jade Jolie and L.A. drag staple Mariah Paris Balenciaga.
“Once Drag Race ends, the competition doesn’t end. The relationship continues on and on, forever and ever,” RuPaul explains about the drag community. “[I] tell the girls we are part of a big family and to keep that in mind. So having the girls in this project is really just an extension of that Drag Race experience.”
Viewers may note some of the scenes vaguely reference and expand upon Drag Race’s acting challenges. And while providing the Netflix paycheck for drag performers is a big deal, the exposure means even more. AJ and the Queen, which Ru hopes will get a second season, seamlessly balances camp with emotion and comedy with heart, educating not just the younger generations in our own community but all 160 million people who subscribe to Netflix, especially when it comes to trans and gender issues. It may be the biggest step yet towards truly inclusive television.
“In my career I really just set out to have a lot of fun and to challenge myself,” says Ru. “And that’s really what I’ve been able to do all these years of being in show business and definitely with AJ and the Queen…the end result is so satisfying.”
Season 1 of AJ & The Queen is now streaming on Netflix.