5 Takeaways From RuPaul’s Drag Race About Modern Leadership & Programming

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Here’s an interesting development: A zanier version of America’s Next Top Model, instead featuring Drag Queens, airs on VH1, a channel with a potential audience of more than 90 million people.

It’s easy to forget that throughout the 90’s, a drag queen was popular enough to be considered a supermodel, create dance hits and lead a talk show on VH1, where RuPaul now returns.

We often think of the past as a backward place, but looking back only cements the boldness and determination of RuPaul, whose show caters to many of those who work in the world of Greek Life: young women and gay men.

Fraternities were in many cases avant garde creations of college-educated men, different sects of the world’s religions mixed controversy with virtue. They even partake in giant lip sync battles (where many dress as women) once or more a year.

A while ago, I compared my experience going to a WWE event with the true meaning of fraternity.

The contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race refer to their bond as that of a “sorority,” so that, along with so many of my acquaintances being overt fans of the show, along with the “drag” (not really) shows fraternity men put on during song and dance competitions require that I look into the success of RuPaul and apply it to our system.

It’s not a stretch, I promise.

Here are a few things RuPaul has done to affect mainstream culture with what was originally a comical parody of American talent TV shows.

This grainy, standard definition show on a network with a very limited audience was what RuPaul started with.

 

To put some things in perspective:

  • Including specialty seasons, there have been 11 seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and a 12th is in casting
  • The show began on LogoTV, but recently moved up to VH1
  • The popularity of the show has served as the foundation for world tours and international brand identities many of the contestants
  • Spun off of the show are several popular Youtube series as well as “DragCon,” a convention of drag queens.

Rupaul used some clever tactics to improve his show’s reach and popularity. It was one of the television shows to fully embrace the internet – using its less regulated formats to deepen the stories of each of its contestants and push boundaries of what is to be expected of TV.

The show has been praised by dozens of major publications and though it’s hard to ignore it’s often political preaching, I hope those of you who may disagree with the politics read on.

This isn’t about whether to watch this TV show, this is to learn about someone who is making an ever-growing impact on a generation of young men and women and figuring out how we can emulate that success as organizations focused on impacting young men and women. 

Here are some things to consider regarding RuPaul’s leadership:

 

You only win if you are willing to take risks, such as cutting off circulation to your legs.

Define Success & Keep It Clear

To be considered “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” RuPaul seeks a contestant with the right combination of uniqueness, talent, nerve and charisma. At the end of each episode, two contestants “lip sync for their life,” during which point RuPaul observes which of the two leaves everything on the table when they have everything to lose. Sometimes both lip syncers are saved, other times one or both are sent packing.

This is a key element of RuPaul’s work. Those four traits are repeated by contestants and fans of the show on the regular, and repetition is a good thing for learning! It’s the “values-based selection criteria” for the Drag Race “sorority,” if you will.

Fraternities often have vague values and unclear or too many end goals.

It sort of makes sense that we do everything we do, but most of the time it feels like the distinction between one fraternity or campus community’s values and others’ are purely cosmetic and don’t actually affect how that organization functions beyond public relations talking points.

The point of RuPaul’s show is to identify individuals who can influence mainstream culture, and so contestants are tested on a variety of entertainment-related challenges. They don’t make them do a construction project or work at a bakery; everything is kept in the scope of what is expected of a victorious entertainer with wide appeal.

We do so many random things that it’s become impossible to explain exactly what a fraternity is!

Embrace Technology

Every episode and main event has an associated hashtag, introduced by RuPaul himself, verbally (“Hashtag Fraternity Wo Men”). In the early days of hashtags, this set the standard for similar productions. It also helped foster conversations about the show on social media, opening avenues for online entertainment and improved production quality.

Each element of the show, from the contestants to the challenges, are affectionately nicknamed to be obvious choices for hashtags and the show’s producers understand the value of GIFs and memes to the younger generation, fostering and contributing directly to that desire.

From the show are also a growing list of YouTube series featuring former contestants of the show or others commenting on the show. If you have never watched an internet show, watch one, they are fast-paced and loaded with on screen graphics and sound effects fitting of a younger generation’s attention span.

Some fraternities and sororities have embraced technology and the internet culture, but have not truly grasped the value that social media as well as consistent, public and free video content can add to their brands. Our efforts are timid or based on dated experience, and few of our organizations enable younger generations to truly influence their direction as they had during the Civil Rights era. On the internet, we are like prude soccer moms, pretending that our students are angelic and that no one has sex. That’s not reality.

 

Rupauls Drag Race GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Don’t Take Your Life’s Work Too Seriously

Without RuPaul’s recent efforts (again, built upon an exceptional career and with help from colleagues and friends), there would not be a broadly advertised career “ladder” to climb for most drag queens.

Today, contestants from the show have their own TV shows, perform on Broadway, run clothing and makeup lines, create increasingly popular music, and perform around the world. At the heart of the successes of the show are contestants who take their work seriously, but not too personally to take offense to critiques from an intense judging panel.

I think it’s hilarious that the word “congratulations” is constantly changed to “condragulations,” and the contestants are consistently pushed out of their comfort zones and cliques. Those who dive in head first, willing to make a fool of themselves to try something new, often do well and are rewarded. Those who hold back don’t meet the criteria for the winner of the show and are forced to lip sync.

The threat of liability on our organization’s leadership means we can’t openly depreciate ourselves and debate what is wrong without offense being taken. There is a sense of fraternal pride that can infect conversations by introducing a fear that any admission of weakness will be picked up by our opponents and held against us.

Unfortunately, as many do with drag queens, the world is already looking at us in a suspicious and judgemental way. Each episode incorporates RuPaul saying a signature phrase: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love anybody else?”

Once we learn to love the all parts of ourselves and once we vow to openly discuss our issues without the fear of corporate etiquette our contributions to our communities will be and come across as more genuine.

 

One current contestant wrote and starred as two roles in a short film about Chicago’s diverse drag community with an edge equally as cool as the film “Sin City.”

Recruit For Talent

The contestants on this show have already built of networks of fans in their home towns or their regions. Some auditioned for the show seven, eight or even nine times before being accepted. Imagine applying for a job every year for 10 years before being offered a position. The contestants on Drag Race are tenacious and dedicated professionals.

RuPaul investigates each contestant and watches video footage of them like an elite NFL recruiter. Those that are selected will either add something new to the world’s impression of drag (high fashion, artistically inspiring or plastic surgery enthusiasts) or are simply excellent enough to hit a mainstream market.

The growth of the RuPaul media empire has been steady and measured. Each season of the show introduces the audience to a group of seasoned professionals, several of which are bound to build successful careers and open opportunities for continued growth.

We often work in reverse, and use our programming as an incentive for growth, forcing students to be less selective. We want them to choose members wisely, but also want 100% of people going through rush to find a chapter or also want more revenue to support bigger and better, though widely untested, educational initiatives or projects.

Instead, we should encourage that our chapters seek genuine, excellent individuals, then use our networks to foster that excellence so that we can build off of it and truly benefit the world.

Each successful contestant adds to the RuPaul brand; but RuPaul is the one who focuses on identifying, recruiting, and then challenging each contestant beyond the comfort of their home city. The ones who contain the uniqueness, nerve, talent and charisma required of a star then pay it forward by cultivating other rising stars in the drag queen community.

That can’t happen with basic, catch-all leadership programming.

 

An entire production company is dedicated toward fostering young talent within the network of the show’s fanbase.

Create Opportunity For Your Die Hard Fans/Members

If you become good enough at entertaining, even if you are a woman or a straight man, you could be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul has made that clear.

Enough content and conversation happens throughout the show for there to be significant material supporting each episode, including an entire episode’s worth of footage of the contestants discussing the episode after each episode and several web series tied to the episodes of the show.

Fans and contestants interact throughout on social media, and the introduction of DragCon was designed in particular to allow easier access for fans to their favorite performers, but also to suppliers who can grow their business and the presence of drag culture.

This is important, because fans themselves can become stars through their makeup tutorials, video editing skills or commentary. The ultimate prize, competing on the show, is accessible to anyone, and RuPaul has built an infrastructure to prepare people to get there which has also created jobs and conversation.

Fraternities can be that vehicle, creating opportunities to test our members, support them in the real world, and receive their support back in building other members. We must be in constant communication (a two way street) with the members of our organizations or we won’t know things like the most useful technology of the day.

Leaders often direct feedback to a safe channel of one-way communication: “you tell us and we’ll discuss it,” but that’s just more of that corporate culture that has stiffened fraternities to shells of their once avant garde selves.

There you have it, now that wasn’t so bad was it?