When RuPaul's Drag Race premiered its first episode on Feb. 2, 2009, Barack Obama had been in the White House 13 days, Sully Sullenberger was still in the news for landing his jet in the Hudson River, and Slumdog Millionaire was 20 days away from winning Best Picture. Not only had TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram not been invented yet, but even Facebook's "like button" was a week away from being introduced. 

The reality show, which saw nine drag queens competing for just $20,000 (an amount queens can now win in a single episode of the show), ran for eight weeks on Logo TV, an unsung LGBT cable channel that had been on air less than four years. Season 1 is known among fans for its horrendous video quality (it's as if producers smeared petroleum jelly on the camera lenses), being filmed in a basement, and queens largely donning women's ready-to-wear clothing. The first season came and went without much fanfare, with little press, no live crowning, and a limited social media imprint because social media barely existed. In fact, after the first season aired, it wasn't even available to re-watch for several years because of how expensive the music clearances were. 

While the art of drag has been around since at least Ancient Greece, and the term "drag" has been attributed to William Shakespeare's stage directions (DRAG was an acronym for "DRessed As a Girl"), prior to RuPaul's Drag Race, drag was largely a niche pursuit of the LGBTQ+ community. Aside from RuPaul, who was bebopping around Hollywood taking gigs like The Weakest Link: Celebrity Edition, the most famous female impersonators were straight men like Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage), Martin Lawrence (Big Momma), and Tyler Perry (Madea). Drag was decidedly outside the mainstream. 

RuPaul during the Season 2 promo shoots

Mark Boster/Getty Images

Against all odds, however, the show succeeded. The queer community, hungry to see representations of themselves on screen, tuned in, beginning the formation of what would become one of the fiercest and most loyal fan bases in the world. In an era before the legalization of gay marriage, queer influencers, and trans beer spokespeople, Drag Race beamed LGBTQ+ people of all colors, shapes, and sizes into homes across America. Queer heroes were created as viewers tuned in. 

When Season 2 arrived in 2010, the show had been upgraded. More queens, more prize money, and less Vicks VapoRub lens flare. Included in the mix was Jessica Wild, a Puerto Rican drag queen who had been cast via a fan vote on RuPaulCasting.com, based on a series of YouTube videos. (And because I am a good investigative journalist, I dug them up for you to watch here, here, and here.) While Wild and her fellow Season 2 queens did some interviews, the show's press run was still pretty limited, and the season's finale and reunion were filmed on the same soundstage

But oh hunny, that is ancient herstory

Fast forward to May 2023, and Jessica Wild has returned to Drag Race after 13 years. She and 11 other queens from past seasons will be competing in RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 8, which premieres on Paramount+ Friday, May 12. And in those 13 years, a lot has changed. RuPaul's Drag Race is no longer the scrappy underdog, but rather one of the largest engines for queer expression on the planet. With 15 regular U.S. seasons, seven (soon to be eight) All Star versions, and dozens of international spinoffs, Miss RuPaul Charles is perhaps the most famous queer person alive. Ru has 12 Emmys, a Tony, 15 studio albums, a drag convention, a makeup and perfume line, three books (one slightly unhinged book publicist,) a line of canned cocktails, and one dusty bowl of stale Tic Tac candies. 

All that's to say, when a new season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars airs today, the press tour for the queens is a bit more involved than it was back when Jessica Wild sauntered into the Werk Room back in Season 2. Now, its a weeks-long bi-coastal gamut of interviews, appearances and screenings. The queens are schlepped around Los Angeles and New York, they've got numerous outfit changes, and every television show, internet blog and TikTok channel is desperate to snatch a minute of their time. 

When I asked Monica Beverly Hillz, who originally appeared on Season 5, how her experience with the press cycle back in 2013 compares to that of All Stars 8, she said, "Oh it was nothing like this" adding all they had was a premiere and a finale. The premiere, which was held at the now-defunct New York gay Club XL, featured Snooki and J-Woww as special guests, and Abby Lee Miller was at the finale (because duh it was 2013). 

The Cast of Drag Race Season 5 pose with Snooki and J-Woww of the Jersey Shore

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

When I asked Season 6's comedy queen and one-line zinger aficionado, Darienne Lake, who has also returned for All Stars 8, about her initial press tour, she said that in comparison to this year's events, the Season 6 festivities were like riding in the back of a flatbed truck through Rochester, NY. 

But to be fair, the All Stars 8 press tour makes most of life's events look like a bumpy trip in the back of a pickup. Last week, I had the privilege of joining the queens of All Stars 8 on the New York City leg of their press tour, and let me tell you, it was something to behold. 

Related: It's Time for the Judge's Critiques: Pre-Season Winner Predictions for 'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Season 8

Having already completed their official RPDR promo day as well as some LA press, the queens descended upon New York on Tuesday from parts unknown. After checking into a swanky hotel near Herald Square, those whose flights hadn't been delayed headed to an evening performance of Titanique, a parody musical of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. It now stars Rosé, a finalist from Drag Race Season 13, so its fitting that the All Stars queens would show up to support their fellow Ru Girl. 

Compulsively early and profoundly nervous, I lurked outside the theater and watched the queens roll up out of drag. In most venues, they would have gone unnoticed, but like I said, Titanique draws a FLAMING crowd so the frantic whispering began immediately. 

Inside, the queens milled around the bar, chatted with fans, and took pictures with the ridiculous photo-op cutout. I met Season 8's Naysha Lopez (who did not fool me when she introduced herself as Kandy Muse) and Season 13's Lala Ri. Still a bit unwell from being in the presence of drag royalty, I awkwardly blurted out that I dressed up like Lala Ri for Halloween, which looking back might not have been the smoothest play. Luckily, the All Star queens are seasoned professionals who have learned to maneuver far more awkward encounters with grace and poise, and mercifully continued to talk to me. 

Carrying a crisp red patent Telfar bag, Lala chatted with me about traversing the Telfar bag drops, getting stranded in the waitlist for Beyoncé tickets, and which look she would have chosen for a "Night of a Thousand Beyoncés" runway (the Beychella look that Aura Mayari chose) before pivoting into Drag Race. She said she'd been plotting her return to All Stars since being eliminated in Season 13, especially since her original season had been shot during COVID which made it an isolating experience. 

Mrs. Kasha Davis speaks with the cast of Titanique

Titanique/Rebecca J Michelson

With the show about to begin, we filed upstairs where I sat between Naysha and Darienne. For Darienne, an All Stars invite had been nearly a decade in the making. She and fellow Rochester, N.Y./All Stars 8 queen Mrs. Kasha Davis (who appeared originally on Season 7), had been planning for years. Every year Kasha would urgently ring Darienne during the casting window saying, "girls are getting calls, girls are getting calls." But until now, the calls had skipped the Rochester sisters. 

Unlike traditional Drag Race seasons which rely on a standard casting process, All Star contestants are alumni invited by producers. Once you get called, you only have a few weeks to commission the runway looks, frantically compile the wigs, makeup, nails, and accessories needed, and nail down plans for challenges like the Snatch Game or talent show that are perennial staples. 

Because the window is so short and the work so overwhelming, Darienne said that she and Mrs. Kasha Davis have been brainstorming for years, planning runway looks for themes they thought MIGHT be assigned IF they got on All Stars. They discussed which color themes hadn't been used yet, and what they'd do if they were given a "redemption runway" to re-do a look from their original season. Darienne, who said she'd never been particularly interested in fashion growing up because few brands catered to plus-size boys or drag queens, told me she was excited by the prospect of surprising audiences with well-designed looks now that the industry has evolved. And boy oh boy has it evolved since Season 6. Now almost every runway look is commissioned and handcrafted by designers who specialize in drag costumes. When a queen on the UK version of the show wore an H&M dress, Ru delivered one of her fieriest rebukes of the entire franchise. 

As I was beginning to try and squeeze information about the upcoming season and twists out of Darienne (Something I was completely unsuccessful at the entire week with all the queens btw. To talk to them, you'd think they'd never heard of the Fame Games.), the show began to start. 

Related: YAS MAMA! 'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Adds a $50,000 Fan Vote to Season 8

Rose and Darienne that on the stage of Titanique while the cast looks on

Titanique/Rebecca J Michelson

Having already seen Titanique once (I am a New York City gay after all), I knew the queens would love it, and from Rosé's first appearance and a Cats improv riff to a whole Drag Race-inspired set piece ("Lip sync for your life.....boats"), the All Stars were in an uproar of gasping, laughing and clapping. The queens joined in for the final group karaoke number of "My Heart Will Go On" and launched into a standing ovation for the cast. 

As the house lights went up, I immediately swiveled around to the Broadway queen of Season 9, Alexis Michelle to get a thespian's opinion. She adored it, especially the Drag Race references to her own season. "At this point we've seen so many Drag Race parodies," she said, "And this was one of the best." 

Drag Race certainly has become an institution, with everyone from Saturday Night Live to George Santos referencing the show. In addition to Rosé's appearance in Titanique, two-time winner Jinkx Monsoon made her Broadway debut in Chicago last year and will be appearing in Doctor Who shortly. Shangela and Willam appeared in the Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, and a handful of queens even graced a Taylor Swift music video. As the Drag Race empire grows, more and more drag queens are moving up from niche celebrities to household names. 

The cast and crew of Titanique with the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8

Titanique/Rebecca J Michelson

After the show, the queens chatted with the Titanique cast and crew on stage, and never has there been more fangirling between two groups of people. In addition to Rosé's reunion with Lala, her Season 13 sister, everyone was hugging, snapping pictures, and saying "no I love you!" 

Unfortunately the queens couldn't stay long though, because Wednesday marked Day 1 of the NY press tour. Alexis, who lives in the city, still had to return home, packup, and make her way to the hotel. Others like the Canadian drag clown Jimbo, needed to unpack having come straight from the airport to the show. When I asked what time, Alexis would be getting up the next morning to get into full hair and makeup before the press events, she said 6 a.m. 

On Wednesday, the queens' itinerary included mostly a barrage of interviews, and while I would have loved to lurk around and eavesdrop on their conversations, I spent the day writing about the writers strike instead. However, I met back up with the queens bright and early on Thursday at the Empire State Building. 

The Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to honor the ACLU's Drag Defense Fund and the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 8

Empire State Building

On May 4, in partnership with RuPaul's Drag Race and the American Civil Liberties Union' Drag Defense Fund, the tower was set ablaze with rainbow lights, and the drag queens were there to flip the switch. 

Having never attended an event at the Empire State Building, I was imagining we'd be in some kind of press room for the festivities, but oh no honey. In what I'm sure was a shock to the lines of midwestern families, international tour groups, and buses of school children, the lighting ceremony takes place smack-dab in the middle of the lobby queues. 

In a profound expression of visibility that actually made me a bit emotional, the twelve queens, towering over the masses in platform heels and giant wigs, sashayed over to the prop light switch. As they posed for the dozens of professional cameras (and dozens more wielded by tourists), LaLa B. Holston-Zannell, a trans representative from the ACLU, declared, "Every day a trans person is able to get up in this world is an act of revolution." 

The Cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8 flipping the switch at the Empire State Building

Getty Images for Paramount+

She continued by outlining the current mission of the ACLU's LGBTQ+ rights team, stating, "We, all of us, at the ACLU are gearing up for a national fight" against "curriculum censorship, drag bans, trans athletic bans, and over 14 states that have passed gender-affirming care bans for our trans youth."

And whether those who bought tickets for the Empire State Building's observation deck that day wanted a drag show or not, a drag show was what they got. The massive hoard of drag queens, journalists, photographers, PR reps, handlers, Empire State Building employees (including their famous TikTokers), and little ol' me weaved our way through the hundreds of tourists 

The cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8 at the Empire State Building

Getty for Paramount+

A bit of light rain cut the official group shots on the building's famed observation deck short, but that just meant the twelve queens had more time to enjoy pure chaos on the upper floors. 

Season 13's runner-up Kandy Muse, who had serendipitously worn a hat and rain-slicker, opted to stay outside and get some solo shots by professionals, while others queens scampered in doors. Despite being a born-and-raised New Yorker, she'd never been to the Empire State Building before. "It's one of those things where like you don't want to do touristy things because you're too cool for school," she told me while waiting for the elevator, "But I'm a little starstruck." 

Darienne Lake, forever a crowd favorite, chit chatted with fans, while Mrs. Kasha Davis was yanked aside for an on camera interview. Somewhere in the distance Jimbo started screaming for a TikTok, while Season 12's Heidi N Closet opted for a photo shoot with one of the optical binocular stands. At one point I turned around to find a journalist with her entire hand down the front of Jimbo's massive chest plate, trying to dig a lapel mic out from between her plastic breasts. Later, Jimbo and Mrs. Kasha Davis performed an improv vaudeville routine for a bemused family in NYC sweatshirts. "I tried to jump," Jimbo told the family. "No I tried to push her," chimed in Mrs. Kasha Davis. 

Darienne Lake at the Empire State Building

Getty for Paramount+

Cutting lines of tourists, the Drag Race contingent slowly started making their way to the upper observation deck, packing into elevators where the queens fanned themselves with brochures. Drag after all is EXTREMELY hot between the padding, wigs, costumes, and makeup. 

On the upper deck, the Empire State Building staff motioned the queens over to a tight metal staircase that had been locked up. The best photo op locale, one that was off limit to the general public, was located above, and no one knows the power of a great photo op better than a drag queen. While the early Drag Race queens may not have needed to navigate social media, the savvy queens of 2023 certainly capitalize on Instagram and TikTok. Despite the narrow metal stairs, the queens filed up one by one for shots overlooking the entire city without the impediments of glass or railings in the way. 

Season 9's Jaymes Mansfield trotted through through the building dressed as a Barbie doll with long blonde hair down to her knees and wielding pink plastic scissors and a comb. On her way up the treacherous stairs in stilettos, she dropped her phone, so on the way down she proceeded backwards with her heels off. At the top Heidi, who like Kandy had luckily opted for a look with a hat, snapped pics and then sent Naysha back out onto the ledge to get better pictures catching her long shirt sleeves in the wind. 

Naysha Lopez posing at the top of the Empire State Building

Courtesy of Naysha Lopez

After an hour or so, the slightly damp queens were ushered back down through the sea of tourists and maze of elevators, because the day was far from over. Hopping onto a pair of Sprinter vans, they were carted off for more interviews and a Q&A before being deposited back at their hotel. 

No rest for the weary, however, because their "break" was mostly just enough time to touch up their makeup, peel off their wigs and costumes, and put on their next ensembles. Thursday night, while the Empire State Building shone rainbow, the queens would be arriving at a SoHo hotel for the Season 8 red carpet, premiere, and after party. 

Having split off at the elevators, I too changed clothes (although using that phrase in the context of the queens almost seems rude) and schlepped down to the viewing. Bypassing the red carpet, I munched on Swedish Fish as the theater filled up with every homosexual journalist/influencer/photograher in the tri-state area. People. Indiewire. The Today Show. Fashion journalist/Jury Duty fan boy Evan Ross Katz. Former-Drag Race alumni Jackie Cox and Jan. And then of course the queens filed in to rounds of applause for their adoring fans. 

The Cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8 at the premiere

Getty Images for Paramount+

Monica came and sat next to me, saying this was the first time any of the All Stars 8 girls were watching their episode and that it was a bit nerve-wracking. Obviously they knew what happened, but filming was over a year ago and which clips/confessionals were going to be used was news to them. 

As the queens tried to get seated, it quickly became apparent that some of their costumes (like Mrs. Kasha Davis's massive top hat and Jimbo's large dress) needed to be worked around and so seats were swapped. Naysha ended up back beside me, and also said she was nervous. Handlers asked if the queens needed anything and a number of them took the opportunity to grab a cocktail before the episode began. Watching yourself on TV with a room full of fans (and journalists like me who were paying attention to their every move) certainly had to be nerve-wracking, and as Mrs. Kasha Davis once said, "There's always time for a cocktail." 

And there certainly was time for cocktails a plenty after the credits rolled (cutting out right before the eliminated queen was revealed to groans aplenty). Everyone, including the queens, wandered back out into the hotel's bar where the queens were beset upon by their adoring fans. By my estimation, over a thousand selfies were taken and probably nearly as many drinks were ordered from the open bar. The queens, cooling themselves with handheld fans (like those used by moms at EPCOT), held court as everyone congratulated them on their looks from the episode. About three drinks in, I found myself doing an impromptu photo shoot with Heidi up against a stone column. Another two drinks in and I was getting Jaymes Mansfield to help me flag down mini chocolate desserts which we couldn't determine were s'mores or not. 

Jaymes Mansfield at the premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8

Getty Images for Paramount+

Eventually the bar shut down, and I walked two blocks to get pizza and try to sober up. The press tour, after all, wasn't over yet. 

While I don't know how hungover any of the queens were on Friday morning, I was not feeling my best as I pre-wrote articles for the MTV Movie & TV Awards (and I did not have to get up at 6 am to do a full face of makeup.) The queens, hungover or not, were up and cruising around the city the next morning, but I didn't met up with them until much later at New York's LGBT Community Center. They'd been there for several hours by the time I arrived, and while I recognized the telltale Sprinter vans, the bevy of people coming and going through the massive West Village institution on a Friday night didn't seem on to the fact that 12 famous drag queens were tucked away in a back room giving interviews. This was, of course, all part of their two-part stealth plan. 

Part One of Operation Gag the Gays (my title not theirs), involved surprising a group of teenagers. "The Center" as it's known has a wealth of programming to support the NYC LGBTQ+ community and especially queer youth. On that Friday, a group of youths, active at The Center, arrived for what they thought was a Drag 101 basics class. They'd receive some pointers on how to get into drag or elevate their drag from a seasoned queen in the community. 

A group of youths filed in, chatting with each other and clearly excited to get some drag tips. As the teens waited excitedly, it was announced that the special guest would actually be a cast member of All Stars 8 with whom they could kiki about the art of drag. Alexis Michelle, who actually attended programs at The Center, was called in to shrieks of delight. 

Jimbo chats with a student at The Center

Getty Images for Paramount+

But what's better than one drag queen? How about two? In strutted Darienne Lake. And then the flood gates were loosed and in poured the other ten All Stars while the poor kids lost their mind. 

For the next half hour, the queens sat and chatted with the "royalty in training" discussing all the ins and outs of drag. One teen raced up Kandy Muse exclaiming that they shared a birthday. "Scorpio!" Kandy shouted back. (Nothing has made more sense astrologically since Adore Delano told us she was a Libra.) One group talked about bedazzling denim while others discussed makeup tips. "You looked like the Power Rangers all in a line when you came in," one student said slightly overwhelmed by it all (and thinking back to my "I dressed up as you for Halloween" moment with Lala Ri, I fully empathized.)

Getty Images for Paramount+

Of course it wouldn't be a drag outing without some voguing, and it didn't take long before Monica and Season 11's Kahanna Montrese were cheering on a pair of teens as they duckwalked and death-dropped through the crowd. "You are everything," exclaimed Kahanna. Especially in today's political climate where queer kids are being told to hide who they really are, watching queer teens bask in their queerness was a sight to behold. If only every lesbian, trans, bi, gay, non-binary, and asexual teen were given the opportunity to meet with superstars who could tell them they're perfect just the way they are. 

When I started watching Drag Race, I was still deeply in the closet and would watch it with airbuds on my laptop. Growing up in a rural, extremely conservative community, I had absolutely no queer role models. (I wasn't even allowed to watch seasons of The Amazing Race until the gay teams were eliminated each year.) Drag Race became my first exploration into the vastness of queer expression, and hearing the queens share their stories on air helped me to realize that I wasn't some sort of sinful freak. Drag Race taught me that life was worth living (something I had doubted for years), that I would find my chosen family, and that my gayness was something to be celebrated. For kids growing up today to have hundreds of drag icons to emulate is such a blessing. I'm not exaggerating when I say that RuPaul has saved countless young queer lives over the past fifteen years, because mine is certainly one of them. 

The queens of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 8 at The Center with the "Drag 101" attendees

Getty Images for Paramount+

After several photos (where I'm sorry to say the teens out-posed the queens), the future drag queens were sent upstairs for a screening of the first episode of All Stars 8. Which brings us to Part 2 of Operation Gag the Gays. While a crowd had amassed on The Center's third floor for "a sneak peek of the first episode", no one knew that the queens would be joining for a panel discussion first. 

And so the queens were snuck up a back elevator and told to line up alphabetically in the hallway (because no matter how old you are, there's always time to revisit elementary school gym class). In the auditorium, the episode was introduced, but when it was cued up, the screening sputtered to a halt. 

"Can we get AV help?" called the emcee, and in this case the AV help happened to be Alexis Michelle in a sparkly off the shoulder dress with a massive ruffled sleeve. And to assist her when she couldn't figure out how to get the episode playing was Darienne in a disco ball dress, and then Heidi and Jessica and the rest. The crowd again lost their mind, and continued to do so for several minutes while chairs were set up for the queens on stage. 

Getty Images for Paramount+

For the final piece of their tour, the All Stars 8 girls spoke to those present about drag, All Stars 8 and the state of the America. As anti-LGBT+ legislation is being introduced by conservative lawmakers across the country, the spotlight that RuPaul's Drag Race brings is more important now than ever. While Drag Race is of course about makeup, shady jokes, and lip syncs, Drag Race has been about fighting for queer lives from the very beginning, and the All Stars 8 queens know that.

"At it's essence, drag has always been about activism, particularly at the start," Alexis Michelle told the audience, "Here we are yet again in 2023 and activists is what we must all be, by living your truth, being your authentic self, and presenting that to the world. THAT really has the power to change minds and hearts." 

While gay, queer, and trans youth across the country are being told that their existence isn't valid, the queens of RuPaul's Drag Race have the power to show those young LGBTQ+ members that who they are matters. And that's probably why so many people are trying ban drag. They know how powerful it is. 

"Drag is not a crime," Mrs. Kasha Davis stated loudly. "Some of my fashion choices are criminal, but we don't want to talk about that." 

"Drag is mainstream and [the LGBTQ+ community is] mainstream," she continued. "We are living our authentic lives more loudly and proudly, and that scares some people. Let them be scared, and live your truth. This is a revolution. This is progress, and we're getting there. And there will be bumps in the road, but I think the truth of the matter is that if you lead with love, everything is possible." After all, a wise woman once (or perhaps about 500 times) said, "If you can't love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?" 

After the panel wrapped, the queens headed back down to the Sprinter vans. They're busy people and had to catch flights to their next gigs across the country. The premiere would air a week later at the same time as 2023 Drag Con, so there would be no rest for the weary. 

Drag is not easy, and drag is not always comfortable, but if you think that drag is going anywhere, then ooooooo child, have I got news for you. RuPaul started RuPaul's Drag Race in a basement with nine queens and one tub of camera vaseline. Now fourteen years later, Ru Girls are lighting the Empire State Building. 

Drag queens have taken New York. Next stop: the world. 

Next, Everything You Need to Know About 'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Season 8 Before Watching the Premiere