'RuPaul's Drag Race' Judge Carson Kressley Is Ready for More Lip-Sync Smackdowns
The 'Drag Race' fashion savant shares his celebrity guest wish list and why he hopes the Emmy-winning reality show won't be sashaying away any time soon.
Happy Ru Year to all who celebrate: The Emmy-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race returns to VH1 on Friday this week with its all-new 14th season. Get ready for some more tea, shade, death drops, Snatch Games, gag-inducing runway shows, and lip-sync-for-your-life smackdowns.
In its nearly 13 years on air, the beloved drag competition series has raked up a total of 48 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and a total of 24 wins, making it the most-awarded (and fiercest) reality show in history. One proud panelist, who’s been helping RuPaul suss out which queens have the most charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent since Drag Race’s seventh season (including five of the six seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars) is Carson Kressley, the self-proclaimed “fashion savant” who you might recognize from a plethora of television projects, such as the original 2003 Queer Eye, Carson Nation, and Couched with Carson Kressley.
When he’s not judging the runway looks on the main stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race, chances are you’ve probably seen him at some point or another offering style advice or critiquing red-carpet fashion for a variety of high-profile Hollywood events, often making appearances on Good Morning America, The Wendy Williams Show, or on the dozens of other talk shows he’s associated with. He’s no stranger to winning Emmys or competition reality shows, either. He was once a contestant who strutted his stuff during the 13th season of Dancing with the Stars and his tenure as a host on the aforementioned Queer Eye earned him a trophy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004.
Here, we talk to the animated fashion expert about the worldwide phenomenon that Drag Race has become as well as how it feels to be part of such a groundbreaking queer show that has not only shattered barriers and Emmy Award records, but one that has brought a once underground art form into the mainstream spotlight.
Thrillist: RuPaul’s Drag Race has collected a total of 24 Emmys wins in its lifetime. Are you blown away by the response and how this show has grown into the big mainstream beast that it is?
Carson Kressley: I think it's great, and I think it's well deserved. And I think all of us are pleasantly surprised that it's now the reality show with the most Emmys in the history of television. So, we are thrilled, and we just keep doing what we're doing. But even though it's gotten really big and it's on a bigger platform, it's still a queer TV show that celebrates queer culture. And we have such a diverse cast and crew. I think we've been doing what we've always been doing, and more and more people are noticing it because we’re on VH1 now. And people respond to the queens, the contestants, their stories. And because it's a worldwide platform, queer youth all over the world can see it and say, “Oh my gosh, I can actually be celebrated. I don't have to be ashamed. I don't have to be fearful.” So, that's the greatest thing.
The show certainly means a lot to the queer community, and it’s been around long enough now where kids or teens who started watching it around Season 1 are adults now.
I'm going to throw it way back here, but I was lucky enough to be part of the original Queer Eye, and now part of this show. So, I have all kinds of people, I have queer youth who are now 40, coming up to me saying, “You made it easier for me to come out because we watched Queer Eye as a family.” And I have young kids all over the globe saying, “I loved watching you on the show, and you made me feel like it's okay to be exactly who I am.” Those moments are better than any Emmy.
We’re now at the 14th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and on top of that, there’s been six seasons of All Stars too. So, you've seen your fair share of recurring gimmicks and fashion trends on the runway before. Do you feel like it gets harder for you and the rest of the judges to be impressed as the show goes on?
No, because I think Michelle, Ross, Ru, myself, all love it so much. And I think we're always delighted by the show that the contestants put on. Actually, I think it becomes harder for the queens because we've seen a lot. And I think that's why it's really, really important when we're coaching them. When we're judging the queens, we always say, “Bring us your version of drag,” because the only thing that's going to really stand out, is what's very authentically you.
And sometimes queens will come on the show, and they'll be doing a bit, and we're like, “No, no, no, just do what you do.” That's always so much better. So, I think that's the real challenge for the queens each season, is to be authentic—keep it real. And we're easily impressed. If somebody jumps off a five-foot box and does a death drop, we're still going to love it.
I'm glad you brought up the death drop. That’s one of those tricks that some people might be tired of seeing during lip syncs. You clearly aren’t tired of it, but do you have a short list of things you really don't want to see on the runway anymore?
You know, I think drag is an art form, and creativity and self-expression are at its core. And I always challenge queens—like, I'm more concerned about the fashion. If you want to impress me, my perfect blend of drag is, give me a look that looks fierce, but also maybe has a sense of humor and a funny twist, and a lot of glamor, and maybe it can make a political statement. But make sure it has a point of view. I think that's the most important thing. You can look fabulous and glamorous, but if it doesn't really speak to who you are, and it doesn't have that point of view, and it doesn't send a message—which art is supposed to do—then it's not going to be as impressive.
Have there ever been times where you or the other judges maybe didn't get a reference or you negatively critiqued someone's look, but you later watched Untucked, where the queen explained the look, and you were able to understand the reference? It could be fun if you guys did a YouTube video where you review some of your past critiques and see if your minds have changed.
I usually get it right, but there are times where I won't get a reference because it's something out of my wheelhouse. In those moments, we say if none of us on the panel gets it, it's like, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?” If you're referencing something so esoteric and we're not getting it, we're the audience, you might want to rethink it. But there are moments where they're telling a fantastic story and we just have no idea. And there are moments when I watch Untucked and I'm like, “Oh, that's what she was supposed to be?” So, maybe we'll be able to take you up on your YouTube idea, re-judged.
Throughout the years, there have been some huge celebrity guest judges. Who's on your wish list?
I think we would all love to have Cher. I think we're praying to the gay gods that happens. And I'm sure she's a fan. She's a lovely person. I've gotten to meet her a couple times. And I think it's just about making the timing work. I would love to have Carol Burnett. She's an icon. I love when it's people from my youth. Alicia Keys is wonderful and marvelous, and she's going to be on this season. And Lady Gaga, of course, is incredible, and Miley Cyrus. Those big names are great, but I would love to have Carol Burnett, Dolly Parton, Cher. Those are superstars. We had Olivia Newton-John on, and I was like, “Oh my God. I can't believe I'm sitting next to Olivia Newton-John for the entire day.” And I was like, "Oh yeah, Olivia, we're going to be best of friends." And she was like, "Restraining order." Not really. She was lovely.
What about songs? Are there any tracks you’d like to hear used for a lip-sync smackdown?
Yeah, it would probably be the same. I would love to see songs by Heart. Pat Benatar is always great. I'm old, so I love all those '70s and '80s anthems. Of course, Cher can do no wrong. It'd be fun to have more country songs, actually. Some more Dolly. I think we're so club-centric, but there's a whole genre of music out there.
Sticking with the celebrity theme, who's a big personality that you're shocked that no one has impersonated on the Snatch Game yet?
I think a lot of my favorites have been on there, and there's been so many seasons. It would be fun to have somebody do Leslie Jordan or Kristin Chenoweth. I don't know if anyone's ever done her, but she's been on the Snatch Game as herself. I don't know, did we have a Hilary Clinton?
If any aspiring queens are watching, the Snatch Game is your most important thing. So, think about it. I'm always amazed when queens are like, “I don't know. I was thinking about doing this person or maybe this person.” No, no, no. You should be spending your life perfecting your Snatch Game routine. Pick one person with a strong personality that's easy, not to necessarily emulate, but encapsulate and create their vibe. So, just a little free advice, in case you're going to try out or anything.
This is ultimately RuPaul’s show, but do you judges get to have some creative input? Do you ever pitch ideas for a challenge, or a theme for one of the runway shows? How much creative input do you have?
Everybody on the show is very collaborative and we have the most amazing producers at World of Wonder. Everybody is very, very open, and because we're all producers on the show in a small way, we're always kind of giving our creative input, kind of like as a family. And sometimes they're like, “That's a terrible idea." But sometimes they're like, “Oh, that's a great idea.” We all want the show to be great, so I think we're always trying to contribute as much as we can.
After Season 14 concludes, we'll have a total 21 winners. Would you like to see all 21 of them go head-to-head in some sort of RuPaul’s Drag Race Mega All Stars?
Million dollar All Stars, baby. I think that sounds like a great idea. There are so many great queens in the history of the show, and some of my favorites are not even ones who have won. Sometimes it would be nice to just do an All Stars fan favorites too—people we hoped would've won, but maybe just weren't ready. But I like both of those ideas, and I think it would be fun to have all the winners back.
During the runway shows, you judges come up with those witty puns and one-liners. Is it as easy as it looks? You seem to spout them out like nothing. Or are there times where you think of something funny to say after the fact and do a voice-over?
No. You've got to be good in the moment. And there were many, many times I've wanted to kick myself. I'm like, “I should have said this.” But you get your shot and that's how it works, and it keeps you in fighting shape. Sometimes I come back after being off for a year and it's the first day of the first season, I'm like, “Oh my God, I hope I don't totally suck.” And there are some moments, especially when the looks are really good, and they're not campy, and they're very serious where you're like, “I have nothing.” But usually between the four of us and the guest judge, we can pull it together. But no, there are no re-dos and voice-overs.
This show has helped make drag mainstream and it’s paved the way for some other drag television shows, such as The Boulet Brothers' Dragula on Shudder. What are your thoughts on these other shows that RuPaul’s Drag Race likely inspired?
I think it's great that it's inspired more people to be interested in the art of drag. And I grew up going to drag clubs in the East Village, like the Pyramid Club and Wigstock in Tompkins Square Park, and all those places and seeing people perform. And it was always a bit cloistered either in clubs or was very much kind of restrained within our community. And now it's so great that the light has been shown on this amazing art, and that people can access it in many different places. I haven't seen Dragula, and I know I should. I know Dragula is more Gothic, spooky, and dark, right? I like the idea. I think it sounds great.
There’s got to be tons of footage on the cutting room floor. When you’re watching finished episodes on TV, do you ever notice or recall any favorite moments that didn’t make it into the show?
I've been doing this for eight years, and I've seen all the episodes. We've filmed for so many hours, but I don't know if there are any moments like that. Usually, the good stuff makes it on the show. What doesn't make it on the show are the hours and hours that we're there. Usually, there are moments when Michelle and I are coaching some of the queens, whether it's an acting challenge or whatever. There's a lot of polarity that does not wind up in the show because it's just too long. Like, those 20-second moments with each contestant while they're prepping for their acting challenge—those are 20 minutes boiled down to minutes, or 20 seconds. So, there's a lot of funny moments that aren't meant to be funny, but just are funny because the queens are hilarious, that don't make it on the show.
With a total of 14 seasons now, six seasons of All Stars, and all the Emmy wins, it’s possible this can go on for another decade or more. How much longer would you like to see this go, and are you along for the ride?
I need the health insurance, so yes, and now more than ever. As long as people are enjoying it, as long as we enjoy making it, as long as Ru enjoys making it, and as long as people enjoy watching it, there's so much drag talent out there that hopefully we can continue to go on until 2050. Or, until we're dead, whichever comes first.