How 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Helps Turn Queens into Marketing Matriarchs

by Dan Allen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 11, 2022
Originally published on January 7, 2022

Alaska
Alaska  (Source:Magnus Hastings)

In 2015, rising drag superstar Alaska had some urgent instructions for the teeming masses, otherwise known as her rapidly growing fanbase. "Shut the f*ck up and gimme all your money," she demanded at the outset of her tongue-in-cheek gangsta rap song "Gimme All Your Money."

Alaska (a.k.a. Alaska Thunderf*ck, a.k.a. Alaska 5000, a.k.a. Justin Honard) had just finished in the top three on the fifth regular season of "RuPaul's Drag Race" (RPDR) — and though it was still a year before she would appear again (and reign supreme) on the second season of "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars," her marketing power had already firmly kicked into overdrive.

At its core, drag culture has always had a strong transactional component, Alaska explains. "Tipping is very much a thing in drag shows and drag culture, like the exchanging of a single dollar," she says. "It's not really about the money; it's about you getting to share a moment with the performer on stage — that's what tipping is really about. But when you become a drag queen who's on 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' suddenly it becomes, 'Okay, well, here's my shirt, and we also have a phone case, and we also have all these products. And so ['Gimme All Your Money'] was just sort of extrapolating that to the absurd."

Since its inception in 2009, RPDR has ever more proven itself to be a marketing juggernaut, both for the queens themselves, whose careers often explode post-competition, and for savvy advertisers hoping to tap into the buying power of the show's predominantly young, hip and influential audience. With some 9.2 million social engagements during its 13th season run in 2021, RPDR was one of the top social cable programs of the year. (Not to mention its five 2021 Emmy Award wins, bringing its lifetime total to a whopping 24.)

According to estimates by Celebrity Net Worth and others, a growing number of the iconic show's former contestants are now millionaires. (By many reckonings, "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars" Season 3 winner Trixie Mattel currently leads the royal RPDR-alum pack, with a reported net worth of about $10 million — of course not counting RuPaul herself, who clocks in at a staggering $60 million.) Through music careers, makeup empires, mainstream corporate endorsements and much more, hardworking RPDR alumni are becoming moguls and proving that they have incredible appeal in a wide variety of global forums.




It's an astounding financial explosion for an art form that not so long ago was mostly relegated to the dim shadows of smoky nightclubs.

Even just a decade ago, as she was launching her drag career in Los Angeles, Alaska had little inkling of what a massively lucrative profession it might become after her RPDR appearances.

"I don't think any of us predicted the sort of explosion of how much drag would inspire people and therefore become its own sort of economy," she says. "I just saw that a bunch of the queens I was working with in West Hollywood were getting the opportunity and going on 'Drag Race' — and then I saw that their Facebook numbers were suddenly way higher than everybody else's. And I was like, 'Oh, I want that.'"

'With Drag, There Are No Rules'

Alaska promoting her new book, 'My Name's Yours, What's Alaska? A Memoir.'
Alaska promoting her new book, 'My Name's Yours, What's Alaska? A Memoir.'  

Longtime LGBTQ+ media and marketing expert Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, was a consultant for the upstart Logo cable TV network as it prepped the 2009 launch of RPDR, its most eagerly awaited original show to date. "Logo always wanted to have a place for RuPaul's talent," says Witeck. "They recognized the value of it, and that it had — in fact, as we all know now — a very large crossover audience."

Witeck believes drag's enormous surge in popularity via RPDR ultimately owes itself to two key ingredients. "I think it's the notion that at its heart, it's filled with both humor and with love — and people recognize that those are universal qualities," he says. "At first, for drag stars, they're sort of saying, 'This is my joke.' But the thing that RuPaul, I think, made possible by virtue of personality and by showmanship is to say, 'You're all going to be in on the joke.'

"For the people who participate in drag in a very serious way, of course, it's not really a joke, but generally seems to be a lifelong choice of perfecting a powerful performance and identity — and I think people find that that has both deep authenticity and passion in it that is very compelling," Witeck explains. "People know it's for fun — but on 'Drag Race,' it's inclusive fun and not mean fun."

RuPaul hasn't just elevated the public's perception of drag; she's awakened the beast that is the public's insatiable appetite for drag-related swag.

"RuPaul has really shown that drag can be this thing where you can dip your toes into every sort of media," says Alaska. "She has written books, and she has clothes, and she has a chocolate bar, and she makes music, and she's been in films. That's part of what also attracts me to drag, that there aren't conventional rules as to, 'Oh, you can't do that, you're not allowed to go into that area.' With drag, there are no rules, and you can go anywhere you want with that."

Indeed, for Alaska, a rule-less marketing world has even granted her the liberty to brilliantly capitalize on what for less clever others might have been major setbacks or even career killers. Take that time in 2016, when after a few arguably slippery moves during her run as a contestant on "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars" Season 2, haters began calling her a snake on social media and filling her comments with snake emojis. Undaunted, Alaska christened herself the Queen of Snakes and released a hilarious snake-infused YouTube video called "Getting to Know Alaska." Fans ate it up.




"So many things that I've sort of latched onto and use for Alaska have come from the people," she says. "I mean, the people were saying 'Your makeup is terrible' after I appeared on 'Drag Race.' They were saying it on Twitter over and over, and I was getting tagged. And that made me say, 'Oh, well, I'm going to put that on a T-shirt because people say that all the time.' And like, 'Well, I need a song that goes with the T-shirt,' so I wrote the song [2014's "Your Makeup Is Terrible," her second single, which has since racked up more than 7 million views on YouTube].

"And so yes, with the snake thing, everyone was calling me a snake, and people were typing snake emojis at me on Twitter," she remembers. "So I was like, 'Well, why don't we start putting that on a shirt? Why don't we lean into that?'"

Today, it's just one of many products and projects in Alaska's ever-expanding online store. Her memoir, "My Name's Yours, What's Alaska?," was released in November. She just dropped a stunning out-of-drag video for "wow," a new single from her soon to be released '90s-infused album "Red 4 Filth" — the accompanying North American tour kicks off later this year. Meanwhile, she also hosts the popular Race Chaser podcast with sister RPDR alum Willam.

The Monetary Value of Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent

(Source: SERV Vodka)

Like many of top RPDR veterans, Alaska is managed by Burbank, California-based Producer Entertainment Group (or PEG), founded in 2011 at the onset of the drag industry's explosion.

"We help our clients envision their drag character as a brand and a business," says PEG partner Jacob Slane. "Then we give them the tools and make the necessary connections so they can truly be successful. Often that involves content creation and distribution, which I think we've become quite good at. But it also means finding them the best agents, securing the most favorable terms for touring, and creating compelling merchandise."

In September, PEG teamed up with six of its biggest RPDR-alumni clients — Alaska, Trixie Mattel, Monét X Change, Sharon Needles, Trinity the Tuck and Manila Luzon — to launch SERV, a new vodka brand aimed squarely at the LGBTQ+ market. "Although spirits is a very crowded field, there were no major brands targeting the LGBTQ+ community year-round, putting our own community on the bottles and harnessing the fun and fierceness of drag," Slane explains.

Alaska counts SERV among her proudest recent achievements. "Drag queens and vodka have been bonded for time immemorial," she says. "So a bunch of us queens got together and we said, 'Okay, we're going to do a vodka brand,' and everyone chose their flavors. And I was like, 'You know what? When I order vodka, I just want it to taste like vodka.' So I was lucky enough to get Original Unflavored vodka, and it's delicious. It's really good, and the bottles are beautiful. So I'm really proud of that one."

Today's booming drag commerce takes on epic proportions during RuPaul's DragCon, which happens annually in both Los Angeles and New York (but of course has been on hiatus during the pandemic — it's currently scheduled to return to L.A. in May). Co-run by RuPaul and RPDR production company World of Wonder, the 2018 editions of DragCon drew 100,000 attendees and raked in an estimated $8.2 million in sales — and that's not counting entrance fees, which for the last NYC edition ran $40 a day or $70 for the weekend.

Even queens who haven't yet made it to the main stage of "RuPaul's Drag Race" have taken cues from the show's alumni about how to monetize their nascent brands. For instance, several up-and-coming East Coast queens, including "New Jersey's hardest working housewife" Anida Tension and the appropriately named Kimmy Sumony, have teamed with New Jersey-based apparel and accessories maker dMart Gear to create branded swag for their growing fan bases.

How Much Pay to Play?

With so much now at stake in becoming a RPDR contestant, most incoming queens now feel compelled to invest sizable sums for their onscreen wardrobes simply to be able to compete on the runway. Season 11 winner Yvie Oddly told Vice last year that she scraped together some $14,000 for her outfits for the show, yet still wound up feeling her competitors had far outspent her. "I could tell that even having spent more money than I had ever even had in my life, everybody else was clearly more expensive," she said. "So when they called me cheap, I understood why."

Three-time RPDR alum Shangela (aka D.J. Pierce) is another queen whose less expensive lewks sometimes drew bitchy commentary during her appearances on seasons 2 and 3 in 2010 and 2011 — but she was able to substantially up her wardrobe game for her return to season 3 of "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars" in 2016 after her sheer charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent had led to numerous additional TV and film roles in the interim. The payoff? More than 1.5 million Instagram followers are now enticed by her merchandise collection, including graphic T-shirts and assorted merch emblazoned with her signature "halleloo" catchphrase. Meanwhile, major brands want to cash in on Shangela's appeal too. In 2021 her business prowess and longtime LGBTQ activism intersected in a campaign for GLAAD and BMW of North America to promote the new BMW 4 Series Convertible.




For advertisers, "RuPaul's Drag Race" is an increasingly desirable way to connect with the show's commercially powerful viewing base, which now stretches across the planet. LGBTQ+-focused tour operator and wedding planning service Pink Iceland saw RPDR as a natural fit when it became one of the first international companies to sponsor a prize on the American edition of RPDR in 2019.

"I must say that the biggest benefit was just the visibility," says Eva María Lange, Pink Iceland's CEO. "It was good for marketing locally because a lot of Icelandic people watch the show." What's more, the global reach of RPDR drew new Pink Iceland clients from all over the world. "Obviously, not only the queer community watches the show, but also straight people who are just more queer in their mindset, so to speak," she says. "And that is exactly the type of travelers that we want to welcome to our lovely country."

Large mainstream companies are also eager to hop aboard the RPDR advertising bandwagon. In 2021, Chipotle became the latest major brand to team up with "Drag Race" alumni in a campaign so keenly targeted at young consumers that its intricate details are likely mind-boggling for anyone over 30.

First, Chipotle paired with makeup company E.l.f. Cosmetics to create "E.l.f. x Chipotle," a makeup line inspired by Chipotle's burrito ingredients. It then enlisted alums Trixie Mattel and Kim Chi to create a special vegan "Eyes. Chips. Face." bowl (a riff on the letters in E.l.f.'s name, which stand for "Eyes. Lips. Face."), and had the queens create videos for Mattel's hugely popular YouTube channel (with 1.5 million subscribers). One video, a so-called "makeup mukbang," takes on the Korean-born "mukbang" viral video trend of watching people eat, featured Chi and Mattel putting on E.l.f. makeup and then eating their own Chipotle bowl. It's been watched 1.6 million times and counting.




"The ['Drag Race'] fanbase is loyal and extremely passionate," says Slane. "People want to support their favorite queens, and it sends a message that brands are forward-thinking when they partner with us."

With a collective 166 contestants on 13 seasons of RPDR — not to mention 14 more nipping at her heels with the launch of Season 14 — how does Alaska manage to consistently stay on top of the heap as one of drag's biggest earners?

"I think luck is a huge part of it, I think timing is a huge part of it, and I think working hard is definitely part of it," she says. "I'm grateful all the time that I get to do drag as my job. It isn't lost on me how absurd that is, and I'm really grateful about it. But I don't know what the secret formula is. I guess just put your name and your face on a bunch of shit and see if people buy it."

Dan Allen covers travel and LGBTQ culture for numerous outlets around the world including NBC Out, CBS Watch!, the Los Angeles Blade, Passport and Fodor's.

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