Back in the mid-'00s, RuPaul was the only true drag superstar around, appearing in numerous films and having Billboard-charting hits like “Supermodel (You Better Work).” But, in 2009, he decided to pass the torch to a new generation of drag superstars with the premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race. 10 years later, it's one of the biggest shows on TV, with two spinoffs (All Stars and the short-lived Drag U), its own convention, a behind-the-scenes aftershow (Untucked), and countless iconic contestants.
But besides creating a new generation of queens, the series also allowed viewers who weren’t familiar with drag to see it as more than the archaic concept of “a man in a wig.” Drag Race is one of very few shows to feature LGBTQIA people of a diverse range of backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and gender, and by depicting honest conversations between the contestants about their struggles and sacrifices, fans have felt represented for 10 years and counting.
To look back at what has made Drag Race such a revolutionary show, Bustle spoke to contestants Shangela, Eureka O’Hara, and Manila Luzon about their fondest Drag Race memories.
"We're All Born Naked And The Rest Is Drag" — Drag Race Beginnings
Shangela is one of the best-known queens from the first two seasons, but before joining Drag Race, she had been doing drag for less than a year. And, at first, she didn't feel she was ready to be on the show. "Initially, I wasn't planning to audition at all," she tells me over the phone, explaining that she had only done 10 shows at that point. But with the encouragement of casting agents, she decided to embrace the opportunity, joining the show's second season.
Sadly, she was eliminated in the first episode, in a lip sync against late queen Sahara Davenport to RuPaul's song "Cover Girl (Put the Bass in Your Walk)." The elimination marked a scary time for Shangela, as she had quit her job to do the show. "I thought, 'I'm going to be gone for three weeks, I'm going to win $20,000, I'm going to be set.' And then I came home two days later, no job, no money, and was like... Oh my gosh," she recalls. "But I didn't give up on myself."
And RuPaul's poignant words of encouragement helped; when Shangela was eliminated, RuPaul told her, "I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of you yet." His premonition was correct, as Shangela began taking on more shows and gaining experience post-elimination, even winning drag pageant California Entertainer of the Year.
Then there's Manila. The contestant appeared in the third season of Drag Race, although she didn't decide to be on the show until her late partner Sahara Davenport competed on the second season. While Sahara didn't last long, Manila was inspired by her casting. "She didn't make it as far as I knew she could, so I was like, 'Well, let me send in an audition tape and I'll pick up where you left off,' and it just went on from there," she explains when we speak via phone.
Manila made it to the finale, ultimately losing against Raja. And the show proved to be a life-changing experience. "Before Drag Race, I was working at a graphic design firm in Manhattan," she explains, adding that she didn't initially feel comfortable telling her co-workers what she was doing on her time off. "People were like, 'Where were you?' and I was like, "Ohhh, umm, I don't feel comfortable talking about it,'" she recalls, laughing. "So I spent several months working at my job like, being like, 'I'm going to be on TV!' When the show started airing, it wasn't as popular, so it took a minute before my boss caught on, like, 'Oh, that's where you've been!'"
Thankfully, her boss loved the series, and Manila became the star of her office. But as she began to get more work opportunities as a drag queen, it was time to leave her job and do drag full-time. "At first, girl, I didn't know it was going to last this long!," she admits. "I thought maybe I would be touring for about a year, and then the next season would start, and I would stop and go back to my design job, but it never slowed down."
And finally, there's Eureka, who joined the show in its ninth season but was a fan from the beginning. "I was 18 when it first came out, and we would just gather together at a friend's house and watch on a computer while our internet tried to buffer," she recalls, speaking over the phone. "It was such a cultural phenomenon that when we first heard about it, we didn't believe it was going to be real."
After watching the show's fourth season, which turned the bigger-bodied queen Latrice Royale into a fan-favorite, Eureka felt inspired to audition. "When I saw Latrice, honestly, because she was such an Amazon, I was like, 'If she can do it, I can,'" she recalls. She started auditioning four years before making it on the show.
Eureka stood out in her first season, pleasing the judges with her looks and comedy chops. But she injured her foot in a cheerleading challenge, causing her to leave the show early in the Reality Stars The Musical episode. This was a heartbreaking moment, as she had been striving to be on the show for so long.
"It was a really emotional experience," Eureka recalls now. "You really feel like your body fails you... I felt so strong as a bigger person, and then I started questioning even that, because it was like, 'Oh gosh, is it because I'm big that I did this?', and maybe I haven't been taking care of my body like I should."
It was very difficult for Eureka to face this obstacle and not being able to disclose what happened to her, having to tell people that she injured herself playing with her nieces and nephews. But despite it taking a physical and emotional toll on her, she was able to recuperate quickly enough to be part of the show's 10th season.
"She Done Already Done Had Herses" — The Return To Drag Race
After leaving Drag Race, Shangela took RuPaul's encouraging words in stride and planned her return. She sent in an audition tape for Season 3 — but it turns out it wasn't needed. "I got a call from [the producers], and they said, 'We have this idea, we've been watching you, we want you to come back,' and I'm like, 'Oh my god, did you see my audition tape?'" Shangela recalls. "And they were like, 'What tape?' They hadn't even gotten it yet!"
Her surprise return to the show was iconic — as she arrived in a box. "[The producers] said they wanted to make it a surprise, but they never told me it was a box until I showed up on set," explains the star. "And I was like, 'Had I known this, I would've worn a smaller wig!'" Throughout seasons to come, the running joke would be that whenever there was a twist announced, contestants would say it's Shangela in a box.
Towards the end of the season, Shangela ultimately shashayed away after losing a sewing challenge. But she's proud of how far she made it. "To make it to the top 5 in what RuPaul called his 12 best children in the U.S. at that time — I was just over the moon excited and happy," she recalla.
Like Shangela, Eureka also found redemption by returning to the show for its 10th season, and she decided that she was going to do everything in her power to succeed. "While I was injured, I was able to just watch every season of Drag Race again and again, and I studied that way, by watching it," she recalls. "The secret to Drag Race, for me, I think, is confidence, improv — you have to be quick on your feet, because that's what queens are known for — and you have to be funny. But you also have to serve looks and own it. No matter what you wear, if you own it, you can sell the look."
Eureka ended up becoming a finalist, making Drag Race herstory by becoming the first full-figured queen to be in the finale.
Unlike Shangela and Eureka, Manila's time on the show was a one-off, although she did make her big return for the show's spin off, All Stars.
"Bring Back My All-Stars" — Returning For The Hit Spin-Off
After leaving the show, Manila was invited to join the first season of All Stars to face off against other memorable queens from past seasons. But the series had a big twist: the queens would compete in pairs. Latrice Royale and Manila picked each other, becoming an unlikely duo that thrived throughout the competition.
"The fact that I was paired up with Latrice was this odd pairing, and I think that's what made us stand out," says Manila now. "You're not used to seeing these two together, but it kind of works, in a way. It was like, Timon and Pumbaa, or Ren and Stimpy!"
At the beginning, All Stars tried out wacky challenges to keep the queens on their toes, and Manila and Latrice ultimately went home after a challenge where they had to convince passers-by to participate in pranks. Yet while some fans consider All Stars' first season to be the worst year of the spin-off, Manila sees the silver lining of the experience. "I know a lot of people say that All Stars 1 doesn't count, but I still count it, because it gave me 'The Chop' with Latrice, our song, so that was fun," she says.
Manila then returned for the current fourth season of All Stars, becoming the #1 queen to beat, until Naomi Smalls sent her home. But this opportunity allowed Manila and Latrice to make the All Stars comeback fans had been waiting for. "I was worried because coming back... there was going to be a big target on my back because, to everyone, this bitch already had her chance," explains Manila. "So to be able to come back with Latrice, it really helped... there was now two of us that they had to worry about, and not just me."
As for Shangela, fans had been waiting to see when she would pop out of a box again for All Stars, and she delivered during its third season, arriving in a Tiffany-blue box. Her time on the show showed how much her drag had evolved over the years, and she quickly became the top queen fans rooted for. Yet when she was ultimately eliminated by the other contestants upon reaching the top, losing to Trixie Mattel, it sparked a huge outrage.
"That's the best feeling ever, really, to have the support of fans around the world who continue to lift me up even when the way the finale went," says Shangela now. "I didn't always feel at my highest after that, and they just continued to lift me up and show me that what you did did matter."
And getting to enjoy the fruits of her labor matters much more than the $100,000 prize, she says. During the time between Drag Race and All Stars 3, Shangela explains, she "honed and invested in myself and worked hard on getting better." As a result, she feels like it was a success regardless of the finale. Says the star, "That's how you achieve the dreams that you want to come true in your life."
"Hey Kitty Girl, It's Your World!" — The Impact Of Drag Race
Since the show started in 2009, it has inspired a new generation of queens to audition and explore the drag world, including some who grew up watching the show at home. "Naomi Smalls was watching RuPaul's Drag Race, watching me and Latrice, while she was still in high school," notes Manila. "But now, she's a legend, same as us, and it's great, because drag can be for everybody, and everyone can appreciate it in their own way, whether they're trying it out themselves, going to a drag show, or watching RuPaul's Drag Race... the show has inspired so many people to become comfortable with their skin by covering it up with a whole bunch of makeup."
Eureka, meanwhile, who champions body positivity and has been outspoken about her gender fluidity ("I consider myself a gender neutral elephant king and hybrid queen"), says that she has many fans who are thankful for the show's representation. "It's teaching them body acceptance and gender dysphoria acceptance," says Eureka. "I get a lot of people that reach out to me like, 'Oh my god, you taught me how to be myself, and not be worried that I was too much."'
Shangela notes that due to its awards recognition and VH1 home, the show has expanded its fanbase beyond the LGBTQIA community over the years, teaching people of all different backgrounds about acceptance. "It's brought out so many great allies... we get to be in so many homes and really change lives, and bring along a conversation that people might not have felt they needed to have if the show hadn't been on the air," she says.
Eureka agrees, noting how much the crowd at her shows has changed as Drag Race has grown in popularity. "There are couples that come in together — heteronormative couples, there are parents and children that come in, there are literally groups of straight guys that are like, 'We just find your show hilarious and great, you guys are awesome,'" she says. "To see a group of heteronormative men in a society that's raised on toxic masculinity come to a drag show without a single female... that tells me we're creating change."
Appearing on Drag Race was a life-changing milestone for each of these queens, and the trio looks back on their experiences with gratitude. "The most rewarding part is being able to really be me and also do what I've always wanted to in this world, which is entertain and bring joy to people around the world," says Shangela. "It's given me the opportunity to go out there and put a show together, put on my art, my craft, what I have to give to the world, and people listen, and people watch, and people are interested, and they come out and support and I appreciate that so much."
Since appearing on All Stars' third season, Shangela had a cameo in A Star Is Born and even collaborated with Ariana Grande for the spoken-word intro to her song "NASA."
Eureka, meanwhile, is thrilled that she can share her success with her family. "My mom is so proud of what I'm doing now, and my nieces and nephews... watch my videos online, they listen to my music, they celebrate my friends," she says.
And for Manila, it's been an incredible experience to see how much the show has evolved over the years. "It makes me proud of our community for finding a place where we can showcase our talents and our personalities and characters," she says. "I will keep doing RuPaul's Drag Race until I am an old man."
Fans would certainly love to keep seeing these queens on TV for years to come. Drag Race was not only a life-changing experience for its contestants; it's influenced the lives of so many viewers over the last decade, proving that it's far more than just another reality TV show.