How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 15 Became a Beacon of Hope Amidst Anti-Drag Laws

This story about “RuPaul’s Drag Race” first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Season 15 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was one of change: The show moved from VH1 to MTV, featured its largest group of contestants ever (16) and debuted a new permanent judge, transgender activist and personality Ts Madison.

But it was legislative changes that were being pushed outside the show that made the biggest impact on this season. As the queens demonstrated their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent week after week, anti-LGBTQ bills, many of which would prohibit drag performances, piled up across the country. (The ACLU is currently tracking 500.)

For Carson Kressley, who has been a judge on the 27-time Emmy-winning reality competition since Season 7, the queer-phobic laws only strengthened the “Drag Race” team’s resolve. “There’s always new opportunities and new challenges,” he said. “We see with this ridiculous legislation that there’s always a reason to have a platform like this. And I think every year, we get a new show because we’re always in a different social, artistic climate. We also get, you know, 15, 16, however many new queens every season, and we get to hear their stories and see them win and lose and build themselves back up again.” That sends a strong message of inclusion. Plus, Kressley added, “That keeps it fresh because we meet incredible new people every season.”

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Season 15 certainly brought plenty of original ideas. During the first episode’s talent show, contestant Anetra combined her “duck walk” dance moves with board-breaking karate chops. Her performance left all the judges—including guest Ariana Grande—with mouths agape. (The performance has more than 10 million views on YouTube.) “We’ve seen a lot before, but we welcome the new stuff,” judge Michelle Visage said. “When I get to say, ‘I’ve never seen that before’ or when Ru and I look at each other and say ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen that’—that is the best feeling in the world.”

This season also featured the show’s first-ever twins: Sugar and Spice, queens who represent a new generation of talent who grew up watching “Drag Race” and honing their craft on social media.

“You think about the kids on our show now, who grew up watching the show—a lot of them were 10 years old or nine years old when our show started,” judge Ross Matthews said. “They grew up in a world where we were on television and you see it in their creativity. There’s no lag time where they had to question when they were 15 years old if they were worth it or could do whatever. I grew up with that. These kids have known there’s a place for them. And it’s because of that representation that they are blowing it away in Season 15.”

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Madison, the show’s first full-time transgender judge, echoed the importance of representation. “(We need) more trans visibility, giving more trans opportunities, allowing trans people to occupy spaces and humanizing trans people,” she said. “Because the reason the laws are being made to demonize or criminalize us is because (lawmakers) don’t see us as human.”

Season 15 sent its loudest message yet, crowning Sasha Colby, an out-and-proud trans woman, America’s Next Drag Superstar.

Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.