Season 13 of VH1’s reality juggernaut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, served us more iconic moments that we could handle. A longer season guaranteed more drama and more A-plus entertainment from these varied drag artist competitors. RuPaul’s Drag Race, to put it simply, was the escape we needed as the pandemic raged on, and the competition showed us how television can survive amid dire, dangerous circumstances. When the world ends, there will be cockroaches, Cher, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The first thing that needs to be set in place for a new season is a dynamic cast. A wide variety of queens must be selected in order to ensure great television. Season 13 offered one of the most diverse and talented casts to date. When fans talked about who they wanted to win, almost everyone changed their minds within minutes of answering the question. Casting director Goloka Bolte deservedly won for season 12, and she could take home a second Emmy this season.
Awards Daily: When you see someone like Kandy Muse submit their audition tape, what’s that like? She has such a huge presence and obviously knows good television.
Goloka Bolte: When it comes to unscripted TV, the greatest gift is someone who knows how to authentically be themselves and narrate their own story, and it’s something we look for in all of the auditions. Receiving an audition like Kandy Muse’s is exciting! Her effervescence, humor, and confidence in and out of drag was evident from the first 20 seconds of her tape – she’s so authentic and playful, and we could tell instantly that she was a queen who could really deliver on the show. And she did not disappoint!
AD: How do you balance out the personalities on the show? The fandom can sometimes categorize the queens as “look queens” or “comedy queens.” How does one go about making the best mixture of competitors?
GB: Finding the right balance is a challenge with any ensemble cast, and for Drag Race it’s uniquely challenging as we not only want to be inclusive of all the different styles of drag, but we also want a cast that ranges in age, race, body type, gender identity and backgrounds. We’re always trying to push the envelope and find incredible and unexpected talent. This season we had Gottmik, our first-ever trans male contestant, Tamisha Iman who had just beat cancer and come back stronger than ever, and of course our winner, Symone, who truly embraces her heritage and pride in such an iconic and meaningful way.
At the end of the day, it’s so much more than just a group of personalities or competition show: it’s about acceptance, community, and love, and we want RuPaul’s Drag Race to be a celebration of diversity in every form, and embrace the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community.
AD: How large was the audition pool this season?
GB: Each year the submissions have multiplied for casting, and interest has only grown more and more with the show’s success. It’s become an absolute marathon of tape viewing when we reach the deadline, but Ethan Petersen (my co-head of casting) and I make sure that every single tape is watched. And thankfully RuPaul and the producers are very hands-on with the process, because narrowing it down becomes more and more challenging each year, and so much care and thought goes into providing a platform for the right talent.
RuPaul looks stunning every episode and she has an incredible team to make her look that perfect. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race know David “Raven” Petruschin as one of the most beloved queens to ever walk the runway. Applying Ru’s makeup is a dream come true and it showcases the amazing progression in Raven’s career. Petruschin is looking forward to actually attending the ceremony this year since COVID reared its ugly head last season, and he reveals how Raven’s makeup has changed since he started doing Ru’s.
Awards Daily: Tell me what it’s like to be nominated again with this show. You won last year (congratulations!) but the ceremony was very strange and different.
David Pestruschin: Well, it is an honor to be nominated, of course. I never truly understood that until being a part of Emmy season. To know the work your team does gets looked at and appreciated is thrilling in and of itself! Last year we won and found out while watching in a production office on set. A small group of us glued to a computer!
AD: When Ru is in the makeup chair, do you have a singular vision mapped out? Do you change every episode?
DP: There is no one vision, EVER! I go solely based off of the costume Ru has decided to wear for the day. When the costumes arrive, I brainstorm and gather ideas for each one and create a season folder for the looks before we even start to film. Each face is done differently. We have more than enough cosmetics that there is no reason to wear the same face twice. Each one is different and created from the primer up every morning we get ready. We joke about wishing there was a stamp to create ahead of time and put on in minutes. But part of the fun of our day is spending the hours we do in the make up chair…listening to music and laughing!
AD: I think RPDR is a show that handled the pandemic in such an incredible way. I could tell production was taking care of all the talent and everyone behind the scenes. What was your biggest personal hurdle with doing someone’s makeup amid all of this?
DP: The biggest hurdle was getting out of your own head and actually getting back to work. You hear about the measures being taken and the precautions production took to ensure safety.
I pictured hazmat suits. It wasn’t that serious. We wore paper masks, plastic shields and washed our hands multiple times. I also had to limit my touch ups because they wanted us to limit proximity. Being away from most of production was a bit eerie. Everyone tucked away and barely seeing anyone was weird. But we got through it!
AD: How do you think Raven’s makeup has changed since you have been applying Ru’s face?
DP: I think I have softened up a few edges. I was very harsh (and still am) with my contours and highlights. I painted for a club. TV is so much different. Although I still do paint very harshly, I have softened things up a bit.
Still a queen, though!
A queen isn’t ready without the right garment. Emmy-winning fashion designer Zaldy gave us some stunning looks for RuPaul for season 13. Since Ru exclusively works with Zaldy on her looks, the silhouette is perfect, but one of best surprises was a re-introduction to RuPaul’s long gams with some flirty, feminine dresses.
Awards Daily: I love that we got to see a lot of Ru’s dress from the season opener. I love the strength of the shoulders and how the fabric cascades down. When prepping for a new season, how much pressure do you feel for the season premiere?
Zaldy Goco: Thank you! Ru loves the proportions of this dress and the pink ombre edges over silver sequin. Sure, there is some pressure as with any type of opening night, but we are used to having to deliver under pressure!
AD: I love when Ru shows off her legs. The bubblegum pink was such a highlight as was the train for the Nice Girls Roast. How did you want to mix up her looks this season?
ZG: I think it wasn’t until season 8 or 9 that we saw Ru’s legs again! Ru decided to pull out a vintage ZALDY from the 90s VH1 Talk show, that I think is the shortest dress I ever made for Ru!…hot pink and black zebra sequins with ravaged jet crystal borders…it was a clear signal that legs were back on display! And don’t we love a recycled look!
We always aim to mix up the looks with custom fabrications and prints, process and techniques, and of course silhouettes. There are the classic Ru Hollywood glamour gown looks as well as tulle puff balls, custom pleated gowns, short and slutty cocktail dresses etc that we always create. We can’t get enough sequins obviously but, we like to balance it out with soft fabrics like the hot pink silk satin organdy dress.
AD: How much collaboration do you have with Ru? Do you just like to surprise her with a new dress or is RuPaul specific with what she wears for every episode?
ZG: We go from shorthand to telepathic when it comes to collaboration! We have developed a real shared vision built on years of trust and ongoing inspiration. Ru is the ultimate Muse, nothing is created without the Muse in mind! I love when I can still leave Ru speechless with a new look!
AD: I always like to ask designers what item they would steal for your own wardrobe, but I imagine Ru has a complicated security system for her closet. I love the blue and white striped gown from The Snatch Game. Which would you try and mop?
ZG: Well I think if I had to it would be the neon Swarovski crystal, ombre fade gown from this seasons Finale. I love the weight of the crystals, the way it wiggles down the runway and the intense color…it was stunning to watch on a live stage!
Department Head Stylist, Curtis Foreman, reveals that Ru’s hair is balanced with the shape of her dress. When was the last time you saw Ru’s proportions out of whack? Never–the answer is never. We are so used to seeing Mama Ru with luscious blonde locks, but Foreman helped gives us some copper this season to change it up. Foreman worked closely with Zaldy and Raven to give us laser-like cohesion in every presentation of RuPaul.
Awards Daily: Ru looks so incredible throughout season 13 but this premiere was bonkers. How did you settle on that shape for her first look of the year?
Curtis Foreman: You know a lot of our creating happens very organically. It always starts with the dress. Balance and proportions are always key to the perfect silhouette. So to balance off this gorgeous gown we chose a fuller shaped yet softer creamier colored hair and added crystals on the side to give the hair some sparkles to complement the gorgeous makeup that sparkled as well.
AD: What was your biggest challenge with COVID and all the adjustments to the season?
CF: There were many challenges this season with COVID this year. The biggest I have to say were all the new steps and layers added with wearing all the PPE keeping everything COVID safe and being creative in a timely manner and finding the balance in it all.
AD: I love when Ru wears copper hair and we saw that a few times this season. Tell me about working with Zaldy and Raven with darkening from blonde.
CF: Some of my favorite colors to do when I have worked in salons were always the copper reds and ginger colors and Ru really loves them as well and carries them so beautifully. Zaldy’s color choices are always gorgeous and Raven’s eye for color is impeccable and together we all seem to know when the time is right for the warmer copper tones and this season we seemed to have more opportunities for the more copper ginger red colors and was so much fun.
AD: Much like seeing a character in a drama or comedy series, the hair can tell us so much about mood and references. Were there any references to any looks this season that you and Ru wanted to convey?
CF: With every look there will always be some kind of reference, it could be from a certain time period to a punk rock pop star to going to a ball or even to a dance club. So I would have to say yes, absolutely there were many references to a lot of the looks that we wanted to convey.
AD: Which look is your favorite from this year?
CF: I loved every look this season. One of my favorites was the candy apple red dress with the platinum white pompadour long hair.
Jen Fregozo, who is also nominated for HBO Max’s Legendary, gave us a glimpse inside the conditions of working through the pandemic. The makeup artist even told us what protocols she might keep in her routine as the entire world settles into a world living with COVID-19.
Awards Daily: When you hear who is guest judging, what is the first thing you set out to do?
Jen Fregozo: Well, we have to get working fast since we only have an about an hour to get them ready. Since everyone that comes to Drag Race is a super fan it makes my job so fun because they want to go all out and do the most with the looks. We talk with the hairstylist and look at wardrobe and come up with a look from there.
AD: Out of all of the departments, I imagine that the makeup department changed the most. What was the biggest challenge during season 13?
JF: COVID-19, of course. It was scary coming back to work so soon and not really knowing what this pandemic really was. Makeup, hair, and wardrobe were high risk. It was very challenging wearing all the PPE, I felt like a nurse. Wearing two masks and a shield that would constantly fog up made it hard to work fast. Also, the testing we had to do daily was crazy. I loved having my own space to work in, usually it’s all hands on deck and it can get pretty crazy in the makeup room. The production company did a great job on keeping everyone safe and we got to work when a lot of other people didn’t. So I’m very grateful for that.
AD: Is there anything from the pandemic that you might incorporate into how you work now?
JF: I love wearing a mask, so I will incorporate that into my everyday makeup routine. The sanitation and cleaning of the tools I already did way before the pandemic. That is one thing I loved about this pandemic is that we are constantly cleaning everything. Should have been that way anyway haha.
Director of Photography, Michael Jacob Kerber, has been with RuPaul’s Drag Race since season one, and he has seen the evolution of the show firsthand. Kerber is very appreciative of the artform of drag and it shows how he shoots every different queen. The lighting of The Werk Room is different than the lighting of the mainstage, so Kerber is able to deliver an opulent fantasy every episode.
Awards Daily: You have been involved with RPDR for a very long time and you have done a lot of reality television. Tell me why Drag Race stands the test of time and just keeps getting better.
Michael Jacob Kerber: The short, albeit obvious answer is RuPaul and drag queens. Of course, the producers and crew strive to push the show to new heights, but ultimately the longevity and evolution of the show rests with Ru and the queens. Drag is a compelling art form and expression of self that presents itself in a visually exciting and fun way. It can be both a powerful political and social statement AND entertaining. It has layers. And as an audience engages with the show, those layers peel back and we continue to see the fantasy while also getting to know the queens in a deeper, impactful way. I find many of their stories to have a universality that is undeniable—perseverance, finding one’s true self, overcoming challenges, creativity, humor, etc. I think those qualities are what make the show truly special and everlasting.
AD: Every time RuPaul walks out on the runway, it feels like a fantasy. After so many seasons, tell me what it’s like to keep that fresh.
MJK: I have a special vantage point when we are filming the mainstage. My viewing station is positioned backstage, so I see RuPaul step up onto the runway before the spotlight comes on, before the other cameras and the booth have seen the fantasy. Every single time I am moved by that moment—the dress, the hair, the make-up, the aura of Ru. So when the queen of all queens is delivering such an experience, one can’t help but be inspired to find ways to try and meet that level of artistry and fantasy with the tools available to me. We look for ways to add a new camera angle here, or a light or two there. I’m simplifying the process, but the entire crew pushes for excellence and freshness because we are witness to a masterclass in drag on a weekly basis.
AD: How did COVID affect the mainstage? I’m so used to seeing the judges so far apart now that when I watch older episodes, it’s jarring to see them so close.
MJK: Our COVID protocols maintained that we create more spatial separation between the cast and crew, as well as partitions when the length of time extended beyond 15 minutes, which our mainstage filming does. So we had to enlarge the judge desk and add the glass partitions. It makes filming challenging because of the limited viewing angles, though I actually like having the judges more spread out. It makes clean singles possible. I agree with you, when I view pre-COVID episodes they seem jarringly close together. The size of the Werk Room was increased to allow more separation between camera people and queens. I think if I walked into the old Werk Room, it would feel like returning to my old grade school.
AD: I love that we get to see so much of both sides. The lighting of the Werk Room is so different than what we see on the runway. Do you purposely make those feel separate?
MJK: The lighting of the Werk Room is approached in a broader way because we are filming the queens in a space where they are constantly on the move, getting ready, creating looks. It is an important space where we learn a lot about the queens and they get to know each other better. The photography is meant to capture those moments in a less intrusive way. However, we do have specific moments in the show—challenge intros or mini challenges—where the positions are controlled and the lighting can be more specific. With All-Stars and now Untucked, we take special care with additional lights and filters because even though it’s a more raw environment, we still want the queens to look great. The runway is where we can play more with the camerawork and lighting and push the looks in an exciting way. When the queens are walking the runway, putting everything they have into a performance, lip syncing for their life, the photography strives to meet them at that level and enhance the overall fantasy of those moments.
AD: Do you shoot queens in different styles? Gottmik is different than Utica who is different than Tamisha Iman. How do you do right by everyone?
MJK: I don’t necessarily shoot queens in different styles, unless that’s part of the creative (i.e. the talent show, which is very individualized) but rather try to enhance or support whatever it is they’re doing. Even in the Werk Room verite, the camera team learns the nuances of each queen—the way they move, the rhythm of their talking, the way they banter, which mirror they like to use when doing make-up—and then makes adjustments accordingly to best capture their moments. If we’re doing a challenge against greenscreen, which has its own technical considerations, and a queen really wants to wear an outfit or piece of jewelry that one would typically avoid because of reflection, we might still try to make it work. I realize how much all the queens have put into their drag, their work ethic and incredible creativity, so I always try to problem solve and make it work on their behalf.
Some of the most talked about moments of Drag Race come backstage during Untucked. Producer San Heng had the enormous task of capturing some volatile interactions in the newly expanded Werk Room thanks to the pandemic protocols. Not only did the space change, but the beginning of season 13 was completely different thanks to the elimination style and The Pork Chop Lounge. Heng isn’t just presenting us with dramatic moments, however, because Untucked gives us the opportunity to see these contestants at their most vulnerable. Striking that balance is worth rewarding.
Awards Daily: The Pork Chop Lounge kicking off the scene was wild. Tell me how that felt different for you and your team?
Sam Heng: For Untucked this definitely changed our usual format, but it was fun to embrace something new and see the Queens open up in different ways given the situation they found themselves in.
AD: The Tamisha-Kandy episode is an all-timer. How difficult is it to capture everything in the moment?
SH: It’s hard having that many Queens in one space and a limited number of cameras, but we always try to follow the action and what is happening in the moment. For our team it’s about listening and anticipating moments and knowing how to follow. Our team is ready to fly outside or to another area of the room and follow the action so that we make sure we don’t miss anything. The Queens catch us off guard all the time and then it’s a race to get our cameras where they need to be. It’s a bit of a balancing act because while we love to capture all the in-the-moment action, we also want to make sure we are giving the Queens space. Sometimes is shooting further away or tucking back behind a wall to give them the intimacy they might need to have a moment.
AD: Untucked helps us get to see the queens in a heightened state. They are relaxing backstage but then a few of them have to prep to lip sync and potentially go home. How do you balance the tension with the tenderness?
SH: It’s important that we show what really happens in Untucked. While there’s definitely tension that comes up in these types of pressure cooker environments, there are also a lot of fun, funny, silly and heartwarming moments too. Untucked is a melting pot of ALL the emotions. At the end of the day, someone is going home and the Queens support one another so it’s important to show that side of things as well. We really let the Queen’s guide us. If they’re letting us in and being this open and honest then it’s our job to show as much of that as possible. Not just what we think might be drama.
AD: Having Untucked in the Werk Room changed the vibe a bit. What changed the most for your team, especially with all the COVID protocols?
SH: While we missed our backstage Untucked set and seeing all the props throughout the competition pile up(one of my favorite things!), I don’t think it ultimately changed the content. The Queens are what make Untucked special. Not the set or where we shoot it. It’s their backstories, their journey in the competition, their sense of humor and their openness that make the show what it is. We just want to create a space for them to trust us enough to be vulnerable – and I think we do that whether we are in a hallway, backstage, outside or in the Werk Room.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is streaming now.