LOS ANGELES (AP) — It looks like a drag queen aquarium.
Beyond a wall of two-way mirrors, a hurricane of wigs and dresses swirl around as over a dozen female impersonators don towering hairpieces, slip into intricate ensembles, apply liberal amounts of makeup and adjust their lady parts. They're completely undeterred by the camera crews documenting every touch-up and tuck on the other side of the see-through glass.
For the cast of "RuPaul's Drag Race," it's just another day on the set of this gender-bending reality TV contest governed by RuPaul Charles, the drag icon who first gained fame over 20 years ago when his song "Supermodel (You Better Work)" became a pop hit. The peek-a-boo mirror is simply one of many tricks the producers employ on Logo TV's highest-rated series.
Despite strutting along for seven seasons, as well as an all-star edition and the makeover spin-off "Drag U," the competition still feels fresh for Charles, who simply goes by RuPaul. As with most reality TV competitions, the show's head judge and mentor said the entertainment value of "Drag Race" comes down to the competitors chosen each season.
"When we cast this show, we choose from the rebels and the outsiders," RuPaul said. "They're always unique and never basic. We're dealing with courageous and outrageous people who live their lives differently than most of the public. These are the little boys who were the scorn of their neighborhood and had to fight for everything that they've ever earned."
In the premiere of the seventh season, which airs Monday, the focus is squarely on style. The 14 drag queens are tasked with presenting fall and spring looks during a campy fashion show, as well as creating resort wear that gives way to a "nude illusion." The failing fashionistas are informed, as they are at the end of every episode, they will have to "lip sync for your life."
The gaggle of drag queens vying for the show's crown and a $100,000 prize this season includes both the oldest (46-year-old Patrick "Tempest DuJour" Holt of Tucson, Arizona) and the youngest (22-year-old Jason "Violet Chachki" Dardo of Atlanta) contestants in the show's 6-year history. It's an illustration of just how much drag has evolved over the years.
"This group is pretty phenomenal," said Carson Kressley, the stylist and TV personality who joined the judging panel for the seventh season. "I think they get better and better every year because they watch the show at home and they go online and study. They realize they have to up the ante every time. It's like the University of Phoenix for drag queens."
The well-coiffed minds behind "Drag Race" have become keenly aware how the show has affected its audience. In her dressing room, veteran judge Michelle Visage — a singer, DJ and RuPaul pal — noted while preparing for the show's runway that both "Drag Race" and the Internet have reshaped the drag community. It's easier than ever to sashay into it.
"I was fully expecting to know half the girls this year," Visage said. "I know of three. That's huge. I'm surprised by all this new talent. I've never heard of them or even seen them on Facebook. It's all new to me. When I was growing up, drag queens had their drag mothers, and the only place to learn was the clubs. These kids have grown up with YouTube and this show."
The popularity of "Drag Race" has attracted the likes of Olivia Newton-John, Ariana Grande, Jessica Alba, Demi Lovato and John Waters to serve as guest judges this season. However, RuPaul is quick to note that just because the show has achieved cult status doesn't mean dressing in drag will become as American as apple pie or baseball. That's the way he likes it.
"Sure, we've come a long way, baby, but don't get it twisted," RuPaul said. "Drag is still punk rock. It'll always be anti-establishment, and that's because drag breaks the fourth wall. The egotistical people in this world who take themselves seriously don't like the players who break the fourth wall. It'll never be mainstream — and hallelujah for that."
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang.