Tom & Lorenzo Know More About RuPaul Than RuPaul
by Evan Ross Katz02 March 2020
When Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez started their namesake fashion blog in 2006, the web media landscape looked a whole lot different. There was no ManRepeller or DietPrada or HauteLeMode. And though they weren't the first among this new wave (Go Fug Yourself was in its infancy; The Sartorialist had launched just a few months earlier), the pair, partners in work and in life, were confident that an industry largely translated to the masses via high-brow fashion editors was in need of a zhuzh — and would benefit from their perspective as gay men.
"We've always said that the Fug Girls are sitting down with your best girlfriend to talk about fashion and we are sitting down with your two gay friends to talk about fashion," Fitzgerald jokes.
Related | Race to the Top: The Decade in RuPaul
The duo's interests extend beyond just fashion, into other densely populated arenas such as LGBTQ+ history and drag. They explore these topics in depth in their new book Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul's Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life. Part loving homage to the show, part history lesson, think of it as the queer education you didn't get in public school. Legendary Children was written with particular attention to the show's young viewer demographic who might not catch every reference made on screen.
Below, we chat with the pair about uncompromising critical analysis, Diet Prada, Melania Trump, drag's impact on the fashion industry, and refusing to put RuPaul on a pedestal.
Let me start by asking: How did you two meet?
Lorenzo: Guess! At the gym of course.
Tom: Yeah, we're a frickin' walking cliche. I'll let Lorenzo tell the story.
Lorenzo: Well we met at the g…
Tom: It was 1996...
L: I saw him and thought "My God, this guy is so hot." I was at my machine and then he approached me and asked if he could work in and I said "Suuuuuuure." And that was pretty much it.
T: No! You have this completely backwards. First we were eye fucking each other at that gym for three weeks before either of us spoke to each other. And he came over to me actually and said "Can I work in?" And Lorenzo, you're leaving out the biggest part of this story — the creepiest part of the story — which is that he left a note for me in my locker the week before. I never got it. In fact, we think some poor straight guy got the note. And here we are now.
Many might not know that Tom & Lorenzo started as a Project Runway fan blog. What was your initial idea for how the blog would function?
Lorenzo: You have to go back to that time when people were recapping shows all of the time. And we just felt that there wasn't a real gay voice out there representing the community and talking about the show.
Tom: It seemed like the only other people watching the show back in those days were other gay men. We'd be out talking about the show in our social life and the only people who had heard about it were gay people.
Lorenzo: And the recaps that were out there were just recounting what had happened in the show which to me was kind-of boring. We wanted to take certain things that happened and give them a gay spin. And then just have fun because that's how we watch TV. We're always joking and making fun of things that we see. And we tend to agree most of the time on everything.
Tom: I wouldn't say that.
Lorenzo: Well I mean in terms of entertainment. And Tom was kind of reluctant in the beginning because we were both looking for jobs and it was a very stressful period in our lives. And he felt like we needed to focus on other things. But I said "No, we're doing it." And he eventually said "Fine, but just remember: We're never going to be famous; this is never going to take off this is never going to pay our bills."
Tom: And I was very happy to be wrong about all of that.
I think a lot of your early success came from your approach to how you talked about fashion. It felt much more conversational, which while more common nowadays, was quite revolutionary at the time. What were you craving in terms of fashion analysis that you weren't seeing?
Lorenzo: I think that's a very smart observation because Project Runway really introduced fashion to a lot of people who had never had a conversation about fashion. And because I have a background in fashion, I work in the fashion industry, and Tom is an excellent, amazing writer, we felt we could introduce fashion to the fans, or describe things in a little more detail and language that everybody would understand.
Tom: One the things that we talked about early on and agreed upon in our approach to how we talked about fashion was to write about it in a way that the magazines would not. We wanted to say things that fashion editors are generally afraid to say about celebrities or designers or trends. And I remember the first time — to drop a name here — we met Nina Garcia (and I'll never forget this because it's one of the best compliments we ever received), she said "I love how you guys write about fashion in such an approachable way; in a way that people that don't read about fashion like to read about it." And I've always kept that in mind when we write about fashion: What can we say that cannot be said in the pages of Elle or Vogue or Cosmopolitan?
Lorenzo: We were not linked to any product, any fashion house or anything so we could say whatever we wanted to say. Magazines tend to have a more complicated relationship with the brands because they advertise in the magazines so they can't say certain things, but we were free to say what we wanted. So if we didn't like a dress, we could say that because we didn't have to answer to anybody.
What lasting impact do you think Joan Rivers has had on fashion criticism? I do think there is something lost in not having that Rivers-like figure who could poke fun at the ways in which the industry can take itself very seriously, while at the same time recognizing that much of criticism was at the expense of the celebrity versus the clothing itself.
Tom: Here's why we aren't as heavy of Joan Rivers-esque bloggers as we once were: You reach a certain level and it's hard for the public to distinguish whether you're punching up or punching down. And God bless Joan, she managed to get away with a lot, but we are still men writing largely about women's fashion and if we made our careers out of being as nasty as Joan Rivers was in her heyday, I really don't think that we'd still be here. It's just not something we, in our position, can get away with. Tying this back to the up-and-comers you were referring to earlier, like when you think about Diet Prada when they first started out, those are the ones who really have the ability to punch up as much as they can — and people love to see that. But once you reach a certain level of establishment with your audience as we did, you can't get away with that as much or you risk constantly being called a misogynist or getting a reputation like Perez Hilton.
Because you brought up Diet Prada. It's been interesting watching them go from industry watchdog to a more ethically ambiguous role in selling merchandise and remaining quiet on certain controversies. "It's a very old-school mentality that you can't be critical of brands when you're working with them," Diet Prada's Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler told the New York Times in 2019. When you look at a Diet Prada like figure, do you ever feel that the criticism becomes marred when it becomes interloped with the institutions that it was once criticising?
Lorenzo: Oh absolutely – and this is one of the things that's very hard to avoid. When you start your little blog you have your voice and you're not afraid to use it. And then when you start getting attention and recognition, and it's very hard not to lose the control. This is something that we talk about on a daily basis. We have said no to a lot of things offered to us because we didn't want to lose our voice. And we see that happening a lot because how can you not kiss some ass if you have major fashion houses all of the sudden loving you and supporting you. In a way, you end up becoming just like fashion magazines and newspapers and so on.
Tom: When you start out doing independent fashion writing you have to approach a lot of publicists and that's basically your entry into the world: getting invited to shows, getting press packages, etc. So you spend a lot of your early career schmoozing with a lot of folks to get to a certain point. And then what happens is you end up befriending people in the industry and it becomes harder to write critically about that industry when someone sat you in the front row at Oscar de la Renta. What are you going to do? And we've been there; this is a thing you need to navigate. It's so hard to get a certain kind of niche in the fashion world as a commenter and a journalist, but in order to do that you have to kiss a lot of ass.
In 2016, the Washington Postwrote a story with the headline: "Why fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo won't critique Melania Trump: They fear Trump's 'followers'." Now, four years later, I'm curious what your thoughts are around that.
Tom: That frickin' Washington Post story is the bain of our existence. These were comments made at a luncheon in D.C. right after Trump was elected and while it's true that we made the point about how we fear his followers, that was drummed up as the primary reasoning. But the primary reason why don't want to feature Melania Trump on our site is because we loathe what she represents and the politics of her husband and didn't feel like we could support that. We realized that unless we said perfectly complimentary things at all times we would be faced with a shitshow of angry Trump supporters and we just don't want it.
Lorenzo: And a lot of people emailed us and said, "Well, you talked about Michelle Obama all the time," and that's exactly it. Michelle Obama was clever in the way she approached fashion. She introduced a slew of designers that a lot of people didn't know about and was able to use fashion to make statements about herself, about her role as the first black woman first lady in the White House. Melania Trump on the other hand just wears rich white lady clothes. The woman wears Dolce & Gabbana all the time for fuck's sake, come on. That alone says everything that I need to know about her.
Tom: Bottom line: We did not want to have to look back at this era in history and realize that we treated it frivolously and talked about her fucking hemlines or whatever.
Let's talk about your new book, Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul's Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life. I particularly love what comes after the "and" in that I read this as a "come for the Drag Race; stay for the queer history lesson." Can you tell me about why you wanted it to be both?
Tom: We started recapping Drag Race with the first episode in 2009 and we noted right from the very beginning that it was super, super gay entertainment for television and over the years we have expanded and repeated that point again and again, noticing that this show really is gayer than anything else on TV in terms of how well it represents gay culture — and I don't mean the Will & Grace version of gay culture, I mean a bunch of queens sitting around making dick jokes. It was so intensely gay in the way the show prominently featured gay social norms. And then over time slowly — but not nearly as much as it should have — the show has expanded into a broader representation of queerness. You would know better than anyone how much the show openly references certain parts of queer culture like Paris Is Burning. So that became a starting point for the book along with The Queen and Crystal Labeija and ball culture. And once we latched onto that it became clear that this was such a great way to frame queer culture for people who are just being introduced it it now.
Lorenzo: We did not want the book to be just a Drag Race fan guide. And we especially didn't want to place Ru as the spokesperson for the community as he is a problematic figure; a limited figure. But the show really does make a great entryway to talk about queerness, queer history and queer art.
It should come as no surprise, I particularly liked chapter seven, which was devoted to the runway. As both experts on fashion and on Drag Race, what role do you think Drag Race and drag writ large has had on the fashion industry? Obviously, we've seen many of the show's former contestants go on to become runway and front row staples, but thinking more big picture, how do you see the impact?
Lorenzo: I think it has had a tremendous impact. I mean, you see them not only attending fashion shows, but front row at Couture shows. People have been inspired by the queer community in terms of fashion for a long, long time. I think it adds a lot to the fashion industry because it's a different perspective. The more quote unquote freaks you see out there representing fashion, attending fashion, the more interesting and more creative the fashion then becomes.
Tom: Two of the things that I see exploding in the world of fashion and in the world of beauty in the last few years that I feel comes from the drag community is 1) make-up trends: we are in awash of make-up trends that are clearly inspired by drag queens and some of the biggest stars on YouTube are makeup artists who take all of their techniques from the drag world, not to mention a number of queens who have gone on to produce and manufacture their own make-up lines and 2) ball culture, which has been inspiring the fashion world for 30 years at least in ways big and small but I feel like the fashion world is starting to be a little more open about what it's taking from that world.
We've got Season 12 of Drag Race here, we just got an air date for All Stars 5, we have Drag Race Thailand and UK as well as a Canadian spin-off on the way. Do you ever worry that the oversaturation of Drag Race could backfire and make people lose interest?
Tom: Very much so. In fact, that was a big storm cloud hanging over the writing of the book. We wrote the book last year and said to each other at times, "Well, I hope Drag Race is still a thing in a year when this book comes out" and fortunately for us it still is, but yes I do fear that it is putting out too much product and it's not evolving anymore. It has been the same show over and over again for the last four seasons. This goes to a question about representation on the show and whether it's time to start opening up how it's defining drag and the type of drag professionals that it's going to cast in the competition. I don't think it's got many more seasons left doing the exact same thing that it's been doing for this long.
You mention Ru as a problematic figure and, oh, how I concur. But I think your vantage point to why Ru is how he is might be a little bit different by way of your proximity in age to Ru. I mention this because one of the biggest criticisms lobbed at Ru is that he is out of touch. How do you navigate the conversation of RuPaul as both an icon and someone who has at times set our community back?
Tom: I think you're right to mention our age. We are younger than Ru but we are Gen X, we've been around the block and we've seen the changes in the queer community over the last 20 or 25 years. This perspective does not mean that we automatically excuse everything that Ru says or does that is problematic but there are times when Ru says certain things that I think, "Yeah, I've heard a lot of gay men of my generation talk that way." And sometimes I understand where they are coming from and sometimes I don't. We address the She-Male controversy in the book, for instance, and talked a bit about how Ru came from a generation of drag queens who were derisively referred to as she-males. He felt, at that time, that it was still his term to claim. And there was a time when that might have been true. But he wasn't looking at it from a present day perch and realizing that it wasn't his anymore. This book was not going to be offered as a criticism of RuPaul or a criticism of the show but there is minor acknowledgement that the show is limited and so is RuPaul. But I can say to you in this conversation more openly, yeah, he's a problematic figure. He's not Martin Luther kIng. He's not Harvey Milk. And we should never hold him up to any sort of standard. We should still ask for more representation on Drag Race and fight with him to get wider definitions of drag on that show but we just have to understand that RuPaul is an entertainer first. He's not a civil rights figure in any way shape or form. And I know that Ru sometimes likes to set himself up as this guru, but I caution every fan to take that with a major grain of salt.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.