Merle Ginsberg Talks 'Drag Race' Season 1, Paris Hilton, & What RuPaul Smells Like

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Merle Ginsberg Talks 'Drag Race' Season 1, Paris Hilton, & What RuPaul Smells Like

When Merle Ginsberg stopped by our Exposed: Dragged Out podcast, host Joseph Shepherd was ready to ask the important question: What does RuPaul smell like? But, really, the early RuPaul's Drag Race judge had more to discuss than just RuPaul's scent profile — Ginsburg also detailed how she first got involved with Drag Race, why she left, and some of the big celebrity run-ins of her life that influenced her career.

Sashay your way to the play button below to listen to the interview, or read the full, unedited version of the interview below!

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Joseph Shepherd:
All right. Let's go. Hey, everybody, and welcome to Exposed: Dragged Out. I'm Joseph Shepherd. And each week, we dive into some one-on-ones with some queens who went home a little bit too early on a drag race franchise. But this is a queen in her own right. She was on the first two seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race. She went home way too early in my opinion.

Merle Ginsberg:
Thank you.

Joseph Shepherd:
I'm so honored to welcome this amazing woman to the show. She's a writer, a fashion expert, and you may remember her on drag race, it's Merle Ginsberg. How are you doing?

Merle Ginsberg:
Thank you so much for having me. It's a very flattering and I'm sweltering like everybody else on hot LA day. And trying to keep my makeup on.

Joseph Shepherd:
Keep your makeup on. The one thing about you is, I think that you always look so freaking good. Anytime there are pictures of you anywhere, you just always look like you were on it.

Merle Ginsberg:
That's a very good thing. Because if you woke up with me, there would be exceptions, but continue.

Joseph Shepherd:
You've been a fashion writer and you've done so many things in your career. But I would love to know, when you were younger, when did the fashion bug hit you?

Merle Ginsberg:
It's very interesting. You should bring that up today because somehow, I found myself thinking about that this morning. And I remembered, people say proclivities can be genetic, its nature and nurture. So, it's a little bit about your genetics and also about how and where you were raised. My grandfather on my father's side, manufactured children's clothes in Brooklyn, New York. And so, my sister and I were always being dressed in these adorable little outfits.

So, we were just used to having a new outfit all the time. I mean, she got my hand-me-downs, but that's her problem. On the other side, on my mother's side, my grandmother was a seamstress. And she literally could walk down the street, look in a department store window, see a dress, go into a fabric store, buy similar fabric and make the exact same dress with no pattern. She just had the touch. And when my mother was growing up, they grew up in Philadelphia, they didn't have a lot of money, my grandmother made all my mother's clothes.

She would just go to department stores in Philly. And my mother would go, "I like that." And she would make it. So, when I was about 13, 14, look we're kids, we want to dress like what the hip kids are wearing. And I'll never forget being invited to some, I think sixth or seventh grade party. And everybody was wearing bell bottom pants and poor boy sweaters, right? And the big color scheme at the time was blue and green. I'm not mentioning any years as you notice and I decided that if my grandmother could sew, maybe I could pull it off.

I went and got a pattern. And I got some blue and green plaid wool. And I got some blue heavy wool for a poor boy sweater paneled. And I managed with a pattern to make bell bottoms and a poor boy sweater. So, when I showed up this party where all the rich girls were, I looked as cool as they did, except I'd named them. So, something happened that night. I felt like I was suddenly more popular or people noticed me. And I thought, something in my head was connected popularity with clothing.

Joseph Shepherd:
So, you put the two together and then you were like, "Okay. I like this and this is what it is." And then, when did you start tackling that? What was your first job in that world?

Merle Ginsberg:
It's funny, I never aspired to work in fashion in the slightest bit. Although, I did grow up reading every girls and women's magazine. First, it was Glamour, Mademoiselle. And every August, I would live for the moment when the August fashion magazines would come out because remember, no internet, no pictures from collections, the only way you could tell what was going to be in fashion for the school year was to see the August magazines. That's it.

August and September issues told you everything. The department stores didn't have things earlier. We're talking on like 13, 14, 15, 16. So, I would live for those magazines. And I would go and get them and I would devour them. And then, I'd be like, "Okay. How can I wear this mini skirt, blah, blah, blah, or mini skirt the next season?" And of course, again, I had summer jobs. I saved money. I was a babysitter and all these things. But what I did is buy fabric, buy patterns and make all the clothes myself.

Joseph Shepherd:
So, did you teach yourself, or did your mom teach it? How did you learn to actually make the patterns and stuff?

Merle Ginsberg:
In seventh and eighth grade, I grew up in Southern New Jersey, and then I moved to Upstate New York in high school, actually that was. And Home Ec, I wonder if anybody's teaching Home Ec anymore. You had to take Home Ec classes. I think the boys took gym and the girls took Home Ec. So, it was very pre-woke. I was in Home Ec and they taught you how to sew and use patterns, and use sewing machines and thread the bobbins, and all that stuff.

Joseph Shepherd:
I'm so jealous. That's been the one thing like there are certain outfits and clothing that I really want. And I'll be like, "You know what, there's an event coming up. And I really want this and I'll go online and try to find exactly what I want." I cannot find it. I'll go and look in stores, don't have what I want. And then, I'm like, "I really wish that I just knew how to use a sewing machine." And I'm getting so inspired now to actually try.

Merle Ginsberg:
Let me tell you something, it's a lot less hard than you think. And there are classes in stores that sell patterns and fabric. They actually have sewing classes. You could probably go on YouTube. The thing you need to do though, is to have a pretty decent modern machine. And you don't want to buy one before you know if you like it. So, you might want to go to these fabric stores and see where they have classes. But trust me, you could do it. It's fun too.

Joseph Shepherd:
And then, that just leads to the point of Drag Race and people not knowing how to do it. They should have gone to those stores.

Merle Ginsberg:
You know what's why indeed, I could not believe the skill of these people and the imagination of these people are, some of them are makeup artists. They perform drag at night. It was probably a hobby. I doubt they were really making a living at it. Maybe there are other elements like Ongina from season one who I just loved was the fashion director of Intermix in LA, great clothing store. So, a lot of these people worked in that world but were they trained in sewing, no.

And yet, they were given a bin filled with like crappy fabric and scarves and said make a couture gown, and they did it.

Joseph Shepherd:
I have a question about that word because me, not being totally into the fashion world. What is actually the definition of couture? What is that?

Merle Ginsberg:
There is only one definition in the high fashion world which is... and in fact it's couture week in Paris right now. Couture means one dress for one woman. Couture could only, technically, legitimately be shown in Paris. There is a Paris association of haute couture, they decide who can show in these shows. And haute couture means that while you'll see a show of $50,000 dresses going down the runway, you will never see anybody else wearing that because the designer will fit you.

You will get a fitting with the designer. You will have several fittings. And they will make the dress bottom up just for you if you want a different color or a different length. It will never exist on anyone.

Joseph Shepherd:
Wow. Thank you for filling me in. I just thought that it meant a fancy dress so I'm very happy that you educated me.

Merle Ginsberg:
No, no, no, no. Haute couture means the highest level of fashion design for the wealthiest people and the greatest designers.

Joseph Shepherd:
Oh. So, let's get into the little year of 2008, 2009, when Drag Race came around. It was the first season. Now, it premiered on Logo. And let me ask you, how much time before had you had between the phone call or between the meeting with RuPaul, and getting the position to when you guys started shooting?

Merle Ginsberg:
Not much. I was working at this styling agency called Margaret Maldonado Agency, MMA, that represented the biggest stylists in Hollywood, the people who dressed Jennifer Lopez and Emma Stone, and Gwen Stefani, and on, and on, and on. And that was the biggest agency at the time. Now, there are many others. And I was writing a blog for them. And in fact, I worked at W, and Women's Wear Daily from 1993 to 2003. Then, I left to write this book with Paris Hilton.

It became a New York Times bestseller, which is still mind blowing to me. And then, I continued to write for Bazaar, Harper's Bazaar where I'd been freelancing. And they wanted me to move to New York and become the entertainment director. I had already done that at W. And I didn't want to live in New York anymore. I had been going back and forth between New York and LA. I had a huge apartment in LA and for very little money.

And I just couldn't go back to New York and live in a tiny box anymore. So, I was freelancing because I couldn't get... it's hard to find editorial jobs for decent publications in Los Angeles. Everybody in journalism wants them. So, I was freelancing. I was writing for Marie Claire. I was writing for Cosmo. I was writing for the Hearst publications at the time, but not on staff. And making sporadic money. And I wound up getting this job with this woman Margaret Maldonado, who was actually Michael Jackson's sister in law.

She married Jermaine Jackson, and had two kids with him. And she had this agency. And she had been a stylist herself. And she said to me, I ran into her in a restaurant one day, Fred Segal on Melrose, having lunch and she said, "What are you doing these days?" And I said, "Not much." And she's like, "Monday, 9:30, you know where my office is. Show up." And I said, "What?" She's like, "Just show up." And I did. And I was very excited.

Merle Ginsberg:
And she sat down with me and said, "We're going to create a fashion board game. And we're going to sell it. And Fred Segal has already given us 5,000 orders or something. And I want you." It was like a monopoly to write all the questions on the cards to do fashion research, history, et cetera. And I did that. And it went on for five, six months, and everything had to be fact-checked. And then, they had to produce them. We have to fact-check them again.

And in the meantime, they said, "Well, look, you're here, we're waiting for the cards to come back. We're going to start a blog. You're going to write it." So, I started a blog called Fashion Rules with them. And I was in this office with all these stylists every day. It was really, really fun. But I wasn't making a ton of money. It was part-time job. And I still felt like an anchor floating out to sea. And then, one day in 2008, I get this email from World of Wonder and Randy Barbato, who I knew from New York.

And they said, "Do you want..." And it wasn't them. It was people who work with them. "Do you want to come in and audition for a new show called RuPaul's Drag Race that we're developing?" And I'd never met RuPaul. And I thought, I'd audition for a million shows. And by the way, not because I wanted to because people asked me to. And I'd done a bunch of little TV things. I'd worked at MTV. And I don't know, somebody once said to me, "Why don't you come and read to be a VJ on VH1?"

And I thought, "There's not a chance in hell that they're going to hire me." They're going to hire some perky, waspy person with no personality. I am the opposite of that person. So, I went to all these auditions thinking, "Hey, this would be fun if it happened." I didn't really care that much. And I kept getting really close. I even auditioned to be a host of like, Bravo or a Discovery show. And I was like, "Oh, my God." Agents were wanting to work with me.

But it would never come to fruition. And at this point, I was burnt out. It was like two years of auditioning. And I just thought, "I'm not doing this anymore. It's too disappointing and it's too much work." And sure enough, I get this thing, "Would you come in and meet RuPaul for this show?" And I thought, "Drag was not happening." And I live in West Hollywood so I would know. And it seemed like a thing from like the '80s. It seemed very retro.

And I thought, "I don't want to do that. I really wanted to get back to writing for magazines and write more books and whatever." And then, I got a second email saying, RuPaul and Randy Barbato, who's, of course, one of the founders of World of Wonder and the TV show, would like you to come in. And didn't you get our email? And I thought, "Oh, I'm really being rude." I went over there with no expectations, didn't really even dress up.

And suddenly, they put me in a room with RuPaul. And I didn't know that was going to happen. And I was somewhat intimidated. And Ru was just completely relaxed and cool. And we wound up talking about world history and politics, and mixed in with culture. It was a truly deep and complex conversation that I never expected to have. And at the time, I didn't really know anybody else like that who could have that conversation.

I've had some very smart friends, but I was probably in the boring little rut at that moment. Anyway, all they did was stick us in a room and hold up a camera, and it was the worst lighting in the world.

Joseph Shepherd:
So, there was no drag talk during that?

Merle Ginsberg:
No. Not one thing. Not one joke. Not one, have you ever been to a drag show? Even though I lived in New York in the '80s. My life was a drag. I was surprised they didn't ask me about that. But I guess they figured I would figure it out. And then, two days later, I get this email saying, "Well, you're hired and we start on this day. And here's your contract, and this is what you'll get paid." And I was like, "What? How did that even happen?"

But I thought, "Okay. I signed the contract. I have a lawyer, he read it." Believe me, it was very little money. But all money is good money. And it was like fun work. And we showed up at this studio. And I'd say it was August of 2008. It must have been 150 degrees in Burbank. We're at the worst possible studio. I mean, the air conditioning, probably, they had to shut it off every time we're on a roll. So, we were dying. We had excellent hair and makeup people though.

And that was really a blessing. And in fact, I had short hair then. It was like a little bob. And never again did I short hair after that because I learned everything about hair and makeup from these people. And one of my friends actually said, "You need to get some hairdresser. You need to get some extensions in your hair, because you're going to be sitting there with these queens wearing five wigs." You can't have normal hair on this show.

And I thought, it's probably right. So then, I got hair extensions. And then, I had big, fabulous hair. And that was so much fun.

Joseph Shepherd:
Well, you get on this first season. And everybody talks about the blur filter and they want to know, was somebody putting oil on that? Was there butter? How did that happen? Did you know about it?

Merle Ginsberg:
All I knew, because we weren't involved with lighting, we were dealing with our own outfits and lines. And again, great makeup people who are powdering us every second. I was very nervous always because nobody wrote anything for us. So, it's like, what's the snappiest, funniest thing I could say in this moment? Luckily, I was often at the end of the panel. So, three people would talk before I did. So, I was like, "Oh, I should say, 'Oh, yeah, no, that's smart.'" But I do remember RuPaul saying to producers and camera people, "Put some more stuff on that lens. Oh, the lighting sucks, and pull him back."

Merle Ginsberg:
And I thought, "What are we going to look like?" And I never watched the monitor. I didn't see any rushes or anything till the night that show came on. And I was like, "We look so weird. We look like we're in dreamland." And not long after we came on, somebody wrote on social media somewhere, "Oh, now, I understand why RuPaul's Drag Race looks like it's got like heavy gel on the lens and it's all dreamy because they're shooting in heaven. They've all died. They're shooting in heaven."

Joseph Shepherd:
I read that. That would make sense that it is in heaven. I was chatting with Porkchop recently. And Porkchop was like, "I had no idea that it was a blurry filter." She goes, "I turned on the TV and I was watching it." And she was like, "I thought that my TV was broken."

Merle Ginsberg:
That was great.

Joseph Shepherd:
When you were on the show, had you had, like besides going to clubs or anything like that, had you had any experience in the drag realm, or was this like your first introduction to it?

Merle Ginsberg:
Well, no. I'd been to drag shows. I mean, I was a journalist in the late '80s in New York. I went to every club. I wrote about going out. There was a club. In fact, I think this is where I met Randy and Fenton from World of Wonder. There was a club on I think it was Avenue B, possibly Avenue A, when the East Village was still edgy, which was very wealthy now. That was a long time ago. And there was a club called the Pyramid Club. And I had this Susan Martin who was from LA, and she'd moved to New York.

And she was this club... she crossed between clubs and the art world. And she booked this club, the Pyramid Club. And it was just a long bar, right, and a little stage at the end, looked like nothing, like a black hole in the East Village. But people would come in there and perform and dance on the bar. And I saw RuPaul perform there before "Supermodel" broke out and became huge. And I hung out with a lot of those people. And I went to clubs all the time, and there were tons of drag queens there. So, in that sense, I was aware of them.

Joseph Shepherd:
I mean, it's so iconic looking back at those first couple of seasons. Because in my head it's like, "That was when people weren't necessarily afraid of the social media or having to act a certain way. They were just very authentic and real." I mean, you had the season one reunion and Ms. Tammie Brown talking about walking children in nature. What was going through your head during that?

Merle Ginsberg:
I remember actually that reunion and how much fun it was. And I actually just saw a picture from that recently. And I was like, every time I see a picture for that show, I'm like, "I look like a different person. I was having so much fun with changing my hair and my clothes and all of that." But I don't remember too much about Tammie, except that people got down and raw. And there were some people who were very pissed off about certain things and it all came out.

Merle Ginsberg:
And I thought, "Oh, Ru's going to be really upset because, of course, they could cut anything out that they want, but this is getting a little confrontational." And that never bothered RuPaul in the slightest. Like, "Bring it on. Bring it on. Let's go. Let's go for it." RuPaul has clearly had a lot of therapy. Because RuPaul is almost a therapist.

Joseph Shepherd:
He is. I mean, he deals with every personality in the world, every situation. The girls saved everything in the world. With Ru, in the early seasons, did Ru do his own makeup, or did he have a makeup person?

Merle Ginsberg:
Oh, no. Are you kidding me? Not that RuPaul is doing the most fabulous makeup. But no, there is a guy named Mathu Andersen, who I think is still working to RuPaul. I don't know. I've lost touch with some of these people. But Mathu Andersen had been a drag queen, so had the guy who makes a lot of Ru's gowns. But those two people who were big people in the RuPaul world and that they did the hair and makeup, and a lot of the outfits were drag queens with RuPaul. That's how they met.

So, Mathu turned into this absolutely amazing hair and makeup person who worked with other people. But once RuPaul's Drag Race came on, it was a full-time thing. RuPaul got to the show when we're taping for the panel not the backstage stuff, six hours early, and sat in hair and makeup for six hours. It took RuPaul six hours to turn into that character. And by the way, RuPaul was not wearing one wig, there were three, four wigs put together.

You could imagine the construction and the gown, and the latex, and transformation. And RuPaul taught me a great deal of makeup about shadowing and how you can change the planes of your face with dark and light. If you looked at RuPaul close, and I was sitting right next to him when he was in costume, there's a lot of pain on that face. From far away, it looks amazing. From close up, it's intense. So, yeah, six hours.

Joseph Shepherd:
That is so cool. Six hours. Oh my gosh.

Merle Ginsberg:
I don't know what it took to get out of that. But I'm sure it was a few hours too

Joseph Shepherd:
Ru just lived at that Burbank studio for the whole first season.

Merle Ginsberg:
Definitely. And Ru even said a bunch of stuff about... before the show and certainly before the show came on, Ru was actually thinking about giving up drag. He had a talk show and he had a bunch of different things going on. And he just couldn't take the six hours. People would ask him to fly here and there and perform and he'd want to do it. But the six-hour thing is a big chunk of your life. Now, I'm sure he's paid so well for it.

Joseph Shepherd:
He probably has like a sticker face that he just like puts on, all the makeup comes off.

Merle Ginsberg:
They have to gotten it down to less. I mean, they just have to. I'm sure he's reading because he's actually amazingly scholarly and interested in everything.

Joseph Shepherd:
When you get off of season one, was there a moment that it clicked with you that the show was becoming something? What did you guys actually anticipate? Did you anticipate having further seasons? Or did you anticipate, "You know what, it may not hit as well."? What was the anticipation?

Merle Ginsberg:
There were two schools of thought around everyone who was working on the show on it, working behind the scenes. We all thought, "This is genius. This is hilarious." And we were people who seen everything and been everywhere. And we were like, "We're doing something nobody's ever done. And it's wild and entertaining." And even people who don't know what drag is like my parents, or anybody will watch this and think it's fabulous. It's so much fun.

And also, something very transformational about. I mean, the whole art of drag is about transformation. It's about freedom. It's about freedom of expression. And we all, and of course that's a big RuPaul thing. And we heard so much of that. And it's the first time in my life I actually thought, "Wow, people in drag are very brave." Because things have certainly changed. Nobody really blinks now about any of it. But at the time, and it's 11 years ago or 12, walking around in drag, even in a place like West Hollywood, you didn't know what response you were going to get.

If you went into a bank into a teller, and you were in drag, you might get a lot of really crazy looks. And I was like, "These people are so brave, and they're so true to themselves." And it really helped me be more authentic to me. I wound up having so much more fun with the way I dressed and looked after that. But did we know... so part of it was, this is fabulous. We had the best time ever. And we know this is going to be a big deal. Part of it was, is the world even ready for this?

Merle Ginsberg:
First of all, it's on Logo, a small channel. How many people outside of its core audience were even had logo at the time. VH1 is a whole different thing. And I remember telling co-workers and journalists that I knew, "I've done this show, and it's coming on not till February." But I think it's brilliant. And they were like, "Oh, you're going to ruin your career." It's all about camp. And by the way, a lot of these were gay friends. They were like, "Drag his camp. It's passe. Nobody goes to see drag. It's embarrassing. And you're going to be a laughingstock." And I was like, "Well, if that's the case, I had a real good time doing it. I don't care if I'm a laughing stock." I was so proud of it. And when it came on rolling, we don't really hear anything at first. I didn't get a lot of feedback at first. A lot of my straight friends did not watch it, which is ridiculous. My family didn't watch it. A lot of other journalists I knew didn't watch it. And I'm not a person who's going to say, "Watch me on this." If you want to watch it, you watch it. That's fine.

I don't shove my articles down people's throats either. But about three to four shows in, I was in Whole Foods in West Hollywood. And I saw a couple of people staring at me and I'm like, "Have they seen this show?" And one of them just goes "Ah!" And I was like, "Oh, they saw the show." And then, everywhere I went from that moment on, I either heard, "Don't fuck it up." Or, "You got a Lip Sync For Your Life." And I would just start going into the dialogue right back at them. And that was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun.

And I certainly, I always like to wear fun clothes and stuff. But I really got into it then. I was like, "If people are going to recognize me from this fabulously flamboyant show, I'm going to play that part."

Joseph Shepherd:
Did you ever get, "What do you want from me Ms. Merle?" Did you ever get that?

Merle Ginsberg:
No, no. I think I got the feeling that and look, I read the stuff on Facebook and social media that people wrote. And people wrote to me a lot of the time and I read all of it. I think I came off as the nice judge, the fair judge. I mean, I wasn't out to hurt anybody's feelings or belittle anybody. In fact, I wanted to imbue them with pride in what they were doing and how creative it was. So, if I thought something didn't work, I go, "Well, I've seen you do better stuff. You might want to try this, or this, or this." So, nobody wrote like nasty, horrible shit to me or about me. Now Santino, that was another story.

Joseph Shepherd:
I don't even know where Santino is right now. I just keep seeing controversy, controversy, controversy.

Merle Ginsberg:
He likes it. He courts it. I don't know if it's a thing of "I love being famous," or that's truly who he is. But I never knew I just thought, "Okay. Well, that's a schtick. I'm not doing that."

Joseph Shepherd:
My younger brother, he is a straight male. And he just got into watching Drag Race because of me. But he started at season one. He just finished season two and he's going on. But it's so funny just hearing his commentary and seeing what he thinks because the show has expanded into something that started off as a very niche thing. Like you said, like people didn't know what it was. And it's become so inclusive of just bringing people together.

Joseph Shepherd:
Having my brother who is a straight 26-year-old male just texting me like randomly at night and being like, "What? How did..." He was so mad Tyra Sanchez won. And he was like, going off. Yeah. He was just like-

Merle Ginsberg:
I love Nina Flowers so much. I loved... so many people on the show they have been great. But the season one cast, Ongina, BeBe Benet, Nina, I just loved them all. Even Tammie Brown.

Joseph Shepherd:
Tammie, that lady is the finest version.

Merle Ginsberg:
Akasha, what about Akasha?

Joseph Shepherd:
Oh, Akasha. Yes. Well, let me ask you when you had signed on to do the show. And Michelle had said before that she was asked to do it. She did not do it because of a radio contract. And then, she came back for three. Were you originally end just for two seasons? Did you expect to go further?

Merle Ginsberg:
No. And by the way, we never had any idea we'd ever get picked up. And absolutely zero idea. We finished shooting in like August or early September of 2008. It came on in February '09. And by the time it ended, it had gotten really good feedback. And meanwhile, I was asked in the middle there to be on a Bravo show. And I thought it was a similar thing to be a judge. And it turned out, it was to be a contestant on this show called Launch My Line, which not many people saw.

It was meant to be a Project Runway, except that the people designing the clothes were what they called media personalities. And we worked with designers who helped us do it. So, it gave me a chance to actually make a collection of clothes. And I was offered that and RuPaul had not been picked out. So, and I wasn't making a lot of money at that time. And I thought, "I would love to be a fashion designer." It's a little late in my life for the idea of doing that.

But I had a blast doing it on this TV show. And I thought, "Well, I've got to do this." You never know what will come out of it. And I even thought about like moving from writing into design. And then, RuPaul got picked up. Now, the Bravo show didn't go on for quite a while. But the people of World of Wonder were not particularly happy with that. And I didn't consult them, which is very stupid of me actually.

But then, they came back and said, "We've been picked up. You're coming back." But by the time we finished that, a lot had happened in my life. My mother died. I went into a very dark place. And I was still freelance. So, I wasn't going into an office. And I got an invitation to go to Tel Aviv and teach at this fashion school and work with a lot of would-be designers and I made a lot of friends. And I wound up staying there for a year. So, I didn't know if the show was going to come back when I left, nobody knew.

And they wrote to me and said, "We're coming back." And I said, "Oh, my God. I'm here in Tel Aviv. I'm actually thinking of moving here." It all seemed very far away at that point. And I was starting to think about it. But at that point after season two, and by the way, it hadn't aired yet. It wasn't that big a hit. You know what I mean? People liked it. It was very niche. It was very insider. But I thought, "Well, I'm going to move to Tel Aviv and teach in this."

I wanted to just a different life at that time, for a lot of personal reasons. And I didn't know anything about Michelle. I'd never heard of her. And then, by the time the show came on, I started reading about her. And I thought, and I knew she was Ru's very good friend. I knew Ru a little bit from New York. But Michelle and Ru go back a long way. And then, couple seasons later, it's the biggest hit on television with Emmys up the wazoo, and all of that. And I'm like, "What the fuck was I thinking?" But what are you going to do? You got to go with the moment.

Joseph Shepherd:
You got to go with the moment. If you were asked back again, would you ever do it?

Merle Ginsberg:
Well, I believe it was Season 7, I think it was 20-

Joseph Shepherd:
Season 7 for the... yeah, when you had the multiple Merle Ginsberg.

Merle Ginsberg:
Oh, my God. It's either one of the best or most humiliating moments in my life. I remember Tom Campbell, who's the producer of the show, who's a brilliant guy, and a real sweetheart, called me one day. And I was working at The Hollywood Reporter, and I was booking all the covers. I was writing a million stories. I was all over the place. And working for the magazine, that website, and it's a weekly magazine. And it was over the top. And we decided that our September issue was going to be the best red-carpet designers of the year.

We're rating designers, a list of 25. And we had to shoot several of them on the cover and I managed to get... I don't even remember which designer was it. Maybe it was Prabal Gurung, to be on the cover with Sarah Jessica Parker. And this was a huge miracle. And I got Nicole Kidman to be on the cover and my boss was ragging me like this is going to be a very big deal. This has to be like a fashion issue, The New York Times and blah, blah, blah. It's so much pressure.

Merle Ginsberg:
And one day, Tom Campbell calls me and he says, "Merle, Tom Campbell, do you have a sense of humor?" I'm like, "Excuse me?" And he said, "We've got this idea." Oh, sorry. And so, we're going to have all these drag queens play you and do whatever happened to Merle Ginsberg. And do you think that's funny? And I went, "Oh, my God. It's hilarious. I have to see this." And the day that I showed up to watch the recordings, because they recorded the scenarios of people playing me, I was like, "Oh, my God. I don't really talk like that. I was so self-conscious." It wasn't like they're bad. It was like, "Is that me?" But I looked at the whole thing, how often do you have people on television playing you? It's an amazing moment. And I didn't tell any of my friends or my family. And the whole episode was about me and a little of Michelle. It was all staged. And I don't really know Michelle. But she seems like a really nice person.

And she'd actually written me some very nice emails, once I was off the show saying, your fans this year was really sweet actually. And so, we shoot it. It doesn't come on for six months. And then, suddenly I start saying to people, "Do you watch RuPaul's Drag Race?" And they go, "Oh, yeah. I love it." I go, "Well, the whole show in this week is about me." And they're like, "What?" And I said, "Well, just watch it." And then, the phone went crazy. So, your question, if they asked me to come back, would I? I'm fucking New York minute.

Joseph Shepherd:
Yes. I love that. And I love that base proposition-

Merle Ginsberg:
Thank so much. That's the best time of my life.

Joseph Shepherd:
Yeah. And I'd love that they propositioned that to you and I'm glad that you did go on there and see the girls as you because it's like, it's one thing to poke fun at yourself, just be able to have a good time. And if somebody wanted to play me, I don't care how bad you are, go at it, go have some fun.

Merle Ginsberg:
Of course. Nobody can take that. That is a real RuPaul way of thinking, which is, please do not take yourself too seriously. It's a huge waste of time. But one of my favorite things is that, so then we're doing the critiquing of each person. And I remember seeing one particular drag queen who played me, "I may be a bitch, but I'm not butch." That's a good line. I like that.

Joseph Shepherd:
That's a really good line. What I do a lot of times with the girls who were on the show is that I have them because the show is called Exposed, expose something that happened behind the scenes of Drag Race, whether it be good, bad, positive, crazy. I've had people talk about a dress end up getting caught on fire before because it was on a bulb. I've had interactions where Porkchop was telling me about how when his fate was in the hands, how it took forever for a decision to be made. Was there anything that you think that the world should know about that happened behind the scenes?

Merle Ginsberg:
Well, I can tell you that the days where they were shooting their challenges, we weren't there. We were only there on the days of the judging panel. So, we saw the challenges unfold, who won, who lost, whatever, the same time everybody else did. We saw it on the show. We saw the result when they came out. And we were shooting the panel. But we didn't see what went into it. So, I can't really speak to that too much. But I can tell you a funny story that I was a part of, which is that... so the whole end of the show is Lip Sync For Your Life.

And we're supposed to sit there and critique people's lip synching. I didn't really feel qualified to do that. But some people just went for it and could dance, just were fabulous and really embraced the moment. And some people just couldn't... they were a little too self-conscious. Or they weren't prepared. They didn't memorize the lyrics or whatever. So, meanwhile, Santino went to clubs, danced, could sing. I mean, he was loose as a goose. I can carry a tune.

But I'm not the world's greatest dancer, except if I'm really high. I'm serious. And here's another good moment. One day, they played some Beyoncé song and people are lip-synching and Ru was like, "I love that song. Merle, do you love it?" And I said, "I've never heard it before anyway." "You're a rocker chick, aren't you?" I wasn't that into dance music. I really loved listening to... but I didn't know a lot of that music. So, I felt really ignorant. But one day, they said, and it never aired, thank God. They said, "We think it'd be really fun to shoot you and Santino Lip Synching For Your Life." Oh, yeah. This is in somebody's stash about take somewhere. And I was like, "No, no, I can't do it. No, I can't. I can't. I'm not going to pull this off." And it was some song that maybe it was Thelma Houston, it was a song I knew from the disco days, but I didn't really know the words. And I didn't know those particular dances. And I was very self-conscious about doing it.

There are many things I could do where I would have no self-consciousness whatsoever, but that isn't one of them. And I knew Santino, he's like 6'8. He was like a rubber band and could just move and lip sync, and he did this shit all the time. So, I was like, "He's going to wipe the floor with me. I'm going to be so embarrassed." And I was. And I think I looked really, really stupid. I was just mortified, but it never aired.

Joseph Shepherd:
Well, Merle Ginsberg, we have the tape for you right now.

Merle Ginsberg:
No, you don't. I'll get my lawyer.

Joseph Shepherd:
That is so cool though. Even though if you were self-conscious and it wasn't the greatest thing, you did get to lip sync on the RuPaul stage. That's pretty cool.

Merle Ginsberg:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I wouldn't want to see it, but I would mind seeing a picture from it. Another brilliant thing, the guest judges were amazing. And this was only Season 1 and 2, but my mother was still alive. And I came home one day and said, "Mom, I just spent 12 hours sitting with Debbie Reynolds." Debbie Reynolds was a guest judge. She sat on the right of me and you're shooting and then you're talking. And then, you're shooting and you're hanging out, and you're waiting for lights.

And she just told me the most amazing stories. And I was like, "This is just a dream come true. This is just amazing." And my mother idolized Debbie Reynolds. So, she was really freaked out. And then, another time, Kathy Griffin was the guest judge, and I was getting really good feedback from the show. People are like, "You're really funny. You should get a show and blah, blah, blah. You should be on another show." And I thought, yeah maybe I should try this comedy thing.

Maybe I should go to open mic night and work up a little material that I write funny things. Why can't I perform it? And I was just starting to think, "I think I'm going to give this a shot." And Kathy Griffin is on the show. And again, you're sitting there for 12 hours, you're on, you're off, you're on, you're off, but you're sitting there. And the woman was so hilarious that I was like, "I can never try to be a comic. This is a comic." Everything out of her mouth made me pee. And I thought, "Well, that's it. I'm not doing this."

Joseph Shepherd:
I'm going to retire to that career before it started.

Merle Ginsberg:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. If you're not Kathy Griffin, why bother? If you're not RuPaul, why bother?

Joseph Shepherd:
Exactly. Why not? Why not? You mentioned writing with Paris Hilton for her memoir. So, how did that even come to play? And let me ask you, when you are working with her, was it the Paris that is shown to the media? Or does she have the two sides? Because I've always felt like she has a more humble side, and then the camera side?

Merle Ginsberg:
Oh, completely. In fact, I first met her in 2004, I would say. So, I had been at W for 11 years. It was a long run and a great thing. But I want to do some other things. And the minute I left, the phone started ringing and people started asking me to write freelance stories, which was great. And the first one was a woman, a big editor in New York named Atoosa Rubenstein, who was the editor in chief of Seventeen magazine, which unfortunately, no longer exists.

And I was long past 17 at this point, but I'd grown up reading it. And she said, "We have an LA cover we're going to do, it's Paris Hilton and The Simple Life was on. Do you think you could actually write a flattering story about Paris Hilton?" And at the time, people were like, she's a littl... She's nasty and snobby. And her dog shits on everyone's floor. And she's obnoxious, and all of these. She's like a spoiled, rich, bratty girl.

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