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INSIDE OUT: RuPaul’s Paper Dolls Book

How Sunny Gu created paper dolls depicting 10 all-time favourite contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race for a new book.

Written by Garrick Webster

For the last decade or so, RuPaul has been discovering America’s next drag superstars on his show RuPaul’s Drag Race. To celebrate some of the programme’s most glamorous contestants, a book was commissioned earlier this year featuring 10 stunning queens as cut-out paper dolls, along with some of their memorable outfits. It’s the kind of brief just about any illustrator would love to sink their pencils into, but the task was awarded to California watercolour artist Sunny Gu.

above: Bianca

“I was so excited to have the wonderful opportunity to illustrate a whole book, for the first time,” says Sunny. “I immediately went to libraries and online to search for previously published paper doll books and studied their structure, making notes on what was successful so I could apply it to this book.”

Naturally, she immersed herself in the subject and binge-watched past episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race to study the biographies, facial expressions, body language, signature poses, make-up, outfits and likes and dislikes of each contestant. “I gathered so much info for each of them that I feel like I know them in person,” adds Sunny.

Painting personalities

Then it was time to start sketching. The brief was to draw dolls for 10 chosen contestants along with two outfits and accessories. Sunny began with the dolls, which meant depicting the drag queens in their undergarments. A few pencil sketches were developed for each one, with Sunny experimenting with their clothing, make-up and poses, while the book’s editor and publishing team provided feedback on the choices of undergarments and overall look.

“For this project it was very important that we capture not just the likeness of the characters but also their personalities. Sunny did a great deal of research and the only revisions that were necessary were small adjustments to help closer capture the right attitude for each contestant,” says Frances J Soo Ping Chow, the book’s designer at publishing house Blue Streak.

Collaborative process

There are often multiple stakeholders in book publishing, but the process went smoothly thanks to close collaboration on the project and Sunny’s diligent approach, offering the client plenty of options and flexibility. “I put together a mood board that included two outfits for each person and presented it to the editor. This way he had a clear idea of how the visuals would look together for each queen, as well as how the outfit line-up would look like across the entire book. With many back and forth communications between the licensor, publisher, editor and me, we finally decided on the outfits to illustrate.”

Once the pencil sketches were approved, Sunny painted each drag queen, their outfits and accessories in watercolour. Her paintings were scanned in, and final edits were made in Photoshop.

“I enjoyed illustrating Raja Gemini the most,” says Sunny. “I had way too much fun painting her beautiful tattoos and outfits, which are full of intricate details, embellishment and unique designs.”


above: Raja Gemini 

below: Alaska

Amazon queen

Already, RuPaul fans are giving the book rave reviews on Amazon, commenting on how fun it is. Blue Streak assistant publisher Chris Navratil is also more than impressed: “I'm extremely pleased with Sunny's final illustrations, but even more importantly, the Viacom/VH1 network and RuPaul's company World of Wonders have been thrilled with her results. Sunny proved to be an outstanding choice, and we owe much of the book's success to the quality of her illustrations,” he says.

After four months of work, day and night, Sunny has finally had the chance to see the book in physical form in Barnes & Noble and rates it as one of the biggest achievements of her career so far. “The feeling of satisfaction is unprecedented,” she says. “To fill a whole book with illustrations is a hard task, but I will treasure it with all my heart.”

You can grab your copy of RuPaul’s Drag Race Paper Doll on Amazon.

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