Pic: Mike Ruiz
RuPaul is undoubtedly the most famous drag performer in history. While the persona has been out of the limelight for a number of years, in the 1990’s you might just have believed that a drag queen really could rule the world.
Thanks to her slick and ultra-glamorous personality and Amazonian physical appearance, RuPaul conquered popular culture around the world in an unprecedented phenomenon.
She boasted chart-topping songs, music videos on rotation, her own talk show on VH1 and the honour of being the first drag supermodel when she was chosen to be the ‘Face of M.A.C Cosmetics.’ RuPaul was literally everywhere.
The legend had its origins on November 17, 1960, when RuPaul was born in San Diego, California. “His name is RuPaul Andre Charles and he’s gonna be a star! Cause ain’t another motherfucker alive with a name like that,” his mother is reputed to have said at the time, claims RuPaul in his biography.
RuPaul remembers falling in love with The Supremes on television as a child. He would prance around the yard in a pink dress from an early age and was unsurprisingly called a sissy by other kids. He was kicked out of high school for not attending classes (except drama) and took on a number of odd jobs. RuPaul made his first appearance on public access television doing an androgynous dance routine in 1982 and then began his climb to global domination.
Small roles in stage musicals and go-go dancing gigs led to the making of the original ultra-low budget Starbooty trash films, in which she played a female model turned government agent. RuPaul moved to New York and refined his drag persona – becoming more ‘sexy’ and less punk.
In the Big Apple, RuPaul became a popular drag personality on the club scene, hosting parties, performing, dancing and generally keeping the party going. After eight years of chemically assisted partying, says RuPaul, “the patrons kept getting younger and younger and I knew it was time for me to make a move…”
A newly cleaned up RuPaul was inspired by the success of his friends in the band Dee Lite (Groove Is in the Heart) to start work on a demo CD and in 1992 released the single that would later become a huge global hit, Supermodel (You Better Work). From then it was all appearances on MTV, duets with Elton John, superstardom and, of course, the ultimate celebrity accolade – her very own wax replica at Madame Tussauds in New York.
Between 2001 and 2004 RuPaul took a break; choosing to focus on himself and his spiritual evolution. “More than ever, I wanted to be present for myself, my family and my friends,” he says. During those years, he created “a nurturing home life, threw dinner parties, backyard barbecues, game nights, pool parties” and had a lot of fun “laughing, dancing, hiking, biking, and dating. I worked from time to time, but I turned down more offers than I accepted.”
Now RuPaul is making a come-back. It started last year with a spanking new Starrbooty film which has made a splash at various film festivals, a role in Another Gay Sequel, a recent appearance as a judge in Project Runway, and come January next year RuPaul will be hosting (and producing) the television series RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality show contest to find America’s top drag performer.
Ahead of her appearance at the local premieres of Starrbooty in Joburg and Pretoria and a live performance at Therapy’s Viva La Glam Pride After-party this October, Mambaonline was granted a ten minute telephonic interview with the cultural phenomenon (who was recovering from a cold) in New York.
How do you think you differ from other drag personalities in terms of the drag that you do?
Well, when I started out I wanted to do something that was more non-threatening [to the mainstream] so that I could really infiltrate pop culture. Because, you know, drag has been thought of as very subversive over the years. And it still is.
Well you certainly succeeded. How has the drag persona of RuPaul changed since you started?
As time went on I was able to make it more edgy. My persona was able to get more edgy. But I also become more accessible. In fact the hair became more touchable, the clothes became more accessible. And that’s really how it’s changed…
How do you switch between the ‘Glamazon’ and the man? Is it a kind of schizophrenic experience?
You know, I wouldn’t say it’s schizophrenic. It’s not even a conscious thing. Once I get into drag it’s completely different based on how people treat me. Quite honestly I’m really the same, but people react to me differently so I adjust to what I’m getting from other people. I adjust my personality based on the feedback I’m getting.
You have a replica at Madame Tussauds…
It was the first time I got to stand next to what other people must feel like when standing next to me and it’s pretty awesome. You know whenever I see a picture of myself, or whenever I see playback on video or something, it amazes me that it’s me in there. I’m still gobsmacked that that’s actually me. I’ve never gotten over the fact that it’s a pretty amazing creation.
You seem to be very much in control of your image. Was that always there from the start or has that become a necessity?
It’s part of my art. Honestly it’s part of every person that’s ever stepped on stage. It’s part of their art too. It’s just more evident with me, because clearly, I’m a man.
Why did you decide to revisit Starrbooty and make a new film?
I wanted really to present a gift to the politically correct and the religious right wing. It was so important to explore that kind of expression again because our culture is so wrapped up in fear and political correctness. Everyone jumps on the opportunity to be offended by something. So I thought, “You know, I’ll give you something to get offended about.”
You have a background in many creative areas: singer, performer, writer and filmmaker. Do you think that working in the drag realm and being openly gay negatively impacted your career?
I honestly don’t have anything to compare it to. There are positives and negatives in everyone’s careers. Pluses and minuses. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
The drag RuPaul persona seemed to disappear for a while – and she seems to be coming to the fore again. Was there any reason for that?
Yeah, it was really time for me to step away from the canvas. As an artist one must step away from the canvas and then return to it. And that’s what I’m doing now.
Are you excited to come to South Africa? Do you have any idea what to expect?
Well, I have some idea of what I think it might be like. I’m very excited. I’ve never been to Africa and I’m interested to visit another continent. Hopefully I will be surprised at how non-globalised it is; because I get disappointed when I travel to other countries and everything is the exact same as it is here. The same stores, the same everything and that’s sad. And hopefully I will be surprised by South Africa…
You’re coming during Joburg’s Pride week. Are Pride events still important and relevant today?
I think they are important to young people that are still coming out. It’s important for young people to see that there are people out there who didn’t fall by the wayside because of their sexuality and have lived successful lives. And that’s why I still go to Pride events… My first Pride event was in 1982 and it’s very important to me in my life.
Can we expect you to take part in the parade at all?
I’m pretty sure that the organisers [of his visit] have planned every moment of my visit, so I doubt that I’ll be in the parade.
Pic: Patrick Demarchelier
You’ve been doing this for many years, what still excites RuPaul?
I’m always interested in the creative process. I just finished doing a television show [Ru Pauls’s Drag Race] that I’m a producer on, and writing the challenges and the dialogue and coming up with every aspect of the creative process is still interesting to me. And I love working with people who speak the same language and inspire me to go further and stretch myself even more. That inspires me. I dig that.
You’re probably the most high profile drag person in modern history. What kind of impact do you think you had on the mainstream’s idea of sexuality and gender?
It’s so hypothetical, I have no idea what the impact would be, I would hope that it would help people understand themselves. I mean really, there’s only one of us here and when someone judges or is prejudiced to someone else, it really is them projecting their own self loathing outward at someone else. So hopefully my impact has helped people accept themselves a little more…
- Did a hit duet with Elton John of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and It’s Raining Men with Martha Wash.
- RuPaul once made an appearance on Walker, Texas Ranger.
- RuPaul has released ten albums and over 22 singles.
- Has appeared in movies including The Brady Bunch Movie and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
- The RuPaul Show – a chat and variety show – ran on VH1 for 3 years.
- In 1995 Rupaul published his autobiography, Lettin It All Hang Out.
- Released a Christmas album titled Ho, Ho, Ho in 1997.
- She was the surprise guest at the VH1 Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross concert.
- As the First Face of M.A.C., launched stores in ten countries and raised $22 million for the M.A.C AIDS fund.
- Was Ranked number 85 on E’s 101 Reasons The 90’s Ruled.
- Starrbooty was produced and written by RuPaul.
RuPaul will be appearing in person at South African premieres of Starrbooty on Thursday, October 2nd at Ster-Kinekor Classic, the Zone, Rosebank in Joburg and in Pretoria at Brooklyn’s Cinema Nouveau screened by Fish Eagle on Friday the 3rd. Mike Ruiz, the film’s director, will also appear at the premieres, which form part of Cinema Nouveau Pride Film Festival. All proceeds from the premieres go to Joburg Pride. RuPaul will also perform live at Therapy’s Viva La Glam Pride After-party on Saturday 4 October at Carfax in Newtown.