Interview: RuPaul, America’s first drag superstar

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has aired in 23 countries. A fourth season has just been commissioned. The show’s eponymous host also fronts the spin-off series RuPaul’s Drag U and recently released his fifth studio album. RuPaul conquered masculine America with a combination of flawless drag, ruthless one-liners and attitude-laden dance music. Laurence Watts caught up with America’s first drag superstar.

When RuPaul was young he knew he was going to be famous. He just didn’t realise it would be through the medium of drag.

“I started out in a rock and roll band in Atlanta and just fell into drag as a joke,” he tells me. “We did gimmicks for each performance and one time it happened to be drag. It was genderf**k drag with smeared lipstick. The response I got wasn’t what I expected. I thought people would find it funny, but what I got was: “’Bitch, you are fierce!’

“As time went on I needed to make some money. I thought, right, I’m going to do it for real: I’m going to shave my chest, shave my legs, put some tits in and go for it. That’s what happened. I realised it was my ticket.”

A drag queen was born – one that didn’t need a stage name because his real name was too good not to use.

“When my mother was asked what she was going to call me she replied: “His name is going to be RuPaul Andre Charles and he’s going to be a star, cos ain’t another motherf**ker alive with a name like that!””

It’s a frequent quote in RuPaul interviews. But he was born in 1960. Did they really say ‘motherf**ker’ back then and if so would she really have used it?

“Oh, yes!” Ru laughs. “My mother could cuss the way Olivier recited Hamlet.”

RuPaul grew up in California surrounded by sisters. He claims he never needed to come out as gay because everyone around told him he was a sissy long before he was aware of his sexuality. Drag was indeed his ticket. Many years later, having established himself as a downtown star in New York, he realised drag would also facilitate his musical aspirations.

“The first time I met Randy Barbato, from World of Wonder, he looked at me and I saw in his eyes everything I’ve since done in my career. Having that support has been amazing. When I decided to go above ground I went straight to Randy. He said: ‘We’re behind you and we’re going to manage you. Let’s work on a demo tape and then we’ll send it out to the record companies.’ We sent it out and we got a deal.”

RuPaul’s first album, 1993’s Supermodel of The World, was a hit. It peaked at #109 on the Billboard chart while its lead single hit #45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the US Dance Chart. Was he surprised how big a hit it was?

“Honestly, I thought it would be bigger,” he says. “I knew it was a great record. The record company did a survey and they told me people had a problem taking the record to the counter. That’s still disappointing for me because it still happens.”

Drag made him unique, but also kept some people away. Regardless, the album established RuPaul as a star. Things were happening for him and he puts it down to a decision to stop doubting himself.

“I was doing a talk show in LA. I was in the Presidential Suite of the Century Plaza Hotel when I got a call from Randy. He said: ‘Elton John wants to do a duet with you.’ I told him to hold on a minute. I ran up and down the room screaming.”

Giorgio Moroder produced Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which reached #7 in Britain. RuPaul performed the song with Elton at the Brit Awards in 1994, an event they also co-hosted.

“We recorded the song about a mile from where I went to High School in Atlanta. You can’t make that stuff up. I still see Elton too from time to time. I saw him this year at his Oscar party.”

A second album, a Christmas album, a chat show on VH1, an autobiography, a radio show and a groundbreaking modelling contract with MAC cosmetics followed. Then things went quiet for a while.

“When the talk show ended in 1998 I decided to come to LA and bring myself up to speed on where I was on a human level. I did little gigs here and there, but the focus wasn’t about trying to be the biggest thing. There was a shift socially that found me defending what I did more and more. I hit it big under Clinton and Gore. In that post-Reagan era there was a feeling of ‘let’s open up.’ Those windows come and go. They’re short periods of time. We happen to be in another one right now.”

In 2003 he got another call. His former radio boss had moved stations and wanted to recreate RuPaul’s double-act with Michelle Visage for morning radio.

“I thought: it’s not drag and it’s a lot of money, I’ll do it. So I put another record out and went back to New York. I did another Starrbooty movie and Randy was like: ‘Bitch, you’re back! Now let’s go and tout this TV show idea out there.'”

The TV show was of course, RuPauls’ Drag Race. The show seeks to discover America’s next drag superstar. As with other reality show, contestants are voted off week by week until there’s a winner. The show spawned a spin-off series called Drag U.

“I’m interested in finding myself in other people’s stories. Drag U is about using drag as therapy. We created it after being inundated with letters about Drag Race from women saying: ‘These men are more woman than I would ever be. How can I be like that?'”

Focusing on the premise behind Drag Race, I ask if there’s room for another drag superstar in America?

“I hope so,” Ru sighs. “The ego says: if you get a piece of the pizza that means there’s less for me. The truth is the whole world is full of pizza, enough for everyone.”

He’s been back in the recording studio too. 2009’s Champion and 2011’s Glamazon both reached #1 on the iTunes Dance Chart. Now that consumers can buy his music from the privacy of their own home it’s possible his records will gain the wider audience they deserve. I ask him how he explains some people’s aversions to drag.

“I joined Twitter earlier this year and my favourite tweet so far is this: ‘Ego loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.’ I should have won a f**king Emmy for that tweet alone. None of us are really any of the things our identity would have us believe we are: we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”

I mention the UK’s Paul O’Grady who retired his drag alter ego after 26 years in 2004. Does he harbour any desire to box up his high heels and lay down his make-up brush?

“Will I be in drag for the rest of my life? I have no idea. I think the audience will let me know when it’s time to stop. I’ll keep doing drag so long as I want to and the public want to see me.”