RuPaul: Drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture

A mix of high camp and compassion has made RuPauls Drag Race a TV hit. But beneath the wigs and corsets, the lip-syncing showgirls have a radical message

When RuPaul Charles was seven, one of his sisters comforted him with a promise. Everyone whos in charge of the world now, she told him, theyre all making it better, so that years from now everyone on the planet will have at least eight pairs of shoes. Her prediction tells us something about the better world a young RuPaul dreamed of and that, in the case of his own shoe collection, at least, turned out to be true. Before the boy was even born, a psychic had told his mother he would grow up to be famous, so she took great care to name him suitably. What neither his unusually prescient family nor a single TV pundit predicted, however, was that at the age of 57 he would be the star of what has been called the most radical show on TV.

RuPauls Drag Race was turned down by every network bar one when he first pitched the idea a decade ago. A pastiche of Americas Next Top Model, part talent contest and part reality TV, the format selects a dozen or so drag queens to compete in weekly challenges such as running up a Gone With The Wind-themed gown out of curtains. A judging panel of RuPaul and guests, who have included Lady Gaga and La Toya Jackson, scores the catwalk finales, looking for Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent (the acronym is not an accident), and the bottom two then lip-sync for their lives to a pop anthem, before the loser is eliminated.

The show is about to enter its 10th season, the concept has evolved a little every year, and the queens take the contest very seriously, but Ive never met anyone who actually cares who wins. What makes Drag Race addictive are the contestants life stories and the group dynamics which break all the rules of reality TV by favouring camaraderie over cat fights. For all the artifice of their outfits, the queens make themselves emotionally naked for us, by turns poignant, comic, vulnerable and heroic. RuPaul performs the role of grand matriarch, and its his unexpected humanity which both defines and elevates the show. As one Drag Race addict wrote in Esquire, Drag Race is an endless reminder that its possible to find love for others and ourselves despite all of the shit and the pain and the heartbreak we go through in life.

RuPaul in drag
The contestants are all showgirls professional drag queens and part of the fun comes from watching the miracles they conjure; there is nothing these girls cant do with wigs and corsets and enough gaffer tape. Some are plus size, others comic, and some straightforward glamour girls all unrecognisable out of costume but beyond the pleasing reality TV formula of transformation, Drag Race is also wildly funny. The frenzied athleticism of the lip-sync challenge, the frantic panics over frocks, the fabulous names
Adore Delano, Tempest DuJour, Eureka OHara all shimmer with knowing irony. Contestants are fluent in the vernacular of drag throwing shade (criticising), hog body (an insufficiently hourglass figure), Judy (good friend) making the show feel like an invite to a private party on another planet.

Bought by Logo TV, a tiny LGBT cable network, Drag Race became an instant hit, quickly crossing over to VH1, bringing the subculture of drag into middle Americas living rooms. In the coming season, the guest judges will even include senior Democrat and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Each episode now averages well over a million viewers, the show is streamed all over the world, and last year RuPaul won his second consecutive Emmy and was named one of Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People.

With Lady Gaga. Photograph: Logo TV

We meet in a hotel near his West Hollywood home. All 6ft 4in of him appears in the lobby, alone, bang on time; he could not be less diva-ish. Though immaculately dressed in a navy checked suit, his manner is playfully informal, and the unwavering eye-contact accelerates the sense of instant intimacy. When we part 90 minutes later, he has wept three times, referenced astral chart movements as though the zodiac were the Dow Jones, and cited various psychics as unimpeachable authorities. He has a fondness for aphorisms Were born naked, everything else is drag and when he talks about culture, he means the Kardashians. To infer from all this that he is a delightful airhead, however, would be a mistake. RuPaul is deeply serious, erudite and self-aware, and has clearly given a great deal of thought to everything he says. If the personal is political, RuPaul has been a radical from the day he was born.


People have always been threatened by me as an African-American man, because of the inherent black rage that all black people have in our culture, the underlying black rage because of what happened to us in this country. Its always there; its a glaring issue thats saying, First of all, lets talk about the black rage. So one of the ways that Ive been able to dilute that perception is to dress as a character that says, Look Im fun, I can have a sense of humour about life because Im in drag. I acknowledge black rage, but were going to have some fun. So then people are like, Oh, OK, so we can laugh together, we dont have to address the black rage.

He grew up the only son of four children to dirt-poor, crazy-arse country hillbilly parents in San Diego, who fought violently before separating when RuPaul was seven. By then he already knew he was different. When I was a kid I thought, OK, I dont fit in, I know that, but Im smart enough to figure out what I can do to fit in. He studied the gender norms and expectations around him and, I thought, OK, Ive got it, I want nothing to do with that. In fact Im lucky that I dont fit in, because now I can play with all the toys and all the colours. Drag, laughter and cannabis were his coping mechanisms, and at 15 he moved to live with his sister and her husband in Atlanta, where he quickly hit the nightclub scene, before graduating to New Yorks downtown nightlife in his 20s.

I hear the universes stage directions and take advantage. Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian

A club dancer who did comedy fright drag, he had a lot of fun, but by 28 was broke. Nothing was clicking. It was my Saturn returns, and it was that crossroads. I wasnt sure if the prophecy [that he would be famous] was true. He weeps unselfconsciously at the memory of how close he came to abandoning his dreams. But then I was like, You know what? Im going to glam the fuck out. He shaved his legs and chest, went glamazon, and nine months later was crowned Queen of Manhattan at a drag queen pageant, the pinnacle of downtown success.

But at the end of his reign, he was horrified to see the New York dance act Deee-Lite enjoy global fame with Groove Is In The Heart. These kids in the neighbourhood were actually behind me in terms of succession to stardom. I was like, Wait a minute, howd they get up there? Its because bitch you were fucking asleep in the party world, being the Queen of Manhattan. So, I said, OK, no, Ive got to fix that. Im not having that. He made a demo tape, got signed to a label, and on his 32nd birthday released the dance anthem Supermodel (You Better Work) which went on to be a smash hit. And thats when my world changed for ever.

The 90s were a riot for RuPaul. An international superstar, he made albums, starred in movies, had his own chat show, and was signed up by Mac as the first male face of the cosmetics brand. But in 1999 he withdrew from public life and moved to LA, to get sober and quit smoking pot.

Listen, Im not the greatest actor. Im not the greatest singer. Im not the greatest drag queen. Im not the greatest dancer. My gift has been having the clarity to hear the universes stage directions and to take advantage of that. I knew it was finally time for me to approach the things I had pushed deep down inside. He breaks down and silently weeps again.

I realised that my putting a cloud of smoke around myself, literally and figuratively, was a way to push down those feelings. So I got into therapy, and recalibrated what my purpose was, you know. I had gotten into show business as a kid to get validation from the world, get validation from my father. And I realised that would never satisfy. It has to come from the inside. So I came back to show business, but I do what I do now with this newfound motivation.

When his long-time producers suggested a drag reality show, RuPaul had one condition: I dont want to do anything mean-spirited. The high camp of drag may appear superficially catty, he says, but in fact the essence of the art form is compassion.

In 1979. Photograph: WireImage
For people to do drag and make it their profession in a male-dominated culture, they have to go through so much emotional tug-of-war, because society says, Youre not supposed to do that. So, the strength and humanity it takes to maintain yourself and your dreams create many different layers of consciousness. Thats where the humanity comes from.

RuPaul likes to speak in deeply heartfelt but somewhat opaque rhetorical flourishes, so I ask if he means that Drag Race has a political message about humanity.

Yes! It doesnt have a political agenda in terms of policies in Washington. But it has a position on identity, which is really the most political you can get. It has politics at its core, because it deals with: how do you see yourself on this planet? Thats highly political. Its about recognising that you are God dressing up in humanity, and you could do whatever you want. Thats what us little boys who were maligned and who were ostracised figured out. Its a totem, a constant touchstone to say, Dont take any of this shit seriously. Its a big f-you. So the idea of sticking to one identity its like I dont care, Im a shapeshifter, Im going to fly around and use all the colours, and not brand myself with just one colour.

Pinning him down on precisely what all of this means can be tricky, in part I think because he doesnt want to offend anyone by explicitly acknowledging the contradiction between his playfully elastic sensibility and the militant earnestness of the transgender movement. The two couldnt be further apart, I suggest.

At a gay rights march in 1993. Photograph: Getty Images

Ye-es, thats always been the dichotomy of the trans movement versus the drag movement, you know, he agrees carefully. I liken it to having a currency of money, say English pounds as opposed to American dollars. I think identities are like value systems or currencies; theres not just one. Understand the value of different currencies, and what you could do with them. Thats the place you want to be. But to a transgender woman its critically important that the world recognises her fixed identity as a female. RuPaul nods uneasily. Thats right, thats right.

What I cant understand is how transgender women can enter a drag contest. Last year RuPauls Drag Race was widely acclaimed for featuring its first openly transgender contestant, called Peppermint but if transgender women must be identified as female, how can they also be men dressing up as women?

Well, I dont like to call drag wearing womens clothes. If you look around this room, and he gestures around the hotel lobby, shes wearing a shirt with jeans, that ones wearing jeans and a T-shirt, right? So women dont really dress like us. We are wearing clothes that are hyperfeminine, that represent our cultures synthetic idea of femininity.

In the subculture of drag you do occasionally find what are known as bio queens biological women who mimic the exaggerated femininity of drag. Would RuPaul allow a biological woman to compete on the show? He hesitates. Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once its not men doing it, because at its core its a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, its really punk rock, because its a real rejection of masculinity.

With La Toya Jackson in 1993. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

So how can a transgender woman be a drag queen? Mmmm. Its an interesting area. Peppermint didnt get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadnt really transitioned. Would he accept a contestant who had? He hesitates again. Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say youre transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what were doing. Weve had some girls whove had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they havent transitioned.

Theres something very touching about RuPauls concern to stay abreast of subcultural developments and find a way to embrace even those he finds confronting. There are certain words, for example, that the kids would use, that Id be like, Wait a minute, hold up now. But Ive had to accept it because I understand where it comes from. Such as? Well, one of the things that the kids do now is theyll say, referring to another drag queen, Oh that bitch is cunt, she is pure cunt, which means she is serving realness, by which he means presenting herself as realistic or honest. They say it knowing its shocking, knowing its taboo, and its the same way that black people use the N-word.

RuPaul talks about the kids on his show in tenderly nurturing tones, but has never had children himself. He met his husband, Georges LeBar, an Australian rancher, on a New York dancefloor in 1994, and revealed last year that the pair had married, but explains quickly, Conventional, that wasnt my goal! Our goal was to use the system to work for us. I dont give a fuck about marriage. What I did care about is that if anything happens to me or him, our assets are protected.

The couples domestic arrangements are fairly unconventional; LeBar lives on the couples 60,000-acre Wyoming ranch, while RuPaul spends most of his time in LA, observing an almost comically west coast lifestyle; he rises at 4am, meditates and does yoga, and is out in the canyon with his personal trainer before dawn. RuPaul puts the success of their 24-year relationship down to the fact that it is open.

Were born naked, everything else is drag. Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian

He and I are very respectful of one another. He and I know that on this planet where there are millions and millions of people, the person I have found on this planet that I like the very most is him. And I know that for him the person he loves the most on this planet is me. I know that; theres no doubt in my mind. So if he needs to do something else somewhere else, Im fine with that. He is respectful of me. He would never turn it into something that would make me feel uncomfortable, and I wouldnt do that to him either. To have that on this planet is crazy. Its rare. He becomes overcome by tears again and sobs softly, before brightening and admitting, with a mischievous grin, The truth of the matter is that there arent many people that I like. Im usually bored by people, you know. Id rather be alone reading a book or something.

I ask if the couple ever considered having children. Georges loves kids, but I know what a child needs to prosper and grow, and I dont have the time to do that. If I were going to do it, I would devote my time to that kid. But, no, Ive never wanted to do it. I love kids, but its mainly because Id have to deal with the other parents. He chuckles. Fucking idiots, passing on this bullshit to their kids. People are fucking insane, and it would be terrible for my kid, because I would be telling off the other parents. Id want to expand my kids experience, but all these other parents would be like He wags a finger disapprovingly. Oh my God that would drive me crazy so, no.

He pauses to think for a moment. But who knows? It could still happen, sure. It could happen tomorrow, you know. If he wanted to do it tomorrow, I would do it. Really? I certainly would, yes. Its because Ive done my thing on this. I think my legacy is set in stone.

It can be hard sometimes to know when RuPaul is and isnt being serious. What he calls shapeshifting is so central to his sensibility that being fabulous feels more important than maintaining fixed positions but that is precisely the political message of his show. In another life, had he not been in show business, he thinks he would have been a teacher, teaching young people how to navigate life. But it is quite impossible to imagine him being anything other than RuPaul.

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