To dull the pain of bullying and, even more so, a sense of being something like an alien on earth, RuPaul began turning to alcohol and drugs as early as age 10. “My solution as a kid was to try to anesthetize myself like I sensed everybody else was,” he says. His life was saved when he was invited to join his older sister Renetta and her husband when they moved to Atlanta, where he enrolled in a performing arts school and “got to meet my tribe,” whom he describes as “the irreverent ones.”
There are many misconceptions people who dress in drag — most frequently that they are transsexual. “Transsexual is, in fact, kind of the complete opposite,” RuPaul says. “Drag queens are saying, ‘Identity? Ha!’ Transsexuals are saying, ‘Identity is very serious to me and I need you to understand what my identity is.'” He continues, “For me, it was never about being a woman at all. It was always about ‘f-you’ to society. In a male-dominated culture, this is the greatest taboo you can do. This is the thing that boys are not supposed to in a male-dominated culture.” And, he adds, “It was something that I stumbled onto that I realized I could do really well and make a lot of money at it.”
RuPaul soon became a local celebrity in Atlanta through appearances in drag on cable access programs and at clubs. He moved to New York and started go-go dancing, hosting and lip-syncing songs at clubs in the East Village. “I decided to go from gender-f— style of drag into glamorama,” he recalls. “It just felt like I’d crossed a line.” In 1989, two big things happened: he was voted The Queen of Manhattan and he appeared in the “Love Shack” music video. He partnered with managers, who still are his reps today, and says, “We worked on crafting a strategy to get me above 14th Street, so to speak.”
The strategy worked. Thanks to his song “Supermodel (You Better Work),” he “hit the big time” in late 1992 and was suddenly omnipresent — a guest on Arsenio Hall’s show, a familiar face on MTV, the host of own show on VH1 and the list goes on. “We had cracked the code,” he says. “We had worked out the perfect combination to make this thing work. There had been others before me — there had been Boy George and Sylvester and Divine. But the element that I added to this thing? We took the sexuality out of it. The character that I projected was sexy, but wasn’t sexual, and that’s a huge thing, especially with Americans. Americans are afraid of sex.”
For the next several years, RuPaul’s fame only grew — no other drag queen in the world was more known inside and outside of the drag community. But, shortly before George W. Bush came to power in 2001, he “retreated for a while,” sensing “hostility” in the society. By the end of Bush’s second term, though, he was “invigorated again,” and was receptive when his managers suggested pitching him for a reality show. “Before, I was opposed to doing reality shows,” he says, finding them mean-spirited, but then he realized he could shape one that was “about the tenacity of the human spirit,” with 12 to 14 drag queens from across America competing in challenges “based on my career and the things I’ve done” for a cash prize.
The young Logo TV network “pretty much bought the show in the room as we pitched it,” RuPaul says with a smile. And thus was born, in 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which today airs across America and in 25 countries around the world. Getting choked up, he says he hopes the show offers tortured young souls, of the sort that he once was, reassurance that they are not alone — “I felt like I was the kid who had fallen to earth and I had no one. Knowing that your tribe is out there waiting for you — just hold on long enough ’til you can find them or they can find you — that’s what this show is about.” At the end of every episode, he says to the camera, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Today, RuPaul splits his time between an apartment in New York, his partner’s ranch in Wyoming — and hosting five different shows. “I like to work,” he says with a laugh. These days, he wakes up and prays, meditates, stretches and does yoga, always remaining mindful of how fortunate he has been to come through his struggles and wind up so happy and successful. Interestingly, he says he no longer loves to dress in drag — it takes hours for him to fully transform himself, between hair, makeup, corsets and all the rest — and he won’t do so for the Creative Arts Emmys. “For me, it’s a business,” he explains with a chuckle, “so you won’t see me in my drag if I’m not getting paid.” But make no mistake about it: He’s still a fierce champion of drag and the queens who dress in it, and he is somewhat “encouraged” about their future in American society. “It is getting better — but it will probably get a lot worse before it lands.”