From Evening Standard/eyevine/Redux.
I heard RuPaul before I saw him, his trademark breathy giggle rising up out of a darkened studio hallway. In lieu of antidepressants, psychiatrists might prescribe listening to this sound on a loop, so mood boosting are its properties. By the time he entered the room, in a red Adidas tracksuit and flip-flops, and dropped his lanky frame onto the couch, I had a contact high. I was ready to, well, work.
RuPaul Andre Charles has reason to be upbeat. At age 56, and for the second time in his singular career, he is a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon. His reality competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, is nominated for seven Emmys, and has reached a wide audience in its ninth season, after moving from the Logo network to VH1. (He won for outstanding host of a reality or reality-competition show last year.) That a black, gay, drag queen espousing a message of love and acceptance has found mainstream acclaim in an increasingly divided and angry country may come as a surprise to many. It certainly does to RuPaul himself.
“I’ve always been outside the system,” RuPaul said. “Always. But it’s cool to get recognized. It is weird. It’s very weird, but I always have to remind myself, ‘Ru, that could change, honey. That’s very sweet, but just remember who you are and what has allowed you to stay in the game this long. Don’t get too sucked in.’ It’s just like junior high school. When the popular kids like you . . . In, out, in, out . . . It changes, so you can’t take it too seriously. You have to remember who you are.”
On the August morning we met, he was filming a new season of his series on soundstages in California’s Simi Valley. The conservative Ventura County community that hosted the Rodney King trial, the Manson family, and several seasons of Gunsmoke was now home to the show’s pink workroom, stocked with wig stands, pageant sashes, and bolts of colorful fabric. As a camera crew set up a shot, and a speaker blared out a clip of RuPaul shouting “Ooooh, girl!,” two of the show’s competitors played patty-cake to pass the time.
“We’ve come to cleanse the whole area of its checkered past,” RuPaul said, surveying the scene.
Much of the TV audience for RuPaul’s Drag Race wasn’t old enough for patty-cake (if they were even yet born) when its host had his first go-round with fame. Born and raised in San Diego, RuPaul found acclaim with his debut studio album, Supermodel of the World, in 1993 as its breakout hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work)” crossed over from club play to commercial ubiquity. In the 90s, he became the first drag queen to land a major cosmetics campaign, as a spokesmodel for MAC, and hosted a talk show on VH1. He stepped away from the limelight in 1999, quitting drugs and alcohol and lying low. He began his climb back into the business by making a drag movie called Starrbooty in 2007. RuPaul’s Drag Race started airing on Logo in 2009, and attracted an audience with its unique mixture of outrageousness and authenticity. In other words, RuPaul has long been a vivid rebuke to rigid world views, conservative social values, and self-seriousness of all kinds, well before the culture shift that’s opened up a growth market for his message. And as the move to VH1 and the Emmy nominations indicate, that audience is growing more than ever.
“For young people, our show serves as the blueprint to navigate this life, especially if you are a sweet, sensitive soul,” RuPaul said. “Especially if you are having to navigate your emotions and you have dreams and aspirations that aren’t your parents’ aspirations for you. In the muck and mire of this world, these lotus flowers have emerged and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to follow my heart. I’m going to go with love and beauty and music and laughter and dancing and colors. That’s how I’m going to live my life.’ And for young people, they look up to that for good reason.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race is inherently political in its poking fun at gender roles, and RuPaul himself was a vocal campaigner for Hillary Clinton. At our interview, which happened a week before the white nationalist protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, RuPaul said he took hope from the 13-year-olds who watch his show and attend his drag conventions.
“Drag has always been a political statement,” RuPaul says. “It has always been a social statement. Our statement has always been to not take life too seriously, and to laugh at people who see things just as black and white. The Trump way of thinking, it’s restrictive. It’s old-fashioned, and it’s really not reflective of who we are as Americans, honestly. There is a narrative that we have been moving toward as Americans that has been derailed by this divisive nastiness. We Americans are not nasty people. We are open, fun-loving, progressive people, and so our show serves to represent that voice, and to carry on the narrative of the American dream, which is openness and expansive thinking. That’s who we are. We’re not the other thing.”
Despite his successes, RuPaul said he sometimes still feels like an outsider in Hollywood, a sense cemented at a recent conference his agency, CAA, held to discuss inclusion issues in the industry. “Being gay, black, drag . . . a lot of the power players, I met them all, but there was still a bit of a standoffishness with me,” RuPaul says. “They didn’t know what category to put me in. They know, yeah, I’m famous, and I’ve done all these things, but they didn’t know how to approach me. I went thinking, O.K., let’s go. Let’s roll up our sleeves and let’s talk. I didn’t really find a lot of that there. It was very much like Animal Farm where, yes, revolution, but then the animals wanted to do exactly, secretly, what Farmer John was doing. It was like, ‘oh, no, no, no. Let’s burn this goddamn farm down’!”
RuPaul’s next effort to shake up the system is a scripted TV show he’s producing with J.J. Abrams’s company, Bad Robot, based on his young, club-hopping days in New York City in the 1980s. As with Drag Race, the show will reflect RuPaul’s belief that sometimes the most defiant things you can do are dance and laugh through the darkness.
“This is during the Reagan 80s,” RuPaul says. “New York was just coming out of being bankrupt, and there was a sense of freedom. It was back when New York was really a tapestry, when everybody could live there. Not just rich people. And I would go to five or six clubs in one night, and whites, blacks, gays, straight, Puerto Rican, Latin, uptown, downtown . . . We believed this was the only place in the world where everybody could come together. We’d be walking down St. Mark’s, and out of every car there was a ghetto blaster. They were blasting Madonna, ‘Into the Groove.’ Dun, dun, dun, dun . . . Everybody. It was so fun! It was so fun.”
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