The Queen of Queens
RuPaul is back with a hit reality show, Drag Race. The mother of all drag stars talks about the show’s shocking HIV reveal, besting Tyra Banks, and why there aren’t more Michelle Obama impersonators.
You Better Work! That’s RuPaul’s classic line, a ‘90s command for women and men alike to be as fabulous and bawdy as possible. The lyric (from Ru’s hit “Supermodel”) represents the old RuPaul, the world-famous drag queen of music videos and talk shows, who was neither male nor female, but stunning, shocking, and approachable. Then, almost a decade ago, RuPaul seemed to disappear. The drag queen—born RuPaul Andre Charles in Atlanta 48 years ago—went underground, disco anthems and all, to contemplate her next move. Though she released a few pop albums in the interim, Ru stayed fairly quiet…until now.
I did a Christmas card where I portrayed both Michelle and Barack Obama. I call it Rubama.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition for up and coming drag queens, has quickly become Logo’s top show since it premiered in February (“We put Logo on the map,” Ru says). With a coveted re-run slot on VH1, it has become more than just a cult hit. We caught up with RuPaul (who will soon start touring for her new album, Champion) before the show concludes this week, to talk about bringing drag into the mainstream, the Obama administration, and why a recession will be fabulous for “the new crop of girls.”
Hey, Ru. How are you feeling about Drag Race as it comes to an end?
Oh my god, it's been so much fun. It's been great to introduce drag to America in a traditional sense. There's been [drag] from straight men like Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence but not drag coming from gay men. Introducing it like that has been phenomenal. I think everybody loves it and welcomes it after a 10-year drought of me being out there.
Why did you decide to make your comeback now?
Our country has been basically held hostage—self-imposed I might add—by this fear and hysteria for the last eight years. When that is happening, traditionally, anybody who thinks outside the box or has contrary views has to really go underground. You can't fight City Hall, you can't fight a mob mentality. Now that has sort of relaxed a bit and it's a perfect time for me to reemerge and for new ideas to emerge. But it couldn't have happened even a year ago. We weren't ready for that.
How are the drag queens different now from when you were coming up?
They’re more shameless in a sense that they don't feel the stigma attached to men using femininity. We live in a male dominated culture. Anytime boys, even girls, use femininity as a vernacular people are judged harshly. But there is a new sense that there is less of that with the new crop of girls.
How does someone get into drag nowadays?
What happens is people who have been disenfranchised [from] society have an opportunity to step out of the parameters and really examine it. You wonder, how can I make this work for me because they're clearly not accepting me as I am? … You realize that it's all a hoax. It's all an illusion. So then your refuge is to have fun with it and tear it apart. And make fun of the very things that shunned you. Drag queens are people that have looked behind the curtain, under the hood, to understand that all society is an illusion.
How did you get into drag? Did you just put on the wig and it felt like a second skin?
I grew up in a house that was all girls. I always had a green light to do what I wanted to do. Of course, people said, "Boys aren't supposed to do that," and it didn't really start to become an issue until I hit puberty. Then I was in a punk-rock band in the early ‘80s. We dressed up to shock people as a political statement. I got this reaction from people that was really overwhelming and I took note and thought, 'Oh, people are saying it's shocking looking but that I look glamorous and gorgeous and stuff.' I thought, I can use this. That's when the really big throwdown happened. When I understood that I could use this thing as a tool for my bigger aspirations.
What are the reactions you've gotten from people since the show started? Have people said they want to get into drag?
I went to a pitch meeting for a show last year and the guy in the office asked me why is it that people do drag? And I said why is it that more people don't do drag? What in our culture keeps us from dressing up and using all the colors in the creative box? The answer to that question is we grow up in a fear culture that says blacks go there, and Jews go there, and it’s really interesting that we inflict these margins and parameters on our lives. I have to credit drag with helping me tear down a lot of those walls. Once you tear down one wall its like, you know what, we could have a really great room if we tore down all of these.
Are you trying to become the Tyra Banks of drag queens with the show?
Oh, honey, I'm the queen of queens, and I don't really need another challenge... I’ve gone where no queen as gone before. But I’d love to see someone take the drag crown from me, and I think someone in the crop of girls we found for the show can honestly take it farther.
How did you respond to the moment when Ongina—one of the contestants—came out as HIV positive live on the show?
I have to admit, I was shocked. ... That revelation on the show really amplified what a spirit experiences on this planet. It was poignant because with her brightness and her zest for life, she is also dealing with something very dark. It’s beautiful. That’s what true drag is all about—it’s all about saying, “I’m going to use all the colors in the crayon box because this life is fleeting.”
Will the recession be good for drag? It’s typically flourished in downtrodden times.
Oh, yes, this is the same thing as in the '70s. Drag doesn't cost any money. In times when the economy is in the toilet traditionally drag has overcome.
Are you excited for the new administration?
It is so fabulous. Even if they do nothing else but squat in the White House for the next four years. They have already done enough—in terms of giving so much hope to a country and a world that is feeling so hopeless after being basically hoodwinked for so long with this fleecing of our Treasury by the previous administration.
So why aren’t there more Michelle Obama drag queens? I’d think you’d want to pay respect.
Oh, it’s too early on for that! But I did a Christmas card where I portrayed both Michelle and Barack Obama. I call it Rubama. And the Michelles will come.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.