"Meghan's arrival as a royal marks a new era. I like the way she challenges the norm". Interview by Katie Glass.
When friends hear I am meeting RuPaul, they are more excited than if I were meeting the Queen. RuPaul is, of course, up there with Her Majesty at the pinnacle of glamour and camp. He is also the star of the television show RuPaul's Drag Race, which is arriving in Britain this year after 10 years and 11 series in the US. If you haven't seen Drag Race — what do you mean, you haven't seen Drag Race? — it is a reality show in which drag queens compete to win prize money, cosmetics deals and a huge diamante-encrusted crown. It is the race to become "America's next drag superstar".
The format of each episode is simple: there are two challenges (such as designing a costume or writing and performing a comedy routine), a walk down the runway dressed in outfits inspired by stars such as Britney Spears, Melania Trump or one of the Kardashians, and then a lip-sync battle in front of judges. What began as a niche celebration of drag has turned into a mainstream cultural phenomenon. The show has earned 12 Emmy awards from 28 nominations (with one further nomination for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards next Monday), several international spin-offs, millions of mega-fans and celebrity cheerleaders including Lady Gaga, Cara Delevingne and Debbie Harry, each of whom has featured as a guest judge. It is a glorious romp of crazy, OTT costumes, cat fights between contestants and high-drama karaoke-offs, and at the centre of it all is the person the contestants call "Mama Ru": RuPaul Andre Charles, the Simon Cowell of the show.
As I arrive at the east London television studios where the first UK episodes are being filmed, the excitement is palpable. In one room, drag queens prep at benches and sift through shiny fabric for today's challenge (they have to dress up family members). In another vast studio stands the famous stage, where contestants "lip-sync for their life" and "sashay away" if they're booted off. During a break in filming, I catch a glimpse of RuPaul's husband, Georges LeBar, a tall, striking rancher he met in a New York nightclub in 1994. They were married in 2017, and now split their time between Los Angeles and LeBar's 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. Their relationship sounds fabulous. On their second date they took Elton John's private jet from London to Dusseldorf, and they often flit to San Francisco, New York and Maui.
I am ushered into a small office, accompanied by three producers, to meet RuPaul himself. Disappointingly, he arrives make-up-free, a gangly, towering beanpole in a blue velour tracksuit. He has sharp features and skin so smooth you'd never guess he was "almost a hundred years old" (he's 58). I attempt some polite chitchat while I set up my tape recorder. "You get that going first," Ru says, pursing his lips.
I suggest we begin with the history of Drag Race. How did the idea originate? "How long is this interview?" Ru interrupts. "An hour," I reply. "Noo!" he screams. For a moment I understand what it was like for the contestant Valentina, who forgot the words to Greedy by Ariana Grande for her lip-sync. "No! No! No!" Ru keeps wailing. "I thought it was 30 minutes." A short discussion about misunderstood timings follows. RuPaul's "least favourite thing is being interviewed". We continue. The UK, RuPaul says, is "one of our biggest audiences in the world", hence why the show has landed here. Does he think British queens can be as emotionally candid as the American contestants? "Oh yeah. All humans are like that."
He reveals that in one round of Drag Race UK, the contestants will give a performance inspired by the Queen. RuPaul wanted Meghan Markle as a guest judge, but when they were recording she was heavily pregnant. "So," he says, "the invitation is still open for season 2. Meghan's arrival in the royal family marks a whole new era. I like the way she challenges the norm."
For now, he will have to make do with British judges including Cheryl (Tweedy/Cole/Fernandez-Versini), Geri Horner, Alan Carr, Graham Norton, Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall and the Game of Thrones goddess Maisie Williams. "What I love the most about drag," Williams said, "is the story behind the facade. So much of drag comes from a place of real pain, and seeing how that transforms into a character is so interesting to me."
Perhaps surprisingly, what's most compelling about Drag Race isn't the glitz or giggles. Rather it's the way it teeters between superficial and sincere, posturing and profound. Howling laughter is juxtaposed with shocking revelations. For example, Ongina (Ryan Ong Palao) disclosed in the first series that she has HIV, and Blair St Clair (Andrew Bryson) revealed in series 10 that she was raped at a college party.
In series 5, Roxxxy Andrews (Michael Feliciano) performed a hilarious routine, and then let out "a primal wail" while telling the story of his mother abandoning him as a three-year-old with his sister at a bus stop. "It cut through the air like a knife," RuPaul says. "The queens cried. The judges cried. I cried. And then something magical happened. The competition went away, and the queens swooped in to surround Roxxxy with love and support. In that moment I was reminded that as gay people we get to choose our families. We get to choose our tribe. Those back-to-back events sum up what Drag Race is all about."
Given his notoriety for "serving realness", RuPaul is surprisingly reluctant to engage in conversation that's too controversial, including the hot-potato political debates that feel significant to Drag Race.
When I try to engage him in a discussion about the breakdown of gender binaries, he paraphrases a line from the musical Hair: "Do whatever you want to do with your life as long as you don't hurt anyone else … that's what my creed has always been." I ask if he's had a favourite past contestant and he diplomatically says: "Mama Ru loves all her girls."
Then I ask what he makes of women being offended by drag — the ones who feel it's a parody of being female. He shrugs. "It's a parody of humans … it mocks everybody and it doesn't single out anybody. Drag is making fun of all the things we take so seriously."
He's particularly reluctant to discuss the controversy that erupted last year after he told an interviewer that he "probably" wouldn't accept a trans woman who had undergone gender-realignment surgery as a contestant. The issue arose because series 9 of Drag Race had featured a contestant called Peppermint, who had spoken openly about transitioning from male to female. But RuPaul said that although Peppermint "was identifying as a woman … she hadn't really transitioned".
He added that drag, as a comment on gender, "takes on a different thing" when someone is transitioning biologically. Is that still true? "Why are people obsessed with that question?" he retorts, complaining that his quote was taken "so out of context".
This followed on from controversy over a "transphobic" pun used on Drag Race, which referred to messages sent by RuPaul as "she-mail". Trans activists complained, and "she-mail" was dropped.
Now, RuPaul says he's frustrated by the subject. "There seems to be this obsession with trying to create this 'us against them' storyline," he says, claiming that there has always been a relationship between the trans and drag communities. "We share a history. The two worlds intersect, but also maintain their own unique qualities. In my personal experiences in Atlanta and [New York's] Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s, we performed together. We shared the same safe spaces, like bars and clubs. We laughed, smoked, drank and took care of each other. One of our contestants, Monica Beverly Hillz, said it best when she said, 'Drag is what I do, trans is who I am.' "
RuPaul never questioned his gender. He didn't do drag because he wanted to be a woman. "I do drag as an extension of my love of music, beauty and humour. It's a way to pay the bills. It's a way for me to play with all the colours in the crayon box, and to give a big FU to a patriarchal society that says boys do this, girls do that."
Does that mean women can do drag? "Women are in drag," RuPaul shrugs. "You're born naked and the rest is drag." But, specifically, can women do Drag Race? None have. "Urgh, umm," RuPaul mumbles, tongue-tied for once. "Drag Race is …" He pauses before one of the show's producers helpfully interrupts, pointing out the show is "inclusive, because it's the BBC". In fact, some women did apply, but none made the cut. RuPaul emails me later to insist he wouldn't rule them out. "I've learnt to never say never," he writes.
I'm surprised RuPaul is so guarded. When he first appeared, he was so provocative, challenging and seminal in changing the conversation around drag. He became mega-famous in the early 1990s with his single Supermodel, and went on to front an ad campaign for the cosmetics brand Mac.
Cross-dressing performers have been around since Shakespeare's time, when male actors played female characters — the term "drag" is believed to have originated in the theatre. By the early 1900s, drag queens were starring in their own vaudeville shows, and the counterculture developed at underground "drag balls", which gained popularity throughout the 20th century. Drag became subversive and rebellious — it railed against the mainstream.
Judith Butler, the third-wave feminist and academic, built her career on her drag-queen theory. She argued that we are born with our biological sex (male or female), but gender (being masculine or feminine) is something we simply dress up in. Drag reflects the ridiculousness of people's identity back at them. It demonstrates that gender can be easily imitated, and therefore must be a performance for all of us. Gender is not "real" — it is all a show.
Before RuPaul, mainstream drag often seemed like a cruel parody of women. It was pantomime dames like Auntie Flo, Mrs Shufflewick or Paul O'Grady doing Lily Savage. RuPaul turned that joke into a celebration. He embraced women's enjoyment of sexiness and beauty.
Now, when I ask him to revisit his original motivations, he says: "It was about me having fun with my life. If other people got something from me enjoying my life, yay, go for it. But it was never my intention to push the conversation. I've got a great pair of sticks and most of my own teeth and I just want to smile and dance."
At first I find this frustrating, but later I see RuPaul's reluctance to upset anyone in another light — as a combination of kindness (for years he turned down reality TV formats that were "too mean-spirited") and a desire to avoid confrontation that stems from his childhood.
RuPaul's formative years, like those of many performers, were a mixture of conflict and self-belief. He grew up in a "crazy-ass hillbilly" house in San Diego, in what he's described as a "tumultuous" family, watching his parents' divorce turn into a "war zone". He was the family peacekeeper. "I grew up believing I was going to be famous," he says. "I just didn't know for what."
He first saw drag on television in Monty Python and Some Like It Hot. He recalls a short-running American show about a boy who disguises himself as a girl and accidentally becomes a Twiggy-style supermodel. "It had a huge impact on me. My first thought was 'That's a dude. Like, how in the world?' The premise of it was so shoddy, as in, how is it no one can tell?" he laughs. (Twiggy is still one of RuPaul's heroes. He's thrilled she's one of his UK guest judges.) Still, he wouldn't try drag himself until many years later.
At 15, he left home to live in Atlanta with Renetta, one of his three sisters, and had what he jokes was his "bar mitzvah". He was suddenly "able to create myself and explore myself because I was away from the neighbourhood I grew up in".
When he discovered David Bowie, he knew he was "on the right track". But at the same time, he says, "You have to be careful that the hoi polloi don't feel threatened by you and burn you at the stake." It was only because his sisters were huge Bowie fans that "there were things that I could get away with". He continues: "Outrageous clothes and mixed patterns. I love textures and colours, I love it, I love it! I couldn't live without that — so people allowed me to do it."
After making a name for himself on the Atlanta nightclub circuit, RuPaul moved in the 1980s to New York, where he partied on the same scene as Madonna and Andy Warhol. He spent a decade working in underground clubs, sleeping on couches, in parks and in cheap hotels. He continued to dabble in drag, but mostly stuck with Bowie-esque androgyny. When he did shows, "people would say, 'It's fun, but when are you going to do your drag thing again?' " For a while he resisted. He thought, "I can't be world famous in drag." Then he had an epiphany, "a light going off in my head". He realised he had to listen "to the universe's stage directions. I had it all wrong, that [drag] is your way in."
His reluctance must have been partly because wearing drag on the streets of 1980s New York was dangerous. "Yeah, there was danger," he agrees, "but I ran real fast. I know people who have been beaten up. I've had bottles thrown at me, but I've been very lucky … I have a sense of looking around and seeing where the danger is." He thinks he was shielded by his rose-tinted personality. "There's a sweetness about me, and that's something I've learnt to work with," he says. "I was never bullied, I learnt how to navigate out of that stuff."
When he did finally become a glamazonian drag queen, his career exploded. He appeared in the B-52's Love Shack video and was crowned Queen of Manhattan by a panel of club owners and promoters. He sent a demo tape to record companies, and in 1992 landed a hit with Supermodel (You Better Work). "My biggest hurdle in life had been my own limited perception of myself," he says. Now he sees the same thing in contestants on Drag Race and among friends "standing in the way of their own destiny, their own golden ticket, the way drag was mine". The problem is "most people don't want to hear the truth of what they are. Or they have very little self-knowledge of what it would take for them to go to the front of the line."
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Of all the things RuPaul says, this stays with me. It seems such astute advice. So much so that I find myself wondering if RuPaul might take it more seriously himself. What has surprised him most about the show is "the full extent to which millions of people from around the globe — young, old, gay, straight and everything in between — relate to the queens' struggles and triumphs. The bond between the queens and the viewers is profound."
RuPaul's clear intelligence and empathy, combined with the platform he has made for himself, give him an opportunity to advance gender and LGBT issues. He has already had Nancy Pelosi on the show and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wanting to be a judge, and has featured on Time's 100 most influential people list. Now perhaps it's time for the next step. When it comes to reality-show stars running for office, there is a precedent.
• RuPaul's Drag Race UK streams on TVNZ OnDemand from Friday, October 4.
Written by: Katie Glass
© Financial Times