Culture

RuPaul on the Timeless Power of Drag

by Eric Sasson

March 8, 2016

RuPaul Andre Charles is, hands down, the most famous drag queen in the world. Has been, really, since he burst onto the scene in 1993 with the hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Since then, RuPaul has been the face of MAC Cosmetics, hosted his own talk show on VH1 and radio show on WKTU, and appeared in several movies. He also has released numerous albums and even a couple of books.

But RuPaul is probably most known for launching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo in 2009, easily the network’s most successful show, and one that can take much of the credit for introducing drag culture to a mainstream audience. Over the course of seven seasons, the show has redefined the words “fish” and “sickening,” and has made household names of Sharon Needles and Bianca Del Rio, two among many who tour the country on the wildly successful drag queen circuit.

It wasn’t always so easy for RuPaul, especially in the early ’90s, when he had to keep his cool on The Arsenio Hall Show or MTV, facing audiences who weren’t necessarily receptive to those who openly challenged the gender binary. These days, drag’s chilliest reception may come from certain members of the LGBT community itself, who accuse the art form of transphobia and misogyny. Through it all, RuPaul has maintained an unwaveringly optimistic outlook, earning a reputation as the “nice” drag queen—proof that kindness can actually get you pretty far in life. 

GOOD sat down for a one-on-one with RuPaul on the eve of the premiere of Season 8 of Drag Race.

Drag Race is celebrating its 100th episode this season. What do you think is the secret to the show’s success? Why do people keep tuning in, season after season?

The show is about the tenacity of the human spirit, that’s why. When you really look under the hood, that’s what it’s about. Yes, there’s drag, and colors, there are some catfights, but when you really get to the core, it’s about the tenacity of the human spirit. These are real boys who grew up in small towns or wherever they come from, disenfranchised, who somehow, against all odds, made it this far. And then the big challenges begin. Even after they leave the show, they continue to face challenges because stardom, especially in drag, is a huge undertaking.

The thing that I love about the show is that while it’s campy and outrageous and the talent is “sickening,” as you’d say, it’s not just about the spectacle. There is real human emotion, real pain and suffering that we, the audience, are witness to, with people struggling to accept themselves and feel comfortable in their skin. Did you know that would be a part of the show from the beginning?

I know what comes part and parcel of the whole drag experience is that it has so many different layers to it … You know, when you look at drag, you realize that drag is mocking identity, and it has through the history of mankind on this planet. Drag has been represented through the witch doctor, the shaman, the court jester, and the purpose of drag is to remind our culture to not take itself so seriously. When you add drag into the mix in any situation, it takes on these deeper meanings, so I knew that once we put our queens in this situation, so many different layers would reveal themselves to the audience and to us.

You know, the producers and I plan out and we do these challenges, yet there are always these things that come up that we could have never in a million years imagined. It has to do with the queens’ personal stories. They bring so much real character. They have lived hard lives to get to where they are and they know how to fight, and that’s what’s interesting about watching.

You’re known for having a very positive, life-affirming attitude. But I’m sure like many of your girls, you had your own set of struggles and needed to discover that positivity inside you. Could you talk a bit about your earlier struggles and how you overcame them? Also, why do you think it’s so important to emphasize the positive in life, and on your show?

On this planet, we’ve all agreed that there’s black and white, up and down, yin and yang, male and female. There’s this duality. You could choose either/or, really—glass half-full or half-empty. Both are correct. But I will tell you this: One of those choices will bring you joy and the other is bound to bring you pain. So when you’re faced with those choices, you have to ask yourself, “What do [I] want?”

Like the girls on our show, I was a little outsider, and had to find my tribe, find my way, and it took many years for me to do that. So the struggle is (a) real, and (b) an ongoing negotiation. Every single day you wake up, you have to decide how you want to approach this. You want to go dark or you want to go light—both are correct. But I choose joy.

You can certainly take a lot of credit for drag going mainstream in our culture. But is there any part of you that misses the old days, when drag was considered more subversive and defiant?

I think it is still defiant and subversive and I will tell you why—because we break ... through the fourth wall.… Drag makes fun of and mocks identity. Now we all believe that we are what things say we are on our drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, or income tax statements. But the truth is, that’s not who we really are, and drag blows the lid off that whole philosophy. So it is dangerous. It is punk rock, and that’s why people have really pushed drag to the side over the years, because nobody wants to be told, “You’re not who you think you are.” We are mocking identity, we are mocking the culture, everything that everybody thinks is so important, and so in that regard, it’s still very dangerous. I’ve joked before that once I got famous, I couldn’t terrorize y’all’s neighborhoods anymore, because people are watching and I had to represent, and now my girls represent, and they are still naughty and dangerous and politically incorrect.

What would you say is the biggest difference between the queens you see rising up today and the queens you knew when you were on your way up?

There’s a big difference, and this is true not just in drag, but across the board in our culture. Young people today were raised by parents who are around my age who wanted to make things better for their kids, so they wanted to save them from some of life’s harsh realities. In fact, they made their houses baby-safe so they couldn’t hit their heads. But that’s given young people a false sense of how the world is. The world is harsh, the world is offensive, the world is mean. It’s also the opposite of all those things too, but you can’t just show one side of the picture, you have to show the whole ball.

The difference with the young kids coming up is that they don’t know they have to pay the dues that my generation paid. They feel like they could just ease on by the hard yards. But the truth is, that hasn’t changed, the universe hasn’t changed, you still have to put in those hard yards. There’s no way around it: Nobody gets a free ride. You either pay on the way in, or you pay on the way out. But you gonna pay, bitch.

Do you think young people nowadays know enough about drag’s history in the advancement of LGBT civil rights?

They don’t know, and that’s really our fault. People my age and younger who had kids decided that they didn’t need to remind young people. That’s why I feel good about our show. We get to educate young people about the history of drag and the history of the LGBT movement and the history of mankind on this planet. Still, there’s a lot that could be done, not just on a TV show, but out in the community.

But you know, listen—you can’t force someone, if they’re busy on their smartphone, you can’t force them and say, “Look, this is important.” It just doesn’t work.

To get just a bit political: Sensibilities seem to have changed a bit now that LGBT rights have gone more mainstream. Some college campuses have actually considered banning drag because they worry that it’s “homophobic” or “demeans women.” And a recent pride event in Scotland banned cis drag performers over worries that it might offend transgender people. How would you respond to that?

They’re fucking idiots and who cares about them. The truth is, they’re digging their own graves. These kids who think they’re so smart, they don’t know shit. Drag is so clever because it gets to the core of who we are ... It would be interesting to see what those young people have to say once the electricity gets cut off and they have to go into survival mode. We’ll see where all those highfalutin ideals will go. They’re the first ones to start crying [imitates crying] because they don’t know shit. They don’t know how to negotiate and navigate this life.

I once did this sitcom where one of the characters said, “I want to live in a world where my child doesn’t have to endure war.” Well, ok, that’s a cute statement, but… War is a reality of the world we all agreed to enter. It’s the opposite of peace. You can’t have all daylight—no, nighttime has to come. That’s just the way it is, and you either make peace with that or not. But these ideals that people come up with on college campuses or wherever are absolutely ridiculous. So they’re banning drag, whatever—they lose out. These college kids think they are so smart. Well, get real, bitch, you are not that smart.

This world is upsetting, get used to it. I said this in the promotion for Butch Queen, my latest album, which is an homage to the drag warriors, [that] drag queens are like the Marines of the LGBT movement. We suit up, we show up, and we are ready to serve at all times, and it’s so funny how people forget that. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, the gist of the book is that the animals forgot why they had a revolution in the first place. They said, “Oh, now it’s ok for us to start standing up on our hind legs,” because over time they weren’t reminded of why we are doing what we do in the first place. Drag has always been a reminder of, “Bitch, don’t get it twisted, we are all the same.” In fact ... we are all the same and drag is there to remind you, don’t get too full of yourself because it’s all an illusion.

Let’s talk Season 8. Tell me something that is going to surprise me about the contestants this season.

You know, what’s interesting about this season is that these kids are the Drag Race generation. They grew up watching the show and their whole idea of drag comes from the show, and this is the first time that happened and it makes for an interesting competition. Because you know, we put together these challenges, and we’re very clever in the producers’ room, [but] they seemingly have cracked the code. But we still have lots more surprises because we’ve been around longer and we’re smarter than them. [Laughs signature RuPaul laugh.]

Tell me about your new game show, Gay for Play. The name is certainly provocative.

It’s a very provocative game. It’s a very cheeky, sexy, fun show. It’s a pop trivia quiz show where two contestants get an opportunity to win over $5,000 in cash and prizes and it’s a combination of Match Game, Hollywood Squares, Deal or No Deal, Family Feud, it’s all in there. And it’s so sexy and fun, with a panel of stars who are just as irreverent and sassy. I could see myself doing this for the next 30 years, it’s so much fun. I love playing games anyway. You know, in our culture—and this has always been true—gay vernacular, gay sensibilities, used to trickle down into mainstream culture about 10 years later. But because of social media, straight mainstream culture gets our vernacular faster. What we decided to do is to take back our vernacular and sensibilities in the show and show those bitches how it’s really done. They’ve stolen our lip synching on another show which shall remain nameless, but we’ve decided to take what is our birthright and let these bitches have it, and it’s hilaaaarious.

Photos courtesy of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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RuPaul on the Timeless Power of Drag