We take a look at RuPaul’s legacy and the empire he’s built by simply deciding to be himself — with a whole lot of persona. Sashay! Shantay!
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Call it a saying, catchphrase, adage – whichever suits your definition best, it’s a mantra close to RuPaul Charles’ heart. Credited with not only coining the phrase, he lives it to the fullest.
A quick rummage through Charles’ drag persona wardrobe would reveal ensembles suitable for a supermodel of the world, recording artist, television host, producer, director, two-time Emmy winner, actor, TV judge, comedian, and queen of realness.
“As a kid, I thought: Is everybody getting that this is kind of an illusion?” Charles told Oprah Winfrey in 2017 of the meaning behind the catchphrase. “Then at about 11 years old, I found my tribe on PBS in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I thought, ‘Ok, they get it. They’re irreverent, they’re not taking anything seriously and they’re having fun.’ That’s what this is all about.”
Drag, according to Charles, applies to us all, regardless of gender, race or social background. It’s how we choose to show ourselves to the world, what personas we adopt as we move through life. “Why not make it work for you,” he said to Winfrey. “If you have the power to control how people see and interpret you, why not use it?”
Harnessing that power, Charles has built a multi-million-dollar, decades-long show business empire that is currently riding high with the tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a non-stop singing career, inclusion in Time’s 2017 Most Influential People list, producer and star of Drag Tots! (premiering on Wow Presents Plus on June 28), and the publication of a third self-written book GuRu (Dey Street Books) set to hit shelves October 23. Not only that, but he’s also working on a scripted television series with the director J.J. Abrams based on his own life.
Charles was the first drag artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 16, 2018. “This is absolutely the most important moment in my professional career,” he said at the unveiling, which was presented by Charles’ close friend Jane Fonda, whom he credits with inspiring his eventual leap into drag after he saw Fonda’s Barbarella on the cover of Life magazine in 1968.
“As a kid we’d come up here – they’d drop me off right here on Hollywood Boulevard – so I could look at all the stars and dream that one day, I could be one of the stars,” he said during the ceremony, which was also attended by Australian painter Georges LeBar, Charles’ longtime partner, whom he married in 2017.
Born RuPaul Andre Charles on November 17, 1960, in San Diego, California, he was the only boy of his parents’ four children. His parents divorced when he was seven and he spent much of teens living in Atlanta, Georgia, with his sister and her husband. Stints in rock bands followed and in the mid-1980s he headed north to New York City where he became part of the burgeoning drag scene, performing in clubs as a dancer and appearing at the annual Wigstock festival. In 1991 he was signed to Tommy Boy Records, and two years later his debut album, Supermodel of the World, was released. The single “Supermodel (You Better Work),” reached the top 50 of the pop charts and number 2 on the dance charts.
In 1993 the single was nominated for Best Dance Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. Though not a winner, RuPaul was a presenter at the event. By the mid-90s he was a household name. He continued recording music, received a modeling contract with MAC Cosmetics, appeared in movies such as Blue in the Face and The Brady Bunch Movie, and landed his own TV talk show, The RuPaul Show, which ran until 1998.
The early years of the 21st century saw him continue to produce more studio albums. Then, in 2009, he debuted the reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. The weekly show features competing drag queens who must perform the same tasks that made RuPaul a star: modeling, dancing, acting, appearing on TV talk shows and, of course, creating costumes that must dazzle and entertain. According to RuPaul it’s a test of their “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent.”
The show has a revolving table of judges (though RuPaul always has the final say in which queen is cut each week), special guest stars including Lady Gaga, Bob Mackie, Henry Rollins, Jackie Collins, Lily Tomlin, Wayne Brady, Pamela Anderson, Isaac Mizrahi, Merle Ginsberg, Demi Lovato, Marc Jacobs, and Courtney Love, and launched spin-off shows Untucked! and Drag Race All Stars alongside successful international performing careers for the winners and notable contestants. It’s also responsible for the creation of the annual DragCon conventions in Los Angeles and New York City.
Skewering gender expectations and perceived norms, the show differs from most reality television in that it celebrates the different, the individual and operates from a place of optimism where contestants are encouraged to be their best selves — on and off the runway.
“We’re dealing with people who have been shunned by society and have made a life regardless of what anyone else thinks of them have decided,” Charles said to the Guardian when discussing the show in 2014. “It shows tenacity of the human spirit, which each of us watching relates to. And we root for them. I think that is what is so captivating about it, seeing how these beautiful creatures have managed to prevail.”
Prior to Drag Race Charles said that “it would take about 10 years for something in gay culture to actually migrate to the mainstream,” but, “because of our show, gay pop culture is pop culture in the mainstream. Everybody knows all the terminology. It’s really interesting for us to bring a lot of the old ideas and gay culture forward to pop culture mainstream.”
Today, Charles notes the evolution of the show in parallel to America’s changing relationship with LGBT rights and acceptance. He’s aware of a growing number of teenagers with no connection to his “You better work!” persona of the 90s now watching. “I think smart 13-year-old girls see the show as a way to take the pressure off society’s expectation of them,” he told Vogue in 2018. “I think the drag queens are able to show them that they don’t have to take beauty and fashion seriously.”
Loathe to see the show, or himself, as a comment on or representation of where we are as a society, instead, Charles focuses on what he discovered as an 11-year-old watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus for the first time: irreverence, not taking anything too seriously and having fun. Though he is aware of the effect he has had and the lives he has changed.
“I never set out to be a role model, I may have set out to be a supermodel, but not a role model,” he explained to Vogue. “But I accept the responsibility and it’s an honor. The contestants call me Mama Ru.”