Blood, Sweat and Rhinestones: How RuPaul Built a Mothertucking Empire Out of Nothing
November 17, 2019
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”
It’s a catchphrase oft repeated on RuPaul’s Drag Race, seen by some as nothing more than a clever bon mot meant to drive home the importance of the competition, but for RuPaul, the brain behind the phrase, it’s something more.
It’s a mantra that’s led the multi-hyphenate personality to his bountiful empire consisting of a wildly successful reality TV franchise, 14 studio albums, three books, a podcast, an annual drag-themed convention and a line of candy bars, not to mention countless film and TV appearances in other folk’s creations, as he’s popularized an art form that exists to defy the very nature of the mainstream.
It’s a guiding light to a career that seemed, to a little boy born RuPaul Andre Charles in San Diego, Calif. on November 17, 1960, not impossible, as it might to those cut from a less fabulous cloth, but entirely mothertucking inevitable.
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“I knew that I would be famous and I knew that I would be a star, but I knew I couldn’t go directly to Los Angeles. I knew, based on my reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, that I would have to go to New York, become a downtown superstar, and that would be the way I could transfer into mainstream stardom and get into Hollywood. I’m telling you, I knew this at 12 years old,” Ru told Entertainment Weekly in 2016 of his start. “So I moved to Atlanta when I was 15, went to the School of Performing Arts, worked in my family business [selling used cars] for six years, and then started my act.”
And that act, honed down south before Ru attempted to break into the Big Apple, was nothing like what we’ve come to expect from the most famous drag queen in the world. And yet, it was entirely in step with what the iconoclast has always stood for. “I decided to start doing drag more as a way to get a rise out of the existing drag community and the preppy Reagan ‘80s anti-disco story line. It was a way to capture some of that Warhol fun and make a statement,” he told the publication. “Smeared lipstick and combat boots and ratty wigs. It was a great golden era of drag—there was a tradition and a language attached to it. But we busted in and broke all the rules.”
After an ill-fated move to New York in 1984 saw Ru return to Atlanta after only six months with his tail between his legs, he began to develop his original drag character, undercover model Starrbooty, and a more femme approach to the act. “When I got into drag, straight men, straight women, everybody would go, ‘Bitch, damn.’ And I could feel it. I had never felt it before. I knew I had power. And I knew that it was important for me to get a lot of work done, wherever I was,” Ru explained. “I wrote and produced and put together shows. I made about 16 Starrbootys, these trashy little movies on VHS. Atlanta gave me the freedom to produce that kind of stuff. Those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about [needing to master anything]—that was that period for me, between 1982 and 1992. Not making a dime, but putting in hard yards. I would write books. I would sell postcards at the club. I would do whatever it took to make up the credits for those 10,000 hours.”
It was in Atlanta where he also met two young musicians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who would go on to become seminal figures in Ru’s life and career. “When we met him, he was wheat-pasting posters of himself that said, ‘RuPaul Is Everything.’ I often think of that moment because it was just so symbolic in many ways,” Bailey recalled of those early days. “It contained the fundamental message of Ru from the beginning…And it was instant recognition. You couldn’t miss it. Like when you see a UFO. You knew what you were seeing. He was a motherf–king star.”
In 1987, Ru returned to New York and dove head-first into working as a go-go dancer, building a name for himself among the Club Kids, getting work from club impresario Suzanne Bartsch to just be RuPaul at her parties. But nothing was coming together like Ru expected and a year later, as he was turning 28, he’d already left the city for Los Angeles, sleeping on his younger sister’s couch, before returning to San Diego and his mother’s house.
“I was at the end of my rope. I thought, ‘Could it be that this is not meant for me?’ It was this horrible existence. And one day, [friend and DJ] Larry Tee called me and said, “Ru, what the f–k are you doing? You are a f–king star. Get your ass back to New York. I will pay for your ticket. But get your ass back here and get your s–t together.’ And I did. You need those friends who are going to shake you up and say, ‘Dorothy, wake up’ when you get stuck in the poppy field. So I got a plane ticket and decided I was going to f–king shave these legs, I’m going to shave my chest, I’m going to put some f–king titties in—rolled-up socks, not implants—and I’m going to go back to New York and give those bitches exactly what they want from me. And overnight, I became the star of downtown.”
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After a big-time featured appearance in the B-52’s 1989 music video for “Love Shack” gave Ru his first taste of national exposure, he was literally crowned Queen of Manhattan by a panel of club owners and promoters. “And after my reign was done in September of 1990, I was ready to move to the next level,” Ru said. “So I went to Randy and Fenton and in the beginning of 1991 they began to manage my career.”
A woman-on-the-street segment on Bailey and Barbato’s U.K. show Manhattan Cable came first, followed by the single “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Rejected by most places around town, eventually Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy Records, known primarily for rap and hip-hop, sparked to it and the track was released in November 1992. Ru’s first studio album, appropriately entitled Supermodel of the World, followed in June and the single went on to become one of 1993’s best-selling dance records. Suddenly, Ru was a household name across the country, something he credits to an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show that year.
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“That was the moment when nothing would ever be the same again. When I was ready to go mainstream, I took the sexualized raunchiness out. The glamazon supermodel was a caricature that you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad,” he explained. “I was well-spoken. I was Miss Black America.”
That same year, he transcended “famous drag queen” and became a burgeoning spokesman for the gay rights movement when he performed at the LGBT March on Washington. “I knew, based on the questions I was asked, that I had to represent, and I knew that my days of having fun in drag were over. In the club world, it was so much fun. We would terrorize the neighborhoods and have a great time doing lots of naughty, naughty things,” Ru explained. “But I knew that those days were over as soon as I got the news, because it was clear I had to represent a faction of society that had gone unnoticed and didn’t have a voice.”
“It was an iconic moment. Ru in front of hundreds of thousands of people. It was a great moment in a great place,” Bailey added. “Ru has always said, ‘Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political act.’ But it’s true. It felt like such a powerful statement about who we are as a society, where we’re trying to go, and what we believe in.”
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The following year, he made history, landing a modeling contract as the first face of MAC Cosmetics’ Viva Glam line. “It was very controversial. The concerns were from our retail partners who were shocked by the first images. The first VIVA Glam poster had RuPaul spelling the M with his legs spread,” Frank Toskan, cofounded of MAC, said. “We had customers that didn’t know what to make of it. But we needed a voice—and a very loud one—and he was it. There were questions in the beginning, but everybody applauded and celebrated us by the end.”
With Ru’s fame taking off, it was time to leave his club days behind, but not before a chance encounter on the dance floor in 1994 brought him to the love his life. “I met Georges on the dance floor at Limelight in New York City, the disco,” RuPaul said of meeting his now-husband Georges LeBar, a rancher who runs a 50-acre ranch in Wyoming and South Dakota, in a 2013 episode of OWN’s Oprah: Where Are They Now? “He was on the dance floor dancing like a manic. I had to go over and say, ‘What are you going through?'” he laughs. “And it’s also because he’s actually 6’7″, so he’s taller than I am—so of course I had to notice him.”
“He’s so kind and funny,” Ru said of the man he married in 2017 on the anniversary of the day they met in a 2015 interview with BuzzFeed. “I remember praying, ‘I want a s, sensitive man,’ and I got an Australian who’s just lovely.”
As he began racking up appearances in both TV and film—Sister, Sister, Ellen, The Brady Bunch Movie and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, to name a few—he was given the opportunity to host a morning radio show on New York’s WKTU station in 1996, reuniting him with Club Kid Michelle Visage, his future Drag Race partner-in-crime and What’s the Tee? podcast co-host. “And one week, RuPaul walks in. And he sees me and he goes, ‘Of course it’s you. Who else would it be?’ That was ’96. I hadn’t seen him since ’92,” Visage recalled to EW. “It was like kismet, and that’s where everything started. It was obvious that this was the team.”
Around the same time, after his appearance at the 1995 VH1 Fashion and Music Awards had stolen the show, the network approached Benton and Bailey’s production company World of Wonder about creating a show. And in 1996, The RuPaul Show was born, making Ru national TV’s first openly gay talk show host, with Visage as his sidekick. The show lasted for 100 episodes, landing such high-profile guests like Cher, Diana Ross and NSYNC.
“The guests we got were all based on people who spoke to my sensibility. It wasn’t just people promoting a book or movie. We got Bea Arthur because we just wanted Bea Arthur,” Ru explained. “Diana Ross was my first guest, and she was a pinch-me moment. Cher was a pinch-me moment. They really all were.”
The schedule was grueling, though. “Ru and I would go to New Jersey at 4:15 in the morning to do our radio show, and then pack up and go right to the studio in the city and film back-to-back episodes of The RuPaul Show,” Visage explained. “Then we’d go home, undrag, and do it all again the next day.”
Ahead of its time, the show was abruptly canceled in 1998. “We did what we thought America could be ready for, but there were tons of folks who just didn’t get it, who were uncomfortable with the idea of a gay man in drag. I know that from a network perspective, it was very tough for ad sales to sell to premium sponsors,” Lauren Zalaznick, former VH1 development exec, recalled. “And there was some difficulty in booking the show. It wasn’t huge in ratings, but in all honesty, I think there was resistance to putting a very big artist or a particularly straight male artist with a straight male fanbase on a drag queen’s talk show.”
Uninterested in returning to the club scene and having parted ways with Tommy Boy Records, Ru made the decision to take a hiatus. One that would last nearly eight years. “By the time 1998 came around and the VH1 show ended, I decided I needed to move out to LA to reclaim my own personal rhythm. I became sober. I started having afternoon parties for my family and friends to get back into real life,” he explained. “And it came about at a time when there was a change in the air, politically, and a hostility I could feel. I knew I needed to step away. And when I look back at those years, they’re so important. I got to be myself again and remember what that is.”
Ru wouldn’t release new music until 2004’s Red Hot, around the same time he and Visage nearly returned to the radio. That show fell apart before it began, but Ru was ready for a return. And when World of Wonder hired Tom Campbell as its head of development in 2006, he was ready to ask the important questions. Namely, “Why aren’t we doing something with RuPaul?”
“When I came back to show business, I was doing it for different reasons—color and music and love and laughter and beauty and dancing and creativity. All of those reasons why I get out of bed in the morning,” Ru explained. “I was very close to not coming back, to saying I want to do something else. But when I finally did come back, I was inspired.”
“Ru had said, ‘I’ll do anything but a competition elimination show.’ So we spent three or four days coming up with a loosely scripted show, like Strangers With Candy,” Campbell explained. “And Ru goes, ‘This is great, but you know what? We should do a reality competition show.'” He landed on the “drag racing” play on words than eventually sold Ru on the concept, but had trouble getting any mainstream networks to bite.
The young LGBTQ-centric network had only been in existence since 2005 and were willing to take a chance, but even they were hesitant on putting drag on the air at first. “Drag had been pitched around a bit prior, but as soon as you have RuPaul in that conversation, it changes it, because you actually get the magnitude of it,” Pam Post, SVP of programming, admitted. “Somebody who had had international success, really, is the only person who could be the cornerstone of a franchise like that.”
Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
The scrappy little series debuted in 2009, shot in a modest studio in Burbank. And it was no overnight success. “Everything about Ru’s career has been a slow rise,” Barbato said. “There were a lot of people—not just mainstream but gay people—who heard about it and said, ‘I’m not going to watch a drag show.’ So I think it’s been a natural evolution, this slow burn word of mouth.”
And with each consecutive season, that word of mouth brought more and more eyeballs, helping the show transcend its initial gay niche status to become what it is today: A global phenomenon. It’s welcomed guest judges as high-profile as Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. It’s graduated from its Logo home and moved to VH1. It’s given rise to DragCon, the annual conventions held in Los Angeles and New York City to celebrate Ru, his Drag Race girls, and all things drag. It’s won the freaking Outstanding Reality Show Program Emmy two years in a row. And it’s given Ru his newest identity: Mama Ru.
For a little boy who just set out to be famous, he’s done that and more, becoming a pioneering force and a role model to youth around the globe. “I never set out to be a role model, I may have set out to be a super model, but not a role model,” he told Vogue UK in 2018. “But I accept the responsibility and it’s an honor.”
Though it may seem like there’s plenty of steam left in Ru’s career—after hopping across the pond to host Drag Race U.K. and giving a daytime talk show a shot, there’s a Netflix series on the way, not to mention a potential J.J. Abrams series based on Ru’s life—he’s aware that it’s time to start thinking about what his legacy might be.
“I’m trying to be a curator to my philosophy. I didn’t come up with it, but I carry the torch of a philosophy that many people laid down before me: Learning to love yourself,” he told EW. “That’s what it’s about. Maybe I’m just doing it with a pair of cha-cha heels.”
Can we get an amen?
(Originally published on November 17, 2018 at 6 a.m. PT.)