The Babe is Back: A RuPaul Interview
Are you already tired of all the inaugural hoopla and constant news coverage of America’s new president? Tune in tonight to see another pioneering African American figure—in drag. RuPaul, the anointed queen of all that is good in drag, has always had a sizable lesbian following. This winter, there’s nearly a half dozen ways to get your newest fix, starting with tonight’s original documentary Starz Inside: Ladies or Gentlemen, an engaging history of cross-dressing in films, hosted by television personality RuPaul (airing at 10 p.m. EP/PT on Starz). While the series is way heavy on boys who wore ladies knickers (from Tim Curry to Johnny Depp—seems like almost every major male star has done it at least once), there’s still some screen time devoted to women who’ve donned drag for the sake of cinema. (Bonus points: One of the experts in the doc is the always-incisive lesbian author Camille Paglia.)
Of course, RuPaul’s entertainment comeback—if you can call it a comeback when someone never really goes away—includes a return to music, from hits on the dance compilation (and No. 1 dance download on iTunes, Workout: Pumping House) to his own hit “Looking Good, Feeling Gorgeous,” which was used as the theme song to NBC’s The Biggest Loser. Then on February 2, the real fun begins with the premier of his new, sure-to-be-a-hit Logo series, RuPaul’s Drag Race. A reality series that looks for America’s next drag queen superstar, Drag Race brings together nine of the country’s top glamour girls and lets them duke it out for the crown through challenges involving photo shoots, fashion design and real-woman makeovers. RuPaul, who says the winner of this show need to be “a fashion designer, an American idol, and a top model all rolled up into one,” will play a dual role in the series—as a femmed up judge and an out-of-drag (dude Ru?) mentor to help show the world “the artistry of drag.” Like Top Model, Drag Race features some cool celebrity judges including Lucy Lawless, Jenny Shimizu and Debra Wilson. We caught up with the M.A.C. spokesmodel and Superbooty star for a few quick questions on drag kings, Oprah and the new TV shows.
Drag Race looks like a compelling cross between Top Model and Project Runway. So what will set it apart from other shows?
Well you know the girls on our show are real—they’re actually professionals. They’re not really vying to make it as drag queens. There’s no real rule for drag…you’re either it or your not, and these contestants were chosen from thousands. The nine that made it are actual real showgirls who work in clubs for a living, so they’re all professionals. What they’re vying for is the chance to be America’s next drag superstar, so it’s different. And also, anybody who’s ever decided they’re going to leave the house in high heels, lipstick and a plastic wig on their head, you know, and they’re a boy, is so courageous and it takes so much chutzpah to do that. These kids already have so much going for them already, so the take away for the audience is [to see] so much courage, so much spirit. I think that’s really what sets us apart.
You also narrated the new Starz documentary Ladies and Gentlemen and one of the things touched on is the fact that we live in this patriarchal system and it’s a step down for a man to appear as feminine. That’s also sort of the same thing that really is at the root of the gender-based violence that we see directed at feminine men. That makes me wonder just how dangerous drag is.
It’s very dangerous because it, throughout the ages, has reminded our culture that we are not who we think we are. You are not who you think you are. This is just a temporary package that you’ve put together on this planet and it’s not to be taken seriously. You’re supposed to have fun with it. [Laughs] Now, that knowledge threatens a lot of people who are so invested in their identity as a Christian or a Jew or as a black or as white or male, female, this, that—all those things that we label ourselves, that we define ourselves by. Drag is the antithesis of that. It says you are spirit, you are a spiritual being having a human experience. Don’t take the human experience too seriously. Some people are threatened by that, so it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because if people accepted that message or really took it in, they would have to deconstruct who they are and a lot of people don’t have the processing tools to do that. A lot of people don’t have the guts to do that.
“I thought it was time after these eight years with the Bush administration, these eight years of fear, that a new generation be introduced to drag. Anything to do with gender experimentation in a fear-based period of time has to go underground because it’s too scary for people. We all played a part in the Bush fiasco. We can’t just point the finger at what they did; we have to take responsibility for our part.”
We’ve seen a rise in gender bending in the younger generation. Is drag mutating? Do you think that drag will exist in another 50 years?
Well, drag will always exist because it is really an enlightened state. That’s why, you know, some of the gods in different religions have always had that duality. That’s why, you know, it’s always compelling to see someone who is both strong and also nurturing. Drag [queens and kings] have always been the myth keepers of every culture, the witch doctors, the shamans. And people who have elevated to a higher level of consciousness understand that we are a microcosm of the whole universe, so the whole universe is both male, female, black, white, in, out—and that’s what we are.
Great. What got you personally interested in doing reality TV?
Well, you know I had stayed away from it for many years and it was the only game in town for me for many years, and I decided I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want to do it if it were mean spirited or derogatory. But, you know, when I re-teamed with the people who did my Vh-1 show I knew that I was in safe hands. I knew that they felt the same way I did, that they would like to celebrate the people who dance to the beat of a different drummer. I thought, Sure, I’ll do it, I’ll do it with you guys. Plus, I thought it was time after these eight years with the Bush administration, these eight years of fear, that a new generation be introduced to drag, because drag really went underground in these eight years. Anything to do with gender experimentation in a fear-based period of time has to go underground because it’s too scary for people when they’re doing the fear thing. So re-introducing drag to a younger generation I thought was important for me, for my legacy, too.
Do you feel like this is sort of a comeback? You’ve been working constantly, so do you just feel like you’ve never left, or do you feel like this is a way to sort of put your image back out there?
Well, this is a comeback in terms of real mainstream. I mean television reaches so many people, this show will be broadcast throughout the world and on the Internet, so in a lot of ways, it is a comeback. Obviously, you know that I’ve always worked. There was a time, though, when I took some time away from the business and focused just on my own personal life. But I’m excited that the time is right for me to be heard and be seen again.
Me too. I love some of your celebrity judges that you’ve picked, Tori Spelling, Lucy Lawless, Jenny Shimizu. Was there some way that you went about picking celebrity judges and did they bring something specific to the show?
Yeah, well…the choice of judges was really based on the challenges. We had this Oprah challenge where the girls had to channel their inner-Oprah and mimic Oprah’s rise in the media. The girls, in the course of four minutes, had to read the teleprompter like a news-caster, pitch a product like the My Favorite Things segment on Oprah, and then have a celebrity interview.…Prior to stepping onto the sound stage, they didn’t know what the copy was and so it was really interesting to see them do that. In the media challenge, we had Howard Bragman who is a very famous publicist who knows how to train people to do that, and then Debra Wilson, who does that great Oprah impression, she’s from MadTV. So they were chosen based on their link to the challenges.
You’ve personally reached a huge level of super-stardom as a drag personality. Do you think that that’s possible that we’ll see something similar for a drag king someday?
I hope so. I hope that, throughout this next phase of hope and possibilities culturally and politically in our country that that’s possible. I just think that we were on our way there before somebody hit the brakes. [Laughs] Honestly, I really do believe that that really has to do with our community. It’s really up to us because, you know, we all played a part in the Bush fiasco. We can’t just point the finger at what they did; we have to take responsibility for our part. That’s the only way we can advance and expand. And so, the future of there being a superstar drag king really has to do with all of us.
With the rise of the transgender community I think that there is a lot of confusion sometimes about the drag world versus the trans world. What do you see as the difference between drag queens and trans women?
Well, obviously trans women really, it emanates from the inside out for trans women. They feel like they’ve been put into a body that doesn’t fit who they feel like on the inside. For drag, it’s more of from the outside in, it’s more of playing with textures and having fun with colors and sparkly things and sometimes even performing. So, it’s different for transvestites and trans women.
How do you self-identify, Ru?
You know what, I’m Ru, That’s it, I’m Ru. I never forget the fact that I am a spiritual being having a human experience. I think once I forget that really, first and foremost that I’m spirit, once I forget that, I’ve really left myself wide-open to a lot of the human-bound afflictions like jealousy and doubt, and all of the things that my body comes fully equipped with. It’s such a, pardon the pun, drag to deal with, all of that human stuff. I’ve spent a lifetime and a lot of money in therapy trying to learn the tools to overcome some of those obstacles. Even this past weekend, it’s such a struggle for me, somebody said something to me or I read something about myself and it took me awhile to sort of come around—even though I know better. I know better. But, the human part of me wanted to take it to task.
Is there anything else that you’d want Curve readers to know?
I think people know so much about me. [Laughs] They know so much about me. No really, I hope everybody enjoys the show. It’s all in fun. I think it’s really going to be a blast for everybody to watch it.