RuPaul serves fierceness and fabulousness like no one else, but that wasn’t always so. The undisputed queen of drag queens and host of VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race—which has launched the performance style into the mainstream like never before, and opened up important dialogues about identity, gender, and sexuality—has had a personal history and career more unexpected than one of the showstopping dresses she wears when presenting as a woman.
Before Ru became Ru, he (he goes by he or she) was just RuPaul Andre Charles. Born in San Diego in 1960 to a poor family living on welfare, he grew up around all women. He has three sisters, and his mother and father divorced when he was seven. “They had their own melodrama, and we were all bit players,” he told Marc Maron of his parents on the comedian’s WTF podcast. “To get any attention, I had to sing and dance and tell jokes.”
He moved in with his sister in Atlanta when he was 15 and, after starting at a performing arts school, found his tribe, as he puts it. Though he had already gotten a view of the out-of-the-box thinking that would inspire all of his work while watching the irreverent, surrealist British comedy group Monty Python, whose show Flying Circus aired on PBS. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, these are my people,’ ” he said on the pod. “I could always see colors other people couldn’t see.”
An obsession with musical theater eventually transformed into burgeoning rock stardom. In the early 80s, RuPaul fronted a band called Wee Wee Pole, a rebellious new wave act in the vein of The B-52s. “I was wearing a loincloth, a mohawk, this sort of jungle look,” he said of his image at the time.
While Wee Wee Pole didn’t last, it laid the foundation for what would turn out to be a lucrative recording career. RuPaul moved to New York later in the 80s and danced in downtown clubs in drag, something he had first tried in a ragtag fashion as a gimmick while performing with the band The Now Explosion. “People’s reaction to me, I wasn’t prepared for. They were like, ‘Girl, damn… Your legs. You look gorgeous.’ I was hot,” RuPaul said.
While drag wasn’t necessarily the path he had planned, it came naturally, especially for someone who worshipped gender-bending David Bowie. “I was aware I needed to listen to the universe’s stage direction. When the universe said ‘drag,’ I said, ‘Really? Okay, sure.’”
And it was the means to an end that Ru saw as inevitable. Or as he puts it, “I knew I was a star from day one.”
Still, it took time to get there. He watched fellow New York performers Deee-Lite blow up seemingly overnight in 1990 with the smash dance single “Groove Is in the Heart,” and felt left out. During this period, he’s admitted since, he was also liberally indulging in alcohol and drugs.
RuPaul was ready for a change. He put less energy into the dance work, got out of the party world, and focused on a musical demo tape, collaborating with his friends in the East Village who formed the production company World of Wonder, which still puts together Ru-related projects, including Drag Race.
The resulting 1993 album, Supermodel of the World, was RuPaul’s first crossover moment. The single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” became an unlikely hit beyond Manhattan and drag and club culture, with its incessant beat and largely spoken-word lyrics encouraging the listener to “sashay, shante”—or, in other words, live life to the fullest and with maximum confidence. It’s a phrase and philosophy the host has repeated many times on Drag Race. (He’s also half-joked on the show that the song has paid off multiple mortgages.)
He had made an important tweak to his aesthetic. “I thought, Let’s do glamazon,” he said. “I jacked up the volume, added one dash of Cher, a tablespoon of Dolly Parton, and a heaping shovelful of Diana Ross. And voilà, you get RuPaul.”
In the same year as Supermodel’s release, RuPaul appeared as a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show, the actor and comedian’s late-night program that was a pop-culture phenomenon. While talking to Maron, RuPaul looked back on the experience as a turning point. More offers came, including being a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, a first for a drag queen.
It all suddenly hit home, quite literally.
“My mother… got to see the very beginning of my fame before she [passed],” RuPaul said (he has an estranged relationship with his father). “And it was so brilliant because she had this prophecy that I would be this famous something, and she got to see it come true.”
Drag Race, though, is on another level. In so many ways, it’s the culmination of RuPaul’s efforts over the past 30-plus years: part reality competition show, with enterprising queens utilizing all of their skills from sewing to stand-up in order to get a leg up; part campy drama, reveling in the no-holds-barred screaming matches among contestants; and part spiritual awakening, in which RuPaul plays not just MC and ultimate judge but also leader of the pack, urging the cast and, implicitly, the audience to love their truest selves.
But it’s easy to imagine it having not happened at all. RuPaul largely stepped away from show business for a number of years. Hollywood called on him in the late 90s for cameos in major movies, including EdTV, and he decamped New York for Los Angeles to sort out his personal life. He sobered up, went into therapy, and emerged a more composed version of himself. Now his daily routine includes waking up at 4 a.m. and doing yoga to center himself. Once a club-kid hero, he now lives a relatively peaceful life with his husband.
He adamantly believes in the power of drag to heal, something he espouses on Drag Race. Contestants often talk about how drag saved their lives, and he relates. “It actually didn’t save my life, it gave me a life. I don’t think there is a life in the mundane nine-to-five hypocrisy. That’s not living. That’s just part of the Matrix,” he told Vulture. “And drag is punk rock, because it is not part of the Matrix. It is not following any rules of societal standards. Boy, girl, black, white, Catholic, Jew, Muslim. It’s none of that. We shape-shift. We can do whatever we want.”
That also helps explain why he’s indifferent about gender pronouns when applied to himself. In his autobiography, he wrote, “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.” He’s also fond of repeating the mantra, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
When RuPaul’s team discussed the idea of a reality show, he had a condition: “I don’t want to do anything mean-spirited,” he told the Guardian. Sure, Drag Race gets deliciously catty, but it always comes back to empowerment. RuPaul usually sends off losing contestants with a list of positive attributes.
Network after network initially turned down Drag Race, but it found a home on Logo, a Viacom-owned cable channel that launched in 2005 targeting LGBTQ viewers. Not long after premiering in 2009, Drag Race became its No. 1 show in viewership, and has since moved on to sister network VH1 and gained even wider acceptance. Lady Gaga has been a judge, giving her endorsement. Time named RuPaul one of the 100 Most Influential People. He won two consecutive Emmy Awards in 2016 and 2017 for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. Following its 10th season in 2018, the series scored 12 Emmy nominations, including another nod for RuPaul as host as well as one for the show in Reality-Competition Program. That achievement couldn’t be further from what a young Ru had anticipated as he sought countercultural notoriety.That doesn’t mean it’s all been easy. Drag Race and its host, who also serves as an executive producer, have faced persistent criticism from members of the LGBTQ community who accuse it of transphobia. Transgender people have taken issue with the “She-Mail” pun once employed by the show, which was removed by the network.
Once again, RuPaul insists on doing things his own way. He sees other colors. “We do not stand on ceremony, and we do not take words seriously,” he told Vulture. “We do take feelings seriously and intention seriously, and the intention is not to be hateful at all. But if you are trigger-happy and you’re looking for a reason to reinforce your own victimhood, your own perception of yourself as a victim, you’ll look for anything that will reinforce that.”
The truth is that Ru doesn’t fit into anyone else’s categories, which becomes clear the longer you spend watching and listening to him—or her, as the case may be, especially when she’s upstaging queens on Drag Race with looks Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell couldn’t match. From humble beginnings in San Diego to drag queen of the world, Ru has faced seemingly insurmountable odds with similarly gigantic willpower. Call him what you want, but you will almost certainly keep watching.