The Transformer: RuPaul

By
Photography Steven Pan

Published September 2, 2013

Drag is more than just wanting to dress like a woman. Drag has everything to do with being a shape-shifter and feeling free enough to try all the colors and not be limited by other people’s opinions.RuPauL

If you want to understand the evolution of RuPaul Charles, then surrender to the crowd-sourced swirl and allow yourself to be sucked down the veritable rabbit hole of videos of him on YouTube. The audiovisual evidence, as it were, is extensive: there is a young RuPaul in 1984, dressed in a trench, a hat, and a tie, performing with his band the U-Hauls at an Atlanta club; there is RuPaul that same year done up in a punkier iteration of his drag, backstage at Danceteria in New York; there is RuPaul on a late spring day in 1986, sporting a headscarf and short-shorts as he makes plans with friends at an earlier, earthier incarnation of the Jane Hotel; there is RuPaul, then an emerging downtown celebrity and remade in a more recognizably glamazonic drag ensemble, on the street outside the legendary Pyramid Club in the East Village, where he frequently performed; there is RuPaul in 1988, bemoaning the state of his go-go bar clientele in a blond wig, oversized coat, and lingerie; there is RuPaul talking about life as a creature of the New York City night on an early-’90s episode of Geraldo; there is RuPaul interviewing transvestite hookers on cable access; there is RuPaul performing his dance-hit ode to glamour and fabulousness, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” on The Arsenio Hall Show, and singing Christmas songs with Kurt Cobain and the members of Nirvana; there is RuPaul interviewing Cher and Diana Ross on his short-lived late-’90s VH1 talk show. There are, of course, later clips, too: of RuPaul dancing and running challenges on his hit Logo series RuPaul’s Drag Race; or RuPaul out of drag, be-suited and/or bespectacled—as he often is these days—in interviews with the likes of Jeff Probst, Wendy Williams, and Rosie O’Donnell. Many of the grittier, looser, older videos are by the late multimedia artist Nelson Sullivan, who documented the creative swirl of downtown throughout much of the ’80s. At the time when the bulk of these videos were made, RuPaul, who grew up in San Diego and relocated to Atlanta as a teen, had recently arrived in New York and was attempting to get his budding career as a performance artist and singer in motion. The more recent videos, of course, are for the most part, professionally made and feature RuPaul in his unlikely bloom as a latter-day mainstream celebrity. But taken in their totality, the videos offer some profound lessons in sexual politics (America’s), gentrification (New York’s), and transformation (RuPaul’s).As the world and New York have changed, so has RuPaul. For one thing, he has spent most of his time over the last decade in Los Angeles and now frequently appears out of drag. For another, the cult-like devotion surrounding RuPaul’s Drag Race, which will kick off its sixth season early next year, has won him a new generation of fans who know of no other world than the post-RuPaul one, where tall, biological men in heavy makeup and over-the-top women’s clothing with big dreams aren’t instantly condemned to the margins, but can instead aspire to win lucrative beauty endorsements (as RuPaul did from M.A.C) and pop stardom.One longtime fan who took his adulation to the next level is designer Jason Wu. Prior to launching his own eponymous line and dressing the first lady of the United States, Wu had a job creating full-on looks for dolls sold by Integrity Toys. One of those dolls was the RuPaul doll, which Wu pitched to the brand and brought out in 2005. Wu, who was at his studio in New York, recently spoke by phone with RuPaul, now 52, at his home in L.A.

JASON WU: Long time no talk.RUPAUL: I know. I’ve been so happy about your success. I’m so proud of you.WU: It all started with our project.RUPAUL: Obviously, you’ve designed for a lot of different people now, but you are also the creator of the doll for RuPaul—the big, tall, black, glamazon. How long ago was that?WU: It was 2005. I’d just turned 21. It was, like, my big first project, so I was very excited. Did I ever tell you how the whole idea came about?RUPAUL: No.WU: Well, you know, I’ve always been a huge fan of yours—I’ve not really been secretive about that. But I’d seen you at a Dance on the Pier event [2004]—you performed after Yoko Ono—and I just remember thinking, Why are we not doing a RuPaul doll? So I reached out the next day. We were like, “Well, he’s never going to respond.” But then, I think, within two weeks we were already meeting. So it was a pretty fabulous experience. I still have those dolls. I have two—one in the box, one out of the box.RUPAUL: And then to go from that to dressing the first lady of the United States … What is this thing you have with African American glamazons?WU: I just can’t stay away. I love a little bit of glamour and I love tall girls. [RuPaul laughs] I remember how hard we worked on getting the most iconic RuPaul look for the doll and coming up with that quote: “99 percent plastic.” Are you still 99 percent plastic?RUPAUL: Yes. Actually, I’m probably 99-and-a-half percent plastic now.WU: I’m so glad you’ve kept that half percent—it’s what keeps you real. [RuPaul laughs] That’s the real secret, though: it’s that the RuPaul doll is hosting the show and you’re just doing the voice-overs.RUPAUL: I wish that were the case. Then I could really go and have some fun.WU: I feel like there’s always something up on your sleeve, whether it’s a new single here or All Stars there … I miss All Stars, by the way. I want an All Stars 2. I was just telling people: how am I going to get by until January?RUPAUL: I think we’ll probably have an All Stars 2 coming soon, but it’s not going to be before January, that’s for sure. WU: Well, you’ve always been so inspirational to me. When I was growing up, you sort of did the unthinkable. You did something that has never really been replicated. Would you agree with that?RUPAUL: Thank you. [laughs] I agree with it.WU: I love your girls, but there is only one RuPaul.RUPAUL: That’s very sweet of you. I feel like a mother-queen-vampire-Dracula because I want to make more girls so I can have more friends and more girls to play with, you know? For a long time, it was really just me. There were other girls in the niche underground, but not on a world level.WU: There was always [Lady] Bunny. And Michelle Visage—let’s not forget her. She was another drag queen. Her drag is fierce.RUPAUL: True, absolutely. But, you know, the show is very exciting because by the time January rolls around, we’ll have released 75 girls into the wild.WU: Eventually there will be so many of them that we’re not going to know what to do with ourselves. They’re everywhere! [RuPaul laughs] My mother, though, was always very keen on fashion. She was always very conscious of style. So, for me, it was that story of the boy who always hangs out with his mom. And when I moved to Canada in ’93, I started reading fashion magazines, and that’s where I spotted the M.A.C ad that you were in. That’s sort of how I first “met” you—in the red bodysuit. That was so iconic to me. That was the era of the supermodels—the Stephanie Seymours, the Christy Turlingtons, the Naomi Campbells. It was so glamorous. I just had to be a part of it. Tell me about your beginning.RUPAUL: Well, I love to laugh, I love color, I love texture, and I love creativity, so I was always inspired by people who incorporate those things in their work. I love David Bowie and Cher and Diana Ross. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. So I set out to do that in a rock-‘n’-roll band in Atlanta, Georgia. That led me to nightclubs and to the sort of Andy Warhol experience of creating a personality. In fact, when I was a kid in San Diego, I would read fashion magazines and Interview magazine, and all of that really inspired me to create a persona. So by the time I moved to New York, in the early ’80s, I’d learned how to create a persona, and I knew what my persona would be. I knew that my platform would be love and acceptance—WU: Literally, your platform in platforms.RUPAUL: [laughs] Yeah, literally. And it’s stayed the same all these years. If you look at YouTube videos of me from the early ’80s, I’m always talking about loving yourself and expressing yourself and learning how to love yourself. I’m still the same.

It was a calculated effort to take sexuality out of my image. It was more like a Disney caricature, rather than a sexualized, subversive character. RuPaul

WU: I was actually just doing a crash course on RuPaul, and, of course, I watched “Supermodel (You Better Work)” several times. That video never gets old for me. It was sort of the anthem of a certain moment in fashion when models were supermodels. What inspired you to do that song?RUPAUL: That was what was happening at the time. You’re absolutely right—it was the moment of the supermodel. I’d also been a downtown New York celebrity and I was attempting to go above ground—really, above 14th Street—or more mainstream. So I got a record deal and changed my image to be not so downtown. I wanted to look more glamazon. So my friend who I have known for many years said, “Wow, you’re new look is becoming supermodel!” And he jotted some ideas down and said, “I’ve got this song.” So we collaborated and built a song that really spoke to both what was happening in the world and what was happening with my image. That’s how the song came about.WU: What about your image? I know that Mathu [Andersen] has always been a really big part of that.RUPAUL: Absolutely, in fact I knew Mathu and Zaldy from my club days, when I was working for Susanne Bartsch and Copacabana. So when I made the transition from downtown to uptown, I went to them—Mathu and Zaldy—and they helped construct an image where I could really look like the girls in the magazines. I still work with Mathu and Zaldy today—Mathu does my hair and makeup and all the imagery, and Zaldy does all of the clothesWU: To me, that’s really where all the magic happens. The idea of transformation in drag is something that I think we can all relate to and which I’ve always found fascinating. Did you feel empowered or different when you were in drag? What changes when you go into drag?RUPAUL: The biggest change I noticed was the energy that I was getting back from people who were looking at me. I’d never experienced that kind of reaction from people before. That’s why clothes are so important. Even now, I change clothes three times a day when I’m not in drag. Right now, it’s the middle of the day here in L.A. … I’m on my third outfit. [laughs]WU: Well, we love an outfit change.

RUPAUL: Living here and having a car, I can drop home real quick and change clothes and then go back out. But I love the textures. What happens is, like a witch, you can dictate how people see you—you get to organize how they interpret your own energy. And then their energy, reflected back at you—or me—becomes hypnotic. I felt like Superman to my everyday Clark. That’s what the drag—what fashion—really does.WU: “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was everywhere. Were you surprised at how huge of a success it became? Or were you expecting it.RUPAUL: I got to admit, I was expecting it. [both laugh] From the time I was a kid, my mother said, “Ru, you’re going to be famous.” I had paid my dues downtown in clubs and stuff for years, and I said, “Okay, now’s the time I’m going to go for my birthright,” and that’s what happened. It felt like I’d tapped into something much bigger than me—and, Jason, it really had to do with unlocking my limited views of myself. Because I didn’t think it could happen in drag. I thought, Okay, I’ll be like David Bowie and do it sort of …WU: Androgynous.RUPAUL: Yeah. But ultimately, I thought, Well, why not? Who says it can’t happen in drag? So I started adopting the idea that it could, and then, all of the sudden, it was like the world shifted. By changing my own mind, the world changed.WU: I thought it was interesting how people didn’t seem to feel threatened by you at the time—they really welcomed you with open arms. I thought that was such a great moment for America, a moment when it felt like anything could be possible.RUPAUL: Well, it’s funny you say that because people always ask me why I was able to transform something that had been thought of as subversive into something that was mainstream—where grandmothers and grandfathers would accept it with open arms—and I think that had more to do with the fact that it was a calculated effort to take sexuality out of my image. It was more like a Disney caricature, rather than a sexualized, subversive character. For whatever reason, people don’t feel threatened by me, and I think that it has to do with the sexuality. They don’t think of me that way; they don’t feel sexually threatened by me.WU: How did RuPaul go beyond RuPaul? Because RuPaul became much more than a persona.RUPAUL: Oh, yeah. What happened—and this is important—is that right when you and I first met, I was coming back. That was my return, and the way I was able to make it bigger was that I had gone away. I had to step away from the canvas for a while to live human life—to have barbecues and to see my nieces and nephews and to get back to the source—before I could come back and take it to the next level.WU: Tell me about that time away. How did it feel? Was there a moment when you said, “I need a break,” or “I need to breathe?”RUPAUL: It was all of the above. The moment came when George W. Bush got into office, there was a change in the air. I’m a sensitive medium—I can read the universe—and it was clear to me that the energy had changed, so it was a perfect time to step away from the canvas. Bush got into office, and then when 9/11 happened, there was even more of a hostile energy in America—and probably around the world—so I knew I had to step away from it, because gender issues always go underground when there is that hostility in the air. I knew it was the time for me to retreat. Then I started my return around ’04, and slowly there was another change in the air. Then, around the time Obama got into office, things were really starting to shift, and it was time for me to go forward with presenting this television show.WU: Well, right now is another major RuPaul moment. How does it feel this time around?RUPAUL: You know, because it’s been so long, I think I have an even deeper gratitude and understanding of how difficult and lucky it is to hit gold twice in one lifetime. Young people take it for granted, but the truth is that I’m at an age now where I can really appreciate it so much more than before because I understand how much hard work it takes to get here—and how important it is, what it means to people, to see diversity, and to see themselves in a way that they’ve never seen themselves represented before. I know that for me, even as a kid growing up in San Diego, I’d go up to the drugstore and read Interview magazine and see all the parties, and I dreamed of being there with those people. It colored my mind with what could be. And that’s the most exciting thing in working with all of these young people and seeing all these girls come through our show. They’re courageous—and they’re not afraid of color or of what people have to say or of their bodies. They use their bodies as a tool, as a gift, and I love that.

I think I have an even deeper gratitude and understanding of how difficult and lucky it is to hit gold twice in one lifetime. RuPaul

WU: I have to say, one thing that has remained relatively unchanged about you is your look. You still look like you did in ’93, which is pretty amazing. The other day, we were watching the show, and the makeup is just so fierce—we were like, “How does she do it?” Do you use makeup? Is it the concealer you’re using? Whatever it is, I need to look it up …RUPAUL: [laughs] Mathu is really amazing at what he does. He does my hair, my makeup, and he does all the imagery. So there really is no secret. We keep doing what we do. But I love to laugh, and I keep my spiritual base, and I stay positive. I like to look on the bright side. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a dark side—I have that. That’s a constant. But I always look on the bright side, and I think that what ends up happening is that the face that you get is the face that you develop or that you deserve. It’s a cliché, but I think that who you are on the inside shows on your face.WU: I think what you’re doing is great. I feel like there are kids who are excited about doing drag again. For a while, during the years that you took a break, I thought drag was almost done. You didn’t see it so much. But now I feel like there’s another celebration of it happening. To me, it’s less about drag coming back than just people doing whatever the hell they want to do, you know? Now people feel like they can do that, whereas just a few short years ago, it didn’t feel like you could.RUPAUL: Right—there was a certain closed-mindedness. And drag is more than just wanting to dress like a woman. Drag has everything to do with being a shape-shifter, and feeling free enough to try all the colors and not be limited by other people’s opinions. So when drag is happening, it means that we, as a people, are open to exploration.WU: I’ve always thought that when you see more drag queens out here, then you can really take some more chances because it’s always a sign that the world is a better place.RUPAUL: Absolutely. It’s like Groundhog Day. When the drag queen sticks her head out of the ground …WU: Yes. When you see Lady Bunny pop up, you really know things are good. I think I saw her coming out of the ground the other day, in fact.RUPAUL: [laughs] You know, I’ve known Bunny since 1982.WU: Tell me about that relationship. You guys obviously still have a very close relationship—he’s a mentor on Drag U. But he’s somebody who’s been in your life for a long time.RUPAUL: We also have a new single out that’s called “Lick It Lollipop.” But I love to laugh, and Bunny is the funniest person I’ve ever met—really. So smart and so funny. And over the years, she’s just gotten better. In fact, she’s actually gotten more chill over the years. But I love her. I think she’s so, so brilliant.WU: How is it working now with so many of the same people that you became very successful with, like Mathu and Bunny and Michelle Visage? Does it feel like a big old reunion?RUPAUL: It’s so great because we get to do this shorthand vernacular where we use key words, benchmark words where we don’t have to say the whole sentence. Sometimes it’s even just a look and we understand what the other person is saying. I’ve also worked with Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey] from World of Wonder for many years—since 1986. They did my show on VH1 in the ’90s, and they do this one. We’ve done everything together. Even Tom Campbell, who is the main writer and one of the executive producers—I’ve known him for many, many years. I tell this to young people all the time: You have to create your comrades and you have to go out and meet your contemporaries because you’ll be working with these people for the rest of your life.WU: Your costumes on the show are always amazing—there are sequins and feathers, gowns and leather corsets. And then the hair is always fab. Is coming up with those outfits that fun? What’s that process like?RUPAUL: It’s crazy. I can get away with a lot of things because I’m huge and skinny and because it’s television. Zaldy goes outrageous. Mathu also goes outrageous—you know, for years, his goal is to make my hair the biggest it could possibly be. So we just have a lot of fun. We know there are a lot of pundits out there who are looking to see what we’re going to do next, so the challenge is to do something outrageous and to use color—I’ve never been afraid of colors. I think I can wear every color.WU: I think you have worn every single color. I was so excited to be talking to you today. I was like, “I haven’t spoken to Ru in so long!” It’s been too long.RUPAUL: I don’t get to New York as often as I used to. I still have my place there, but I only get there three or four times a year.WU: The show is filmed in California.RUPAUL: In L.A. We just finished season six last week.WU: Any previews? Any teasers? Or are you going to make me wait until January?RUPAUL: Well, you have to wait until early 2014, but I got to tell you, this season, the girls are more competitive then ever—if you can believe that. They’re more skilled. Every season, they know that they’re going to sew, they know that they’re going to perform comedy or do some music or dance. But this season, more of the girls are better equipped. There are more girls who can sew. There are more girls who can do all of the challenges. So it’s almost like the super-Olympics of RuPaul’s Drag Race.WU: Is Shangela back again? We love Shangela.RUPAUL: She’s quite a goer, that one. She’s like the Energizer Bunny—she just keeps on going. We’ve got to get you out to L.A. so you can judge the show.WU: That would be so fun. I think we would have a very good time.RUPAUL: Please—we have to do it. In fact, if you can come away from New York for a hot minute, then we’ll have you on for All Stars as a judge, as part of the challenge. Maybe there will be a Jason Wu challenge that we can come up with.WU: You just have to make me one promise: you have to have two people that also co-judge on the same episode that I’m on.RUPAUL: Who are they?WU: Bob Mackie, because he is another legend in my mind, and La Toya Jackson, because she just has to.RUPAUL: Done. We’ll definitely do that.WU: Bob Mackie, La Toya Jackson, and RuPaul … That’s my little boy’s dream come true.RUPAUL: [laughs] Consider it done.WU: I just want to ask you one thing before we finish. Tell me about your work in the LGBT community. You’ve become sort of an ambassador in our community. What are you working on right now?RUPAUL: Well, I’m always involved in some aspect of that. Obviously, through the show, we get to reach a lot of kids just with the message of learning your history and knowing how to move forward by knowing what your history is, because the future belongs to those who can remember the past. I love that moment when Jinkx Monsoon did Grey Gardens.WU: Oh, I was rooting for her this season. She was my favorite.RUPAUL: She’s so fabulous. And because a lot of people didn’t know what Grey Gardens was—a lot of the young people—they went and looked it up and found out some of the great nuggets of gay culture and of eccentric people that they really should know about. So through the show, we teach a lot of people. But on a personal level, my goal is to extract the shame out of femininity and out of being yourself. That is, I think, the biggest thing that young gay people face: shame. And that’s an inside job. That’s why I always say you have to learn how to love yourself. It takes practice. So through our show, through example, and through some of the outreach programs that I’m involved with, that is what my platform is: to take the shame out of being gay, out of being yourself.WU: I think the show has even managed to take away some stereotypes. I mean, sometimes the girls can be quite mean to each other and there are stereotypes within the drag community, but I thought that somebody like Jinkx Monsoon winning was so great because he was, in fact, sort of an outsider of an outsider. That’s a message that’s quite powerful—not only for your viewers, but even within the community.RUPAUL: Especially since Jinkx was such a sweetheart—you know, there’s not that sort of bitchy thing. Especially in the episode where she has to make the outfit for her gay veteran and the gay veteran tells her that he has been ill … The look of compassion on Jinkx’s face says everything you need to know about what young people coming up in the gay world are about. This is someone who is sensitive and beautiful and leads with her heart and is so talented.WU: And she does Little Edie. What more can you ask? So what’s next for RuPaul?RUPAUL: Right now I’m working on a new album and a new book.WU: This is your third book. What is it going to be about? Is it autobiographical?RUPAUL: There are two books coming, actually. I’m working on an autobiographical one, but there’s another coffee-table book we’re working on that is sort of like the World of Wonder book that was put out earlier this year. We’re doing a sort of retrospective coffee-table book. Mathu wants to make it like a workbook and sort of interactive. But I am working on another autobiography. My first book [Lettin It All Hang Out], which came out in 1995, was an autobiography, and then Workin’ It! [RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style] came out just a few years ago. Then I’m also redecorating my house …WU: Oh, that’s fun.RUPAUL: It is fun. I’m going to turn it into an outrageous crib.WU: I imagine there will be color in there.RUPAUL: Oh, yes! Imagine if your latest collection exploded in my house.WU: [laughs] I have to tell you, selfishly, I’m still looking for a RuPaul coloring book.RUPAUL: Oh, wow. Maybe we’ll have to do that.WU: Instead of handing out Disney princesses at restaurants, we’re going to hand out RuPaul coloring books for kids to enjoy. They’ll come with extra colors.RUPAUL: That is a great idea.WU: I smell a collaboration …RUPAUL: [laughs] Gorgeous, gorgeous.

JASON WU IS A CFDA AWARD-WINNING FASHION DESIGNER AND THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF HUGO BOSS WOMENSWEAR.