Naturally Bold: RuPaul
I can still remember the first time I saw RuPaul. As a newly out teenager in the summer of 1992, I watched in awe as the glamazon sang “Supermodel” during a televised gay and lesbian march on Washington DC. The only drag queens I’d seen before were people like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or some random sitcom actor placed in a ridiculous situation prancing around in a dress for laughs.
RuPaul was something else entirely. She towered above the others around her and looked absolutely flawless in a patriotic outfit, resulting in a sight that could only be described as a cross between Wonder Woman and the prettiest baton twirling drum major my eyes had ever come across.
She was everything I had been told a pretty girl should be—and yet she was a he.
Seeing a gay man take something as rigid as gender roles and turn them inside out was inspiring to a gay teen like myself, who’d often been made fun of for his love of dancing and inability to correctly throw a football. For the first time in my young life, I saw a gay man make femininity look powerful and I was captivated.
In the years that followed, RuPaul would continue to be a bright light in my little gay life—as well as others—as she broke down barriers in all types of media. Her songs got my friends and I on our feet at clubs and our hands in the air any time one of her tracks blared through the speakers of our car stereos. Her television and movie appearances were always entertaining and her poster hanging in the window of a MAC cosmetics store at my local mall was the absolute picture of perfection. For a time she seemed to be everywhere, and even when she stepped away from the scene for a few years her presence was still strong in pop culture. There was no doubt in my mind that RuPaul was more than the face of drag, she had become a force for change unlike any other who had come before— and she did it all with style, class, and that unmistakable laugh.
Today, the drag diva is back in the spotlight and better than ever with two hit television shows, Drag Race and Drag U. Yet, she still manages to find time for other projects such as her latest album, Glamazon, and her second book Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style. The self-proclaimed “supermodel of the world” has had quite a career, both in and out of drag, over the last twenty years. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to name another out gay male who has had the same broad scope of success as RuPaul. He’s been an actor, radio show host, model, author, singer, songwriter, drag superstar, producer, activist, inspiration and an icon the world over. So it was no surprise that my palms were sweating as I sat down to interview the sensational superstar. I found myself wondering if she’d be everything she seemed in her performances, and if I’d be able to refrain from nervously spouting out, “You better work!” before my time was up.
What I discovered was a gentle, maternal soul who has his feet firmly planted on the ground while he manages to remain a shinning star. RuPaul’s smooth voice and easy-going attitude put any fear I’d had to rest immediately. She served up some straight talk about her feelings on her status as a role model and trailblazer, while also sharing her thoughts on the acceptance of drag in mainstream culture and her hopes for the gay community in the future. My interview with her was an absolute pleasure and proved to me why she’s a champion who will always be a hero.
When was the first time you felt like you were a role model?
That’s a hard question, because my younger sister is the one who taught me how to tie my shoes—so I wasn’t even a role model to her. I never think of myself as a role model. I let other people work that out. It’s not a part of my consciousness. My thinking is, if people can get something helpful out of my experience then I say, “Right on Lady, you go right ahead.” But I never set out to be a role model. I think that’s a tricky area. I don’t want to stop myself from being expressive. A lot of things that come out of my mouth are politically incorrect. I think people’s role models should be their parents, and unfortunately a lot of parents aren’t able to do that. I don’t really see myself that way. If other people see that, that’s fine, but I’m not going to own it. (Laughs)
Do you feel like your success has broken down barriers for future gay entertainers to be open and honest about who they are without fear of hindering their success?
I think what happened with me was a window opened and I jumped for the opportunity. I don’t know that I broke down any walls myself. I think there are natural crevasses in pop culture. In '93, when I hit the scene, a window opened up. Clinton had just gotten into office and culturally we were a little bit more relaxed, but…right after 9/11 that window was closed down and was not going to get pried open by anything because our culture had become obsessed and overcome by fear. So when fear is at the forefront of our culture, gender issues, especially as it relates to men who are feminine or pretend to be feminine, that shit has to go way underground. Even with gay people, it has to go way underground. So, I didn’t tear any walls down, I just took advantage of natural windows of opportunity.
Do you feel like there will be a time when art forms such as drag will no longer be seen as aspects of queer culture, but simply a part of pop culture in general?
That question has a lot of different levels. First we’re talking about men and femininity, and then we’re talking about drag. They’re separate. Drag is up against scrutiny. Ego is all about identity and drag mocks identity. So, ego hates drag. The reason people have [defined] drag as this evil subversive thing is really because we’re making fun of identity and because people want to believe that they are who they say they are. Drag says, you know what, today I’m going to be a girl, tomorrow I’m going to be a man, and tomorrow I’m going to be a mariachi performer. We’re shape-shifters, taking on these different roles and making a mockery of all the people who take themselves so seriously.
The second part of that is men and femininity. In our culture, lesbians, because it’s a masculine culture and a patriarchal society, it’s okay for them to behave in a masculine way, but it’s not okay for men to behave in a feminine way. In fact, even among gay people, it’s looked down upon. So, will there ever be a day where people won’t look down upon men who act feminine…I don’t think so. (Laughs)
Well we can hope.
Well we can hope, but it really is in our hands. We can't really look to Washington or legislature to change any of that. It starts inside. It is an inside job. Gay liberation or fem liberation starts inside each of us.
These days, gays and lesbians are more visible than ever. Yet, gay youth still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and endure the cruelty of bullies to the point that they feel like their life isn’t worth living. What advice would you offer to a young boy or girl who might be dealing with this type of situation?
I think bullying is a separate issue from suicide. I’ll just tell you my story. When I realized I was going to have to conform to what society was doing, I thought, this is bullshit, and I never want to be that. In fact, when I was a preteen I was thinking, I can figure this out. I realized what they were doing was a hoax. It was all hypocrisy, lies and ridiculousness and I thought, I want no part of that. I had to make a choice, whether I wanted to continue my journey or just say, “Waiter, bring me the check. I’m out of here.” And that’s what happens to not only gay kids, but a lot of teenagers who are bright and sensitive. When they’re faced with conforming to what society is doing, which is false, they make that choice.
Now with the bullying thing, I wish they would put the focus on the people that are doing it, because the people who do that are sad, sad people. The amount of self-loathing it takes to do that is incomprehensible to you and I, so that needs to be uncovered. We should have compassion for that because they’re living hell and that needs to be talked about. So it’s understood by everyone that the person who’s really in trouble is that bully. Not to wrap them in our arms, but to say, "You know when you do that, what that really means [is] you are hating yourself so much that it’s spilling out onto other people [and] that’s only a fraction of the amount of self-loathing there actually is."
You've seen a lot of change in the past 20 years. Where do you hope to see queer culture 20 years from now?
I hope that gay people, who have always been on the forefront of the human experience, of being sensitive and being in touch with human evolution—not only in pop culture, but on an internal emotional level—I wish we would embrace the knowledge of that. Something I’ve been doing this past year is doing this sort of spiritual spellchecker. Any time negative or self-loathing thoughts come into my head, I immediately put it through my spellchecker and correct that shit! It’s like a spiritual auto-tuner. I won’t even allow it into my consciousness. Even if it’s someone who cuts me off in traffic and I want to say to them, “You stupid idiot,” I [think], wait a minute. Hold up. Don’t even go there with it because there’s only one of us here.
If anything, I need to have compassion for them, because that’s me having compassion for myself. I wish the super sensitives of the world, the mediums, the gays, the people who see more colors in the crayon box, will accept that and learn how to run it through their spiritual spellchecker.