Whenever people see a photo or video of RuPaul and I from the 1980s or '90s, they’re always amazed and impressed—not that Ru knew my incredible self, mind you, but the other way around. “You knew Ru?” comes the sweaty, squealing response. In other words, “A rinky dink columnist like you came in contact with such an indelible superstar in the making?” “Yes,” I reply. “Still do!” And I had something to do with her expanding visibility, too.
Ru exploded in New York in the '80s as a sort of Frankenstein-like amalgam of various divas, wrapped up in her Starrbooty persona, but very much her own self. She was part Cher, with a soupcon of Diana Ross, a hint of Tina Turner, a sprinkle of party queen Dianne Brill, and a tad of Oprah Winfrey and various New Agey self-help gurus, whirling while emitting sayings like, “Everybody say ‘love’” and “This is the front. This is the back” (a Cher line, declared while showing off her multi-textured ensemble). The pithy sayings have long been crucial to Ru’s success—quotable emissions like “If you don’t love yourself, how in hell you gonna love somebody else?” and “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” She’s a fab fortune cookie in the body of Pam Grier, with feel good sentiments helping her subversive edge go down easier, along with her megawatt smile and zhooshy hair.
As I kept covering her doings, Ru became the de rigueur drag persona in the clubs, singing, lipsynching and hosting, while instructing audiences how they could be just like her someday. (I bristled, thinking, “What if we’re happy being ourselves?” though of course Ru was spoofing diva narcissism, and she was getting so famous her point became valid anyway.) In ’88, we went on a trip to Atlanta, her hometown, where she was queen, and I kept up with her as she played NYC clubs like La Palace de Beaute and the Tunnel, sprinkling sass everywhere she went in ways that lit up some very dark rooms.
We were on daytime TV talk show panels together, championing the joys of nightlife against all sorts of naysayers (some planted) in the live audience. On Richard Bey’s show in 1990, I did well, pooh-poohing putdowns of nocturnal creatures, though RuPaul stole the show when Bey asked us clubbies what our biggest worry was. “My biggest worry,” she replied, “is really getting to the core of myself and exploring myself and not expressing myself in the short time that I have on this planet. I really want to put the metal to the pedal, baby, and work this life I have, OK? Hello? Can I get an amen in here?”
She certainly needn’t have worried—Ru was expressing herself overtime, so much so that I started thinking she was becoming a bit saturated on the club scene. I was too dim to realize that’s exactly when the masses are ready for you. With the savvy guidance of World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey and some musical help from Larry Tee, Ru went from a local club sensation to mass-market cotton candy for the ages. She had the engagingly campy hit song “Supermodel” in ’92 (presumably to get more airplay, she dropped the “bitch” from “You better work, bitch”), which toyed with fashion mania much the way Madonna’s “Vogue” mimicked the voguing trend based on the fashion magazine two years earlier. From there, Ru’s presence grew, and in 1995, she was best (wo)man at party host Susanne Bartsch’s wedding to gym owner David Barton, making it all the more of a must-attend downtown/uptown event. And Ru got her own VH1 talk show in 1996, many years before her current VH1 show, making strides for drag queens in ways that John Waters’ plus-sized star Divine (who’d died in ‘88) could no longer do.
Ru was breaking down boundaries by being a man in a dress who happened to be funny, sexy, exotic and accessible at the same time. And her persona kept growing. In ‘96, I praised her memoir, Letting It All Hang Out, for showing some human sides to the (very) animated character, as she explained her roots and her plight. My interviews with her through the years were fierce and funny, with some fascinating flashes of yearning and vulnerability thrown into the southern stew.
And then came some career down time. When we traveled together to Philadelphia for a film festival event in 2006, I actually got more attention than she did; I was all over major cable channels at the time, and Ru wasn’t, plus she was out of drag on the trip and probably unrecognizable to some. But this was just a waiting period. I’d heard that Ru was complaining about homophobia in the business, which was preventing her from getting top jobs, and while I certainly agree that that exists, I also felt it was partly because her career was sort of in remission at the moment and the ops would come again with a second chapter. And boy did they come. In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race launched on Logo and became the required-viewing show for gays and bachelorettes for the clever way it packaged drag into a competition and celebrated the arts of cross dress, lipsynch, design, and personality. By now, Ru was blonder, slicker, and more of an oracle than a potential threat. Her redesign was genius, and the result is inescapable (garnering eight Emmy nominations for the most recent season). Every gay you talk to buzzes about Drag Race, and so do straights and bisexuals, for that matter. The smartest people will carry on about who won or lost “Lipsynch For Your Life” last night. If you go to a gay bar, they’re generally standing around watching Drag Race, as a live drag queen makes comments about the comments the televised drag queens are making. It’s a phenomenon, and I’m sure it’s driving some drag queens crazy—you know, the ones who aren’t part of it—as Ru’s hair and prestige go higher and higher.
Off camera, the diva (birth name RuPaul Andre Charles) has many textures, like all of us. A few years ago, I was suffering some sort of breakdown and went up to Ru at a party to tell her I was depressed. I expected instant comfort from someone who’s always been a walking mood enhancer, but her reaction startled me. She started shrieking with laughter, cackling right in my face! I thought maybe she was mad about things I may have written through the years and was delighted I was having a horrible moment. Or, I thought, “Maybe my deadpan delivery is so effective, she actually thinks I’m doing a comedy shtick.” But now I think she was probably just saying, “Lighten up! Laugh! Enjoy!” Say love.
NEW YORK IS BURNING
Drag is all the rage, largely thanks to Ru and company, and I hear it will become the subject of a doc miniseries looking back at days that were darker than the current ones, particularly for many participants in Harlem voguing balls. And coproducing it is Andrew Garfield, the Oscar and Tony nominated actor who’s currently starring in London in the closet busting epic Angels in America. (Garfield and Rupert Fowler are partnered with First Look Media, who did Spotlight.) Garfield recently said he’s sort of a gay man minus the sex thing. I wonder if this makes him a drag queen minus the boas and tucking?
Photography: John Simone