In early 1992, I interviewed RuPaul at the Tommy Boy Music offices in New York City in preparation for the label’s release of his debut album Supermodel of the World. At the time, I was the creative director of Dance Music Report, a trade magazine for DJs and the dance music industry, which was owned by Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy, so it made sense to hire me to do the bio. I was also a RuPaul fan.
I knew Ru from his 1986 Funtone USA album RuPaul Is Star Booty (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) and from his bumpin’ 1991 single, “I Got That Feeling,” produced by Larry Tee and Eric Kupper featuring Lady Bunny on background vocals. I also knew Ru from seeing him performing at clubs like Larry Tee’s Love Machine and The Roxy.
Present at the interview, in addition to RuPaul and myself, were Tommy Boy publicist Laura Hynes and Randy Barbato, co-founder with Fenton Bailey of World of Wonder, which would go on to produce RuPaul’s Drag Race. I knew Randy and Fenton first as The Fabulous Pop Tarts (think a hyper-camp version of the Pet Shop Boys), particularly for Gagging on the Lovely Extravaganza, their second album released in 1992 on Funtone USA, RuPaul’s original Atlanta-based record label.
The tape, now an MP3 after sitting in a mixtape shoe box for 30 years, starts with chit-chat as Ru, Randy, Laura and I settle in for the interview. Ru and Randy talking about the record store I managed in Cincinnati before I moved to New York in 1991, me recognizing Randy from the Pop Tarts, our mutual friend, the journalist Laurie Pike, and for some reason, Bryan Adams.
You hear music faintly in the background not because we were recording in a bustling record label office, but because in my rush to get to the interview, I’d grabbed a random promo cassette tape, and like the true professional that I was, recorded over it. (Sorry, Vernel Brown!)
The RuPaul bio that I submitted was scrapped, perhaps because the opening sentence exclaimed, per Ru, that sitting FLOTUS Barbara Bush was a drag queen. Or maybe it was just too long. In any case, this interview is loads of fun, full of laughs, and shows that the RuPaul we know today is the real deal.
Later, when the promo VHS tape of the “Supermodel” video hit my desk at Dance Music Report, I took it straight to Tunnel Bar in the East Village, which was known for their videos. Queens lost their gay minds. I knew Ru was going to be big. (As if there was ever any question!)
Andy: First of all, do you preferred to be referred to as "he" or "she"?
RuPaul: Doesn't matter to me. Whatever the referrer feels comfortable with. I know what I am, and what I am is RuPaul. "He," "she," "it," "thing," "that-over-there" [laughter]...
I read that you got your name from Ebony magazine. Who was RuPaul in Ebony?
Well, there was a cover story on Fats Domino, and it was the July issue of I won't say what year, but I guess saying it was Fats Domino says about what year it is. [laughter] They showed interiors of his home in New Orleans, and one of the people sitting at the bar in this piece was Ripoll. In fact, my mother still has the magazine. She has the page marked with a pen saying "boy" and there's an arrow pointing to this underlined name: Ripoll. Of course, she changed it and made it a little more prissy and hairdresser-like and it turned out to be RuPaul.
Your mother gave you the name?
She chose the name from Ebony magazine. So, it's like a variation of this theme in Ebony magazine. My mother is actually from that region, too. She's from St. Martinsville, which is near New Iberia in Louisiana, and she grew up speaking Canadian French, so this was her interpretation of that name.
So, you weren't born RuPaul? When did she decide to call you RuPaul?
At birth! My real name is RuPaul Andre Charles. I think with that name my parents either wanted me to go into show business or become a hairdresser. [laughter] Isn't it a gorgeous name? Sometimes I’ll see it written down and I’ll think, "Oh, that's such a gorgeous name!" [laughter]
It looks good in print and takes up lots of space! Alright, when did you snap on your first wig?
Probably at about 12 years old. My sisters were about seven years older than me, and falls were really big then.
Whose wig was it?
I had two older sisters who were twins who were my “helpers.” They were great because they were seven years older than me, so they had all the Motown stuff and they told me about everything. They were like a nation between them, Renee and Renatta, so, um…
Wait a minute, Renee, Renetta, and RuPaul?
And Rozalyn. Yes! We all had the same initials.
You all should have gone into show business!
I know! In fact, I always daydream about getting them. Doing their face, putting some clothes on them, slapping some wigs on, and going out there. It would be great!
They've got the bones and the faces. I just beat their face and you know, call it Sister RuPaul and Sister Sledge! [laughter] It would be great! But, I was 10 years old, and my mother had all this makeup and stuff, and I would do Revlon commercials in her bedroom, you know, in the mirror: “It’s Revlon!”
That’s cute. Did you do shows, like a lot of little kids do? A lot of little drag queens?
Yes, we did.
Were you lip-synching?
I was lip-synching, doing shows. I did Tina Turner, Charo, and of course Cher. My Cher impersonation is still a mainstay in my show. I will not do a show without doing my Cher impersonation. Last time I was in Atlanta, I did Cher doing Prince's "When Doves Cry." [proceeds to imitate Cher] "Thish ish what is sounsh lack when doves crahhh..."
I'll bet that went over pretty well.
Well, you know Atlanta...my home, they love me down there. In fact, when I was there last, they had five inches of snow, and down south, when it snows, everything stops, they don't know what to do. I had a packed house. Everybody came down to see me. The club was really worried and called around to other clubs, all of which were empty. My fans came out to see me!
Sure! You work! Now, this is really basic, but, did you always want to be a pop star?
Well, very early, up until I was 10 years old, I wanted to become a race car driver. Drag racing, right? [laughter] I swear, but then at 10, I decided I wanted to be a pop star. I've always wanted to be a pop star, I really have. And actually, you know, at 10, I realized I was a pop star, it's just that no one knew it. So, I had to go and tell the world that I was. Show them. I’ve always been a pop star.
Let’s talk a little bit about the album. Is it finished, or in the works, or…?
We're still recording it right now.
And you've got, from what I understand, Deee-Lite working on a couple of things...
They're giving me two songs that they had done for someone else who for some reason didn't take them, so I’m taking them. And also, they’re probably going to remix a couple of other cuts.
Who else is working on your album?
Well, basically, my partner and myself are writing all the material. My partner's name is Jimmy Harry, like Debbie Harry. What I love about his name is that it's got two double letters in it. I love words and names with double letters. They're good luck, actually. Like Tommy Boy (the two “m”s) and names like Donna Summer or Madonna. Actually, the Starr Booty album you have [I had brought the album with me], I did years ago and then it was just S-t-a-r Booty. Then Starr Booty went to outer space and when she came back, she had an extra "r" on the Starr, because a psychic told her it was ...
Yes! [laughter] Jimmy Harry and I are doing all the cuts, the writing. There is one cut that I wrote with The Pop Tarts and Charlie Roth may be a B-side somewhere.
Is the album all club? All dance?
It's club and, you'd be surprised, there are some mid-tempo ballads, but it’s basically all club music. There's techno and…
No country, but I'm working on it. [laughter]
You talked about doing some self-help books, tips, and anything from make-up tips to cooking. Do you have a favorite recipe and what is it for?
Ah, yes! My favorite recipe, and I haven't had it for a long time, because my diet's really changed. I eat lots of low-fat, high-energy food because I'm aerobics crazed at this moment. But my favorite recipe is for a dish called "cush cush." Not couscous. This is cush cush. This is something that my mother taught us how to do. It’s from Louisiana. Basically, what it is is mushed-up cornbread and milk together, with sugar on it.
The way we would make it is we would take an iron pot and put about some Crisco in there. And then take some yellow corn meal, Albers, preferably, and put it in the bowl and sprinkle water in it with a fork and put a little bit of salt in it and make it crumbly, until it's not wet, but just sort of moist. And then you get the oil, like about a teaspoon of oil, in the iron pot hot, and then you take the mixture and put it in there and stir it around and let it cook. Then you take that and put it in a bowl, put some sugar over it, and put some warm milk over that. It's basically cornbread with milk. And we called it cush cush.
In fact, I talked to my niece a couple of days ago and at the moment when I called, she was making cush cush. [laughter] You can't find really good yellow cornmeal here. You find cornmeal here that has flour in it or something. I can't find Albers, and it’s not the same.
Maybe you should have some shipped up.
Yes, I'll have to send... "Margaret send me a box of, ah, Albers ovah hee-yah, I wanna make me some cush cush, honey..." [laughter] Only this time I would have to make it with some sunflower seed oil with low-fat milk and Equal.
Snapping back over to the album. I've seen you do a couple of things live. "Free Your Mind" and "Everybody Say Love." Are these cuts going to be on the album?
Yes, they are going to be on the album, but of course, they've gone through changes since then. I mean we’ve overhauled them and tightened them up.
They were great when you did them at Riot this summer! What? About four or five months ago, whenever they opened. That was when the rumor was out that you were on Tommy Boy, but it hadn't been confirmed, and I was like, "Well, if she ain't, she oughtta be!" I thought they were really good, accessible, pop dance records. Would you ever do a cover?
I'd love to do a cover. Pop music is my blood. I love pop music. I have this whole repertoire of songs that I've always wanted to do. Lists and lists and lists of things I wanna do. In fact, we're going to include a cover or two on this record.
What would be the ultimate cover to do?
The ultimate cover that I’d love to do would probably not be that commercial. We were thinking of doing something already out there and more commercial. Diana Ross is my idol, so I'd like to do her whole catalog. You know she's the most successful performer in recording history, as far as having the most amount of number-one hit songs. She's had eighteen number-one songs! That includes the Supreme songs, too. No one else has had eighteen.
Would you do any comedy on the album?
Yes. In fact, the record is called Return of Starr Booty. [Released as Supermodel of the World.] It's like a soundtrack album, so there will be dialogue from the movie between cuts, inside the cuts like, "Oooh, there she go now! Oooh, what she got on?!"
That reminds me, stop everything! What is that thing on Larry Tee’s La Palace de Beauté EP where you say, "Nuh-uh, uh-uh, she already done had herses!"? What is that!? I have a friend who wants to know, and he asked me to ask you. Now I wanna know what the hell you said!
I was at Krystal’s, which is a fast-food chain down south. Someone in front of me had ordered some Krystal’s. What happens is you order them over here, and you pick them up over...
Like White Castles ...
Like White Castles, and you go pick them up over here. So, one of the girls behind the counter was handing a bag of Krystal’s to this woman and this other lady said, "Uh-uh, uh-uh, honey, she done already done had herses!" [laughter]
It's sampled on this record and it's sooo funny! It’s so funny! Mike [my colleague at the music magazine] and I started saying it around the office. He would just come up to me in the middle of the day and say, "Nuh-uh, uh-uh, she already done had herses!" [laughter] I swear on a stack of Bibles!
"She done, ah, she done, ah-um, she done already had herses!" [laughter]
Randy Barbato, World of Wonder: Normally I wouldn't interrupt, but I know so many people all over the country who have asked that exact same question. People that work in offices... there is this whole underground of people that are going, "Nuh-uh, uh-uh..."
Right, right. That line has come back to me time and time again. That line.
I just had to ask and I'm so glad I did.
I'm so glad you did because it'll be on the new album.
So, there will be some funny stuff on there.
It's gonna be all that. People associate that with me, so with this record I'm gonna give it to ‘em! I'm gonna give it all to them!
Now, video. You are the first... do you like the term "drag queen"? Is that OK?
Yes. I love that term. I love that term! Because of course, you know, my feeling is that you are born naked, and the rest is drag. And also, I don't feel that I'm a female impersonator, although technically, I guess I am, but, I much prefer the term "drag queen."
I’m going to go back to the video, in a second. In an article in British Elle, writer Laurie Pike talked about the different types of drag evolving over the last three or four years. It’s not really drag to pass as a woman, as it is more of fantasy drag. Do you think there is a next phase for popular drag? Like Lypsinka, who is doing more extreme drag, who you wouldn’t think of as a woman, but is extremely entertaining.
Well, there are different categories. If you’re going to do what we call "bopper's drag," which is not to really pass as a woman, but just to be an instant star. There are different ways you can go with that. You can do trashy combat boots with dresses, or you can do a geisha girl, you can do rabbit drag, where you're a rabbit.
The other day, a friend of mine, Floyd, painted two buck teeth on his lower lip and put a stocking cap over his head and put on an aspirin bottle and an orange [laugher]. Which is drag! I've put a stocking cap over my head and cut the mouth out, safety-pinned fuzzy day-glow orange lips to the stocking cap, cut out the eyes, and put on those big eyelashes that come out that way. That's another style. Just going with it.
In doing the record and stuff, I’ve recently been getting into what we call World of Wonder drag. But it’s like preppy drag. I wear khakis with denim shirts, and you know, nice shoes. And I think it's really funny. Other people wouldn't think anything of it, but I think of it as just another form of drag. It's just a way of getting through the day or moving through business life or whatever, with ease. But I think it’s really funny. I look at myself in the mirror and go, "Oh my God! I'm actually doing exactly what my mother always wanted me to do," you know, dress like this!
It’s like anybody else. A guy who’s normally preppy wouldn’t go out on Halloween like that.
Yeah. On Halloween, I never dress up on Halloween, I usually stay home if I’m not working. But I don’t dress up.
You're the first drag queen that I know of that's been signed to a fairly major record deal. Everybody knows Tommy Boy, they all know Naughty By Nature.
Miss Queen Latifah…
You're on a label with a lot of well-known people. So, what I want to know is, have they [Tommy Boy] talked about how they are going to present you to the general public?
They're going to present me just like this. Like you mentioned before, I'm funny and I'm sort of a comedian. I'm not really very threatening once you get to see me and spend time with me, I mean to the average person. A lot of drag queens throughout the history of drag are somehow intimidating, and I'm not that way at all. I'm very personable. So, they're banking on selling me just that way.
At first, to look at, I'm like, "Whoa, what is that?" But 20 seconds later, after I open my mouth and shake your hand and talk to you, you understand that I'm just like you. I am you. I represent a part of every person who's ever walked the face of the Earth. Everyone can relate to wanting to be this Tawanda Queen of the Jungle, or everyone can relate to wanting to be this omnipotent whatever, but actually who’s accessible. They are going to present me in the way that my fans have loved me for years and the way that so many millions of fans are going to love in the future.
Middle America has been exposed to drag to some extent, but in a way that they really didn't think about it. Like Rocky Horror Picture Show. I mean they just thought that that character in Rocky Horror was crazy. I don’t think most people thought it was drag. I didn’t the first time I saw it. I thought it was just all these crazy people in this house. I take it there’s going to be a video for whatever the first song is. You are extremely visual...
So, I would think a video would be the way to pop it right across. For people who don't know who you are, if they were to be asked who RuPaul is without ever seeing you, they may not remember, but if they've seen the video, it'll just lock right in...
People at work will be like, "Honey, last night on MTV, did you see that, that, it was six feet–and the hair–oh, no, the legs, the legs, and oh, she opened her mouth–funny! Funny, funny, funny! Oh, and can sing! And the dancing! Are you gagging on the dancing? Did you see huh? She was too fierce!"
All that. I think it's going to be great. In fact, I think it's really time. Everybody who hears about the whole thing ultimately says, you know what, it’s about time. Because really every pop star who's ever walked the face of the Earth is a drag queen. And now, this is one of the most honest, up-front signings to ever happen because I am an unabashed drag queen. Everybody is. You’re going to tell me Madonna is not a drag queen? Bryan Adams, he's in drag, doing the jeans look. And Barbara Bush, she's a drag queen. [laughter]. It’s true. Everybody I talk to says it’s about time. And I think it is.
I guess it's one of the last frontiers for pop music to sign a big ol’ drag queen. The last drag queen that had a real shot at becoming a big star was Divine. I think, anyway. Divine died. So, with this signing, and with the MTV exposure that you're undoubtedly going to get once the video comes out, I think it could be really interesting. People are going to love you in the video. I don’t see how they couldn’t. You know. They're going to be blown away. I think maybe you could pick up the ball where Divine, unfortunately, dropped it and maybe cross over into real stardom. Cause Divine was almost there, you know. There were a couple of movies. Hairspray was the last one. And you thought, well, maybe a couple more. She was supposed to be on Married With Children.
Laura Hynes, Tommy Boy Publicist: I have a question. Can you talk more about Starr Booty? I think there should be one in the bio. Who is Starr Booty? What is the difference between Starr Booty and RuPaul? And where did Starr Booty come from?
Starr Booty is a character that I started doing early. I started making these films with art students in Atlanta. Actually, you know, it’s funny. I was on Spencer Thornton. You know Spencer Thornton? His television show down there. He was about to interview me, and we were talking before we went on the air. He said, “Damn, I've introduced you so many times. I've called you ‘the outrageous,’ ‘really funky,’ ‘eccentric’ RuPaul, what should we call you this time?” I said, “I don't know, call me Starr Booty.” [laughter] You know, just like that, and we laughed for about ten minutes. And I thought, this was really something, Starr Booty. Starr Booty! I'd been making films with art students before that, so I decided that I should do a character like the Blaxploitation films of the '70s called Starr Booty.
Of course, Starr Booty is a character that I do. Starr Booty used to be an almost holier-than-thou character, you know, but now in her resurgence, she's a little funkier and has more of a sense of humor. Because before she was totally anti-drugs, politically correct, she used to work for the United States government and all this stuff. Now, she does not work for the United States government, she is still not OK with drugs, but is like whatever you want to do as long as you don't hurt nobody else is fine and all that. RuPaul is the comic, the funny-crazy person who is behind all this. The character is into more social awareness and spirituality.
But, RuPaul is me, and I'm the crazy nut who executes all this stuff, and that's basically the difference. I see Starr Booty being the role model for lots of people who have low self-esteem. I've thought in terms of Starr Booty as being the Superman to RuPaul 's Clark Kent. Do you understand? Something like that. Where there's this other side of me that gets strength and power by slapping on a wig and a pair of heels. It's funny meeting everybody here [at Tommy Boy] today. I've been here before, you know, just sitting on boxes and people are like "Oh hi," you know. But I walk in like this, and people are like, "Whoa!" and it's almost like I'm Superman now and RuPaul is Clark Kent. It’s really weird.
So, it would be interesting to see the trend taking off, and kids all over America, regardless of sexual orientation, slapping on wigs, or just slapping on attitudes. I mean it's like slapping on personas. Like I'm doing my Ralph Lauren preppy drag during the day. It's that fun and that simple, too.
Would you like to see RuPaul, Starr Booty dolls?
Yes! Yes! Anatomically, I'm very much like a Barbie–all legs, short torso–all of that.
And hair! Yes! All that’s coming. You mentioned the songs, "Free Your Mind" and "Everybody Say Love," which really are great examples of what the album is all about because it’s about positive messages, exploring yourself, and getting in there. It's not really too heavy, but it’s in a fun package that deals with yourself and loving yourself and learning how to love yourself.
Listen to the 1992 interview with RuPaul in its entirety below.
Andy Reynolds is a New York City-based graphic designer and publicist (Popular Publicity, @popularpublicity). 100 percent of the profits from his SAY GAY t-shirts (seen in Out’s Pride 2022 issue) go to organizations fighting “Don’t Say Gay” bills. His #AGEISMSUCKS (seen in the 2022 Out 100, @ageismsucks) and Queer Faith Pride t-shirts benefit LGBTQ+ organizations Sage USA and Beloved Arise, respectively. Available at www.theteeservice.com, @theteeservice.