Inside RuPaul's Surprising Journey to Drag Race Fame
"I was told to get in line and be like everybody else, but I was also encouraged to express myself," RuPaul tells PEOPLE
RuPaul has been workin’ it since he came out of the womb!
“I feel like I was already shaped at birth,” the drag queen (a.k.a. RuPaul Andre Charles) says in the current issue of PEOPLE of growing up in San Diego playing dress-up in both his mom’s and his dad’s clothes. “My mission statement was to play with all the colors, wear all the clothes. It was weird to me that everybody else wasn’t doing that.”
“I was told to get in line and be like everybody else, but I was also encouraged to express myself,” he says. “My mother was very — I thought she was very punk rock. She was very anti-establishment. She was very religious, but at the same time she didn’t trust organized religion. She said they were a bunch of hypocrites.”
A self-described “super sensitive and very observant” kid, Rupaul, 56, says he always felt like he was “the little boy who fell to earth.”
“But then I found music and laughter and colors and, really, Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS,” explains the host of the Emmy-nominated reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, “that’s when I realized my tribe existed, that they were out there.”
A fan of Andy Warhol, RuPaul wanted to go straight to New York City. But he knew better than to make a big jump so fast, so he moved to Atlanta at 15, attended the the School of Performing Arts, and worked selling cars.
“I went to find my tribe and I found them originally in Atlanta in musical theater and later in the punk rock scene when I was in bands and stuff like that,” he says. “Really my tribe was people who were sweet and sensitive and had figured out a way to navigate life — a life for most of us that seemed so mundane and so boring. We all shared a love for the irreverent and music and colors and laughter and that was the goal.”
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In his 20s, he began incorporating drag elements into his performances.
“I wanted to use all the colors, no judgment. Just do it all. Wear it all,” he says. “It had nothing to do with wanting to be a woman or gender identify. It had to do with textures and colors and experiences.”
He moved to New York, but says he went through 11 years as a performer before he made his first dime as one.
“I knew this was happening for me when I was shooting the ‘Supermodel’ video in Central Park and I had a Winnebago dressing room,” he says of making the video for his 1992 dance track “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
“I thought, I have a freaking Winnebago. I am here!”
Next came a radio show and a VH1 talk show.
“I grew up watching variety and talk shows and I wanted the RuPaul Show on VH1 to be a combination of all those things,” he says. “It was a dream come true because I got to have my best friend as my co-host on the show. We were were doing a morning drive radio show in New York and we’d finish that and shoot two or three shows of the talk show and then on the weekend I’d go out and promote my book or MAC cosmetics or do my nightclub act. I had five or six jobs going at the same time and I was exhausted but it was a dream come true. I knew I had to hit it hard because this business is unforgiving. When your number comes up, you have to be prepared.”
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After 100 episodes, The RuPaul Show was canceled in 1998.
“After the show ended, I felt it was time for me to step away from the canvas for a minute to sort of recharge my battery,” he says. “And I did that for about four years. Had BBQs, parties, game nights — and didn’t diet, which was brilliant. I worked but I didn’t work with the same ambition that I had for all of my career and that allowed me to do what I’m doing today. It took about four years for me to step back and it coincided with the Bush years in our country. 9/11. Homeland security. There was a weird hostile energy.”
“But by the time ’04 came around I was ready to get back into the game and that’s what happened,” he continues. “I started working in morning drive radio again and made a movie called [RuPaul Is: Starbooty!] and then got on board with some old friends to do a reality show.”
Now VH1 has renewed his competition show RuPaul‘s Drag Race for a 10th season after its highest-ever ratings and the show is up for the outstanding reality competition Emmy.
“Every project I start, I honestly in my heart of hearts think it’s going to be the best thing since sliced bread. That’s rarely the case, but this has actually turned out to be that,” says RuPaul. “I feel very lucky.”