The great RuPaul has not always been at the fringe of culture and the forefront of artistic innovation. Born RuPaul Andre Charles in San Diego, California at the start of the 1960s, his life got off to a pretty ordinary start. But it wasn’t long before he packed his bags and headed to Atlanta with his sister to pursue a career in performing arts, at the young age of 15.
The first years were tough, not getting much attention from his involvement in the local musical and filmmaking scenes. He hopped between New York and Atlanta in the 1980s, working as a go-go dancer and front-person in the band Wee Wee Pole. Toward the end of the decade, he was an extra in the Love Shack music video by the B52s, his first mainstream break
Over the early 1990s, his presence grew, making music and becoming a notable name in the Georgia and New York club and drag scenes. In 1993, RuPaul burst into the mainstream with Supermodel of the World, an album that would bring his persona to MTV and the billboard charts. His campy humor and blatant disregard for “norms” were refreshing and brought him, and drag with it, into the spotlight.
It was the 90s, everyone was looking for something new and different. MAC cosmetics saw that something in RuPaul, making him the face of MAC and the first ever drag Supermodel. From here, the foundations of RuPaul’s “f-empire” could be built. By 1996 he had his own talk show, assisted by then and future compatriot Michelle Visage, that had guests ranging from Diana Ross to Nirvana. Winding up the millennium had RuPaul as a nearly household name, popping up on television, albums, radio and advertisements.
RuPaul had made it, and made it work! In the years that followed, RuPaul released numerous albums, most from his own record label RuCo, as well as appearing on television and in movies. He became a critical voice for the LGBTQ community in the entertainment industry; starting his own record label caused him to encounter the still deeply entrenched hurdles and stereotypes pushed by the “old boys” in the business.
While breaking new ground on gay and minority rights in entertainment, the concept of drag (and by extension, trans issues) was still wildly misunderstood. RuPaul was, and is, the definition of class, elegance and performance that defines drag as an art form and platform for expression. In an attempt to distance drag from its club scene roots, the supermodel of the world was cooking up something good to refresh drag and present it as the performance art that it is.
That recipe for success ended up being called RuPaul’s Drag Race. Continuing a partnership with World of Wonder Productions that began decades before, they pitched a fringe reality show to LogoTV, a new LGBT channel. Always having been a cult favorite in the queer community, Drag Race grew and evolved over 8 seasons, catching the attention of just about everyone. It spawned spin-offs, launched careers, and drowned RuPaul and the producers in awards, even a goddamn Emmy!
No one can argue with RuPaul’s success, it makes it all the more impressive to know where (s)he came from and what happened along the way. As an iconic symbol of queer life and nurturing mother to her f-empire of fans and disciples, RuPaul has become a paragon of pop culture. In her own words: She was definitely “born naked, and the rest is drag.”