Check out the complete oral history of RuPaul—and revisit 25 years’ worth of game-changing LGBTQ movies, TV, and music—in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Drag has been around since the days of Dionysus, but no ancient Greek ever sashayed nearly as statuesquely as RuPaul Charles. The world’s most famous and influential drag performer took a long (and still) marginalized art form and used it to create an empire — and in doing so, built a shimmering 30-year-long career as twisted as pop culture itself to become one of the most important LGBTQ icons of our time.
That’s why the inimitable RuPaul is the perfect cover star to grace Entertainment Weekly’s annual LGBTQ special issue, which this year features a reunion with the stars of The L Word, a gay pop preview (including a sneak peek at the Will & Grace revival), and our list of the 25 greatest LGBTQ entertainment moments from the past 25 years.
RELATED: RuPaul’s 13 Best Pop Culture Moments
As for the story of RuPaul, it would certainly be enough to hear from Ru himself about all of his grand achievements (like signing on as the first face of MAC’s Viva Glam cosmetics line in 1994, or becoming national TV’s first openly gay host with his VH1 talk show in 1996). Instead, we’ve assembled a supporting roster of crucial voices who witnessed his ascent into stardom (like sidekick Michelle Visage, drag legend Lady Bunny, and the producing minds and winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race) to join in on our completely brief oral history of author, model, recording artist, activist, and Emmy-winning host, RuPaul.
They all have their stories to share alongside Ru, who was hustling up a reputation as a dancer in ‘80s Atlanta when he first met the two young musicians who would become his first managers and longtime business partners:
- Fenton Bailey (cofounder, World of Wonder): When we met him in the ‘80s, he was wheat-pasting posters of himself that said, ‘RuPaul is Everything.’ I often think of that moment because it was so symbolic in so many ways because it was Ru, putting up a poster of himself that contained the fundamental message of Ru from the beginning: You have to hustle. You have to find and connect with your audience. When we met Ru, he wasn’t sitting around waiting to be discovered.
- Randy Barbato (cofounder, World of Wonder): He was fully realized. He was working a total gender-f–k punk rock look, this incredible creature that you could not ignore. It was undeniable that we were in the presence of this huge star.
There’s the RuPaul whom the world met as a recording artist with his 1993 dance-pop single, “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and as the country’s first mainstream drag model:
- Lady Bunny (drag legend): Ru’s contribution to drag is unique in that Ru presented himself as pretty, and the only way that the mainstream had embraced drag was to have [men] in Some Like It Hot doing drag because they were hiding. Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman does drag because he’s unable to find work. Mrs. Doubtfire. There was always a reason a man had to do drag. Ru didn’t need a reason. The reason was, ‘I’m gorgeous. I’m a supermodel.’ That was a huge benchmark for him to say, ‘I want to do drag because I look great—don’t you agree?’ And for the world to say, ‘Yes.’
There’s the RuPaul who changed the world of talk shows with his VH1 talk show The RuPaul Show, a short-lived series that booked everyone from Cher and Diana Ross to Bea Arthur and the Backstreet Boys:
- RuPaul: VH1 asked me to present an award at the 1995 VH1 Fashion Awards, and they sent me the script, which was written by some writer who was trying to speak queen-speak, and it was rotten. Every time I would get a script for something like that back then, it would be in what the writer would think a drag queen would speak like, and it was always bitchy. I do sassy — I don’t do bitchy. So I rewrote what I was supposed to say, and I came out in these Bob Mackie wings, and I could see in the audience there was David Bowie and there was Tina Turner, and there was Madonna — not looking at me — and the crowd was just going wild and laughing and it was so positive and funny. That’s when they called and said, ‘Let’s do a TV show.’
- Michelle Visage (co-host): It was a brilliant f—ing show and way before its time. I mean, we had a TV show with a drag queen and his best girl friend being clowns, taking the piss out of life and out of pop culture. I knew when I was in it that it was different, but it didn’t feel different as in weird. It felt different as in groundbreaking.
And there’s the RuPaul who was once — and, even as the Emmy-winning host of RuPaul’s Drag Race, still is — just an ambitious kid, determined to figure out how to make waves and leave his positive mark in the world:
- RuPaul: Everything came to a screeching halt when I turned 28. I moved out to LA because nothing was happening for me. I was sleeping on my baby sister’s couch, not a penny to my name. I thought, ‘Could it be that this is not meant for me?’ It was this horrible existence. And one day, my friend Larry Tee called me and said, ‘Ru, what the f–k are you doing? You are a star. Get your ass back to New York and get your s–t together.’ And I did. I got a plane ticket and decided I was going to shave these legs, I’m going to shave my chest, I’m going to put some f—ing titties in – rolled-up socks, not implants – and I’m going to go back to New York and give those bitches exactly what they want from me.