The multi-talented creator of the Emmy-winning RuPaul's Drag Race on why people succeed and fail—and what Superman has to do with it.
RuPaul Charles is more than the world's most famous drag queen: He's a business mogul, recording artist, model, guru, and, most recently, Emmy winner. His current masterpiece is television reality competition, RuPaul's Drag Race, a show deeply beloved for its entertainment value just as much as its gut punches of pathos—but people obsess over it because of RuPaul.
RuPaul rose to international prominence in 1993 with his hit song "Supermodel (You Better Work)" before going on to have his own VH1 show, The RuPaul Show. He's been in movies, served as a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, released ten albums, authored an autobiography, and created a drag empire with Drag Race and its spinoffs. Whether he's crafting impressive puns, strutting the runway, or rewarding queens for having "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent" (hey, what's the acronym for that?) he's also attracting a new generation of fans, inspiring a new wave of drag queens, and grooming a new class of drag elite.
† The second season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, a best-of season where favorite queens from previous seasons return to compete, is currently airing.
On his show (currently filming its ninth regular season†), RuPaul is always oscillating between two distinct personas: impeccably suited man and glamazon supermodel drag queen. He talked with GQ about the big stuff: ambition, success, legacy, and… Superman.
You've been an icon for decades and have been doing Drag Race for several years, but you're getting mainstream recognition and now you have an Emmy. Does that change how you think about yourself or the show?
No, no. My rewards system was not based on the status quo, and my goals didn’t have to do with everyone in the status quo accepting me. My prize was being able to live my life freely and to be creative on my own terms. So getting an award that is part of the status quo doesn't change that, because it was never the holy grail for me. If that was my goal in what I did, I would have given up a long time ago—because, you know, all those years ago they weren't gonna give me any awards. Because I don't represent the matrix*.
*The matrix is something Ru brings up a lot. The matrix is everything you're taught to accept without question—anything from a 9-to-5 job to gender identity. Things like drag and punk rock fuck with the matrix; according to Ru, once you realize you're in the matrix, you can take things less seriously and start to have fun.
Absolutely. But do you think that the show and drag will shift as the status quo expands to accept what drag looks like now?
I don't think so. We live in a time where it seems like people are evolved. [Laughs] I am not so quick to agree with that. I think we read magazines and we see television shows and it looks like we're all people of the future, we’ve really got it going on! I don't think that’s true, I really don't. I lived through the '70s and I thought "Oh, now this is future forward! People will dance and we'll have fun and wear tight clothes and polyester and we'll move below the belt!" Not so much. That shut down real fast.
You've always reached for what you wanted to reach for, regardless of what anyone else said was normal or exciting, and All Stars this season touches on the idea of legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
Well, my legacy is truly the girls who have launched their careers from our show. Drag Race has launched the careers of over 100 queens and they are working right now, around the world, inspiring young people in small towns with their stories—and their courage. I've been doing this for a long time, and I didn't know this would be my legacy, but you got to stay in the game long enough to see what happens. And I think that has been my greatest asset—my stick-with-it-ness.
You talk a lot about your "inner saboteur" wanting to thwart you at these different points. How do you know when it’s your inner saboteur talking?
Oh, you know because it's a negative voice! A saboteur has very few tactics. The tactics always involve getting you alone, getting you away from other people or alienating you. So that's when you know. Also, when you incorporate meditation into your daily practice, you understand what your purpose on this planet is. The purpose is to experience humanity. Right, wrong, bad, good, black, white, male, female, everything.
You do meditation, yoga, and hiking every morning. When in your life did you start those practices?
I started these practices when I… quit doing drugs. [Laughs.]
A lot of people are stuck in the idea of themselves as a victim. Or as a starving artist, or as someone who’s not good with numbers. That perception of yourself is what holds you in place.
Right! I’ve heard you describe that as a tail that grows back, and you do these practices to keep the tail from growing back.
Yes, yes. It really does. It's like Groundhog Day where every day I forget what my purpose is and you have to restate your mission purpose and understand what you're here to do. It's easy to get sidetracked by a magazine article or a billboard or something on television, or someone at your church or the PTA has an agenda for you. There are so many influences out there to sort of push you in that direction, so it's important every morning to stake your claim on what it is you're here to do.
In your opinion, is that the difference between people who have talent and succeed versus people who have talent and don't?
Looking back on my career, all the people I've met who are so talented… I think that the biggest obstacle is overcoming the limited perception of yourself. A lot of people who have been victimized are stuck in the idea of perceiving themselves as a victim. Or as a starving artist, or as someone who’s not good with numbers or business or money. And that perception of yourself is what holds you in place. A lot of those people I came up with—who are, by the way, way more talented than me—didn't have the ability to shut out the saboteur. And you see it on our show play out every season where a kid is given a challenge and they say, "Oh, but I’m not a comedy queen," or "I don’t know how to act," and it’s like, actually, you do, but you have to move the blockage from that blessing so it can come through. Years ago my therapist told me, "The power that you have in drag, Ru, is available to you out of drag."
It was groundbreaking. I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! What made me think I didn't have that power?” That's why drag is such a powerful tool for everyone. Men and women! To understand that you are Superman. That's why Superman is a prevailing character in pop culture. He is the hero with a thousand faces. Superman is us, and we are an extension of the power from the source. So that's why drag is so important. These kids who come on our show—they exemplify that every single time. And all those talented people who I came up with, who are still there—still there in the East Village—they're crippled by their own limited perception of themselves.
Well, I think that’s also a part of The Wizard of Oz, which I know is your favorite movie. At the end Dorothy discovers that she always had the power to go back to Kansas.
You’ve done your homework. [Laughs.]
That seems like it's linked to another one of your other mantras: At the end of every episode after you've eliminated a queen, you say to the remaining girls, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?" Do you think that self-love and love for others are the same kind of love?
Yes, well, when we talk about love, we all grew up listening to Diane Warren songs and watching Nancy Meyers movies which really deal with romantic love, which is a fantasy love. And then there is real love. And real love has to do with respect and trust and honesty and unconditional love. Now, romantic love is fun because it has to do with wavelengths and chemicals in our body. But trust me, that shit wears out after two years. [Laughs.] Then you're with this person and you're like "Who the fuck are you?" [Laughs.]
But you know, over time, that real love does come through—not just with the person you’re romantically involved with, but with yourself and with the people around you. It does have to start with you, and I have to say that every day to remind myself because I forget. Love yourself. Enjoy yourself. In fact, I was with someone this weekend who's a guru master and he has to be reminded, too! He's really concerned about hunger around the world and people who don't have resources, and that's great, but first it must start with you. Your job on this planet is to take care of you first. I know it sounds selfish, but taking care of yourself and loving yourself, that is your gift to the world. And it will reverberate throughout the universe.
This interview has been edited and condensed.