Legendary entertainer RuPaul has been famous for 20 years for his drag persona — sky-high wigs, even higher heels and glamorous dresses.
But even though he's known for his over-the-top outfits, RuPaul says that everyone is performing in drag, one way or another.
"I've had talk show hosts ask me, so why are you wearing women's clothes? And they, of course, are dressed in slacks, a blazer, and you know, a button-down shirt. And people don't get it. The truth is we're all doing it," he tells Tell Me More's Michel Martin.
And, by the way, RuPaul is his real name. Born RuPaul Andre Charles, his parents are from southern Louisiana, and he says his name has Creole flavor — "The 'Ru' is literally the roux in a gumbo."
He says his mother came up with his name with the intention that he would become a star. In the 1980s, he started performing in drag as part of a punk-rock band in Atlanta because it was "really, in our culture, the last taboo for boys."
Now, at 51, RuPaul says he still enjoys dressing up. He hosts RuPaul's Drag Race, the modeling competition for drag queens, which airs in 30 countries. RuPaul says the show, now in its fourth season, is an opportunity for people to "find out about a world they had no idea [about]. ... And it's not just, you know, sexual deviation. It has to do with using all of the materials that this planet has to offer."
The new season of RuPaul's Drag Race premiered Jan. 30 on Logo and earned the highest ratings for a premier on that network.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In a minute, we'll hear what kind of music Oscar nominee Viola Davis likes to listen to. That's coming up.
But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who have made a difference through their work. And today, we want to talk with somebody who has made a difference in how we work it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERMODEL")
RUPAUL: (Singing) You better work - cover girl - work it, girl. Do what's fun. Do your thing on the runway. Work - super girl - you better work it, girl - of the world. Wet your lips and make love to the camera. Work...
MARTIN: You may recognize that as RuPaul's 1992 dance hit, "Supermodel." Ever since then, RuPaul has been acclaimed as an entertainer, singer and model. He is known for his glamorous dresses, sky-high wigs and even higher heels. Now, at age 51, he hosts his own modeling competition for drag queens. "RuPaul's Drag Race" on the Logo network opened its fourth season last week, and the episode scored the highest ratings of any premier in Logo history.
And RuPaul joins us now to talk about his work and his life and whatever else is on his mind. Welcome.
RUPAUL: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: And RuPaul really is your name.
RUPAUL: Yeah, it's my real name.
MARTIN: RuPaul Andre Charles, if I have that right.
RUPAUL: Yes, yes. My folks are from southern Louisiana, so I have a Creole background. And the Ru is literally - is the ru in a gumbo, you know, the gravy that you make before you make a gumbo.
MARTIN: And your mom said - you say in your bio that your mom gave you that name because she knew that you would be a star.
RUPAUL: Yeah. That's absolutely true.
MARTIN: Why did she think that?
RUPAUL: I don't know. You know, she was very intuitive and, you know, people from that part of the country claim to be very intuitive, and I believe them. So I grew up with that, and I knew that I would be. I didn't know I'd be doing drag, that's for sure.
MARTIN: How did you get into drag?
RUPAUL: Well, I was in a punk-rock band in Atlanta, Georgia, and we were - this is the Reagan '80s, and we were into trying to sort of push the envelope. And somebody suggested we do a gig in drag. Just - I mean, because it's really, in our culture, the last taboo for boys. And we did it, and the reaction I got was outrageous, so I thought, hmm, interesting. I'll take note of that.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is? Is it, in part, because you're so tall?
RUPAUL: I think there are several reasons and, in hindsight, you know, I come from a family of all girls, and my features are somewhat softer than usual guy features and, you know what? I think it's beshert. I think it's kismet, honestly.
MARTIN: Did it bother you, though, that you - you have in your bio that you were mistaken for a girl at a young age. And I was wondering, did that use to bother you, until you figured out how to work it, make it work for you?
RUPAUL: No. Well, you know what? It didn't bother me, because I knew that - people say all kinds of things, and people really aren't that bright. OK. There, I said it. You know, and I learned that from an early age, too. From early age, I thought, OK. I didn't fit in. I'm going to figure out how to fit in. So once I figured out what people were doing and what society was doing, I realized: I don't want to fit into that. I want to stay on the outside of that.
MARTIN: You do, though, say in your memoir that it was not an easy - this is not an easy thing. A number of other performers, though, who have an unconventional path to success have also had a difficult time of it, like, for example, Tyler Perry talks about how, you know, he lived in his car for a time. You went through some really difficult periods like that.
RUPAUL: Sure. But I think it's difficult even if you don't choose to follow your bliss. It's difficult if you choose to do what other people want you to do. Life is not easy, and I - you know, it's a pet peeve with me with, you know, a culture where we want to make the world baby-safe for kids. It's like, well, you know, kiddo, you can't make it baby-safe because we've set it up to where suffering and pain is a part of life, and that's OK, because there's a way to override that.
MARTIN: Which is what?
RUPAUL: Which is to go within and to understand that you are not your body. You are not your circumstances. You can transcend every situation, even - believe it or not - death. And many people have come to this planet to tell you that. You can transcend any of it, because it's really all a dream. I don't want to freak people out with this stuff, but, hey, that's what's going on here.
MARTIN: Well, it's interesting, because it's a tough message from somebody whose performance aura is associated with beauty and lightness and fun and fizz. Do you know what I mean?
RUPAUL: I do. I do know what you mean, but really, the overall commentary on what I'm doing is saying, hey, look. I get to create whatever persona I want to, and it's all up to me. And the truth is - we're all basically the universe pretending to be humans for a brief moment in time with a little self-induced amnesia.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I'm speaking with legendary performer RuPaul. He is a model, singer, entertainer. We're checking in with him for our Wisdom Watch conversation. He's dropping some knowledge on us even as we speak.
You know, talking about the fact that you're saying, look, we're all born naked and we're all in drag, we're talking now a lot more than we used to about the transgender experience, you know, people who feel they were born in the wrong body. But that's not you.
RUPAUL: No. No, no, not at all. Not at all. I've - you know, people have issue with my stance on that because the truth is, you know, people take themselves too seriously. I think, yeah, OK, you're born in the wrong body, but the truth is you're not your body. So why take it so seriously, you know? And you know, if it causes you pain, you know, do whatever you want to do, I'm not going to stand in your way, but I don't think it's that serious.
MARTIN: The drag as a performance art. I mean you identify as a man. You don't see yourself as being other than a man or trapped in your male body or whatever. But the whole drag aura, the wigs, the heels, the fabulous dresses are a performance for you.
Yeah. It's so funny. I answer this question all the time. I don't understand why people have such a problem with it. No, actually, I do understand why people have a problem understanding...
I don't know that they have a problem with it.
RUPAUL: No, it's not a problem, it's understanding the concept. It's because the ego mind wants you to believe that you are all the things it says on your driver's license or your birth certificate. And so someone who does, who decides, well, I'm going to use all the colors in the crayon box, has to sort of be understood when the truth is we're all doing that. And I think drag comes up against opposition because drag queens break the fourth wall. We're basically saying you are not who you think you are. You're actually much more than that. You know, you follow?
MARTIN: I do. Do you feel that there is more or less tolerance for men who like to dress as women, for whatever reason, or for women who like to dress as men? You remember Lady Gaga for one of the big awards shows dressed as kind of her alter ego. What did she - I forget what she called it, Joe...
RUPAUL: Right. Right.
MARTIN: Joe Somebody, but she dressed - and she stayed in character for the whole evening.
MARTIN: And I'm curious about your perception of how that works.
RUPAUL: Well, we are a culture who is obsessed with masculine behavior. For a man to dress in what's considered girls' clothes or whatever, that's definitely looked down upon. But for a woman to do it, it's completely different. You know, I've had talk show hosts ask me, so why are you wearing women's clothes? And they, of course, are dressed in slacks, a blazer, and you know, a button-down shirt. And people don't get it. And the truth is we're all doing it, but we have a judgment against what's considered feminine or weak.
MARTIN: Curious, though, about "RuPaul's Drag Race," because you were quoted a couple of years ago saying you did not want to do a reality show because you thought they would be demeaning and it would - demeaning was the word? Did I have the word right?
RUPAUL: Well, no, no. During the Bush administration, there was a hostility toward anyone who was thought outside the box. So there was a certain hostility, and I didn't want to do it if it was going to be mean-spirited or if it was want to be, you know, sort of talked down. But times changed and the window of opportunity opened, and that's when we're able to do this TV show. In fact, when I first hit in '92, '93, you know, Clinton was - got into office, and there was a window of openness, and what's strange about that is how quickly these windows close.
MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. You want to play a short clip, just so we can hear for people who haven't had a chance to hear the show? Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wigs will fly.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Shade will be thrown.
RUPAUL: Go back to Party City where you belong.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Words will be mispronounced.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We have to make a post-apocaloptic(ph) outfit, and I don't know what that means.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This January.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I don't know. I mean, so what do you think? I mean can you feel? What are you, are you opening the window or what are you doing?
RUPAUL: Definitely opening the window. I think there are a lot of people; we're in about 30 countries around the world with this TV show, who are getting an opportunity to find out about a world that they had no idea. And it's not just, you know, sexual deviation. It has to do with using all of the materials that this planet has to offer and opening up and finding areas in your consciousness that need to be open.
I love in yoga my teacher says, you know, find those sticky spots and make space in there. I think that's such a great vision.
MARTIN: Do you envision a time if you and I were to get together – however long, five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 - when a little boy who wanted to wear a dress to school could do it and it wouldn't be big - wouldn't be huge?
RUPAUL: I think there will be a time when that's possible. But I can't believe in my lifetime how we've regressed in certain areas of our consciousness. So I think there will be a time - probably soon. But I think that those, like I said, those windows close very quickly.
MARTIN: Do you ever get tired of dressing up?
RUPAUL: No, I don't. I enjoy doing the television show. It's tough doing my nightclub act, which I'm actually going to go back to this year. I hadn't done it in two years. It's tough on the road doing it because...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUPAUL: You know, because I need so much time and, you know, I want to look perfect. There's, you know, on the TV show we get to control the atmosphere but now with everybody, with their iPhones and their phones in nightclubs you get all these unflattering pictures everywhere, so that becomes a problem, and you know, I am 51 years old.
MARTIN: Do you ever want to change your look? I mean that signature platinum wig and the fabulous - you've got the most beautiful lips, of course, ever, and the big eyelashes and the - do you ever want to change your look?
RUPAUL: Well, I do change my look.
MARTIN: Brunette? Redhead?
RUPAUL: You know, those are the - those are the skills that pay the bills right there. But, you know, that's not my only look in my life. I, you know, my show business career is what I do for a living but I have so much more life outside of that, and I change my look all the time. But the signature look, you know, it's like asking Coca-Cola, are you going to change the formula? I don't think so.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Yes sir. Well put. Well, we, as we said, it's really been a pleasure speaking with you and I appreciate it. And we call this segment the Wisdom Watch, where we do ask, do you have some wisdom? And you can direct that to whomever you wish. I mean it could be a young you. It could be a young person listening to our conversation who maybe isn't sure where he or she fits in, or just somebody who's got the creative flair.
RUPAUL: Absolutely. And I, this is something - this is my daily mantra - sometimes minute by minute mantra, which is love yourself. Learn to love yourself. And stay in this moment. This moment right here is where your power is. If you drift into the past or into the future, you lose your power and your ability to love yourself. So this moment right now, be kind and love yourself.
MARTIN: RuPaul is a legendary entertainer. His program "RuPaul's Drag Race" is in its fourth season on the Logo Channel, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR New York. Thank you so much for joining us.
RUPAUL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.