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RuPaul's drag race

The drag-queen superstar on being the face of '93 and the origins of the term 'fishy'

Taken from the August issue of Dazed & Confused:

These days RuPaul is busy making America’s queens lip-sync for their lives on his Drag Race, but back in 93 he was making waves with the dance hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)”. His producer friend Larry Tee came up with the supermodel concept off the back of Naomi/Cindy/Christy fever, but that bracketed phrase is pure Ru. The track won him global recognition akin to that of the supermodels he sang about, and soon he was counting Kurt Cobain as a fan, duetting with Elton John, bagging MAC make-up campaigns and hosting his own VH1 talk show (featuring the likes of Beenie Man, Backstreet Boys and Pat Benatar). RuPaul worked the underground drag and arts scenes in Atlanta and New York before he made it in the fame game, but now he’s all about La-La-Land.

Dazed Digital: ‘Supermodel’ was a worldwide hit in 1993. How did it come about?
RuPaul: I had been a little downtown star in New York for years, and in about ’91 I decided I’d reached the pinnacle downtown. It was time for me to go for it on a worldwide scale. My other friends from the neighbourhood had made it big time – Deee-Lite – and I thought, ‘Well shit, I better get my act together and get on board.’
So I took all of ’91 to work on a demo tape to send out to record companies, and we got a bite from Tommy Boy Records, and that was the birth of ‘Supermodel’. My friend Larry Tee had noticed that in going from a downtown star to going above 14th Street – or more mainstream – that my look was more polished, a more supermodel look, so he suggested the title ‘Supermodel’ and I thought, ‘Great idea.’ That’s what was happening in pop culture at the time and drag queens have always been social commentators on culture, whether it’s in farce or in a wink-wink ridicule. It’s our job to do that.

DD: Wasn’t Tommy Boy a hip hop label?
RuPaul: Yeah, it was hip hop and rap, and my labelmates were Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature and Coolio. It was quite a departure for them.

DD: Was there much crossover with those acts?
RuPaul: Oh, it was totally separate. I don’t even think I met those people.

DD: Grunge and rap were big at the time – was a dance track by a drag queen an unexpected success? 

RuPaul: Looking back, especially in America, there was a window of opportunity that had opened. We had come from a very conservative time with the Reagan 80s, so when Bill Clinton got into office an era of hope and openness had started, and that was part of the reason it was so well received. Of course that window of hope soon closed right back up, but in the meantime we had a really great time with it and I was able to parlay its success into other areas, with the make-up campaign with MAC cosmetics and venturing into television.

DD: Do you think Clinton was really ‘the first black president’, as Toni Morrison called him?
RuPaul: Oh, I don’t really get involved in politics. It’s just like watching soap operas. What I do and what my girls do on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I think that’s political, but all of that stuff they do in Washington, passing bills and all that stuff, is so boring.

DD: Is America in better shape now than in ’93?
RuPaul: I’m happier. I don’t know about anybody else! I’d like to say yes, we’re in better shape now. There are so many great images for young gay people to see. There’s great promise.

DD: You started fronting the MAC campaigns in 1995. you can’t as easily imagine a drag queen being the face of a major make-up line today, can you? 
RuPaul: No, because in these economic times, people aren’t willing to take those kind of chances. And at that time, MAC was privately owned by these two guys in Toronto, right before they sold it to Estée Lauder. They were mavericks and could take a chance on something that a big corporation would never do, because it’s too risky.

DD: Apparently ‘Supermodel’ was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite songs of ’93. Is that true?
RuPaul: Yeah, he did say that. It’s pretty funny. I think he knew that it would shock people. It was a political statement, because he was being embraced by the tried-and-true 
rock press.

DD: How did you come to hold his baby at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards?
RuPaul: It just so happened that we were entering the building at the same time. He told me that Nirvana had tried to see me in Seattle a few months before. They had shown up to see my performance, but I had already gone, because I probably performed at 9pm and they probably got there at 12. So they missed me. We talked about that, and then a few months later, they appeared on my TV Christmas special.

DD: In the past 20 years, how much do you think gender politics has changed?
RuPaul: It’s like a pendulum – it swings back and forth. When a culture is in lots of fear, like post-9/11, gender issues have to go underground because people feel very unnerved by them. Today there’s a feeling of openness but there’s still some shame involved, mostly with gay people. We like to say how open we are and how far we’ve come, but the truth is, we still have so much further to go in terms of real openness. There’s this feeling of trying to assimilate, and personally I have no interest in trying to assimilate into the status quo. It’s boring as fuck.

I have no interest in trying to assimilate into the status quo. It's boring as fuck

DD: You mean with gay guys wanting to be straight-acting?
RuPaul: Yeah, all that stuff. It’s such a bore. I mean, why would you want to be straight? Not straight in terms 
of sexuality, but straight in terms of narrow, like one line that goes up and down.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a huge success. little were we to know that one of your biggest moments would come later on in life! That’s the thing: you stick around long enough and your number will come up. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve stayed interested in what I do. There have been several times when I’ve thought, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough.’ In fact, there was a time, about a four-year period, 
where I stepped away. I still performed and did shows from time to time, but my main focus wasn’t showbusiness. It’s very cyclical. It’s like being a sailor on a ship – you have to be conscious of which way the wind is blowing and the current of the ocean. Sometimes it’s time to 
lay back, and sometimes it’s time 
to set sail.

DD: In ’93 you also did a duet of ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ with Elton John that got to #7 in the UK chart. How was that?
RuPaul: It was such an exciting time for me because I had made a name for myself just from ‘Supermodel’, but when Elton called, I knew I had reached a whole new level of stardom and pop-culture relevancy. It was brilliant – it was the first time I’d ever flown in a superstar’s private jet.

DD: Elton seems to have a good sense of humour. Did you have jokes together? 
RuPaul: Oh my God, just the best. The best! He likes to take the piss out of everything, and he’s just a lovely person. I remember that his drag name was Sharon, so I liked to call him Sir Sharon.

[Fishy] meant that you were so real that your between-me-down-there would smell like something that would swim around in the ocean

DD: You’re a queen of the catchphrase. How much has the lingo changed over the last 20 years? 

RuPaul: The most interesting thing that’s happened over the years is that certain things that we wouldn’t dream of saying back in the 90s – that we thought were a little bad taste – the kids today have adopted and taken the stigma away from, like the idea of someone being fishy. The origins of that are not very nice from my generation, but the kids today took that away. The kids today like to use the c-word a lot, in terms of someone being really fabulous. But for my generation, the c-word still has a very negative connotation to it.

DD: What are the origins of ‘fishy’?
RuPaul: (whispers dramatically) For my generation, it meant that you were so real that your between-me-down-there would smell like something that would swim around in the ocean. In my generation, that’s not a very nice thing to say about a woman, but now they’ve taken that and reappropriated it to make it a good thing. That’s what they call a drag queen who’s doing it so well that she could pass as a real woman.

DD: How has your look changed since ‘93?
RuPaul: Well, I’m 52 years old, so there are certain looks that I don’t do any more. I used to show lots and lots of body, but I don’t do that as much, because it’s kind of inappropriate these days. I still like to be a bit provocative, but not so overtly sexualised. More of the dowager queen, darling.