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The subversive genius of RuPaul

The drag icon on a lifetime of pushing buttons, from his iconic prom pic and WHORE fragrance to his Drag Race reign

Meeting RuPaul, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the glamazon is the same punk that showed up to prom in ’83 looking like an androgyne Adam Ant. You can’t quite picture the mogul donning dollar-store leopard print and suspenders, as he did to promote his 90s fragrance WHORE, either. And put out zines with titles like Freak Sex and New York Is a Big Fat Greasy Ho? But the ability to do all this, and more, is the power of RuPaul, drag chameleon ne plus ultra.

“I’ve been able to sell something that has been thought of as subversive,” he reflects, sipping coffee in London this morning. “And somehow I’ve tweaked it. I’ve taken certain things out of it so that Betty and Joe Beercan can invite it into their home.”

For thirty years, RuPaul has weathered a fickle pop culture climate and transformed into whatever he needed to be to up-end the status quo. Whether storming the top ten with an Elton John duet, hanging with Kurt and Courtney at the VMAs or trolling torrent sites last year, RuPaul’s got a way of commanding the zeitgeist with a charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent all his own.

Of course, that’s never been truer than with his current project, the riotous RuPaul’s Drag Race, which debuts in the UK this week on Tru TV. With contestants as diverse as Ru’s catchphrases are quotable, it’s marked both the re-eminence of drag in gay culture (read: pop culture), as well as its helmsman’s ascent from shrewd businessman into an impeccably-branded business, period. Talking to him, you can’t help but feel that RuPaul’s gender-skewing global domination has only just begun. I mean, the guy even has his own chocolate bar.

Your prom picture from 1983 (above) has gone viral for your incredible New Romantic look. What subcultures were you into at that point in your life?

RuPaul: I’ve always been drawn to people who dance to the beat of a different drum, it didn’t matter if they were in film or music or fashion. I was crazy about Haysi Fantayzee, do you remember them? They were this English group who were part of the New Romantics and they had a song called “Shiny Shiny”. They had a lead singer named Kate Garner who used to wear these striped leggings up to here with this pirate hat. So I loved that, and Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow were a big influence.

If someone discovered my prom picture I'd be mortified. Were you? Or were you proud?

RuPaul: No, I was proud! I was a few years older than my prom date. I went with a girl who went to my same high school and she was in my band – I was in a band at the time. But I never finished high school. I did take the equivalency test years later. I missed all the high school activities like pictures and prom nights and all that. I was too busy in the parking lot drinking and smoking cigarettes.

You released a fragrance titled WHORE in the 90s, with a commercial (above) where you dressed as a hooker. Was that inspired by Pretty Woman?

RuPaul: No. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pretty Woman! But, even as a kid, I’ve always admired and taken my fashion aesthetic from the world of prostitution. I always loved what prostitutes wear (laughs). In the 80s my look was a combination of street-walker and soul train dancer, but my WHORE commercial was totally inspired by the working girls on the West Side Highway in New York at that time.

How did that fragrance sell?

RuPaul: It never was actually a fragrance, it was more of an art project, you know? But, God, I wish it was a fragrance.

At Sephora?

RuPaul: Yaaaas! Oh my god, it would be so perfect. I have one called Glamazon – maybe it’s time for WHORE to finally come out.

In Season 5 of Drag Race, Jinkx Monsoon dressed up as Little Edie from Grey Gardens. Were you surprised to see a queen channel such a niche icon?

RuPaul: Actually I was surprised when that moment on Snatch Game got so much attention, because, for my generation, Little Edie is the obvious choice to do!

She is so camp.

RuPaul: Yes. I was pleasantly relieved that it created so much controversy because it brought so much attention to the documentary Grey Gardens again. I always forget that younger people don’t know who The Pointer Sisters are, or Tallulah Bankhead. I had mentors growing up in gay life – older gay men who told me about our history and the history of art and culture – but somehow the younger generation missed out on that synergy. I was surprised that so few of them knew who Little Edie was, you know? That’s why Snatch Game on Drag Race is so pivotal a challenge because it really separates the smart ones from the one who are... not so smart.

Have you seen queens channeling any other cult icons, or is Little Edie the most niche?

RuPaul: Listen, I’ve grown up around gay people who usually, in society, are on the outskirts. And gay people gravitate towards left-from-centre. So when people gravitate towards characters like Little Richard or Dame Maggie Smith or Little Edie, it sounds about right for me. Some people choose the obvious ones and they’re not so successful. They have a better chance of winning if they are bright enough to pick up on someone who is... odd. Like Pandora Boxx, who did Carol Channing in Snatch Game. It was brilliant. Through the show we’ve been able to become that mentor that the younger generation did not have. Our show is able to curate our history.

How do you feel about younger people who may not have such an in-depth knowledge of gay or queer history?

RuPaul: I think it’s a problem. If you know anything about Jewish culture, you'll know that the teachings of the elders remind children what the history is, so that the same history isn’t repeated again. It’s actually the basis of the book Animal Farm by George Orwell, where what humans do is: we forget. So I wish that in gay culture we had what Jewish culture has, which is to teach children where we come from and teach them to avoid finding ourselves in situations from the past.

It feels like drag is having a real moment in pop culture, which perhaps it hasn't for a decade or two. Why do you think people are so receptive to it right now?

RuPaul: I have lots of theories about that. We had a very hostile period after 9/11, especially in America, that was very fear based. And right now, we are enjoying an open window, politically and culturally. But don’t be fooled – all of this is cyclical. I’ve seen the window open in my lifetime and I’ve seen it close. With Tru TV bringing Drag Race to the UK, it’s just a sign of a window open, so I am very happy about that.

And just as we enter another term under a Tory government.

RuPaul: And it’s funny because all of that is connected. So it will be interesting to see what happens from that. I don’t think one creates the other: I don’t think that, because Obama got into office, the window opened. I think it’s all part of a much broader picture. I don’t know specifically why that happens. I do know that humans feel more comfortable in fear than they do in love. They feel more comfortable in their smallness than they do in their greatness, and that’s very sad but it’s just a fact.

“Drag is really about reminding people that you are more than what it says on your passport” – RuPaul

When I interviewed Laverne Cox, we spoke about a makeover show she did called TRANSform Me, and she commented, “our bodies matter, but we're more than our bodies.” Do you have any thoughts on that?

RuPaul: Drag is really about mocking identity. Drag is really about reminding people that you are more than you think you are – you are more than what it says on your passport. So I agree with it 100 per cent. People like to play small, but you are an extension of the power that created the whole universe. You have to be conscious. And once you understand that, that’s when you can really have a party.

I hear that you’re friendly with Miley Cyrus and she recently came down to Drag Race. Last month, she gave an interview saying that she didn’t relate to traditional signifiers for male and female – how did you react to her comments?

RuPaul: If you grow up in show business, you look beyond the looking glass. So, all of the surface facades get broken. People like her see much deeper. I wasn’t surprised by her comments, because she is very smart. She came to our finale, which was filmed last week, and she was there in the front row from beginning to the very end. In magazine articles, for years she's talked about how much she loves the show and loves drag. I find it’s true with all of the (guest) judges: people in show business understand life's illusions, and are able to judge it, because they understand they’re drag queens too. We all are! You know, we're born naked and the rest is drag.

RuPaul’s Drag Race airs every Monday and Tuesday at 10pm from June 1 on truTV