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The Fifth Element
Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod in “The Fifth Element”

How Prince almost ended up in The Fifth Element

The Purple One backed out because Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes were ‘too effeminate’

Prince was supposed to appear in Luc Besson’s 1997 galactic extravaganza The Fifth Element, which was released 20 years ago today. It was Besson’s first film after the nose-tweaking action flick Léon: The Professional (1994). Prince had agreed to make the movie. The Purple One was courted for the role of Ruby Rhod, which eventually went to the ostentatious Chris Tucker. He turned down the role because he deemed Jean Paul Gaultier’s concept art for the costume “too effeminate”. There were also scheduling conflicts with his 1996 tour in Japan.

With Prince gone, we can only imagine how differently this opera bouffe might have turned out. (Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts were once attached as leads). Besson spoke about how the role was originally written with Prince in mind in a Reddit AMA last month. “It was written for Prince,” he wrote. “I met him, he said yes. But then he went on a world tour for 10 years!! We couldn’t find time in his schedule. Then I started casting and the two finalists were Chris Tucker and Jamie Foxx. Jamie was amazing, but he was as strong as Bruce, and Chris looked like a shrimp so I knew it would be funnier. But what a luxury to have to choose between these three talented people.”

The Fifth Element was unapologetically effeminate. Not only did it send a message of queer defiance with its avant-garde look, but it was a serious passion project for Jean Paul Gaultier. Gaultier made all 1,000 costumes for the film. In one scene, according to IMDb, he personally checked 500 costumes worn by extras. This was his vision brought to life, so those words from Prince about his creations had to have gnawed at the designer. Especially since it was inspired by the gender nonconformist attitude the late singer exuded. Besides, “too effeminate”? Who are you kidding, Prince? In an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013, Gaultier told the full story of his meeting with Prince.

“At that time, the role of Ruby Rhod, the outrageous media personality finally played by Chris Tucker, had been given to Prince.

“When the singer was giving a series of concerts in Paris, Luc Besson wanted us both to meet with him to show him my sketches. Prince had already attended my runway shows, but he came and went very quickly every time, so we had never been formally introduced. While I was waiting for Luc in his office, I saw this huge bodyguard appear, with Prince trailing behind him. As Luc hasn't yet arrived, I thought he must have wanted me to meet with Prince alone, so we could get to know each other a little bit. In broken English, and with my strong French accent, I tried my best to make conversation, something like "Hell-O Prin-ze, welcome to Par-isse! So for ze role I sink…

 “Luc told me that Prince […] found the costumes a bit too effeminate. And, most importantly, he had thought he heard, ‘Fuck you, fuck you!’ when I was saying in my terrible English accent ‘faux cul, faux cul’ [fake ass]!” – Jean Paul Gaultier

“I showed him my drawings, but he didn't say a word. I had had an idea for a really funny costume with netting which quite long body hair would pass through, and I had done front and back versions of it. So then I explained to Prince: "Eet eel fake 'air, you know, and eet eel beaucoup, beaucoup, airy, vraiment fun, and ze back is made of sat, and on ze back were eez ze faux cul, you know, a very big faux cul." and I slapped my buttocks to show him how the back of the costume would be designed.

“Still not saying anything, Prince gave me this Charlie Chaplin kind of look. I could see that something had just happened, but I didn't know what, only that he had indicated to his body guard that he wanted to leave right then and there. I thought he was going to go and see Luc. Later, Luc told me that Prince had been very surprised and amused — by my presentation, but that he found the costumes a bit too effeminate. And, most importantly, he had thought he heard, "Fuck you, fuck you!" when I was saying in my terrible English accent "faux cul, faux cul" [fake ass]!”

Gaultier also made public his sketches for the character at the exhibition, which have since been shared online. This is what Prince would have looked like:

In an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Gaultier retold the story again, this time emphasizing just exactly how Prince reacted to his description of the costume. While we’ll never find out what this film could have been like with Prince in the role of Ruby Rhod, it’s another mind-melting story of the exacting personality of the late singer. Besides, Chris Tucker was perfect. He was hawt, hawt, HAWT!