Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent Ru Paul Andre Charles is an actor, author, model, recording artist and tv personality. Oh, and he also happens to be the most famous drag queen in the world. In his book, Chris Rojek writes ‘achieved celebrity derives from the perceived accomplishments of the individual in open competition’. RuPaul is the perfect example of an achieved celebrity, having worked tirelessly throughout his career at a standard to which most drag queens around the world aspire. His mononym RuPaul has been a household name since the release of his single ‘You Better Work’ in the 1990’s and over the past two decades, Ru has earned his place at the very top of drag royalty.
Qu e a f o h Birt
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On the 17th November 1960, in the Brewster-Douglass Projects of California a little boy named Ru was born. His mother, Ernestine Charles famously announced from her hospital bed “His name is Ru Paul Andre Charles and he’s gonna be a star! Cause ain’t another mother f**ker alive with a name like that!”. Evans (2004) writes that in order to become a celebrity, a person requires a certain level of charisma and that celebrities are meant to be remarkable people with extraordinary talents. Little did Ernestine know that her predictions would come true and that Ru would possess these qualities. Growing up, life was difficult for Ru. He was a sweet, funny looking child who was often teased by other children for being a ‘sissy’. His parents divorced when he was seven years old and he subsequently lived with his mother and three sisters, having very little contact with his father. When Ru turned 15 he and his sister Renatta decided to move away from San Diego and start a new life in Atlanta. Ru went on to study at the Northside School of Performing Arts but he never graduated and instead began performing in clubs around the US, throughout the 80’s. Eventually Ru became settled in New York where he became a popular fixture on the nightclub scene and he soon achieved national exposure in 1989 when he performed as a back up dancer in the B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ music video. Ru’s career continued to expand and in the late 1980’s, Ru’s roommate Lady Bunny, who was a prominent member of the drag community, launched Wigstock, a festival for drag queens. Ru quickly became the star of the show and by 1990 Ru had been dubbed the ‘Queen of New York’ because of his popularity within the drag community. 6
was always RuPaul. Always. Even as a kid, I would dress up in my sisters’ clothes, in cowboy outfits, in sailor outfits. I loved putting on different costumes.”
rk! o W r e t t You Be
In 1991 Ru was signed to Tommy Boy Records and in 1993 released his first single, Supermodel (You better Work). The song catapulted Ru into national stardom after it reached number 2 in the US dance charts and, at a time when grunge and gangsta rap were all the rage, both the single and Ru’s accompanying album ‘Supermodel of the World’ were an unexpected smash success. Just two years later, Ru was working with the best artists in the business and in 1993 he recorded a duet with Elton John for a remix of the major hit ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’.
Ru reflects on his fame and his position of responsibility within the drag community in his 1995 memoir ‘Letting It All Hang Out’ stating “I never thought of presenting myself as the premier drag queen for mass consumption. But that was the message people were sending me, and suddenly, it clicked”.
When ‘The Ru Paul Show’ first aired in 1996, it was a campy talk show co-hosted by Michelle Visage on which Ru would interview celebrity guests like Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran and Diana Ross. Ru described it in an interview with the NY Times as ‘’me being nosy about people I’ve been nosy about forever’’ adding, ‘’I was born to be on television.’’ The show was hugely popular within the gay community because the topics covered by the show often shed light on issues
which were seen as taboo at the time such as AIDS and the gay porn industry. Shortly after the shows launch, Ru became the face of MAC cosmetics and he used this position to raise over $2.5 million for the MAC AIDS fund. By the the time he reached the age of 37, Ru had become a major success. He had released three albums and an autobiography, made his film debut in Spike Lee’s ‘Crooklyn’, had his own talk show, produced a podcast and won a GLAAD award for entertainer of the year.
DRAG RACE S
ay x t S u o hantay Y
Amongst all of his achievements, perhaps the biggest jewel in Ru’s crown is his reality competition show ‘RuPauls Drag Race’. The show was first aired in 2009 and has had 8 seasons to date with 3 separate spin off shows. Every week the contestants are challenged to create their own themed outfits, perform on the runway and then lip-sync for their lives in the elimination round. The contestants are hilariously witty, the drama is jaw dropping and the competition is fierce, however the true beauty of Drag Race lays beneath the sequins and painted faces of its stars. Ru himself describes Drag Race as “the story of the tenacity of the human spirit” and he couldn’t be more correct.
This is a show which gives people a voice where they otherwise wouldn’t have one, given that LGBT people represent only 4% of regular characters on television. There are many occasions on the show where the queens talk about their struggles with their sexuality and this open discussion has enabled Ru to become a role model, creating a guide of sorts for young people across the world who are struggling to navigate through their lives. This was confirmed by Vanity Fair writer Richard Lawson when he wrote that Drag Race was “admirably unafraid of tackling various issues of race and gender within the queer community that largely go otherwise uninvestigated.” “It is, because each of those kids were little boys, sometimes in small towns, who were alienated and ostracised. And even in the face of such adversity, they prevailed and shine today. So it’s a story of strength. That’s what the appeal is for the audience. Here are these people who have prevailed and succeeded against insurmountable odds. It’s a great story for anyone who watches.”
maz on a l G a S he ' s
As well as being an advocate of love, change and acceptance, RuPaul is a shameless self promoter. To advertise his early drag shows Ru would wheat-paste his face onto posters around Atlanta, flash forward to 2016 and Ru uses Drag Race as the platform to further boost his career. Drag Race contestants are often challenged to perform or create new lyrics to Ruâ€™s latest singles and in 2013 when Ru released his debut makeup range â€˜Glamazonâ€™, contestants on Drag Race were used to promote the products. It is this kind of relentless work which has kept Ru in the celebrity spotlight, he presents himself as the face of mass drag consumption and in doing so has made himself into a consumable brand which his audience can interact with on a regular basis.
The 1980’s are widely viewed as the decade when global gay culture emerged. The horror of AIDs and HIV ripping through the gay community forced people to come together to fight the adversity they had been facing, while ‘anti-gay’ laws passed by the US Court of Appeals inspired much the same response. When Ru began working as a drag queen in the late 80’s, attitudes towards LGBT people and people of colour were slowly changing but were still very different than what they are today. Ru was recently slammed on Twitter for not speaking out about the Black Lives Matter campaign, 14
which has lead to a stream of articles concerning Ru’s stance on racism and wether or not Drag Race is becoming ‘whiter’, both accusations which have been strongly denied by Ru. Drag race has also been criticised by some members of the gay community due to the appropriation of LGBT lingo by straight fans, but as Teen Vogue point out ‘nobody approves of straight people picking and choosing what parts of LGBTQ culture are acceptable, but it’s undeniable progress that they admire any form of gender-bending or femininity.’ The subject of drag becoming mainstream is tempestuous at best
RU & DRAG
within LGBT communities. Drag has always been a subculture in which its artists can express themselves freely but its recent mainstream setting is making it more problematic and therefore more prone to criticism. Speaking to attitude magazine Ru said “I don’t think drag will ever truly be mainstream, because of everything that our culture holds dear. Drag’s whole purpose is to mock society; to call out hypocrisy. It will never been mainstream because people feel very at home with their hypocrisy and their double-standards. Looking back over the history of mankind, it was the shaman, the witchdoctor, who would remind mankind not to take itself too seriously.” 15
to conCLUde.. According to Rojek, ‘Achieved’ is the most highly valued form of celebrity in contemporary society, which perhaps explains how RuPaul, who could have been a one hit wonder when his first single was released, is still working more than two decades later and is arguably more famous now than ever before. Ru’s ability to uphold his reputation throughout his career is one of the reasons for his continued success and being such an influential member of the LGBT community will have made this vital for Ru, any scandals could have damaged everything he had worked so hard to achieve. Speaking about his recent Emmy win on the latest episode of Drag Race, Ru said ‘It’s fun to snatch trophies but the proudest achievement of my career has been to provide a platform that has launched the careers of 100 queens to international stardom’. This is a quote which perfectly captures the essence of Ru and his entire working life. When drag race began it was a low budget show with low viewership, now preparing for its ninth season, its queens have taken on impressive careers and many have become celebrities in their own right. The show provides a platform for change and is a symbol of hope for many in the LGBT community that maybe one day we will all be unequivocally accepting of one another. A symbol which without RuPaul the LGBT community may still not have had.
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ABC NEWS, (2016). Why RuPaul Doesn’t Think He or ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Can Go Mainstream. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=hnHEWU-WhGE [Accessed 11 Oct. 2016]. Bennett, J. (2012). Introduction: achieving fame. Celebrity Studies, 3(3), pp.335-336. Blaque, K. (2016). Performative Blackness and the Problem With ‘RuCo’s Empire’. [online] The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost. com/kat-blaque/performative-blackness-an_b_9545212.html [Accessed 12 Nov. 2016]. Clews, C. (2013). The Politics of Drag - Gay in the 80s. [online] Gay in the 80s. Available at: http://www.gayinthe80s.com/2013/07/the-politics-of-drag/ [Accessed 29 Oct. 2016]. Evans, J. (2005). Understanding Media. 1st ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press in association with the Open University. Herold, L. (2013). How RuPaul Became a Leading Icon in the Gay Community. [online] Mic. Available at: https://mic.com/articles/44947/how-rupaul-became-a-leading-icon-in-the-gay-community#.WsuBvNPz4 [Accessed 9 Nov. 2016]. Higbie, A. (1996). New Heights for a Diva: RuPaul’s TV Talk Show. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/20/style/newheights-for-a-diva-rupaul-s-tv-talk-show.html [Accessed 19 Oct. 2016]. Houlihan, R. (2016). How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’Led a Gay Cultural Revolution — and Changed My Life. [online] Teen Vogue. Available at: http://www. teenvogue.com/story/how-rupauls-drag-race-led-a-gay-cultural-revolution [Accessed 8 Nov. 2016]. Mic. (2016). How RuPaul Became a Leading Icon in the Gay Community. [online] Available at: https://mic.com/articles/44947/how-rupaul-became-aleading-icon-in-the-gay-community#.ZXWvm1amH [Accessed 31 Oct. 2016]. 18
Oprah Winfrey Network, (2016). How a World Famous Drag Queen Fell for a Rancher | Where Are They Now | Oprah Winfrey Network. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojW2zhWVDkw [Accessed 17 Oct. 2016]. Rogers, K. (2016). RuPaul: Drag Race ‘has exactly the effect we thought it might have’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian. com/tv-and-radio/2014/feb/24/rupaul-drag-race-lgbt-impact-pop-culture-tv [Accessed 17 Nov. 2016]. Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. 1st ed. London: Reaktion Books. RuPaul, (1995). Lettin it all hang out. 1st ed. New York: Hyperion. RuPaul, (2010). Workin’ it!. 1st ed. It Books. Rupaul.com. (2016). Biography | RuPaul | The Official Website. [online] Available at: http://www.rupaul.com/biography/ [Accessed 17 Nov. 2016]. Shankbone, D. (2016). RuPaul speaks about society and the state of drag as performance art - Wikinews, the free news source. [online] En.wikinews.org. Available at: https://en.wikinews.org/wiki RuPaul_speaks_about_society_ and_the_state_of_drag_as_performance_art [Accessed 17 Nov. 2016]. Surrey, M. (2016). When is the next season of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’? Season 9 is coming next year. [online] Mic. Available at: https://mic.com/articles/156833/when-is-the-next-season-of-ru-paul-s-drag-race-season-9-iscoming-next-year#.NLmA7x6aO [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016]. The Guardian, (2016). RuPaul: ‘Drag is dangerous. We are making fun of everything’. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/jun/03/rupaul-drag-is-dangerous-we-are-making-fun-of-everything [Accessed 10 Oct. 2016]. The World According to RuPaul. (2015). Attitude, (225). Vulture. (2016). RuPaul on How Straight People Steal From Gay Culture and Why Educating the Youth Is a Waste of Time. [online] Available at: http:// www.vulture.com/2016/03/rupaul-drag-race-interview.html [Accessed 17 Nov. 2016].
All Pull Quotes are direct Ru Paul quotes from a range of the articles, books and magazines listed above. 19
“ You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me. ”