After achieving fame, RuPaul would famously go on to say, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” This apt saying embodies everything RuPaul stands for and has achieved during the course of his impressive career. From humble beginnings in San Diego, California, to a worldwide “Drag Race” franchise, here is how RuPaul started from the very bottom and ended up as our Queen of Drag.
1960: A Star Is Born
RuPaul Andre Charles was born on November 17, 1960, in San Diego, California. As a young child, he lived with his parents, Irving and Ernestine Charles, and his three sisters, Renetta, Renae, and Rozy. RuPaul's family struggled to make ends meet, and he remembers his early childhood being full of trauma and hardship.
RuPaul credits his sisters with providing him with his first taste of femininity. The three of them would constantly dress up Baby Ru in their colorful clothes. One of his earliest memories is of trying to walk in high heels when he was just a toddler. From a young age, RuPaul knew he wanted to shed the confines of gender norms.
A Telling Prediction
Many new fans are surprised to learn that RuPaul is his actual given name. His parents are originally from Louisiana. His mother wanted to incorporate a bit of their heritage in their son’s name. The “Ru” in “RuPaul” is a play on “roux,” the base of many Creole dishes.
RuPaul’s name has another layer of meaning. Before he was born, a psychic told his mother that he would grow up to be famous, as reported by The Guardian. So, Ru’s mom planned accordingly and gave him a memorable, unique name. RuPaul jokes that performers should never use their real names because everything they do inevitably ends up on their public record. Despite this advice, it seems to have worked out for him.
“Next Car Is Going to Be Daddy”
Ernestine and Irving’s relationship was pretty toxic. As a result, RuPaul’s life at home wasn’t the most stable. His parents constantly fought and created a tense environment for all four kids. Ernestine and Irving divorced when RuPaul was only seven years old. Irving left the family shortly after that, which was traumatic for Ru.
He has memories of him and his sisters sitting on the porch saying, “Next car is going to be Daddy,” over and over again as random cars would drive by their house. This heartbreaking story is just one example of how RuPaul spent a lot of his early years doing things in hopes of getting his dad’s attention. Unfortunately, none of his efforts ever really worked.
Next Stop: Atlanta
RuPaul left sunny California at the age of fifteen in a decision that would change the rest of his life. He moved to Atlanta with his sister Renetta to study performing arts. He attended the Northside School of Performing Arts, where he learned foundational skills that would help his future career.
RuPaul already dreamed of becoming a performer, so he dropped out of school in 11th grade. His love of flair, drama, and fashion eventually led him to start performing in drag. RuPaul later told CBS News in 2019 that he never felt “compelled” to do drag. Instead, it was something he realized he was good at, and could maybe pay his rent.
Ru’s Punk Origins
Long before the glitz and glam of his “Supermodel” days, RuPaul was very into Atlanta’s underground music scene. He was the lead singer of a little-known band named Wee Wee Pole. He and the band would perform at dive bars and clubs around Atlanta. These early RuPaul performances were largely forgotten until recently.
RuPaul revealed this early chapter of his career on a 2016 episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The surviving footage of his early stage performances soon began circulating the internet. It shows a 20-something RuPaul energetically dancing and singing on stage in an early version of his drag. Although the Atlanta punk scene was pretty DIY, you can still feel Ru’s stage presence when watching these old performances.
Lady Bunny & the Gay Scene
RuPaul continued to develop his drag queen persona in Atlanta. As he became more involved in the underground Atlanta gay scene, he met fellow queens who would turn into life-long friends. Lady Bunny is one of the first famous queens Ru connected with while living and performing in Atlanta. The two of them got their start at the Weekends and Illusions drag bar.
Lady Bunny and Ru struggled to make ends meet during those early days of drag, but they helped each other out. The two were roommates for a while and would coordinate performances together. RuPaul and Lady Bunny would go on to join the club scene in New York City when they both moved in 1984.
Ru Makes His TV Debut
Ru struggled to get his big break throughout the 1980s. However, he still lucked out with some acting roles during this time. He made his television debut in 1982 on “The American Music Show,” an Atlanta-based public access show. The show's aesthetic was very DIY and low-budget, but Ru embraced the chance to perform in drag on air.
“The American Music Show” featured comedy skits, political commentary, and musical performances. RuPaul’s debut was so successful that he went on to guest star in many more episodes. Footage of RuPaul’s interviews and performances still exists online, and it’s a blast from the past to see a young Ru exploring different looks and styles.
RuPaul Takes on the Big Apple
RuPaul packed his bags and moved from Atlanta to New York City in the early 1980s. He immediately dove into the club scene. He began working as a go-go dancer and would hop around the hottest clubs at the time, including Pyramid and an illegal spot named Save the Robots.
When he first moved to New York, RuPaul's existence was transient. He was sleeping on friends’ couches, in cars, and even on the pier every once in a while. RuPaul returned to Atlanta for a bit, but the allure of New York City eventually called him back. He knew the city was where he was supposed to be.
He Idolized Andy Warhol
RuPaul admits that he grew up totally mesmerized by Andy Warhol and the interesting people he surrounded himself with. His love of Andy Warhol is one of the reasons RuPaul knew he was meant to live in New York City. Although he never became a muse, he did get to see him in real life.
He told the New York Post htat he used to see Andy Warhol at a club called Area and that he was the god of their world. What he loved most about Warhol was his philosophy that anyone could become a celebrity with the right attitude and strategic planning. Thankfully, RuPaul’s fame would go on to last much longer than 15 minutes.
The Club Kids
During his early days in New York, RuPaul found himself included in the exclusive, infamous group of alternative partiers named the Club Kids. Along with Lady Bunny, Amanda Lepore, and many others, RuPaul popularized underground clubs in New York City by partying hard and performing even harder.
Although the Club Kids became infamous after their leader, Michael Alig, went to prison in the late 90s, they were a cultural phenomenon during the late 80s and early 90s. The Club Kids were early versions of modern-day influencers with their cutting-edge fashion and artistic points of view. It makes perfect sense that RuPaul developed and refined his sense of fashion and performance within this cultural movement.
A Fateful Friendship
Any “Drag Race” fan knows who Michelle Visage is. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the friendship between Ru and Michelle is genuine. The two performers are lifelong friends who first met in New York City during the late 80s. Both were heavily involved in the city’s nightlife and would work voguing gigs together. So, they inevitably were drawn together and eventually struck up a conversation.
Michelle can’t remember the exact year they became friends but gives a ballpark estimate of 1987 or 1988. Michelle has shared in interviews that she and Ru are “soulmates” in the form of best friends. They even complete each other’s sentences. Michelle and Ru would go on to forge a business relationship on top of their friendship, but we’ll get to that later.
A Short Stint in the City of Angels
Although RuPaul always knew he loved New York City, he tried living back on the West Coast for a while. When he was 28, he moved in with his younger sister in Los Angeles. He had no money to speak of, so he slept on her couch for a few months. As RuPaul now describes it, this was a pretty bleak time in his life.
He didn’t have a car at the time, which is pretty necessary if you want to get around LA. So, he would spend hours wandering around the city in the middle of the night. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ru described that point in his life as the most hideous existence. He soon realized that if he wanted to make it as a performer, he had to move back to the East Coast.
“If You Can’t Love Yourself…”
Many RuPaul-isms have become part of our everyday vocabulary thanks to the prevalence of his show, “Drag Race.” However, many of Ru’s catchphrases started off way before the second resurgence of his career. For example, his famous line, “If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” wasn’t written by fancy Hollywood producers.
RuPaul has been saying a version of that line since the late 80s or early 90s. He coined the line during a stint performing at Love Machine, an underground club in New York City spearheaded by Club Kid Larry Tee. The “love yourself” line carried on throughout Ru’s career. Fans can even hear him reiterate a version of it during his famous 1993 interview with Arsenio Hall.
Love Shack, Baby
As RuPaul moved up in his career as a drag performer, he starred in a music video for a little band called The B-52s. The B-52s originally met RuPaul in New York City and asked Ru to make a cameo appearance in their 1989 music video for the smash hit “Love Shack.” This was a big deal for RuPaul’s career.
According to B-52’s frontman Fred Schneider, RuPaul was already rocking “his star look” as a queen. You can see RuPaul rocking a gorgeous two-piece matching set, bustier, and matching headband in the music video. This mainstream debut would mark the beginning of a decades-long friendship between RuPaul and The B-52s.
His Family Was Accepting
Many drag queens and queer folks know how important their chosen family is because their biological families aren’t always the most accepting of their true selves. RuPaul has shared that he is very lucky to have the support of his mother and sisters. RuPaul’s family has always been there for him despite some dark personal times.
RuPaul’s sisters and cousins would attend many of his talk show interviews in the early 90s when he made it big. Also, RuPaul shared in one interview that he even performed in drag at his family’s 1992 reunion. RuPaul also eventually forged a relationship of sorts with his dad, although we’ll probably never know the true extent of how Ru felt about their relationship.
All of RuPaul’s hard work finally paid off in 1993. He released “Supermodel of the World” (1993), which instantly became a hit dance album. The shining star off the record was his famous track “Supermodel (You Better Work).” It was such a success that it peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot Dance Music chart at the time.
To this day, “Supermodel” is one of RuPaul’s biggest hits. Queens all over the world have remixed, paid homage to, and performed their routines to this song. The line, “You better work,” has even been a trending sound on TikTok. In addition, as any “Drag Race” fan knows, the song’s “sashay, shantay” line has become a signature of RuPaul’s drag career.
The LGBT March on Washington
As RuPaul’s career became mainstream, he continued advocating for his queer brothers and sisters. RuPaul performed “Supermodel (You Better Work)” at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. The march took place on April 25, 1993, and demanded things like funding for AIDS research and legislation protecting the civil rights of the queer community.
The performance, which was broadcast live on C-SPAN, shows RuPaul strutting onto the stage in an updated Uncle Sam costume. Ru embodies the lyrics of the song with confidence and glee, showing how much of a seasoned performer he was even at the beginning of his drag career.
RuPaul the Heartbreaker
The success of “Supermodel (You Better Work)” catapulted RuPaul into the limelight. With his budding mainstream fame came new opportunities in the music industry. The same year “Supermodel” came out, RuPaul collaborated with none other than Sir Elton John. The two did a remix of Elton’s hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” for the album “Duets” (1993).
In the music video, RuPaul and Elton dance around in a cornucopia of different costumes. From Marie Antoinette to a “Grease”-inspired 50s chic, RuPaul absolutely slays. Plus, the green screen backgrounds are quintessentially 90s. The synth wave dance remix of Elton’s song was a hit, reaching #7 in the UK Singles Chart that year.
The Late Night Talk Show Circuit
RuPaul also got plenty of airtime on popular talk shows after “Supermodel (You Better Work)” entered the charts. Ru was a guest on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1993, and the interview is delightful. While some of Arsenio’s questions are pretty dated by today’s standards, RuPaul’s answers are fire.
“With me dressing in drag and traveling the world, I’ve realized that we’re all the same. Everybody wants to be loved. Everybody wants to feel like they belong somewhere. Everybody wants to be respected. Is that asking too much? No,” she told Arsenio. RuPaul’s answers are just as relevant today as they were two decades earlier.
An Awkward VMA Gig
The early 90s weren’t all sunshine and roses for Ru. Although parts of drag culture have become more widely accepted, it was much different a few decades ago. RuPaul’s star was on the rise, but he still got pushback from people who couldn’t handle how he effortlessly bended gender norms. Ru was paired with Hollywood veteran Milton Berle during the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, and it wasn’t pretty.
What started off as a rehearsed bit soon devolved into an awkward exchange with mean-spirited jokes from Milton. It got even worse when Ru opened the envelope to announce the award winners. Milton rudely and intentionally used the wrong pronouns to describe Ru, which definitely wouldn’t fly today. Anyone watching could visibly see how ticked off Ru was, and he later called it “tired” that MTV paired him with Milton, an actor who used cross-dressing as a form of comedy.
An Unlikely Fan
Despite some old-timers not “getting” RuPaul, there were plenty of others who fully embraced the Supermodel of the World. That very same night when RuPaul was unfortunately paired with Milton Berle, he met Kurt Cobain and his Nirvana bandmates on the MTV red carpet. Kurt Cobain was a big fan of Ru’s work, explaining how he had tried to see RuPaul perform at a club one time but showed up too late.
The pictures from that fateful meeting are iconic. In one shot, Ru is holding a crying Frances Bean Cobain. In another, RuPaul towers over already-tall band members David Grohl and Krist Novoselic while Kurt Cobain stands in front and Cortney Love carries baby Frances away. RuPaul and Kurt Cobain continued to have a genuine, but too short, friendship. Kurt even made an appearance on RuPaul’s Christmas special later that year, a mere few months before taking his own life.
A Deal With MAC
RuPaul began getting more and more publicity after “Supermodel” became a runaway hit. In 1994, he scored an endorsement deal with MAC Cosmetics. He became the first spokesperson for the makeup brand’s Viva Glam product line. His deal with MAC also marked the first time a drag queen was the face of a mainstream makeup line.
In the inaugural campaign, Ru declared, “I am the MAC girl.” Truer words had never been spoken. Seeing RuPaul with a full face of expertly applied makeup was a big step in bringing drag into the mainstream. The original ad features Ru in full drag, posing suggestively to form the words “Viva Glam” against a white background. Proceeds of the Viva Glam campaign were donated to the MAC AIDS Fund.
Ru Meets Georges
The 90s marked when RuPaul made the successful jump from underground punk queen to mainstream glamazon. It was also the time when he would meet his life-long partner, Georges LeBar. The two met one night in 1994 while out dancing at the Limelight Club in New York.
According to Ru, the Australian-born artist was dancing like a crazed person on the Limelight dance floor in sky-high platform heels. He couldn’t help but go up to Georges and ask him what in the world he was doing. RuPaul must have liked his answer because the two immediately became an item. They’ve been a couple ever since.
Crooklyn, New York
RuPaul got his first acting credit in a full-length movie thanks to Spike Lee. Ru was cast as Connie in “Crooklyn” (1994). The part is small but memorable. RuPaul appears in the film in full drag, bumping and grinding with Tito in the local bodega. Troy, played by actress Zelda Harris, is mesmerized by Ru's amazing dance moves when she stops in to grab some snacks.
Audiences were mesmerized, too. The scene has become an iconic moment in the film, thanks to RuPaul’s single memorable line. We can’t repeat it here, but you surely know it if you’ve seen the movie.
RuPaul Performs With His Idol
We all have entertainers and celebrities that we look up to in one way or another. For RuPaul, that someone was Diana Ross. Unlike the rest of us, RuPaul actually got to meet his idol. He starred alongside the famous singer in her 1995 music video for “I Will Survive.”
The music video was filmed in West Hollywood and featured a street full of queens and partygoers lip-syncing for their lives. RuPaul sings along with Diana onstage in a stunning gold minidress and his signature blonde wig. His cameo appearance on Diana’s cover of the famous disco song solidified a lifelong friendship between the two queens.
Ru Lets It All Hang Out
What can’t RuPaul do? He sings, dances, acts, and has perfect comedic timing. He added the title of “author” to his resume in 1995 with the publication of his first book, “Lettin’ It All Hang Out: An Autobiography.” The book is part memoir, part how-to guide that features chapters like “How to Tuck” and “Queen of Manhattan.”
The book provides an intimate peek into RuPaul’s early life that fans don’t often get to see. In the book, Ru talks about the happy and traumatic memories he has of his childhood as well as his feelings of otherness because of his sexuality.
A Very Brady Cameo
“The Brady Bunch” and drag aren’t two things that seemingly go hand-in-hand. However, RuPaul broke barriers and blew minds when he scored a cameo in the 1995 “Brady Bunch Movie.” RuPaul plays Mrs. Cummings. The character is basically a guidance counselor version of his drag queen persona who gleefully digs into Jan’s inner psyche.
The scene is a little goofy, but RuPaul pulls it off seamlessly. The whole thing is very tongue-in-cheek. At the end of the scene in Mrs. Cumming’s school office, RuPaul tells Jan, “You better work,” as his hit dance track begins playing in the background. RuPaul came back to as Mrs. Cummings for “A Very Brady Sequel” in 1996.
“The RuPaul Show”
“Drag Race” wasn’t RuPaul’s first successful venture into television. In 1996, “The RuPaul Show” debuted on VH1. RuPaul made history as one of the first openly gay hosts of a national television show. Ru hosted his show in full drag alongside co-host Michelle Visage, interviewing celebrities like Lil Kim and Olivia Newton-John with his classic sense of humor.
One of RuPaul’s lifelong dreams came true in one of the show's early episodes. He got to interview his childhood idol, Diana Ross, who flew into town specifically for Ru’s show. “The RuPaul Show” ran for 100 episodes over two years, and he had a blast the whole time.
Ru on the Radio
At the same time that RuPaul was gracing people’s television sets with his gorgeous gowns and mile-long legs, he was caressing New York residents’ ears with his very own radio show. He and Michelle Visage had been friends for a few years, but their morning radio show was the first time they professionally worked together.
The morning show ran on WKTU for about six years, from 1996 to 2002. It was pretty standard as far as radio morning shows go. Ru and Michelle shared weather and traffic updates along with fielding listener calls. The overall vibe was light and fun-loving. Michelle and Ru’s chemistry is unmistakable and definitely foreshadows how successful their future collaborations will be.
Ru Meets His Glam Rock Hero
RuPaul has always been vocal about performers and artists he admires. He never made it a secret how much he admired David Bowie. In 1997, another one of his wildest dreams came true. He met the “Space Oddity” singer at a dinner party and tried his best to keep his cool. At one point during the party, Ru excused himself to get a moment of quiet away from the crowds.
RuPaul suspects that David Bowie saw him step out because shortly afterward, the famous singer followed him out and introduced himself. RuPaul has never shared the specifics of what they talked about, but he shared that he was so ecstatic he couldn’t even stay at the party for dinner. He left early so he could do a little screaming and happy-crying down the street.
A One-Hit Wonder?
Following the success of his debut album, “Supermodel of the World,” in 1993, RuPaul tried to keep the momentum of his musical career going with two more records. His sophomore album, “Foxy Lady,” came out at the end of 1996 but failed to be as successful as his debut. Critics gave the album positive reviews, but the public didn’t latch onto it in the same way as his hit “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
“Foxy Lady” was followed up with a Christmas album titled “Ho Ho Ho” in 1997. This record was a bit more successful, breaking through the top 50 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers Album” chart. Michelle Visage contributed vocals to the holiday album and the whole thing was recorded in RuPaul’s New York City living room. Still, these albums had many wondering if RuPaul was simply a campy one-hit wonder.
RuPaul, Texas Ranger
Toward the end of the 90s, RuPaul had a few more cameo and acting gigs, many of which are surprising to modern-day fans. One of the most surprising guest roles was on “Walker, Texas Ranger.” RuPaul appears as “Bob” the drag queen (no relation to the “Drag Race” season eight winner) in the episode “Royal Heist.”
Ru’s part is small, but it involves our queen resisting arrest by Chuck Norris himself. “Bob” makes a getaway escape in a red convertible, and a thrilling car chase ensues. Ru’s bit part is stereotyped by today’s standards, but it was probably pretty surprising to have the world’s most famous drag queen on such a heteronormative show. The Queen of Drag pulled it off brilliantly, as always.
A Necessary Step Back
In the late 90s, RuPaul decided to step back from the limelight. The few bit roles in TV shows and movies weren’t taking off in the way he hoped, and he also probably wanted to take a break from his music career. Most importantly, Ru left the world of Hollywood in order to get sober and focus on his relationship with Georges.
RuPaul had been drinking and using illegal substances for decades at that point in his career, so when he embraced sobriety in 1999, it was a big deal. RuPaul went radio-silent in show business for the next decade, but he would occasionally take performance gigs at clubs when he had to pay the bills. However, this decade of focusing on his well-being didn’t mark the end of RuPaul’s career. In fact, it was barely the beginning.
The Real Reason RuPaul Became a Recluse
There was another, deeper reason that RuPaul decided to take a break from show business and his drag career. He told Spin magazine in a 2013 interview that towards the end of the 90s, he felt public opinion about drag was changing. He explains that compared to the early 90s, there was a hostile vibe redeveloping toward drag queens and the rest of the queer community.
“I went on ‘Hollywood Squares’ in 1999, and I could tell that the audience, even some of the stars on the panel, there was a certain animosity towards me and what I was doing. At that point, I was so exhausted from not just explaining myself but trying to explain drag and reminding people I am an entertainer,” he explained. Long story short, RuPaul was sick and tired of people’s ignorance and hate.
A Tribute to Diana Ross
Despite RuPaul intentionally receding from the public eye during the start of the new millennium, he came out of hiding per the request of Diana Ross, a friend and long-time idol. Diana was being honored during a VH1 “Divas 2000” special and specifically requested that RuPaul make an appearance.
During the special, RuPaul struts through the audience onto the stage and performs a cover of “I’m Coming Out.” She wears a signature sky-high blonde wig and a shimmering gold gown. This rare appearance was mostly due to Ru’s friendship with Diana. How could he have said no to such an icon?
RuPaul Returns as “Starrbooty”
Back in the roaring 80s, RuPaul wrote, directed, and starred in a series of three films that are now collectively coined “RuPaul Is: Starbooty!” The films were made on a non-existent budget with his friends while he lived in Atlanta. RuPaul decided to dip his toe back into the entertainment industry by reviving his decades-old character in a reboot film.
The resulting movie, “Starrbooty,” was written entirely by RuPaul and was released in 2007. The film follows RuPaul’s character, Starrbooty, who is a secret agent and supermodel on a mission to save her kidnapped niece. The movie unashamedly calls back to RuPaul’s original drag persona, which was much more racy and sexual than his polished, family-friendly persona of the late 90s.
Upon the release of “Starrbooty,” RuPaul began getting back out into the public eye. “Starrbooty” was shown at LGBTQ+ film festivals throughout 2007, and RuPaul attended almost every festival to personally introduce audiences to the film. The movie was the perfect combination of camp, comedy, and throwbacks to vintage drag, so it’s no wonder film festival audiences loved it.
“Starrbooty” soon became a cult classic. RuPaul distributed the movie himself after companies backed out of making a DVD distribution deal with him. Overall, this controversial indie film marked the beginning of RuPaul’s second ascension to fame because it put him back on his fans’ radars.
“Drag Race” Almost Didn’t Happen
Surprisingly, RuPaul was pretty resistant to the idea of producing and hosting a reality show. RuPaul’s longtime friends and business partners, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, approached him with the idea for a drag-centric reality show back in 2004. However, RuPaul turned it down because he didn’t like the mean-spirited nature of reality television that was so common back in the early 2000s.
Thankfully, RuPaul changed his mind a few years later. He told Vulture that Obama’s presidential campaign convinced him the time was right to bring drag into mainstream public consciousness. He was initially afraid that a reality show would cast drag culture in a demeaning or ridiculing light, but Fenton and Randy’s production company, World of Wonder Productions, made sure that didn’t happen.
Shopping Around for a Network
Once RuPaul agreed to create “Drag Race,” producers faced another challenge. They had to shop around for a television network that would proudly broadcast a reality TV series featuring a cast full of queer representation and drag queens. World of Wonder Productions originally envisioned Ru’s showbiz comeback on a prestigious network like E! or Bravo. The reality was much different.
RuPaul’s producers, Randy and Fenton, pitched to E! and Bravo, but both networks turned them down. The two producers told Vulture in a 2017 interview that the networks loved the concept but were afraid to air a show about drag. Despite the stigma, Ru and his team persevered. They eventually signed on with Logo, a network that gave them the creative freedom to create the show they envisioned.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Debuts
The premiere of the very first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2009 would change Ru’s life and career forever. Logo, a sister network of VH1, launched what would become a cultural phenomenon that is still going strong today. The first season became Logo’s most successful show, which is no surprise.
The initial season of “Drag Race” is a lot different than newer seasons. There were only nine contestants competing to win a $20,000 cash prize. Although the show eventually evolved to include larger prizes, celebrity guests, and way more contestants, the inaugural 2009 season laid the foundation for RuPaul’s greatest hit.
Shantay, You Stay…on a Budget
We all know the “Drag Race” franchise is worth millions these days. However, the budget for season one was minuscule compared to what it is now. RuPaul was only paid $50,000 for season one, which pales in comparison to what he makes from the show today. Plus, he and the production team were winging it for most of season one. RuPaul and the team did DIY hacks to try and make “Drag Race” look glossy.
For example, Ru had the film crew literally grease their lenses with Vaseline while filming. Mama Ru wanted all of her girls to look their best on camera, and the hazy filter was the best they could do with the money they had. They also struggled with what songs to play since the rights to most of the music they really wanted were way too expensive. However, fans of the show didn’t care. They flocked to this reality show that featured a diverse range of people who looked like them.
The Explosion of “Drag Race”
RuPaul and his production team kept going after their humble season-one beginnings. With each season and every new group of queens, “Drag Race” gained more and more visibility and popularity. Although Logo has half the number of viewers as its parent station, VH1, “Drag Race” was able to pull in about 440,000 viewers during season two. The show really hit its stride during the fourth season.
The fourth season not only featured stand-out queens like Sharon Needles and Phi Phi O’Hara, but it also had a substantially larger cash prize. Forget the first season’s $20,000 award. For season four, RuPaul was able to give the winner a whopping $100,000 in prize money. This marked a huge turning point for the show, proving that it could pull in viewers and contestants could have successful careers afterward.
“Untucked” and Unstructured
Producers had the genius idea to create another reality show in conjunction with “Drag Race.” “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked” premiered in 2010 as a companion show to the second season on Logo. “Untucked” gave viewers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes drama among the contestants.
The “Untucked” episodes aired right after each episode of “Drag Race” as a type of aftershow for fans who wanted more of their favorite queens. In the short episodes, queens quip, fight, and confront each other in an irresistibly entertaining way. “Untucked” has changed forms a few times and even became a short web series for a few seasons. Thankfully, it recently returned to its original aftershow format.
The Emotional Toll of Being a TV Host
A big part of what made “Drag Race” so successful during those early seasons was its earnestness and emotion. RuPaul has shared in interviews that he feels a personal connection to each and every queen who walks onto the set stage. Each season showcases fabulous outfits and fierce lip-syncing competitions, but it also gives a glimpse into each girl’s personal story.
RuPaul told Vulture that he didn’t know how poignant and how deep the show would be. He did know that they were going to celebrate the drag as an art form and a form of self expression but he didn’t know just the kind of importance the show would have. The emotional connection that viewers had with contestants skyrocketed the show’s ratings and created the huge “Drag Race” fandom we know and love today.
An “All-Star” Series Premiere
Producers of “Drag Race” knew they had a hit on their hands almost immediately. So, it’s no surprise that a multitude of spin-offs have been created. The first of many was “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” which debuted in 2012. The spin-off features contestants from previous seasons of “Drag Race.”
Fan-favorite queens return to the stage to compete for a spot in RuPaul’s Drag Race Hall of Fame. Although the structure is a little different from the original show, it’s still full of all the drama, talent, and fishiness that fans know and love. The very first season of “All Stars” featured queens from the first four seasons, including Chad Michaels (who won) and Raven.
Ru’s Return to Makeup
Up until 2013, the only foray into cosmetics RuPaul had ever done was his famous MAC modeling gig in the mid-90s. It surprised many that the queen and supermodel of the world hadn’t created an exclusive makeup line. RuPaul finally took the plunge and launched RuPaul’s Glamazon with Colorevolution in 2013.
The beauty line featured a unisex fragrance and a makeup kit for people who wanted a taste of RuPaul’s glamor. Fans could finally get their hands on RuPaul makeup essentials like mascara, eye shadow palettes, and lip gloss. It was a smart business move considering the rising popularity of “Drag Race” and RuPaul’s increasingly popular reputation.
A Special Christmas, Indeed
By 2013, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was a mainstream hit that pulled in huge celebrity guest judges. RuPaul was booked and busy, appearing on every single episode. Naturally, people got used to only seeing RuPaul on his own show because he hardly ever did guest appearances or crossovers. His famous elusiveness was why his surprise appearance on Lady Gaga’s holiday special was so shocking.
On “Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular,” which aired November 28, 2013, the famous singer was performing her song “Fashion” when RuPaul casually strutted onstage. The duet was a pleasant surprise for fans and a nice throwback to Ru’s early days as a stage performer and musician.
“What’s the Tee?”
The mid-2010s were the height of podcast culture. So, ever the savvy business person, RuPaul jumped on the bandwagon. He started a podcast with longtime collaborator Michelle Visage in 2014 called “What’s the Tee?” By this time, most fans knew Michelle as the honest but loving co-judge on “Drag Race,” but the podcast was a nice throwback to the radio show they used to co-host together.
The comedy podcast featured interviews with celebrities like Michaela Coel and Whoopi Goldberg. Occasionally, a former “Drag Race” contestant would come on as a special guest. Thanks to RuPaul’s huge fanbase, the podcast was a success. The show won a Webby Award in 2018 and perfectly captured the natural chemistry between Michelle and Ru.
While RuPaul has yet to achieve the same chart-topping success as his first hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” he has made a pretty decent musical career. RuPaul released “Born Naked” in 2014, and it quickly became his most successful album.
“Born Naked” is his seventh studio album and features songs like “Sissy That Walk” and “Let the Music Play” featuring bestie Michelle Visage. The dancey beats and fun lyrics bumped “Born Naked” up to number four on the Billboard Dance and Electronic Album chart when it was first released. Interestingly, RuPaul self-released the album under his indie label, RuCo Inc.
DragCon Becomes a Thing
Diehard fans and jealous haters alike can’t deny RuPaul’s business savvy. RuPaul continued to build upon his “Drag Race” empire by lending his name to “RuPaul’s DragCon LA.” The annual convention was first held in Los Angeles in 2015 for diehard fans of “Drag Race” to congregate and meet their favorite queens. Each year, the convention is full of past “Drag Race” contestants, vendors, and panels.
Although RuPaul makes an appearance at every DragCon LA event, it’s produced by World of Wonder Productions, which is the same company that produces the “Drag Race” reality show. RuPaul’s DragCon has expanded internationally, with annual events held in New York City and the United Kingdom.
Drag, Dresses, and Designers
As RuPaul became more well-known with each new successful season of “Drag Race,” he began getting more recognition for his gorgeously designed gowns. As it turns out, there is only one mastermind behind Ru’s signature style. Fashion designer Zaldy met RuPaul at the New York nightclub La Palace de Beauté in the late 80s. Zaldy approached Ru because he noticed the queen had worn the same dress two nights in a row. The rest is iconic fashion history.
Since the beginning of Ru’s career, Zaldy has designed and constructed every single one of his gowns. Ru has described his connection with Zaldy to be almost telepathic because the two completely get each other. Their connection didn’t change when RuPaul became the host of “Drag Race.” Zaldy sketches, designs, and creates every “Drag Race” look for Mama Ru alongside his small New York-based team.
The Very First Emmy
Although it was never RuPaul’s goal to be an award-winning television host, it happened. All his years of hard work and perseverance with “Drag Race” finally paid off in 2016 when the show won its first of many Emmy awards. RuPaul was nominated for a Creative Arts Emmy under the category “Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program.”
It was his very first Emmy nomination, and he won. Upon winning his first-ever Emmy, Ru told the press that it was a special night not just for him but for all the young people around the world who dance to the beat of a different drummer.
Tying the Knot
RuPaul has been with his partner, Georges LeBar, since they first met back in 1994. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legally recognized on a national level until 2015, but Ru and Georges weren’t really interested in tying the knot – until the 2016 presidential election. After political and social turmoil reared its ugly head, the two decided to make their relationship legally binding.
In 2017, RuPaul and Georges tied the knot in a small ceremony in Los Angeles. The two swear that getting married hasn’t changed the nature of their relationship at all. They had already been together for 23 years before exchanging vows, so they already knew how dedicated they were to each other.
Home, Home on the Range
RuPaul’s glamorous reputation doesn’t really bring to mind wide open plains and simple country living. However, our Queen of Drag has surprising roots in Wyoming. He and his husband own a 60,000-acre ranch in Douglas, Wyoming. Georges LeBar inherited the huge chunk of land from his grandfather, who was a successful cattle rancher.
Fans delight in thinking of RuPaul herding cattle and riding a tractor, but the reality is much different. RuPaul isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the ranch. Instead, he treats it more as a vacation spot. When he visits Georges on the ranch, he spends most of his time catching up on books and movies. Of course, he enjoys getting dressed up in some good old-fashioned Western wear.
An Open Relationship
Because Georges spends most of his time living on the couple’s Wyoming ranch, the two don’t see each other every day. Their scheduling differences and careers cause them to spend long stretches of time apart, so the two agreed to have an open relationship. RuPaul has shared some details about their arrangement and how it works.
While the two make time for each other by planning romantic getaways every few months, they are free to casually see other people. This works for them because they trust each other and know that, at the end of the day, they would choose each other over anything or anyone else.
“Drag Race” Find a New Home
The cable network Logo was probably thanking its lucky stars that it picked up “RuPaul’s Drag Race” way back in 2009. But, nothing gold can stay. In 2017 it was announced that “Drag Race” would air its ninth season on VH1. It wasn’t too big of a switch since VH1 and Logo are both owned by Paramount. However, it was a big deal for the show.
Switching to VH1 meant the show would reach millions of new viewers. This increased potential fan base helped the show continue its giant success. Season nine became the show’s highest-rated season up to that point, with almost 900,000 viewers tuning in for the season finale.
Finding Ru’s Roots
There’s not a lot of publicly available information about RuPaul’s family. This is probably due to RuPaul controlling his narrative and wanting to give his family privacy. However, he opened up when he took part in the popular PBS show “Finding Your Roots” in 2017. In the show, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shows Ru parts of his family’s history he had never known before.
RuPaul learned that his great-grandparents, Annie and Isaac, married in 1870. According to the show, that was only five years after Blacks were legally able to get married. In addition, the show revealed RuPaul’s surprise cousin: U.S. Senator Cory Booker. The two are very, very distantly related. The DNA doesn’t lie.
The Influence of RuPaul
By the end of 2017, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” had already been on for nearly a decade. However, its switch to VH1 helped garner the show and Ru more widespread attention. As a result, Time honored RuPaul with a well-deserved position on its list of 100 Most Influential People that year. He even got a feature written up for him by long-time friend and supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Naomi gushed about how “Drag Race” shows people just how spectacular RuPaul really is. Naomi wrote that now millions more people are getting to know Ru like she does. She went on to say it was incredible what he has done for the drag queens who compete on that show.
How RuPaul’s Designer Deals With His Fame
As RuPaul’s career has progressed, drag has transformed from a niche subculture into a mainstream phenomenon. Of course, this is partly due to the worldwide popularity of his “Drag Race” show. Because of drag’s emergence into the mainstream, RuPaul’s designer, Zaldy, has had to up the ante on his designs.
Zaldy told Vogue in 2018 that now everybody loves drag queens, so new queens coming on the scene have to be even more extraordinary. With the advent of social media, drag queens around the world can have thousands, if not millions, of followers. That makes standing out from the crowd even more difficult. Zaldy reflected in the same Vogue interview that he has to scour the market for rare fabrics and one-of-a-kind detailing in order to make RuPaul’s gowns stand a head above the rest. We think he’s doing a pretty good job.
A Permanent Star Is Born
RuPaul has become a household name because of his “Drag Race” empire. As a result of all his hard work, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2018. During the unveiling ceremony, Ru was introduced by legendary actress Jane Fonda. During his speech, he remarked that this moment is absolutely the most important one in his professional life.
RuPaul’s star sits at 6652 Hollywood Boulevard, which is the World of Wonder Productions office building. As we all know by now, World of Wonder is the company that produces “Drag Race” and is run by two of RuPaul’s lifelong friends, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. We love it when things come full circle.
In Hot Water
RuPaul’s meteoric rise to fame in the 2000s has not been without some controversy. The Queen of Drag found himself in hot water after an interview with The Guardian was released in March 2018. During the course of the interview, the reporter pressed Ru about whether “Drag Race” would accept a trans woman as a show contestant. RuPaul said, “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body.”
RuPaul and “Drag Race” got immediate pushback from the trans community. Trans community members and allies criticized RuPaul, saying his comments were insensitive and dismissive of trans women and their experiences.
The Fallout of Ru’s Anti-Trans Comments
In a rare moment of backtracking, RuPaul tweeted an apology for the insensitive comments he made in the Guardian interview. He said, that he understands and regrets the hurt he has caused. He went on to call the trans community a hero of the LGBTQ+ movement, saying they are his teachers.
He later clarified that “Drag Race” chooses contestants based only on “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.” Producers also made some changes to the next season of “Drag Race.” Producers ditched the “she-mail” catchphrase, which fans appreciated. The phrase was intended to be a play on a derogatory term, but times change. Many didn’t find the joke to be funny.
Call Me “GuRu”
Ever the style guru, RuPaul released another memoir in 2018. The autobiography-slash-guide, appropriately titled “GuRu,” is reminiscent of Ru’s earlier book, “Lettin’ It All Hang Out.” In it, Ru reflects on his childhood and life story while giving readers advice on embracing their true selves. Overall, the book is an updated reflection on self-love and identity for RuPaul’s newer, younger fans.
During the press tour for “GuRu,” RuPaul shared that he wanted to write the book as a guiding light for LGBTQ+ youth. Through his work as the host of “Drag Race,” RuPaul has met dozens of queens who have struggled with ostracization and rejection from their families. He wanted to let young queer people know that it does, in fact, get better if they persevere and weather the adversity.
RuPaul’s Style Secrets
While RuPaul attends special events out of drag more often than not these days, he’s still a fashion icon. When Ru decides to speak on beauty hacks and personal style, we listen. He shared with the New York Times that he can’t travel anywhere without a few essentials.
Double-sided tape, an eyebrow pencil, and essential oils are just a few things Ru can’t leave the house without. We won’t be seeing RuPaul out and about in a pair of sloppy jeans any time soon. His travel wardrobe essentials include a comfy tracksuit, button-down shirts, and his favorite Prada suit that fits him like a glove.
High Camp at the Met
Speaking of RuPaul’s style, he attended the 2019 Met Gala in an absolutely stunning suit designed by none other than Zaldy. The theme was “camp,” which is a style that many drag queens embrace. It’s only natural that RuPaul was invited. His suit was entirely covered in sequins of pink, orange, black, and purple to create the illusion of a zebra head at the shoulder. A bold collection of ostrich feathers sprayed over the sleeve in place of the zebra’s mane.
Some people questioned why RuPaul didn’t show up to the Met in drag. What’s more perfect for the Queen of Drag than a camp-themed event? However, RuPaul stopped making public appearances in drag in the 2010s and only does so when he’s being paid generously. As we all know, RuPaul can wear what he wants when he wants. He nailed the 2019 Met Gala theme perfectly.
Everybody, Stay Calm
Taylor Swift wrote her song “You Need to Calm Down” (2019) with the intention of making it a queer anthem. Although some people had mixed feelings about it, the song solidified her position as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. The music video is a fun mash-up of famous queer icons, including the “Queer Eye” Fab 5 and Billy Porter. RuPaul took part in the music video by playing himself during an impromptu drag queen pageant.
RuPaul walks by the girls in the pageant carrying a crown on a velvet red pillow. The whole situation is pretty ironic, considering that RuPaul herself is the Queen of Drag. Ru starred in T-Swift’s music video alongside “Drag Race” alumni such as Tatianna, Jade Jolie, and Trinity the Tuck.
Grace and Frankie and RuPaul
In the post-Drag Race era of his career, RuPaul has come back with a vengeance. That means lucky fans get to see him in a lot more guest star and cameo appearances on their favorite shows. He had a special guest star role in the fifth season of the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” in 2019. Fans ate it up.
RuPaul starred alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin for two episodes. He played the buyer of Jane and Lily’s home, which their fictional children try to sell without their consent. Hilarity ensued, solidifying “Grace and Frankie” as an iconic show among queer fans.
RuPaul and Roncal
What many people love about RuPaul is how he genuinely loves the people he does business with. He met many up-and-comers like himself during his early days in New York and has maintained those relationships despite his insanely huge amount of success. When Ru first met makeup artist Mally Roncal in the early 90s, neither of them would have ever guessed that they’d launch a makeup line together.
But that’s exactly what happened in 2019. The two collaborated to create a special QVC-exclusive line of makeup under Roncal’s company, Mally Beauty. Ru and Mally’s collection embodies the sense of fun and play that both Mally and RuPaul have. Their goal was to create lively but wearable palettes and products that can work for every day or a night out.
“The Queen” of Netflix… Kind Of
In 2020, RuPaul decided to branch out from his “Drag Race” hosting duties by starring in an original Netflix series. The show, called “AJ and the Queen,” starred RuPaul as Ruby Red, a down-on-her-luck drag queen who is touring the US to recoup her lost life savings. Ruby Red becomes buddies with AJ, a preteen orphan she finds secretly stowed away in her old van.
The comedy series got mixed reviews from critics and viewers. While many fans loved the show, it wasn’t enough to convince Netflix to renew the show for a second season. Not everything RuPaul touches turns to gold, and that’s okay. Despite the show being around for only one season, RuPaul tweeted that he loved working on it.
The Fracking Controversy
Environmentalists and some fans were shocked when RuPaul shared more details about his husband’s 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. During a 2020 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program, RuPaul explained that he and his husband don’t do any actual farming on their property. Instead, they lease it out for grazing. Oh, and they just happen to sell water and lease out mineral rights to oil companies.
Yup, RuPaul implied that he is involved in the fracking business. While environmentally-conscious fans were concerned, Ru and Georges’ fellow Wyomingites were not shocked. Apparently, ranch owners in the area are kind of forced into leasing their land to oil companies due to complicated mineral rights laws. RuPaul may not spend a lot of time on the ranch, but he’s definitely profiting.
A First for Saturday Night Live
RuPaul’s career is so prolific that he’s out here still breaking records in the 21st century. On February 8, 2020, RuPaul became the first ever drag queen to host “Saturday Night Live.” He did his monologue out of drag, opening with the line, “This is fun, right? My name is Ru, which is short for ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race!’”
The episode was a hilarious, accessible way to introduce millions of Americans, perhaps for the first time, to aspects of queer culture during a politically and socially fraught time. “The Library” is one of the stand-out skits of the episode. RuPaul shows up at a library storytime to teach everyone about “reading,” which is the art of insult and wordplay in drag culture.
RuPaul’s Drag Confession
Shortly after hosting “Saturday Night Live,” RuPaul was a guest on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While sitting in the interviewee's chair, he made a confession. He revealed that he hadn’t really had fun doing drag for decades. According to him, drag stopped being fun once he became famous.
He intentionally changed his drag persona early on because he knew that’s what it would take to become famous. “I knew that if I was going to do drag and make it above 14th Street, so to speak, I had to calculate the image,” he shared with Seth. “What I did was I had one part Dolly Parton to two parts Cher, one part David Bowie, and a big heaping spoonful of Diana Ross. Then I took the subversive sexuality out of my persona so Betty and Joe Beercan could invite me into their living room.”
Changing a Signature Catchphrase
As we know, RuPaul has been criticized for his lack of understanding and sensitivity when it comes to the transgender community. Some people have reservations about the earnestness of RuPaul’s attempts at better allyship. However, he’s made small changes to “Drag Race” throughout the years that show he’s trying.
For example, the premiere of season 13 in 2021 revealed that RuPaul no longer used the catchphrase, “Gentleman, start your engines, and may the best woman win.” Instead, the phrasing was changed to “Racers, start your engines, and may the best drag queen win.” This language is more inclusive and gender-neutral, which thrilled fans of the show.
Breaking Emmy Records
We all know that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and all of its spin-offs are wildly successful. “Drag Race” isn’t just a cult favorite among fans. The powers that be also agree. As of 2022, RuPaul holds the most Emmy wins for “Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program.” To top it all off, the twelve Emmy awards to his name make him the top-winning Black artist in Emmy history, according to Entertainment Weekly.
The “Drag Race” production team has a lot to be proud of. The show won “Outstanding Reality-Competition Program” every year between 2018 and 2021. The show and Ru have also been nominated for a slew of Creative Arts Emmys over the years. In total, the show has been nominated 70 times for different categories. Not bad for a humble little show that started off on Logo.
From VH1 to MTV
January 2023 saw the premiere of the 15th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Fans were thrilled to have Mama Ru back on air. Plus, there were a few changes to the show. The 15th season aired on MTV instead of VH1, allowing the show to have an even larger audience pool than ever before.
MTV is also owned by Paramount, so the sashay away from VH1 wasn’t that big of a difference. However, there were some on-air alterations that made the stakes higher and the drama bigger. The season featured sixteen queens, the largest number of competitors ever. Also, the show dangled a cash prize of $200,000 in front of the contestants.
“Get These Stunt Queens Out of Office”
Throughout the course of his life, RuPaul has been criticized and ostracized for being different. Now, at the height of his career, he continues to help pave the way for others in the queer community. In March 2023, RuPaul took to social media to voice his concern about the recent attacks (literal and figurative) on drag and trans communities across the US.
In an Instagram post, Ru critiqued anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers by saying, “Hey, look over there! A classic distraction technique, distracting us away from the real issues that they were voted into office to focus on.” He encouraged his fans and fellow LGBTQ+ community members to register to vote and “get these stunt queens out of office.”
“Drag Race” World Domination
As always, RuPaul is making moves to expand his drag queen franchise and achieve world domination. On top of his many “Drag Race” spin-offs, we ave recently seen the debut of three new series. “Drag Race” spin-offs in Mexico, Germany, and Brazil will be added to the franchise’s rolodex. The Mexico and Brazil spin-offs mark the franchise’s first venture into the Latin American market, and plenty of fans are thrilled.
Along with these new spin-offs, RuPaul and World of Wonder Productions have created quite an impressive network. The amount of “Drag Race” spin-offs can make any newbie’s head spin. They include series in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and many other countries. Oh, and don’t forget its other shows, such as “Drag Race All Stars,” “Untucked,” “RuPaul’s Drag U,” and “Secret Celebrity Drag Race.” It’s a lot, but fans can’t get enough.
The Drag Defense Fund
For the season 15 finale of “Drag Race,” RuPaul and his team did something a little different. They teamed up with the ACLU to support the organization’s Drag Defense Fund. Members of the ACLU walked the red carpet of the season finale alongside famous “Drag Race” queens.
The Drag Defense Fund also got a special shout-out during the finale, which over half a million people watched. The charitable donation and fundraising effort marks the beginning of a partnership between the ACLU and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” that is sure to continue. RuPaul has millions of fans, so the call to action was pretty successful.
The Biggest DragCon Ever
The 8th annual RuPaul’s DragCon took place in May 2023 at the LA Convention Center. According to the LA Times, convention organizers anticipated it to be the largest event ever, with dozens of international queens and former “Drag Race” contestants attending as special guests.
This DragCon’s stellar attendance and publicity were significant, considering that 2023 is a record year for the introduction of the most anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the United States. DragCon has proved to be a mecca not just for fans of the show but for LGBTQ+ community members. “Drag Race” queen Kerri Colby told the LA Times that DragCon was one of the few times she felt super sncouraged, super motivated, and super safe to present herself in a more feminine manner.
RuPaul Continues to Slay
RuPaul has been a star for over three decades, and his career isn’t slowing down any time soon. Today, Ru continues to run his “Drag Race” empire and recently hosted season 15 of the series in early 2023. “Drag Race” and its spin-offs are incredibly successful. Many credit RuPaul’s reality show for making aspects of LGBTQ+ culture more mainstream and widely accepted.
RuPaul has also added the title of game show host to his resume. He hosts the CBS reboot of the classic game show “Lingo” with his signature coy sense of humor. In addition, Ru continues to use his platform to lift up fellow queens and advocate for the rights and safety of the LGBTQ+ community. RuPaul has contributed so much to our culture. We can’t wait to see what he does next.