Illustration by Fernando Monroy
“Let me get this straight. You publicly came-out, did a tonne of interviews, launched a queer website and spent all your money commissioning pieces JUST SO YOU COULD MEET RUPAUL?!” What kind of maniac-stalker-weirdo would do something like that, I replied to my boyfriend’s wild accusation. We both knew without saying a word that I was exactly the type of maniac-stalker-weirdo that would do something like this. My life had been a never-ending series of long cons. First as a lonely child, and then as a painfully isolated teen, I retreated into a fantasy world. I imagined one day I’d have an impossibly glamorous life feted as a male supermodel with a pile of airhead celebrity(ish) friends and a fabulous wardrobe of designer clothes. I looked around my dreary life and pined for something more. Everything in the South London in the 80s was beige: the food, our family volvo... my pallid skin. I wanted hot pink, gold and a tan! I’d caught a flash of something sparkly in the corner of my eye and I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing it, while it’s remained frustratingly on the periphery, always out of reach. This, is the chase for fame. The promise of escape. To make the fantasy real. And now I have fashioned a rather fabulous life for myself. But something nags. There’s a snag. A thread has caught and I’m unravelling. I need more.. I need meaning. Inside of you, in the pit of your being, you are still that daydreaming little boy lost, and the more glamorous everything outside gets, the bigger the chasm between who you know you are, and who everyone else thinks you are, gets wider and wider and more and more painful. There’s a breach at the core. That is the irony of glamour, of shimmer - it simply isn’t real. But what was the spark that set me on this course? What shooting star caught me magpie-eyed and ruined my life? It was RuPaul of course. Covering a Kiki Dee song, of course. With Elton John... of course.
I was twelve. The year was 1994. On a music video playing Saturday morning television show, there she was. All fifty feet of her. Palpable sexual chemistry sparked between her and confirmed bachelor (and suspected serial womaniser) Elton John. She was probably his new girlfriend and that’s how an unknown model had snatched such a great gig (she was so tall she had to be a supermodel because that’s what tall people did for a living, unless they were employed as giants). Something deep down in me knew she wasn’t really a woman. She wasn’t a man either. And she wasn’t something in-between either. She was something more. More than the sum of her parts. A magical forbidden taboo creature sent to tempt, inspire and drive us mad. Somehow I knew Elton didn’t really fancy women either, but together, as they dressed up as famous lovers from history, this illusion was irresistible. I suppose I knew Elton was gay before I really understood what being ‘gay’ meant. Before we know, we know. Gay people are drawn to each other before they understand their sexuality. We sense a shared secret revealing itself through pain or wild abandon- clues, glances and nods pull. The dejected John, desperate for this father’s love, in James Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ drew me in long before I read Giovanni's Room or found out about James’ homosexuality. George Michael’s rebellious anti-establishment streak and cheeky wink and camper than camp videos lit a fire in me. A boy crying alone on a train in Bronksi Beat’s Small Town Boy climaxed into falsetto bringing tears to my own eyes, without me even knowing why. And so, RuPaul burst through my television in an off-the-shoulder breton top, and like a 6.5 foot tall black siren in a ginormous blonde wig, called me out from of my miserable life and promised to take me away to somewhere fabulous.
Born RuPaul Andre Charles on November 17th 1960 in San Diego, RuPaul moved to Atlanta to study performing arts and then headed for NYC becoming a celebrated fixture on the party scene employed by nightlife legends like Susanne Bartsch. Female impersonation happened by happy accident. Performing in a gender-fuck punk band, one night Ru dragged-up as a woman and the crowd went wild. RuPaul listened to the Universe’s stage direction and didn’t look back. This is one of Ru’s greatest lessons for us. We all have neat fixed ideas about who we are and what we want to do in life. In the moments where I’ve relinquished control and expanded my narrow view of myself, I have found success. Take the clues. Ru didn’t necessarily grow up wanting to be a female impersonator but when he smelled a hit, he seized the moment, making it his own. He became an international popstar with single “Supermodel”, won a trailblazing MAC Cosmetics campaign and as their spokesperson raised funds for the Mac AIDS Fund.
Then after years in the wilderness, RuPaul returned with Drag Race- a simultaneous pastiche and celebration of reality TV shows such as Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. It was turned down by every major network, and eventually found a home on gay-centric cable channel Logo TV. Now it calls the very-mainstream VH1 home, with past seasons streaming on the international monster Netflix. Drag Race is a global phenomenon, spawning spin-offs, tours and live events. It relaunched RuPaul on the global stage and ironically allowed him to appear as RuPaul out of drag for the first time (though still wearing some fabulous fun outfits). What a strange, wild journey Ru has been on, taking a risk by detouring into drag, staying true to punk values, and now finding himself just as celebrated without the wigs and the dresses - celebrated as himself. He acts and hosts, both in and out of drag, celebrated as the powerful human that he is. For years as a model I’ve performed a form of drag. I hid my homosexuality, any effeminacy, and ‘manned-up’ to sell an extreme performative type of masculinity. It’s since I’ve come out that the authentic me has come out… I’ve allowed myself to stop performing straight-drag and let myself be seen. Seen without artifice. RuPaul sees his work as a challenge to identity stereotypes and politics, telling Vogue, “We live in such an egocentric world where identity is king, and we’ve elected the poster child for the ego in the USA... Drag is the perfect balance to that mentality. Ego is all about saying ‘I’m better than you are’ and drag says ‘you are not your clothes, you are not what it says you are on your birth certificate. You are a creation of your own imagination.’”
Now, through the global popularity of Drag Race he is able to set the agenda for his legion of fans and subvert the mainstream inspiring a generation of queer (and straight) youth. Ru’s questioning of identity politics has led to clashes with the trans community - and on occasion he has caused genuine offensive, for which on the most part he seems contrite and apologetic - but his punk sensibility puts him at odds with the left-wing current political landscape. While he is a poster child of misfits and generation queer, he also rejects political correctness and our addiction to taking offense. He is not here to make us feel safe - he wants to challenge and destroy. Burn it all down and start again! An impulse at odds with his mainstream success. Ru’s work is about ripping off the illusions we cloak ourselves in- questioning our very ‘identity’, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.’
RuPaul’s hosting style references the catch-phrases and performances of iconic film stars and performers, from Joan Crawford to Liza to Blaxploitation films. It was these references (some obvious, some frustratingly obscure) that inspired me to create The Queer Bible in the first place. I wanted a place to go where I could immerse myself in the same quotes and inspiration that RuPaul had been exposed to. The AIDs epidemic robbed us of an entire generation who would now be our elders - queer people who could educate us - show us the films, play us the music and let us in on the jokes that make up queer culture. Like in the iconic film about the New York drag-ball scene Paris Is Burning, we need ‘Drag-mothers’ to initiate us into our mysterious, wonderful and subversive birthright. Ru’s example led me to create The Queer Bible. I am creating something beyond myself, something real. The shallow and bombastic caught my eye and now I’m reaching towards something deep and solid. It seems that Ru has claimed, amid the glamour and lure of Hollywood and New York nightlife a meaningful path. Now RuPaul inspires a generation to seek out those fierce humans who bravely stomped before us, and The Queer Bible is the tool with which we can engage with our proud history. We stand on the shoulders of giants - now it’s time to learn their names.