Icons understand the power of telling their story. They craft their legend through reciting the details of their journey. They give shape to their lives through recounting hardships and triumphs. And few icons have harnessed the power of myth-making quite like RuPaul.
“Supermodel (You Better Work)”, the hit song that introduced the world to RuPaul, tells the fable of a “little black girl from the Brewster projects,” who is discovered at 15 by a modelling scout and then leads a glamorous life of fashion shoots, replete with big hair, sophisticated outfits, and over-the-top costume jewellery.
While the Brewster-Douglass housing projects are real – the largest in Detroit before being demolished in 2014 – RuPaul did not grow up there. (It was, however, the home of Motown legends Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.) Instead, RuPaul grew up in San Diego before moving to Atlanta with a story every bit as interesting as the one in “Supermodel.”
If there’s an anecdote that serves as RuPaul’s origin story, it’d be in Atlanta during the middle of the 1980’s. There, future business partners (and Drag Race co-creators) Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato recall spotting a sky-high drag queen dressed in “shoulder pads, a jock strap, and a frightwig,” as they told Out, wheatpasting flyers to telephone poles announcing “RUPAUL IS EVERYTHING.” The story contains two not-altogether-separate concepts that will resonate through RuPaul’s career: self-promotion and self-love.
Even in his early days, RuPaul understood no one will work as hard for your success as you. (You better work!) His will to hustle took drag from the deep underground into the mainstream, hitting unexpected levels of success as the world’s best-known and most successful drag performer. Drag Race mirrors the path RuPaul took with acting, singing, and performing challenges. At the same time, there’s a proclamation of self-love, which beats at the heart of every episode and is best summed up in his perennial closing line: “If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
What makes RuPaul’s career remarkable is how inevitable it now seems, as the world’s best-known drag queen opened doors for the casts of Drag Race to reach beyond grabbing bills in clubs or performing in bit parts whenever mainstream Hollywood decided to venture into gayness.
Like so many of that era, RuPaul came out of the nightclub scene, first in Atlanta (RUPAUL IS EVERYTHING) and then New York City. In 1984, RuPaul moved to New York, before the city “spit him out” and he returned to Atlanta. Determined, RuPaul gave another go at New York and it stuck. He spent part of his time in the Big Apple bouncing between people’s couches, leaving his costumes at the Pyramid, an East Village club he and fellow drag icon Lady Bunny performed at.
RuPaul was part of Wigstock, co-created by frequent collaborator Lady Bunny. In 1989, performing at the festival, he became an “overnight downtown star,” as he describes it, lip-syncing to “Don’t You Want My Love” off the ‘Ruthless People’ soundtrack and Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” Shortly after, in 1993, the inescapable “Supermodel (You Better Work),” hit #2 of the Billboard US Dance Charts.
RuPaul landed his own talk show on VH1 in 1996, co-starring future Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, finding a new way into the homes of Americans and demonstrating the interest and bonhomie that would infect Drag Race. The show, which ran for 100 episodes, also marked a new professional level: in just over a decade, RuPaul went from being spit out by the Big Apple to having his idol Diana Ross as the first guest on his own TV show.
RuPaul continues to tell his story, whether it be through song, podcast, or extravaganzas. The power of myth-building is the lesson he shares with his reemergence into pop culture, our raison d'etre, RuPaul’s Drag Race. With 11 seasons and countless catchphrases, Drag Race is truly RuPaul’s masterpiece. And it’s not just a testament to him, but also the vehicle he uses to prepare queens to follow in his footsteps.
The world has taken notice. From celebrity fans to glowing profiles, Drag Race has burst out face beat and nails on, ready to snatch the mainstream’s wig. Even the Emmys noticed when, in 2016, RuPaul won for Outstanding Host for RuPaul’s Drag Race, beating previous winners in the category Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, Jane Lynch, and Tom Bergeron — and continuing the streak of someone from the LGBT community winning since 2012.
For longtime fans of the show, the victory felt overdue: Drag Race has been on the air for eight years and, while the show itself wasn’t nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, at last the Academy acknowledged its keystone figure.
But Ru took it in stride. “For me personally, I’ve lived my life and career outside, off the grid, so to get the acknowledgement from the establishment, it feels kind of weird,” he told Billboard. “It’s not like all of a sudden I have to really care and focus on what they think of me, because I’ve created my career without them – the establishment – giving me validation.”
In many ways, the mainstream has now begun to tell the story RuPaul first wrote in Atlanta so many years ago. Such is the power of myth building. Ru said it until we all believed it. Those posters wheat-pasted three decades ago were no lie. RuPaul is indeed EVERYTHING.
[This essay is part of the Feel Your Fantasy fanzine my friends and I created to celebrate the return of Drag Race. Check it out here.]