The story, as he’s told it dozens of times over the years, goes like this: When RuPaul Charles’ mother, Ernestine, was pregnant with him, she went to see a psychic who said her unborn child, a boy, would one day be famous. Originally from Louisiana, Ernestine decided to call him RuPaul, a name inspired by the roux used to make gumbo —and, like “Madonna,” “Oprah” or “Prince,” one that seems to have ensured his celebrity.
But international stardom wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion for a gay, black drag queen from San Diego. A fateful low point came in 1988. Though he’d attained a level of notoriety in the East Village club scene, broader success remained elusive. He wound up crashing on his little sister’s couch in L.A., watching “The Oprah Winfrey Show” every day and going on “The Gong Show,” where he was judged by Salt-N-Pepa and lost to an Elvis impersonator.
“I had done New York and couldn’t get any traction there. I thought, ‘Is this really it? Was the psychic wrong with my mother?’” RuPaul recalls. It’s a damp, snowy afternoon in Manhattan, flakes the size of quarters turning to slush the second they hit the sidewalk. Now 59, he sits in a dimly lit West Village restaurant near the apartment he’s shared with his husband, Georges LeBar, for a quarter century. Clad in a wool cape and shawl-neck sweater in shades of black and charcoal, he strikes a more sober note than on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where he appears in suits of seemingly every hue.
Even when he hit the mainstream 27 years ago with the dance hit “Supermodel,” which sent up the era when Cindy, Linda and Naomi ruled the runway, RuPaul seemed more likely to be a short-lived novelty act than an enduring cultural figure who has turned the subversive art of drag into a lucrative franchise, helped revolutionize our understanding of gender and inspired a course at the New School.
Though a half-dozen networks originally passed on it, his VH1 reality competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has won 13 Emmys in 11 seasons on air and spawned multiple spinoffs. It laid the groundwork for RuPaul’s DragCon —a drag convention held in L.A., New York City and London —to go with the multiple books, dozen albums, screen credits from “All My Children” to “Saturday Night Live” and popular podcast, “What’s the Tee.”
Now he’s coming to Netflix with his most ambitious creative swing to date. Beginning Jan. 10, he will star in “AJ and the Queen,” a road trip drama following a red-wigged New York City drag queen —one reminiscent of RuPaul himself —and a smart-mouthed 10-year-old girl as they travel cross-country via RV. The series, which he co-created with “Sex and the City” showrunner Michael Patrick King, features a big drag performance and cameos from “Drag Race” stars in virtually every episode. But RuPaul also spent significant time in the writers room and, in his first regular dramatic role, was forced to explore more nuanced emotions than on “Drag Race.”
RuPaul has also set an example and created opportunities for a new generation of drag performers, many of whom have followed him to crossover success, such as three-time “Drag Race” contestant Shangela —a.k.a. D.J. Pierce —who appeared in “A Star Is Born.” “As African American, gay drag queens, we live with more adversity and challenges,” says Pierce. “Seeing RuPaul go out there and not only create music, but TV and film roles, and continue to go down so many creative avenues —that is inspirational. For a person of color like myself, I see RuPaul and I say, ‘Oh, honey, I can do it too.’”
“Drag Race” serves as an introduction to drag for many young queens. RuPaul says he can see the downside of the show’s influence —the rote, bitchy mimicry it inspires —when he’s reviewing audition tapes.
“One in 10 does something different that makes me go, ‘Oh, who is that? Those other nine people —no exaggeration —do the exact same thing. They say, ‘RuPaul, you need me on your show because I will cut a bitch.’ That specific line. It’s so funny. Any time someone does something remotely unique or to their own rhythm, I mark them down.”