“You better work.” If there are any more enduring catchphrases that have somehow managed to weather the years without becoming cliché, it’s a very short list. Since the early ‘90s (or the ‘80s, if you knew), RuPaul Charles has been a living, dynamic, articulate icon not just for LGBTQ tolerance and acceptance, but even more for universal personal expression. Two books, umpteen albums (another is in the pipeline), many unforgettable film appearances, and a brand-new Emmy for RuPaul’s Drag Race (season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race—All Stars is underway on Logo Wednesday nights) back up this inspiring man’s keynote speech at Life Is Beautiful this weekend (Saturday, 4pm at the Troubadour Stage). Below, he drops so much science (not to mention a sly George Orwell reference) that Neil Degrasse Tyson’s ears must be ringing. Listen up.
IN ABOUT FOUR SECONDS, A TEACHER WILL BEGIN TO SPEAK…
My mother when she was pregnant with me saw a psychic who told her ‘It’s going to be a boy, and he’s going to be famous.’ And from the moment I was born, I knew what my role would be. Whether I wanted to or not, I would have to shapeshift and explain and be a conductor of energy. Even in my own home with my crazy ass hillbilly parents, I would shapeshift to create peace and create joy and to equalize and stabilize situations. And I’ve always been that, it’s my life’s plan, my life’s work. I was born to it. That’s what I’m here for. And when you see me on Drag Race, in and out of drag, you see that role very clearly. I’m kind of a guidance counselor.
I’m from San Diego. It really is an interesting contrast, because San Diego… is very Republican and conservative and laid-back. I knew I had to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible, take the first opportunity. My older sister said, “We’re moving to Atlanta; you want to come?” I said yes! I moved to Atlanta when I was 15, and then I moved to New York in ‘84, and the city spit me out in about six months. I moved back to New York in ‘87.
I still work every day with Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey], the guys who I met in ‘85 at the New Music Seminar. We create the show Drag Race in that same spirit, the exact same aesthetic. We overplan the show well in advance of shooting it, because the budget isn’t as big as some of the shows I’ve seen. I’ve been on some other shows—oh my God, I can’t believe how much money they’re spending! But we come from the East Village, where “we have to plan that shit out before the po-lice come!” We don’t waste time, we don’t waste money, but the show looks great. That’s that East Village guerilla aesthetic. I carry it with me. It’s still there every day.
I was recently in Greece on holiday, and nothing has changed there in many years. So, I decided then and there that I will never complain about New York being so different, because I got to witness what it’s like when things don’t change. It’s beautiful there, but you understand when you’re there why they are financially strapped. They have not integrated any new ideas. And so, “Oh, note to self, integrate new ideas.”
I’m putting together an album right now. And it doesn’t make a lot of money. But it’s like a pie, show business now. It’s many different elements, whether it’s the music, the merchandising, the live show—which I don’t really do anymore, because I’m doing the television show and I don’t really travel as much. You have to be involved in all of it. The consumer wants more value for what they’re spending. It’s like Apple computers: They want a good product, they want a vernacular, they want a lifestyle, they want an aesthetic. You have to check the boxes of all of those elements.
When I’m in drag, it’s a super animated version of human; it’s my sort of mock-human. Because drag, at its core, is really mocking identity. So, for me to speak from a place of me mocking identity on a heartfelt Life Is Beautiful stage, it would be entertaining and a spectacle if I was in drag, but I’m not sure that the message would really relate.
The Emmy and all those awards are part of the establishment, and my story has nothing to do with the establishment—other than the fact that I’ve lived and prevailed outside of it. This was never my ultimate goal. I have lived outside the box, off the grid, outside the matrix. So, that acclaim inside the matrix was never part of my story. The truth is: If it were part of my story all those years, I would not be here today, because of the disappointment of not being recognized by the status quo. That would have killed me. I’m not going to wake up and all of a sudden go, “They like me; they really like me.” I understand—it’s business, and it’s also politics. I’m happy for the people I work with, and I’m happy for the recognition to Logo, but the truth is, I’m unchanged. Whether I got this award or not, I would have woken up the next morning and done the same exact thing.
I’ve been doing it for a long time—a long time. I’m not going to start walking on my hind legs all of a sudden.I love Vegas. I go there to enjoy myself; I don’t gamble, but I see shows. I eat great food, and I shop. I know how to do Vegas right. In fact, last time I was there, we took a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon just to eat lunch. It’s so much fun. And that’s it. You have to learn how to curate your Iife. That’s what I’ve learned how to do after so many years on this planet.I love being able to look at people in the eye without them being distracted by my drag persona. My drag persona I’ve had for so long, and I understand the power of it. It’s very difficult for people to get the deeper message when I am in drag, because it’s pretty overwhelming. But when you hear that message from the man who sold drag to America, it resonates more, because I am an architect… The possibilities of what your imagination and your willpower and zest can create is pretty amazing.
“You can be successful. You can live your life on your own terms. You don’t have to compromise your sweetness and your kindness and what makes you you.”
Everything I go for, everything I’m involved in, I go for 100 percent, and I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. We all know that’s not true; usually if you can go back to the same dressing room twice, you’re doing really good. Most things are buried. But I go into everything thinking it’s going to be the savior of mankind. I have a deep love for drag for many reasons, and I wanted to celebrate the art of drag—and also the messaging. Drag says to people, “Don’t take yourself or life too seriously. Have fun; enjoy this gift.”
I’ve always gravitated toward oddballs or people I can feel energetically. I like people who dance to the beat of a different drummer, and it honestly happens on a gut level.
I have my favorites of the queens who have come through [Drag Race], but you know, they’re all my kids, and I can’t say out loud who my favorites are. I think every parent has a favorite. But I’m so proud of them; they are my legacy… For young people around the world who get our show, they know there’s a tribe out there waiting for them, telling them, “You can be successful. You can live your life on your own terms. You don’t have to compromise your sweetness and your kindness and what makes you you.”
What we’re witnessing in this election is resistance to the forward motion of mankind. We are witnessing people resisting the 21st century, who are stuck in the 20th century because they are afraid. They are afraid of having to recognize themselves and say to themselves, “Who am I? What am I doing? What are my values? How do I relate to the world today?” They’d rather say, “Let’s go back in time.” Well, that never actually happened before… I’m just speaking my truth. I don’t have an agenda for the world; I’m doing what I like to do. If other people get off on what I’m doing, right on. But my main agenda is to have fun, not take life too seriously, and to play with all the colors in the crayon box. That’s it.