RuPaul speaks about society and the state of drag as performance art
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Few artists ever penetrate the subconscious level of American culture the way RuPaul Andre Charles did with the 1993 album Supermodel of the World. It was groundbreaking not only because in the midst of the Grunge phenomenon did Charles have a dance hit on MTV, but because he did it as RuPaul, formerly known as Starbooty, a supermodel drag queen with a message: love everyone. A duet with Elton John, an endorsement deal with MAC cosmetics, an eponymous talk show on VH-1 and roles in film propelled RuPaul into the new millennium.
In July, RuPaul’s movie Starrbooty began playing at film festivals and it is set to be released on DVD October 31st. Wikinews reporter David Shankbone recently spoke with RuPaul by telephone in Los Angeles, where she is to appear on stage for DIVAS Simply Singing!, a benefit for HIV-AIDS.
DS: How are you doing?
- RP: Everything is great. I just settled into my new hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. I have never stayed downtown, so I wanted to try it out. L.A. is one of those traditional big cities where nobody goes downtown, but they are trying to change that.
DS: How do you like Los Angeles?
- RP: I love L.A. I’m from San Diego, and I lived here for six years. It took me four years to fall in love with it and then those last two years I had fallen head over heels in love with it. Where are you from?
DS: Me? I’m from all over. I have lived in 17 cities, six states and three countries.
- RP: Where were you when you were 15?
DS: Georgia, in a small town at the bottom of Fulton County called Palmetto.
- RP: When I was in Georgia I went to South Fulton Technical School. The last high school I ever went to was…actually, I don’t remember the name of it.
DS: Do you miss Atlanta?
- RP: I miss the Atlanta that I lived in. That Atlanta is long gone. It’s like a childhood friend who underwent head to toe plastic surgery and who I don’t recognize anymore. It’s not that I don’t like it; I do like it. It’s just not the Atlanta that I grew up with. It looks different because it went through that boomtown phase and so it has been transient. What made Georgia Georgia to me is gone. The last time I stayed in a hotel there my room was overlooking a construction site, and I realized the building that was torn down was a building that I had seen get built. And it had been torn down to build a new building. It was something you don’t expect to see in your lifetime.
DS: What did that signify to you?
- RP: What it showed me is that the mentality in Atlanta is that much of their history means nothing. For so many years they did a good job preserving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a preservationist. It’s just an interesting observation.
DS: In 2004 when you released your third album, Red Hot, it received a good deal of play in the clubs and on dance radio, but very little press coverage. On your blog you discussed how you felt betrayed by the entertainment industry and, in particular, the gay press. What happened?
- RP: Well, betrayed might be the wrong word. ‘Betrayed’ alludes to an idea that there was some kind of a promise made to me, and there never was. More so, I was disappointed. I don’t feel like it was a betrayal. Nobody promises anything in show business and you understand that from day one.
- But, I don’t know what happened. It seemed I couldn’t get press on my album unless I was willing to play into the role that the mainstream press has assigned to gay people, which is as servants of straight ideals.
DS: Do you mean as court jesters?
- RP: Not court jesters, because that also plays into that mentality. We as humans find it easy to categorize people so that we know how to feel comfortable with them; so that we don’t feel threatened. If someone falls outside of that categorization, we feel threatened and we search our psyche to put them into a category that we feel comfortable with. The mainstream media and the gay press find it hard to accept me as…just…
DS: Everything you are?
- RP: Everything that I am.
DS: It seems like years ago, and my recollection might be fuzzy, but it seems like I read a mainstream media piece that talked about how you wanted to break out of the RuPaul ‘character’ and be seen as more than just RuPaul.
- RP: Well, RuPaul is my real name and that’s who I am and who I have always been. There’s the product RuPaul that I have sold in business. Does the product feel like it’s been put into a box? Could you be more clear? It’s a hard question to answer.
DS: That you wanted to be seen as more than just RuPaul the drag queen, but also for the man and versatile artist that you are.
- RP: That’s not on target. What other people think of me is not my business. What I do is what I do. How people see me doesn’t change what I decide to do. I don’t choose projects so people don’t see me as one thing or another. I choose projects that excite me. I think the problem is that people refuse to understand what drag is outside of their own belief system. A friend of mine recently did the Oprah show about transgendered youth. It was obvious that we, as a culture, have a hard time trying to understand the difference between a drag queen, transsexual, and a transgender, yet we find it very easy to know the difference between the American baseball league and the National baseball league, when they are both so similar. We’ll learn the difference to that. One of my hobbies is to research and go underneath ideas to discover why certain ones stay in place while others do not. Like Adam and Eve, which is a flimsy fairytale story, yet it is something that people believe; what, exactly, keeps it in place?
DS: What keeps people from knowing the difference between what is real and important, and what is not?
- RP: Our belief systems. If you are a Christian then your belief system doesn’t allow for transgender or any of those things, and you then are going to have a vested interest in not understanding that. Why? Because if one peg in your belief system doesn’t work or doesn’t fit, the whole thing will crumble. So some people won’t understand the difference between a transvestite and transsexual. They will not understand that no matter how hard you force them to because it will mean deconstructing their whole belief system. If they understand Adam and Eve is a parable or fairytale, they then have to rethink their entire belief system.
- As to me being seen as whatever, I was more likely commenting on the phenomenon of our culture. I am creative, and I am all of those things you mention, and doing one thing out there and people seeing it, it doesn’t matter if people know all that about me or not.
DS: Recently I interviewed Natasha Khan of the band Bat for Lashes, and she is considered by many to be one of the real up-and-coming artists in music today. Her band was up for the Mercury Prize in England. When I asked her where she drew inspiration from, she mentioned what really got her recently was the 1960’s and 70’s psychedelic drag queen performance art, such as seen in Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, The Cockettes and Paris Is Burning. What do you think when you hear an artist in her twenties looking to that era of drag performance art for inspiration?
- RP: The first thing I think of when I hear that is that young kids are always looking for the ‘rock and roll’ answer to give. It’s very clever to give that answer. She’s asked that a lot: “Where do you get your inspiration?” And what she gave you is the best sound bite she could; it’s a really a good sound bite. I don’t know about Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, but I know about The Cockettes and Paris Is Burning. What I think about when I hear that is there are all these art school kids and when they get an understanding of how the press works, and how your sound bite will affect the interview, they go for the best.
DS: You think her answer was contrived?
- RP: I think all answers are really contrived. Everything is contrived; the whole world is an illusion. Coming up and seeing kids dressed in Goth or hip hop clothes, when you go beneath all that, you have to ask: what is that really? You understand they are affected, pretentious. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s how we see things. I love Paris Is Burning.
DS: Has the Iraq War affected you at all?
- RP: Absolutely. It’s not good, I don’t like it, and it makes me want to enjoy this moment a lot more and be very appreciative. Like when I’m on a hike in a canyon and it smells good and there aren’t bombs dropping.
DS: Do you think there is a lot of apathy in the culture?
- RP: There’s apathy, and there’s a lot of anti-depressants and that probably lends a big contribution to the apathy. We have iPods and GPS systems and all these things to distract us.
DS: Do you ever work the current political culture into your art?
- RP: No, I don’t. Every time I bat my eyelashes it’s a political statement. The drag I come from has always been a critique of our society, so the act is defiant in and of itself in a patriarchal society such as ours. It’s an act of treason.
DS: What do you think of young performance artists working in drag today?
- RP: I don’t know of any. I don’t know of any. Because the gay culture is obsessed with everything straight and femininity has been under attack for so many years, there aren’t any up and coming drag artists. Gay culture isn’t paying attention to it, and straight people don’t either. There aren’t any drag clubs to go to in New York. I see more drag clubs in Los Angeles than in New York, which is so odd because L.A. has never been about club culture.
DS: Michael Musto told me something that was opposite of what you said. He said he felt that the younger gays, the ones who are up-and-coming, are over the body fascism and more willing to embrace their feminine sides.
- RP: I think they are redefining what femininity is, but I still think there is a lot of negativity associated with true femininity. Do boys wear eyeliner and dress in skinny jeans now? Yes, they do. But it’s still a heavily patriarchal culture and you never see two men in Star magazine, or the Queer Eye guys at a premiere, the way you see Ellen and her girlfriend—where they are all, ‘Oh, look how cute’—without a negative connotation to it. There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palette; their emotional palette, their physical palette. Is that changing? It’s changing in ways that don’t advance the cause of femininity. I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse. That’s why you wouldn’t get someone covering the RuPaul album, or why they say people aren’t tuning into the Katie Couric show. Sure, they can say ‘Oh, RuPaul’s album sucks’ and ‘Katie Couric is awful’; but that’s not really true. It’s about what our culture finds important, and what’s important are things that support patriarchal power. The only feminine thing supported in this struggle is Pamela Anderson and Jessica Simpson, things that support our patriarchal culture.