Unforgettable RuPaul

Rob Nicholson

I will never forget the first time I saw RuPaul. I was in Atlanta and had just started at Georgia State University. My roommates suggested I try a nightclub on Peachtree Street called Weekends, a 24-hour dance club that rocked on …well… the weekends. I walked into the club and headed for the dance floor. And there, who do I see but this monolith of a human being on the Go-Go Box. Blonde hair, high heels and a tight dress that clung to this 6’4” person. I asked a friend, “who is that?” and he said, “That is RuPaul.” RuPaul worked as an attraction at the all-night Weekends disco in Atlanta during the mid-1980s.  The crowds loved his sexy costumes and graceful moves. 

RuPaul, in full, RuPaul Andre Charles, (born November 17, 1960, San Diego, California, U.S.), carved out his place in popular culture as perhaps the most famous drag queen in the United States from the 1990s and early 21st century. His parents were both from Louisiana. He was named by his mother; “Ru” which came from roux, the term for the base of gumbo and other creole stews and soups. According to Finding Your Roots, his DNA composition is 70% African and 30% European.

At 15, RuPaul and his sister Renetta moved to study performing arts in Atlanta, Georgia. In the ensuing years, RuPaul struggled as a musician and filmmaker during the 1980s, where he worked at Atlanta’s famed Plaza Theatre. In 1982, he debuted on an Atlanta public access variety show called The American Music Show, on which he made frequent appearances in the years following. He also participated in underground cinema, helping create the low-budget film Star Booty and an album by the same name. In Atlanta, RuPaul often performed at the Celebrity Club as a bar dancer or with his band, Wee Wee Pole. RuPaul also performed as a backup singer to Glen Meadmore along with drag queen Vaginal Davis. RuPaul’s first prominent national exposure came in 1989 dancing as an extra in the video for “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

Meanwhile, I had started up at WRAS Atlanta, 88.5 FM, the voice of Georgia State University as an overnight DJ/Announcer. I eventually worked my way into some daytime shifts and added in The Georgia Music Show on Saturday afternoons from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.. The main point of the time slot was to showcase bands and performers who were playing that night around Atlanta. This is when I really got to know RuPaul personally.

Initially participating in gender bender style performances, RuPaul performed solo and in collaboration with other bands at several New York City nightclubs, most notably the Pyramid Club. He appeared for many years at the annual Wigstock drag festival and appeared in the documentary Wigstock: The Movie. In the 1990s, RuPaul was known in the UK for his appearances on the Channel 4 series Manhattan Cable, a weekly series produced by World of Wonder. This is where his partnership with World of Wonder began and is still in effect today.

He achieved international fame as a drag queen with the release of his debut single, “Supermodel (You Better Work)”, which was included on his debut studio album Supermodel of the World (1993). He became a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics in 1994, raising money for the Mac AIDS Fund and becoming the first drag queen to land a major cosmetics campaign. He later received his own talk show on VH1 called The RuPaul Show, which he hosted for over 100 episodes while co-hosting the morning radio show on WKTU with Michelle Visage.

RuPaul’s Drag Race was created in 2009 and has gone on to produce fourteen seasons in the United States. The show has also seen success internationally, with several international variants of the show being made, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and Canada’s Drag Race. This has also inspired several spin-offs of the main show, including RuPaul’s Drag U, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race. He is also featured as a host on other reality television series such as Skin Wars, Good Work, and Gay for Play Game Show Starring RuPaul.

RuPaul has made appearances in films such as Crooklyn (1994), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), television shows such as Girlboss (2017), Broad City (2017), and Grace and Frankie (2019). He later created and starred in his own Netflix original television series AJ and the Queen (2020). In addition, he has also published three books: Lettin’ It All Hang Out (1995), Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (2010), and GuRu (2018).

RuPaul is considered the most commercially successful drag queen in the United States, with Fortune noting him as “easily the world’s most famous drag queen.” For his work on RuPaul’s Drag Race, he has received eleven Primetime Emmy Awards, becoming the most-awarded person of color in the history of the Primetime Emmys. In 2017, he was included in the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. Outside of film and television, he also continues to write and record music; he has released fourteen studio albums as of 2022.

The point of all of this is that RuPaul has always done RuPaul. I can remember him running off copies of books he authored on copiers at the University. He performed in bands, in drag, and wherever he could find an audience. Some phrases that I have never forgotten that RuPaul coined are: “If you don’t love yourself who’s gonna love you” and “with hair, heels and attitude I am through the roof”. The only difference is that he does everything on a much larger scale now.

The video attached to this article is a behind the scenes look at RuPaul when he joined Heather Murphy and I for the Georgia Music Show getting ready for a show that night at Club Velvet in downtown Atlanta.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq the World Tour” will be in Jacksonville on Tuesday, July 12, at the Florida Theatre. While RuPaul is not traveling with this Tour of Drag Race the show stars RuPaul’s Drag Race favorites Asia O’Hara, Jaida Essence Hall, Jorgeous, Lady Camden, Plastique Tiara, Rosé, Vanessa Vanjie, and Yvie Oddly.