“I’m not the greatest actor, singer or even drag queen,” RuPaul once told me. “I knew my biggest asset was my personality, but people couldn’t see me just as I am. The truth is that I’m a man; the illusion is that I’m a woman. But of the two, the illusion is truer.”
I interviewed RuPaul in Chicago back in the ‘90s, when he was making headlines as the world’s first superstar drag queen. I met up with him in his downtime, when he looked like your average, handsome, freckled, bald, 6’4” brother with a 5 o’clock shadow trolling Michigan Avenue in search of a cookie fix. He was, he told me, “working a male realness drag.” For him, his female, drag-queen persona is performance art, not a 24/7 thing. If you catch him at home, he told me, you’ll find him, not in high heels and pancake, but in his boxers, remote control in one hand, beer can in the other.
I found him to be smart, funny, thoughtful, grounded. He was, simply put, a ray of sunshine.
We split up for the afternoon, so that he could make his top-secret, three-hour transformation into Miss RuPaul, queen of the giant glamazons. Later, I rode with him in his limo to his book signing. Folks of all colors—baby drag queens, moms with strollers, church ladies—were lined up outside the block, armed with books, photos and an outsized love. These were folks seeking acceptance, validation and a good laugh. RuPaul served it to them all, encouraging the wannabes (“She’s working lower lashes”) and cooing over babies. One young gay kid told me that, thanks to RuPaul, he no longer was depressed about his sexual orientation. The night was a total love-in, with RuPaul spreading his gospel of self-love and self-acceptance.
“I am representative of the black male experience,” RuPaul told me then. “Because that’s what I am.
“Some people say I’ve sold out. I turned my persona into a cartoon character so that I can appeal to more people. I wear blond hair on brown skin. I’m always happy and smiling. And I present serious issues in a palatable way.”
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.