RuPaul is an American drag queen, singer and TV personality. Over the years, he has become a globally recognized cultural icon, and he is considered to be the most commercially successful drag queen in the USA. His popularity has grown to superstar levels in recent years, in particular since the launch of his popular TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which launched in 2009.
RuPaul Andre Charles was born on the 17th of November 1960 in San Diego, California. When RuPaul’s parents divorced in 1967, he and his three sisters lived with his mother. As the only boy amongst his siblings, RuPaul was essentially raised by women, and in his youth, he sometimes dressed in his sisters’ clothes, inspired by stars such as Diana Ross and Jane Fonda.
Aged 15, RuPaul moved to Atlanta, Georgia to live with his sister Renetta and her husband. In Atlanta, RuPaul attended the Northside School of Performing Arts. Despite not graduating from the school, it was his introduction to the world of performance and show business, providing him with the knowledge of performing arts that he needed to make his move into the industry.
During the 1980s, RuPaul worked as a musician and filmmaker at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre. Though he struggled to make a career for himself during these early years, he never gave up. 1982 was the moment he finally had his first breakthrough into the world of show business, debuting on The American Music Show, where he started to appear regularly from then onwards, sometimes with his band, RuPaul and the U-Hauls.
In these early stages of his career, RuPaul worked incredibly hard to make a name for himself. After RuPaul and the U-Hauls broke up, Wee Wee Pole was put together to replace it. The band often performed at the Celebrity Club and at other bars and clubs across Atlanta, and RuPaul would also perform solo as a bar dancer all over the city.
At the same time as he was trying to carve out space for himself in the music industry, RuPaul was also trying to break into acting. He would appear in low-budget movies in uncredited roles, taking any work that he could to enhance his career prospects and help him to keep climbing the showbiz ladder. His first film was Star Booty, and never one to miss a chance for further exposure, he also made an album by the same name. His first real exposure to a national audience came when he was featured in The B-52’s Love Shack music video as an extra.
By 1987, RuPaul had moved to New York City to start working the New York club scene. Here he became part of the Wigstock drag festival, a huge moment for his career. The festival grew in popularity as the years went on, and in 1989, RuPaul was crowned the Queen of Manhattan, having made a name for himself as a hit club dancer and icon of the drag scene.
In 1991, RuPaul signed a recording contract with rap label Tommy Boy Records. 1993 saw the release of his debut album, a dance album called Supermodel of the World. At this point, his career really started to gain traction, and his hit song Supermodel (You Better Work) made him an internationally recognized star. The song peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100, and at number 39 in the UK Top 40, achieving unexpected success during an era in which rap and grunge were the most popular genres.
Over the years that followed, RuPaul’s music became a staple in the dance clubs of the time. 1993 also saw him release a duet with Elton John of John’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which charted in the UK top 10, an impressive accolade.
1994 was a big year for RuPaul’s career. He made his feature film debut in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, which established him as an actor as well as a singer and drag performer. This role opened up the door to many other film roles, and in 1995 he featured in a further 3 films. In 1994 he also became the first face of M.A.C. Cosmetics for their Viva Glam campaign, becoming the first drag queen to ever be the face of a major cosmetics company.
From this point onwards, RuPaul’s career was constantly on the up. As well as the three films he featured in in 1995, he also released his autobiography, Lettin’ It All Hang Out, that year. He also made an appearance in the documentary Wigstock: The Movie.
As his career continued to go from strength to strength, in 1996, he premiered his very own talk show on VH1, titled The RuPaul Show. On the show, he interviewed a host of celebrity guests, including icons such as Diana Ross, Nirvana, Pete Burns and Mary J. Blige, among others. Michelle Visage, now his fellow judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, was his co-host on the show, and they also presented a radio show on WKTU together.
More albums came over the years, with Foxy Lady in 1996 being closely followed by Ho Ho Ho in 1997. Though they didn’t achieve huge levels of recognition despite his celebrity status, some songs did enjoy success on the dance charts in the US. After these two albums, he did not release another until Red Hot in 2004, choosing to focus on his film and television career instead.
Now a cultural icon, RuPaul’s career continued to climb to new heights with every year that passed. However, in 2004, after the release of his fourth album, Red Hot, RuPaul was left disappointed by the lack of press attention the record received. He wrote on his blog about how he felt betrayed by the industry, particularly by the gay press, for the lack of support. Despite the lack of press attention, though, the album did enjoy chart success, with the lead single reaching number 2 on the dance charts, and the following singles peaking at number 5 and number 10, respectively.
Since then, he has released a further ten solo albums, several of which have enjoyed great success. Many of his songs are featured on his hit show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, helping to grow their popularity among members of the show’s adoring fanbase.
Despite the extensive success he had enjoyed prior to the launch of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, it was this show that really helped him to make his biggest mark on the cultural landscape. The show is now in its 13th season, and has spin-offs around the world, including in the UK, Canada, and most recently, in Australia, which was announced in January 2021. The show brought drag to the mainstream like never before, and really promoted the self-love rhetoric that RuPaul has become known for through his shows. In fact, the episodes of recent seasons always end with his signature quote, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen up in here?”.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is largely credited with injecting a fresh burst of life into RuPaul’s career, which had been considered by some to be flagging before the launch of the show. The show has been nominated for an impressive 39 Emmys, according to the Emmys’ website, and has won 19 of those nominations between 2016 and 2018, clear evidence of its impact on the entertainment world.
The season 9 premiere of the show saw one million viewers tuning in, a record-breaking moment for the now culturally iconic drag queen show. The premiere featured Lady Gaga and came after the show had won its very first Emmy back in 2016. Off the back of the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a spin-off show called Untucked! was launched as a behind-the-scenes look at what was going on in the show. Untucked! has delighted viewers with extra doses of drama, further cementing the popularity of the show.
The next series to join the franchise was RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which premiered its first season in 2012 after demand from fans. The show featured popular queens from previous seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who battled it out to become the ultimate queen of queens. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars is now in its fifth season and has enjoyed widespread success across the globe.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has also served as the stage for some of RuPaul’s activism. One in five LGBTQ adults in the US are not registered to vote, and so in several recent episodes, the queens would end the stage holding prompts to register to vote. Furthermore, several of the stars from the show have acted as Ambassadors for the Drag Out The Vote initiative.
Adding to RuPaul’s collection of TV shows was RuPaul’s Drag U, which launched in 2010 and ran until August 2012. The reality TV show saw women get drag makeovers from RuPaul himself alongside a team of “drag professors”, teaching each of them to access their inner divas. They were then judged on their Drag Point Average, with the woman with the highest score winning. RuPaul did not appear in drag on the show, which was a contrast from how he appears in RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Following in the footsteps of many celebrities before him, in 2013 RuPaul teamed up with cosmetic manufacturers Colorevolution to create his debut make-up collection. He also launched the perfume Glamazon alongside the make-up line and talking to World of Wonder in an interview he said, “Glamazon is for women and men of all ages and preferences who share one thing in common: They are not afraid to be fierce. For me, glamour should be accessible to all, and I am committed to helping the world look and smell more beautiful.”
2014 was another incredibly exciting year for RuPaul, as it saw him launch his podcast, What’s The Tee? with Michelle Visage, a podcast which ran until 2020. In August of 2014, he joined Skin Wars, a bodypainting show, as a judge. In 2015 he continued his TV career with a new venture as host of Good Work, a plastic surgery themed show which was aired on E! His next project in television was as the presenter of game show Gay For Play, which premiered in 2016 on Logo TV.
In 2017, RuPaul enjoyed a particularly happy moment in his personal life, when he married his long-term, Georges LeBar. His husband is an Australian painter, and the couple have an open relationship, with RuPaul saying he would not want to put restraints on the person he loves. The couple have been together since 1994, an impressive personal achievement to add to those RuPaul has had many of in his professional life.
Not all of his professional ventures have been successful, with an attempt to return to the world of daytime talk shows with RuPaul in 2019 being especially short lived. In 2020, his comedy show with Netflix, called AJ and the Queen, also experienced very limited success, with Netflix announcing the show had been cancelled just two months after its original release.
As ever, he did not allow negative experiences in the industry to set him back. Shortly after the premiere of AJ and the Queen, it was announced that he would host Saturday Night Live for the first time. His episode aired in February 2020, with Justin Bieber featuring as a musical guest, allowing RuPaul to add yet another accolade to his collection.
His work over the years has cemented him as a cultural icon, both in the LGBTQ+ community and out of it. His shows have opened up the drag community to the world on an unprecedented level, giving a platform to drag queens to practice their art. RuPaul has become an icon of self-love and self-acceptance as the years have gone on, and it is clear to see that his career has no intention of slowing down any time soon!