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Corner Office

For RuPaul, "drag is a miracle"

Kai Ryssdal Oct 23, 2018
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RuPaul with Kai Ryssdal in a West Hollywood coffee shop.
Ben Hethcoat/Marketplace

There aren’t too many people you can consider the heart of an entire industry, but RuPaul is almost certainly one of them. He’s the host of eponymous reality competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” for which he has won three Emmys, including best reality competition this year. But RuPaul has plenty of other projects to his name, including a new book called “GuRu” and a Netflix series in the works called “AJ and the Queen.”

Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal caught up with RuPaul early in the morning while he was in the middle of producing the latter. They met for coffee at a restaurant in West Hollywood down the street from Ru’s office; RuPaul came alone. When Ryssdal asked where RuPaul’s entourage was, he said, “I am not that bitch.”

”You know, I was never the entourage person,” RuPaul said. “Never.”

The following is an edited transcript of Ryssdal’s conversation with RuPaul.

Kai Ryssdal: This is probably an inelegant way to start this, but since we’re on the topic of the passage of time as it were, you’re no spring chicken anymore, so how do you keep going at the pace you keep going?

RuPaul: I like colors and beauty and love and music and art. I like things that are pretty, and the beautiful things keep me going.

Ryssdal: All through the long day.

RuPaul: All through the long day, yeah. I love solving problems at work, creative problems. You know, I think “How are we going to do this?” I think that’s fun.

Ryssdal: So let’s talk about you at work for a minute. This is going to sound like a stupid question, but what do you do? What is your job?

RuPaul: Well, I’ll tell you what I did yesterday. Yesterday I was with my trainer at 5:15 in the morning working out. Then I went on a hike here in Los Angeles at Franklin Canyon.

Ryssdal: Sunrise hike? I mean there’s nothing like a sunrise hike —

RuPaul: — L.A. is an early town, you know. Then I had to go into Warner Brothers Studios. I have an office there because I’m working on a television show with Michael Patrick King called “AJ and the Queen.” So we had a big production meeting there where we went through every single scene of the first two episodes. Then we had lunch and then went through more of those scenes.Then we had sexual harassment training course, which is mandatory now, for an hour, and then I did choreography for the opening number of the first show for about three hours.

Ryssdal: Season what is it now, we are talking about “Drag Race”?

RuPaul: No, no, we’re talking about “AJ and the Queen,” which is this new show for Netflix. Then I left there, went home and did some work and talked on the phone to my husband in Wyoming and then drove up to the house to go to bed. I have an office in West Hollywood and then I live in the Hollywood Hills. So that was my day.

Ryssdal: And that’s pretty much par for the course?

RuPaul: Yeah, sure, yeah. It’s different though. You know, today I’m meeting with you and then I have a production meeting with my partners over at World of Wonder about DragCon and some TV projects that we have down the pipeline.

Ryssdal: You’re an enterprise.

RuPaul: You know, listen, I don’t have Kardashian … the Kardashians are an enterprise.  

Ryssdal: That’s a pretty high bar, the Kardashians, but come on, right?

RuPaul: You know, I don’t make that kind of money, but I do have a lot of fun and I’m very, very fortunate.

Ryssdal: Do you ever look around given, you know, where you started and the transformation that you have made in your life. Do you ever look around and go, “This is crazy that I’m here.”

RuPaul: It is crazy. During the production meeting yesterday, I examined why it felt so weird that these 30 production heads were sitting around me, you know, doing this thing because of me, You know? And I examined it and I thought, “Ru, why do you feel sort of … undeserving is the wrong word, but why does this feel so odd to you?” And I  —

Ryssdal: —  Still. Still.

RuPaul: Still it does.

Ryssdal: And you’ve been doing this for a long time.

RuPaul: Yeah, it has to do with an identity I created from childhood where my father didn’t, you know, I wasn’t a big priority for my father. So you know, kids create this, I created this identity and it’s been hard to shake. Even though everything’s proven all that wrong.

Ryssdal: And it’s worked out pretty well.

RuPaul: Yeah, yeah.

Ryssdal: You’ve made no secret actually about your family and the troubles and therapy and the work you’ve done to get where you are and how drag has been a, did you call it a skin … you called it something. Drag has been a way, a means, a method …

RuPaul: Sure. Yeah, yeah. It’s brilliant. Drag is brilliant because it allows you to become your superhero to your Clark Kent. And you can do superhuman strength when you do drag. It doesn’t hide who you are, it actually reveals who you are.

Ryssdal: In what way?

RuPaul: In your ability to shed old, limited perceptions of yourself. You know, it’s just a shift in your own perception, a miracle is a shift in your perception and drag is a miracle.

Ryssdal: “Drag is a miracle.” I like that, that’s good. That’s good. When did you know that this was who you were — or are, I guess?

RuPaul: No, it’s not who I am, it’s what I do for a living.

Ryssdal: Really? No c’mon.

RuPaul: [laughs] Yes, it is.

Ryssdal: First of all, I love that laugh. Oh, my God.

RuPaul: Yeah. It’s what I do. It’s my favorite thing by the way to do is to laugh on this planet. It’s my favorite thing. I knew I was going to be famous. I started in theater and rock and roll bands and stumbled into drag, and it was like the universe said, “Do that” and I said, “OK. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but OK.” Did it and I was escorted to the front of the line.

Ryssdal: Or maybe you pushed your way based on what I know of you?

RuPaul: A little bit of both. You have to be … I am ambitious, definitely.

Ryssdal: There’s a question here I want to ask about and it revolves around who you are and what you do, but also you as an entrepreneur, because you are, you’re an entrepreneur. What’s your risk tolerance?

RuPaul: Risk tolerance? How about all or nothing [laughs] risk tolerance.

Ryssdal: You know, because you made risky choices early in your life when you decided to be who you are, but also, you know, pitching shows and “Drag Race” and DragCon and all of those entrepreneurial things you’ve done came with risk.

RuPaul: Yeah, sure, everything is a risk. Listen, life is hard, and life is hard whether you choose to be a shot caller or to sit at home and watch daytime television all day; it’s hard. So there are always risks, and the risks really have little to do with losing things or making the risk of losing a lot of money, it has to do with losing your ability to get out of bed in the morning and to feel excited about living life. You know, you have to … you never know where that next big idea’s coming from and you have to be really a seeker. And I’ve been a seeker from day one. I always wanted to know how this works, what’s behind all this, what’s under the hood.

Ryssdal: So what’s your biggest nightmare, what keeps you up at night? What do you fear?

RuPaul: Well, my biggest nightmare would be to be with a bunch of ignorant people, and here in America that’s really coming true. It’s like, my God, what’s happening? What happened to this promise of the American ideal? You know, that we are open people who are willing to push the conversation forward, you know.

Ryssdal: What is your job then in that regard, because you are a role model to millions of people.

RuPaul: Well, you know, I don’t focus on being a role model. That’s sort of something that came along with it, but that’s not what my purpose is. My purpose is to really have fun, live my life and do as much as I can while I have this fabulous, gorgeous body.

Ryssdal: Because you’re working out at 5:15 in the morning …

RuPaul: Well I’m working at 5:15, but I came with a good pair of sticks and a nice laugh and smile, you know, nice proportions in the face, you know. But my job was to make it work, get out there and take advantage of these opportunities. So yeah, I am, that’s what I’m doing.

Ryssdal: Can we talk for a second about this book,“GuRu.” It’s a collection of small essays, right? And you’re pretty open in here about some of the challenges and about the intentionality with which you have gone about drag. It’s expensive, first of all, holy cow. You must spend a lot of money on this.

RuPaul: It’s not really about the money. I am the Queen of Queens, and the Queen of Queens deserves to look, is expected to look, like a million dollars. You know?

Ryssdal: Even though it costs a million dollars.

RuPaul: It costs a lot more than a million, it costs a lot. But, you know, I’ve been at this for a long time, you know.

Ryssdal: You work on … I can’t find it now, and that frustrates me. But there’s a page in here where you talk about how you wanted to create your iconic look —

RuPaul: — yes.

Ryssdal: — and a silhouette that was easily done by caricaturists and photographers. You thought this through.

RuPaul: Yeah, listen it’s not rocket science. You know, from day one I’ve been paying attention, I really have. As a kid, I was paying attention, and in fact a lot of that time I had to dumb myself down as not to attract too much attention, so I could get through some tricky waters, some emotional landmines, not mine, other people’s. So I’m smart. I can say it, I’m 58. I’m gonna  be 58 next month, I can say it, I’ve earned it.

Ryssdal: You look so good for 58. Holy cow —

RuPaul: Thank you, thank you —

Ryssdal: — no, I mean, honestly.

RuPaul: So, you know, I’ve always been looking for the secret recipe, you know and I’ve always felt like the Little Boy Who Fell to Earth. And I thought, “You know what, I don’t fit in to society but I can figure this out.” So I paid attention, I looked, and the combination I used to create this larger than life character that’s my public persona, it’s not rocket science. I use all the things that I love: David Bowie, Cher, James Brown, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, threw them all in there and created this iconic look.

Ryssdal: But it’s interesting, because you have a zillion looks. But you also have characters. I mean, you’re talk in here about “the character I created called Starrbooty was conceived more than 30 years ago,” and you’ve carried her through time and into this present day as a sort of a thing you pull out when you need it, or when you need her, I guess.

RuPaul: Yeah, we all do that. We all have different personas that we use not to the extent that you know, you’ve created an industry around it, but some do. But we are all many people, in fact we are not separate from one another — I’m going to get into the philosophical stuff  — but where you begin and I end, it doesn’t actually exist. We’re all the same, and so, you know that’s why drag is a miracle, because if you use it to channel the energy, different energy frequencies from around the universe, you can create magic, magic for yourself, magic for other people. You become a conduit to this energy source.

Ryssdal: What do you do though for the people in this world who don’t have the confidence and the vision that you had, because there are many people out there who want to make it, maybe not in drag but something else, who can’t. How do you translate that energy because you’ve got to make a living?

RuPaul: Well, it’s not for everybody. And you know, I think about this a lot, you know, in the jungle it’s either kill or be killed. And we are animals and this is a jungle and some will make it, some will not, and that’s OK because I have to respect their journey. I have to respect that this spirit has come here to do exactly what it came to do and it’s not for everybody. Some will not, most will not make it. And that’s, I have to be OK with that. On our show, on “Drag Race,” it’s a  competition reality show, where we put our contestants through a series of challenges not unlike life, and some make it and some don’t.

Ryssdal: I read actually before we sat down that you were not prepared for the emotional-ness of having to dismiss people from that show.

RuPaul: Yeah, I had to reconcile that. But I was able to because it’s a mirror of what has happened in my own life. I mean, of all the things I’ve tried and the ventures I’ve pitched to, most have not worked, most have —

Ryssdal: — That’s amazing because you’re doing a lot.

RuPaul: Well, you know, you have to do a lot because most will not stick to the wall, but some will, and so you have to do a lot, and I’ve learned this over 36 years. I climbed up on stage and was paid for the first time 36 years ago with U.S. currency to perform on stage. And I’ve been doing it for a long time. So the key, and listen, I’ve been down, I’ve been up, I’ve been in, I’ve been out, now I’m in. So what you do when you’re in is you take as many opportunities as possible.

Ryssdal: If I say that you created the modern drag industry with DragCon and “Drag Race,” am I overstating the case do you think?

RuPaul: Oh, hell no. No, uh-uh.  Like I said, I earned the right to say I’m smart, I’ve earned the right to say I am definitely the Queen of Queens. I’m the most famous drag queen in the world; I’m the most famous drag queen ever in the history of humans on this planet. And that’s —

Ryssdal: — If you say so yourself.

RuPaul: — and that is the truth. You know, I’ve read articles where people say “regarded as one of the most famous …” I’m like really, B? Really? I mean, come on.

Ryssdal: And yet, you don’t do drag very much anymore.

RuPaul: I do it, if somebody is paying me I’ll do it. If somebody’s ready to throw down some serious cash, I am there.

Ryssdal: But here we are, you’re in street clothes, you’re in street clothes on the show a lot. Is it just, it’s not a … here’s the question; do you not need to do it anymore?

RuPaul: No, I’ve never needed to do it. It’s what I do really well.

Ryssdal: No, come on, really?

RuPaul:  It’s what I’ve learned how to do it really well. People responded to it, I knew that I got a reaction from people, a good reaction from people. But you know, I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again, you’re born naked and the rest is drag. We are all in drag and you put on a certain drag to navigate and work a certain system that you need to make happen. That’s how you use, it’s a tool. That’s how you use drag. You’re in drag right now, you know in a —

Ryssdal: — khakis and a sweater.

RuPaul: — khakis, that’s your drag, khakis and a sweater. Sometimes I wear khakis and a sweater, and there’s a purpose behind it when I do it.

Ryssdal: Which is what?

RuPaul: Usually when I’m wearing khakis and a sweater it’s like I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want anybody to see me.

Ryssdal: But that’s got to be tough for you, right? I mean here you are a tall, bald black guy with a certain bearing.

RuPaul: Yeah. Yeah. Is it tough for me? No, it’s not tough. Sometimes I use clothes, I use my body to navigate this world. It’s not personal. I’m not saying this is who I am definitely, it’s saying this is who I am right now.

Ryssdal: And it changes.

RuPaul: And it changes, and we are all changing, we’re all changing. You have to remember that, that’s when I meditate in the morning and, you know, focus on what my purpose is on this planet, my purpose is to experience humanity. Simple, very simple. But then I get to another level, do I want it through joy or do I want it through pain? Well, I choose joy.

Ryssdal: But you got to have a little bit of both.

RuPaul: Oh, it’s night, day, black, white, male, female, you’re going to get both. But it’s finding that balance. You’re going to get both, you’re going to get it all.

Ryssdal: When did you know you were going to make it as a drag performer and as a personality?

RuPaul: Well, when my mother was pregnant with me she had seen a psychic who told her that you’re carrying a boy and this boy will be famous. So I grew up knowing I was going to be famous. I didn’t know how I was going to be famous, but I knew I would be famous.

Ryssdal: Did your mom get to see you be famous?

RuPaul: The very beginning of when it took off, she got to see the first few months of it before she moved on to Paris, as we say.

Ryssdal: I was going to ask what’s next for you, but I imagine you’re just going to see what happens …?

RuPaul: Well, I like to get through this day first, and then I’ve got a lot of things on the calendar, but I like what I do. I love dancing and music and colors, and I love the fact that our show has launched the careers of 140 drag queens, who are now making hundreds of thousands of dollars around the world.

Ryssdal: Which gets me to this, and there’s, I think there’s some irony to this question but I don’t know why. In a lot of ways now, you’re the man.

RuPaul: Yeah. sure, I’ll take that. Yeah. Hey, you know what? Things change. Listen, there’s a time when I couldn’t get arrested in this town, and I haven’t forgotten that either. But, you know, everything’s cyclical, you know, everything changes. I’m having a great time right now and that’s really all that matters, honestly. Great time.

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