RuPaul Andre Charles was born in San Diego on 17th November 1960. His parents were Ernestine & Irving Charles who were from Louisiana and they raised RuPaul and his three other sisters as Roman Catholics.
The Life of RuPaul
RuPaul’s nickname “Ru” apparently came from roux, which is the term for the base of gumbo and other creole stews and soups. When his parents divorced in 1967, he and his three sisters lived with their mother.
At the age of 15, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia with his sister and her husband. There, he was studying at the School of Performing Arts – though he never graduated, not sure why, but he ended up back working in his family business selling used cars for six years.
Life in Music
RuPaul struggled as a musician and filmmaker during the 1980s, where he worked at Atlanta’s famed Plaza Theatre. RuPaul began cross-dressing and was known to be a “gender bender”, performing at Atlanta clubs like the Celebrity Club either as a go-go dancer or with his new wave/punk band, ‘RuPaul and the U-Hauls’ and later, ‘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.
After spending a brief time in New York City, RuPaul moved back to Atlanta and participated in underground cinema, starring in the Starbooty film trilogy alongside his roommate Lady Bunny and DJ Larry Tee. RuPaul decided that he would make a name for himself before moving back to New York, pasting posters and selling postcards of himself that said “RuPaul is Everything,” among others, all throughout midtown Atlanta.
In 1987, RuPaul officially moved to New York City where he would become part of the burgeoning drag scene. RuPaul has said that he changed his image from “punk drag” to “black hooker drag” while in New York. He quickly befriended several Club Kids, a group of counterculture nightlife entertainers known for their flamboyancy and eccentricity.
Susanne Bartsch hired him to appear at her iconic parties. Susanne Bartsch is an event producer whose monthly parties at the Copacabana in the late 1980s united the high-class and those on the fringes of society, and made her an icon of New York nightlife.
Here, RuPaul would meet Michelle Visage who would become his on-air sidekick and one of his closest friends.
He continued to perform in clubs as a dancer and made many appearances at Lady Bunny’s annual drag festival, Wigstock. His larger-than-life personality and ease on stage earned him popularity and he, along with Susanne Bartsch and Lady Bunny, became a staple within New York’s nightlife. Before the decade was over, RuPaul would be hailed as the “Queen of Manhattan”.
In the early 1990s, RuPaul worked the Georgia club scene and was known by his full birth name. 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 played opposite New York City drag performer Mona Foote in the one-act science-fiction parody “My Pet Homo” written and directed by Jon Michael Johnson for Cooper Square Productions. 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 and presented by Laurie Pike about New York’s wild and wacky public-access television system.
Album Releases, TV and More
RuPaul gained worldwide fame with the release of his 1993 album, “Supermodel of the World”. The album’s first single, “Supermodel (You Better Work)“, reached the Top 50 of the pop charts and no. 2 on the dance club charts in the USA. The single was also nominated for the Best Dance Music Video award in the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.
In 1994, he became a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, raising money for the Mac AIDS Fund and becoming the first drag queen to land a major cosmetics campaign.
With his new “glamazon supermodel” drag caricature, RuPaul became one of the first drag queens to enter the mainstream and has subsequently become an icon of pop culture.
In 1994, RuPaul met his partner for life, Georges Lebar who is an Australian Actor and Painter. They first met at the Limelight nightclub in New York City, marrying and having an Open marriage later in January 2017. Now they live together on a 50-acre ranch in Wyoming.
In 1996, he debuted his own TV talk show on VH1, called The RuPaul Show. Co-hosted by Michelle Visage, it was one of the first TV programs in the United States hosted by an openly gay person. His first guest was his number one icon and muse, Diana Ross. Other notable guests included Cher, Bea Arthur, and Nirvana. As well as having a variety of comedy skits, the show was noted for discussing topics such as black empowerment, female empowerment, misogyny, and liberal politics that were otherwise unheard of in 1990s television at the time. In 1999, RuPaul was awarded the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Media Awards for work in promoting equality in the LGBT community. This show had over 100 episodes and ran for two years.
RuPaul continued his acting and music career throughout the 90s, though took a step back from the industry and moved to Los Angeles in 1998.
In 1999, and from then on RuPaul has said he has been sober from alcohol and mind-altering substances having started smoking marijuana at age 10 or 11.
Ready to return to show business, RuPaul released his fourth album, “Red Hot”, in 2004 and starred in the 2007 film Starrbooty, which served as the fourth film in the series.
In June 2019, a daytime talk show titled RuPaul premiered, however, it was cancelled after a three-week test run since it was not picked by any Fox TV stations. He also appeared in Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
It wasn’t until 2009 when RuPaul truly made his mark on the cultural landscape with the debut of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV game show that first aired on Logo. He again had Michelle Visage as one of his co-hosts/judges.
The success of the show has sparked several spin-off series including Untucked, RuPaul’s Drag U, and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars. He has been noted as having a large part in RuPaul’s Drag Race’s continuous television success. By pioneering queer representation on television, many believe RuPaul to have essentially revolutionised the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. He first won an Emmy for his work on the show in 2016, and one year later the show garnered 8 nominations, including Outstanding Reality-Competition Program for the first time in its 11-season run, and a second consecutive win for RuPaul in the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program.
In late 2019, the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was released on BBC 3. It was well-received, with The Guardian stating that the British version had “saved” the franchise. It was renewed for a second season released in January 2021.
RuPaul also created and starred in the Netflix drama-comedy show AJ and the Queen as a drag queen touring the country with an unlikely young sidekick, which was released on January 10, 2020. On March 6, 2020, Netflix announced that the series had been cancelled.
In January 2020, it was announced that RuPaul would host Saturday Night Live for the first time. He hosted the episode airing on 8th February 2020 with Justin Bieber as a musical guest. On 4th May 2020, it was announced that he would be on The Price Is Right at Night airing 11th May that year. He also made an appearance in the premiere episode of Canada’s Drag Race.
In 2019, Fortune noted RuPaul as “easily the world’s most famous” drag queen.
On one last note – When asked about his pronouns he said “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”