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arts

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RuPaul (RuPaul Andre Charles) (b. 1960)  

A six-foot five-inch tall African-American drag queen who usually performs in a blonde wig, RuPaul has given drag a new visibility by infusing it with gentleness and warmth.

RuPaul is credited with the statement "We're born naked, and the rest is drag." As one of the most famous drag queens in mainstream media history, RuPaul has been responsible for giving drag a new visibility in American popular culture.

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By making drag less threatening to mainstream audiences, he has not only had a successful recording career as a disco diva, but has also had a wide variety of film roles, both in and out of drag, and hosted a popular VH1 talk show.

Perhaps his most appropriate gender-bending career has been as the "Face of M.A.C. Cosmetics," spokesmodel for the Canadian cosmetics company and chairperson of the M.A.C. AIDS charity fund.

The concept of drag is all about manipulating surface images, and RuPaul's life has given him an intimate understanding of the ways in which the surface can be deceptive.

Born into a working class family in San Diego on November 17, 1960, RuPaul Andre Charles had an early fascination with things feminine. By the age of four, he was already an effeminate boy, imitating Diana Ross and Jane Fonda and beginning to be labeled a sissy.

His parents divorced when he was seven, and RuPaul was raised from then on in a household of strong women, consisting of his adored twin sisters, seven years older than he, and his mother, whom he describes in his autobiography as "the fiercest drag queen I've ever known."

By the time he was fifteen, RuPaul was ready to come out as a gay man, and he chafed under his mother's iron rule. He moved into his sister's house, then moved with her to Atlanta.

There, free from parental constraints, he threw himself into the gay life, performing in drag clubs, and, briefly, with his own band, RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

In 1987 he relocated to New York and began the move into the big time. He landed roles in such films as Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1993), Betty Thomas's The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), Barry Shils' Wigstock: The Movie (1995), Wayne Wang's Blue In The Face (1995), Beeban Kidron's To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1996), and, most recently, Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader (2000) in which he plays the part of an ex-gay camp counselor in "male drag."

His albums, such as Supermodel of the World (1993) and Foxy Lady (1996), have received respectable reviews; and, from 1996 until September 1998, The RuPaul Show aired six days a week on VHI, featuring such guests as Cher, k. d. lang, Eartha Kitt, and Dennis Rodman.

In 2000 he narrated the acclaimed documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, about evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, a poignant irony for those who recognize the clownishly made-up right-wing Christian Bakker as an unintentional drag icon herself.

After an extended sabbatical from performing, RuPaul returned to active schedule of public appearances in 2004. He signed a deal to co-host the morning show at adult-contemporary formatted radio WNEW in New York City and released a new album, RuPaul: Red Hot. A single from the album, "Looking Good, Feeling Gorgeous," enjoyed a brief stay at the top of the dance charts.

RuPaul enjoys playing with the contradictions of drag. As a Black man, he is very conscious that most white people are much less threatened by him when he is dressed as a woman, even a six-foot-five woman.

However, though he cheerfully bends gender and challenges assumptions wherever possible, he is clear and irrepressible about his identity as a gay man. As he said to Maria Speidel in the September 23, 1996 issue of People Weekly, "I never feel that I dress as a woman. I dress as a drag queen because, you know, women don't dress the way I dress. It's too uncomfortable."

Tina Gianoulis

     

 
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A portrait of RuPaul by Mathu Andersen.
  
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  American Television, Talk Shows

For glbt people, television talk shows have been both promising and problematic; they have brought glbt issues to public awareness, but until recently they have also presented glbt people as stereotypes and freaks.

arts >> Overview:  Disco and Dance Music

No popular art form is more closely identified with gay culture than disco and dance music.

arts >> Overview:  Divas

The diva has traditionally played a significant role in both gay and lesbian culture as an object of cult worship with whom those who suffer the heartaches of forbidden love and ostracism from an unaccepting society find solace and identification.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Epperson, John

Talented actor and writer John Epperson has had an extremely successful career performing as the glamorous and hilarious drag diva Lypsinka, among other characters.

arts >> Gold, Ari

Ari Gold, the award-winning recording artist, is unusual for his openness in an industry that has not exactly welcomed openly gay performers.

arts >> lang, k. d.

Long before she came out, lesbians had made singer k.d. lang their own.

arts >> Levan, Larry

Regularly hailed as the world's greatest DJ and widely credited with changing the sound of dance music in the 1970s and 1980s, Larry Levan was the driving force behind New York City's legendary dance club Paradise Garage.

arts >> Pierce, Charles

Self-proclaimed male actress Charles Pierce took an aggressive stance against homophobia, believing that quick wit, a serious attitude, and consummate acting skill could vanquish oppression.

arts >> Scissor Sisters

The American pop band Scissor Sisters was spawned in New York City's gay club scene; frequently addressing issues of transgressive sexuality, the band has cultivated a large glbtq fan base.

arts >> Sylvester

One of the most original and talented musicians to come out of the disco arena, Sylvester was a versatile stylist who brought depth--as well as campiness--to all his material.


    Bibliography
   

Charles, RuPaul Andre. Lettin' It All Hang Out. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Ru Paul. Boston, Beacon Press, 1997.

Motsch, Sallie. "Dude Looks Like a Lady." GQ--Gentlemen's Quarterly 67.6 (June 1997): 198-204.

Speidel, Maria. "Happy Camper." People Weekly 46.13 (September 23, 1996): 148.

Trebay, Guy. "Cross-dresser Dreams: Female Impersonator RuPaul Andre Charles." New Yorker 69.5 (March 22, 1993): 49-56.

Yarbrough Jeff. "RuPaul: The Man Behind the Mask." The Advocate 661-662 (August 23, 1994): 64-73.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: RuPaul (RuPaul Andre Charles)  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 16, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/rupaul.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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