DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our salute to some of this year's Emmy Award nominees by featuring group RuPaul, who is up for two Emmys as host and executive producer of "RuPaul's Drag Race" on VH1. He won in both categories last year. RuPaul became the most famous drag queen in the world after bringing drag into the mainstream with his reality competition series. It premiered in 2009 and completed its 12th season on VH1 this May. The series is now televised and popular in countries around the world.
Although the show is a competition, it's also a celebration of drag queens and drag culture. As we'll hear, for RuPaul, drag is a way to defy conformity and challenge preconceptions about gender, and that dates back to the 1980s, when he was performing in bands in Atlanta, dressing in a punk style of drag. Terry spoke to him in March.
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TERRY GROSS: RuPaul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. Your show is very entertaining, but it's also had a big impact on many people's lives. It's launched the career of dozens of drag queens, but it's also had a big impact on many viewers who feel affirmed by the show. Each episode ends with you saying - would you say it?
RUPAUL: If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?
GROSS: Thank you.
RUPAUL: It's a mantra. You need touchstones and totems. And, actually, it's a tradition my mother passed on to me, which is having sayings that can help realign you in this life, a life with advertising that says, you're not really clean unless you're Zestfully (ph) clean.
GROSS: (Laughter) I remember that one.
RUPAUL: It's absolutely ridiculous. But it plays...
GROSS: Zest was a soap, in case - for people who don't know.
RUPAUL: But it plays on the insecurities that every human has, which is - are they going to like me? Do I smell? Do they not like me because I smell? So these mantras are set to align you with the truth of who you are, which is - you are love, and you cannot give something that you do not have.
GROSS: I'd love to hear some more of the sayings that your mother passed on to you.
RUPAUL: Well, Mama had a lot of them. And one of hers was, I don't lend, I don't borrow, and I don't visit.
GROSS: Did she live by that saying?
RUPAUL: She absolutely did. She was not a social person. She was - she stayed to herself. You know, when her sisters would come to visit, she'd say, listen - y'all can come, but bring your own milk and sugar; I'll supply the coffee.
GROSS: So I want to talk to you a little bit about being a businessman. Like, you've been very successful as a businessperson in addition to being successful as a performer. And in your early days performing, you had to promote yourself. How did you do it?
RUPAUL: By any means necessary. I would make posters, and we'd post them around Atlanta. And then I would go out and promote myself in clubs and on public access television in Atlanta.
GROSS: Oh, really?
RUPAUL: Yeah. I got my start in television 38 years ago on a show in Atlanta called "The American Music Show." I saw it once, wrote into them and said, I love your show. I want to be on it. It was so irreverent and fun. They wrote back - they actually called me and said, come on down. And that's how I really started my career in television 38 years ago. So...
GROSS: What did you do your first time on that show?
RUPAUL: On that show, I had these friends of mine, these two girls - we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.
RUPAUL: And we came up with a dance routine to Junior Walker & the All Stars' song, hit song, "Shotgun." And that was the first appearance.
GROSS: Shoot them before they run.
RUPAUL: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) What were you wearing?
RUPAUL: Some outfits that I had made (laughter). My mother taught me how to sew, and I, you know, sewed up some outfits for us. It's probably, this - that appearance is probably on YouTube right now. You know, I won't watch it because it's still too soon to watch it.
GROSS: So what were those posters, those handmade posters, like that you pasted all over town?
RUPAUL: You know, I've always loved advertising, and I love a good advertising campaign. So I would put together these campaigns. And one campaign was RuPaul is red hot. Ru Paul is everything. One campaign was, if you love me, give it to me, you know? And I collected slogans and sayings and imagery.
GROSS: What did you think your future was going to be?
RUPAUL: I - my - I thought my future would be - I'd be a star. I'd be a famous star. I didn't know how I would do that. In my mind, I thought, well, we'll start with - I'll be the next David Bowie, and that's where it started. But then as life unfolded, other things came up, and I said, oh, OK. You know, part of being a human on this planet is learning how to read the landscape, and I learned how to read the landscape. And drag presented itself to me, and I thought, well, OK, that's what I'll do.
GROSS: So you said, drag presented itself to me. How did drag present itself?
RUPAUL: Well, I was in rock 'n' roll bands and punk rock bands and all that stuff. And we, as a ruse, just did drag for a performance, and the reaction I got from people was like none other. And I thought, oh, note to self - there's something here. And so that was the first time it presented itself to me. And, really, I understood that I had some real power there.
GROSS: So when you started performing in Atlanta, were you in, like, music clubs or drag clubs?
RUPAUL: No, we - it was always punk rock clubs and music clubs. Drag clubs - you know, I never really worked in drag clubs because we were punk rock. We were anti-establishment. Atlanta - back then and it may still be this way - was, like, mecca for drag. It had the traditional drag queens who were female impersonators. But, you know, I had come from the punk rock side of the tracks, and we did drag as a social comment, Terry. It was a reaction to the Reagan '80s. And it wasn't trying to look real or pass; it was a rebellion against the status quo. So we never really worked in the drag clubs. We did drag, but we did drag as a punk rock statement. So that's what that was.
GROSS: So what was the transition from, you know, a kind of punk rock version of drag to the more glam version?
RUPAUL: Well, rent had to be paid.
RUPAUL: Yes. That was the transition. And so went from that - moved to New York. And the way to make money was go-go dancing to host different club nights. So I decided, you know what? I'm going to shave my legs. I'm going to shave my chest, and I'm going to put some - roll some socks tightly into a bra, and I'm going to go out there and look like a "Soul Train" dancer. And it worked. And I start making money. And that was - that's where it went.
GROSS: Is that how you got into the "Love Shack" video?
RUPAUL: Well, the "Love Shack" video - I knew The B-52's from Atlanta. You know, a lot of the kids in my group had sort of congregated on Atlanta because The B-52's had become very famous with their song "Rock Lobster" in 1980. And there's a huge group of young people in early 20s who I include in this group doing clubs and making art films and just being artistic, right?
So when we all moved to New York, they became aware of us because we had become a sensation down in the Village in New York. And they then asked me to be in their music video. And in that music - in the "Love Shack" music video, I had been up all night up in the club, and what I'm wearing in the video is what I had had on in the club (laughter) the night before. And of course, the video, it took all day to film that video. And so by the end of the day, I'd been up for, of course, 24 hours, which was not unusual for me.
GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your mother worked for Planned Parenthood,
RUPAUL: Yes, she did. And after the divorce in '67, she sort of sat out in her room for about two years. And then - and my two older sisters sort of took over running the house. And then in 1970, she got a job, and she got a job at Planned Parenthood. And that was a huge breakthrough for her.
GROSS: Was she a counselor?
RUPAUL: I think she started answering the phones, and then she did move on to counselling. And she was very proud of that job.
GROSS: Was she, like, very enlightened about sexuality and gender?
RUPAUL: She was, but my mother was very world-weary. She was someone who I suspect - and she wasn't very open about anything in her childhood or her background, but I suspect that there was something - some horrible thing had happened to her. I could feel that. She never talked about it, but she was someone who, because of her world-weariness, she instilled in me the ability to not pay attention to what other people had to say about what I was doing. She loved me so much, and she was so proud of the fact that I was going to do my own thing.
So it was a very punk-rock approach to life, and I got that from her, which is - and she famously says, you know, if they ain't paying your bills, pay them no mind. And I live my life that way. And yes, I mean, people have said lots of nasty things about me, to me, and still do. But am I going to let that stop me? Nuh-uh (ph) (laughter). I will laugh at it and say, you know, the joke is on you, mama or child - not my mother. But the joke is on you, person, because I am going to get as much out of this life as I possibly can. And I have. I'm 59 years old. I have done a lot of stuff.
RUPAUL: And I'm still going to do a lot of stuff.
BIANCULLI: Ru Paul - nominated for two Emmys this year. Terry Gross spoke to him in March. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from March with RuPaul. He's been nominated for two Emmy Awards this year - one for host and one as executive producer for his VH1 series "RuPaul's Drag Race." Terry spoke to RuPaul about the 1990s, after his move to New York when he went from his punk-rock style of drag to creating what he's now famous for, what he calls his Glamazon image.
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GROSS: So I want to get back to when you went to New York and you started, like, changing your drag to more of a glam thing. What was the scene you were part of then?
RUPAUL: I was part of the Village people.
RUPAUL: Not that Village People.
RUPAUL: But, you know, the kids down below 14th Street. There was a huge scene down there. It was different than it is today. But it was - we were the children of Warhol. We were the children of David Bowie. And all things were possible. And back then, there were so many clubs. You could go to six different nightclubs per night. And we're talking Monday through Sunday. You could go every night to a different nightclub. And back then, the clubs were filled with everyone - straight, gay, Black, white, Puerto Rican, uptown, downtown, men, women, everybody. And that was the scene. That tapestry of what New York is or was, was so evident in the nightclub scene. And it was fabulous. It was gorgeous. I'm so proud that I - and so happy I got to experience that.
GROSS: So when you started to do a more kind of glam drag, how did you find your look?
RUPAUL: I knew that commercially, if I wanted to make it mainstream, I would have to be nonthreatening to Betty and Joe Beercan (ph). And what I did was I came up with a recipe, which was one part Cher, two parts David Bowie, one part...
RUPAUL: ...You know, Diana Ross and two heaping spoonfuls of Dolly Parton. And I took the - what would be perceived by Betty and Joe Beercan as subversive sexuality, I took that out of the equation, and people responded.
GROSS: So what was the part that you think Joe and Betty Beercan would have found threatening?
RUPAUL: Well, the - they think of drag as a subversive sexuality. And we all know that Americans especially are afraid of sex. We Americans are afraid of sex and sexuality. So that was the part. And that was the part that every famous drag queen who had come before me had not taken out of the equation - you know, Divine or - you know, I grew up watching Flip Wilson do drag as Geraldine on television so - and Harvey Korman in drag on "The Carol Burnett Show." But that was sort of straight men's version of women. And that was actually more misogynistic than...
GROSS: Yeah, I was going to say it's almost like mocking women.
RUPAUL: Yes, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Milton Berle, also, in earlier days.
RUPAUL: Right. So that's how the look came about.
GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned your recipe for creating your glam drag image. And you mentioned Dolly Parton, and you mentioned Cher. I mean, there's certain kind of, like, classics for people who do drag. And that includes, you know, Cher and Liza and Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, of course. Like, what do you think it is about them that have made them some of, like, the classics that people in drag have modeled themselves over?
RUPAUL: It is that they embody both strength and vulnerability. By the way, dear listener, vulnerability is strength. And that balance is what life is all about. It's not one or the other. And all of these women that you talked about - Cher and Diana and, you know, all of - Barbra - they all exemplify - Joan, the queen of Hollywood...
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, yes.
RUPAUL: ...Exemplify that vulnerability and strength, that duality.
GROSS: So let's talk about your life today. You and your husband have - what? - 60 acres in Wyoming and South Dakota and...
RUPAUL: Oh, no, no, no.
RUPAUL: No, no, no - 60,000 acres.
GROSS: Oh, 60,000 acres.
RUPAUL: Sixty thousand acres.
GROSS: That's like a national park.
RUPAUL: Yeah. Yeah, it's a lot.
GROSS: What are you doing with them? I mean - (laughter) came out a little weird. But I mean, do you have, like, horses or cattle or a farm or...
RUPAUL: Well, the - a modern ranch - a 21st-century ranch is really land management. It is - you lease the mineral rights to oil companies, and you sell water to oil companies. And then you lease the grazing rights to different ranchers. So it's land management, you know?
GROSS: So what's it like for you to live on a ranch? I mean you're so, like, New York, Atlanta...
RUPAUL: I'm - I am...
GROSS: ...And LA.
RUPAUL: I'm adaptable. This is the secret of my success is that I can adapt to whatever. And that is the strongest power that each of us holds is our ability to adapt. And you know - and being youthful is about being flexible, both literally and figuratively. In this life, if you can stay flexible, you have a really good chance of navigating a really rich experience for yourself on this planet.
GROSS: What's it like for you to be on 60,000 acres and away from an urban center?
RUPAUL: I have no problem with that. I am very - like, I'm not a phone person. Like, I don't sit and look at my phone or drive and look at my phone or walk down the street and look at my phone. I like to be aware of what's happening. I like to be present for what the universe has for me. So I meditate, and I pray. And I have a lovely time paying attention to the stillness. And there's a lot of stillness on the ranch.
GROSS: When you pray, are you praying to a god?
RUPAUL: I'm praying to a higher power. But you know, if you think of our brains as an operating system like, say, OS - I don't know what we're on now. Let's say OS 25. Even that operating system can't understand the concept of what God is. So God is the word we use for that which cannot be described. So I don't need to know what it is. I just need to know that it is. Can I get an amen up in here?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK (laughter).
RuPaul, it has just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show. It's been just such a pleasure.
RUPAUL: It was a joy. Thank you so much, Terry.
BIANCULLI: RuPaul speaking to Terry Gross in March. He's nominated for two Emmys this year as host and executive producer for "RuPaul's Drag Race" on VH1. The Emmys are scheduled to be televised September 20 on ABC. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Mulan" streaming for an extra fee on Disney+. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.