A drag queen in a blonde wig, heels, and a see-through leotard is dancing wildly on a podium in front of several hundred journalists, bloggers, and fellow queens. It is the ticketed, meticulously organised launch of RuPaul's Drag Race in the UK, an event that aims to find a British "ambassador" for the show.
With one backward roll, the contestant, Miss Cairo, who has already fallen on to the stage, cutting her leg, comes completely "untucked". Her genitals fling out near the faces of the audience. Some of us double over in hysterical laughter, others turn away in embarrassment, and, then – because what else can you do? – we cheer. This is perhaps not the start to Drag Race in Britain that organisers had hoped for.
RuPaul, judging the proceedings with Jonathan Ross and Katie Price, brings a hand up to cover his mouth. He laughs, but his eyes bulge, shocked.
Miss Cairo does not win, strangely – what more could we want from drag than blood loss and flying testicles? But it was a moment of unglamorous anarchy, unplanned, uncontrolled, and, perhaps, just a bit too unfeminine for RuPaul.
Out of drag, it transpires earlier, he is about the most masculine man you could meet. No one can travel to the heights of international fame from the dive bars of the drag circuit – with a career including hit singles, a chat show, a duet with Elton John, a role in a Spike Lee film, and seven seasons of a reality series with his own name in the title – without a whole handbag full of male-associated traits: ambition, competitiveness, and epic control freakery. You need a lot of testosterone to look that feminine – and make it rain money.
As the interview approaches, evidence of how RuPaul Andre Charles dominates to ensure success flutters into view. A publicist emails requesting I arrive at the central London hotel 10 minutes early. Another emails telling me to come five minutes earlier. This comes with the word "IMPORTANT" in the subject bar. Capitalised. One wonders how RuPaul's staff might capture your attention in a war zone.
As I enter his hotel suite with BuzzFeed's photographer, Lynzy, there are several minions lurking in a separate room from his. What do they all do? It is unclear. One types furiously. I decide there are probably no words coming out. Except, perhaps, "help me". Another glances at Lynzy before returning to me: "Oh. Are you going to take photos? No one told me that."
I had rung her colleague to inform them. When I suggest that our photographer could come in with me for the first few minutes to shoot Ru while we chat, she replies, "No. It's better if she comes at the end. Otherwise, if you just go in there and start taking photos…" The sentence does not end, so I finish it in my head: "...BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN."
They scurry. They usher journalists in and out in hushed reverence. As the previous hack leaves, I am called as if to line up for Queen Elizabeth II. Just before entering RuPaul's room, an assistant of some description stops me. We can see him through the doorway, sipping a glass of water. It seems IMPORTANT we do not disturb this.
RuPaul turns and walks towards us, a giraffe with an attitude, before extending his hand to shake. His mouth says hello, his eyes say "keep out".
We have seen this look on RuPaul's Drag Race. Most notably, in the latest series, in a deathly battle of will with contestant Pearl that has all the arse-clenched tension of a stand-off in a Western. Thankfully, no one has been shot, yet.
RuPaul is wearing a turquoise suit and huge square spectacles. His face, free of the tape that, in drag, pulls loose skin back by several decades, looks, if not his 54 years, then only a little less. We begin where we are supposed to: talking about Drag Race, which has been bought by the British version of the TruTV channel to air the most recent four seasons.
Rumours persist that there will also be a British version of the show, fronted by Jonathan Ross, and, possibly, Jodie Harsh. The UK edition will indeed happen, RuPaul thinks, or else "there will be rioting in the streets". I suspect he might start it himself.
Beyond the contouring, the sashaying, and the lip-synching, the show is really about triumphing. Its host is the ultimate winner. (Not least because Drag Race has proved a huge commercial hit and the biggest rater on its US channel, Logo TV, spawning a spin-off, Untucked, and being bought by numerous countries across South America, Europe, and Asia.) We see the contestants' vulnerability, often in gasping, weeping paroxysms, but rarely his. Surely, though, it must be there underneath.
"Well," he says. "Life is difficult. No one gets out of this alive. Years ago, I met and fell in love with [US Christian singer and TV evangelist] Tammy Faye Bakker. She was a Pollyanna-type character who only saw the positive sides of life – she chose to look at life's brighter sides, but that doesn't mean she wasn't aware of the darker sides.
"And it doesn't mean I don't see all the hideousness that's out there: It means I have to practice a balance. I say all this because I've had my dark nights of the soul; I've had adversity. I couldn't have made it this far without it."
When I try to press him on details, he replies, simply, "There is a shield of protection that has always been around me." It seems this shield has been constructed by RuPaul, and as our conversation progresses, one central story surfaces: how that shield operates.
It formed in childhood, growing up in San Diego with a single mother and three sisters after his father left.
"My family life was tumultuous – crazy hillbilly people," he says. "It was a war zone." Details are not forthcoming, but it has been documented elsewhere that he moved at 15 with his sister Renatta to Atlanta, where he learned the art of drag. He continues: "Navigating through that and keeping my equilibrium even as a child… I learned how to do that early on." He was, he says, a "sissy boy" but "didn't have any issues" with bullying. Instead, "the worst things that have ever happened to me have come from inside my own house". He taps at his head. What does his mind do to him? He does not specify. He answers instead:
"Sweet sensitive souls who realise through the process of living that the world is an illusion usually become very bitter, so to offset that you create a spiritual practice that keeps that balance going." But RuPaul worked in gay clubs in the 1980s and 1990s at the peak of the AIDS crisis, when horror befell many, the young dying suddenly all around. How did he cope then?
He says it was by having a "perspective of the Earth from 10,000 light years away and going, 'Right, that blue dot right there, everything happens there, don't take anything too seriously.'" He pauses.
"Yes, there's awful things there and you will encounter them but learn how to laugh and enjoy it. Have you seen those nature documentaries where the lion finally gets the impala? There's a certain graceful surrender the prey takes on, like, 'OK. There we are.'" His shield, it seems, is working even now.
But as we continue, RuPaul inadvertently gives glimpses into the intensity of pain he has endured. In another tangent, not obviously related to a question, he offers: "We live in a culture where we wanna make the world baby-safe so they don't hit their heads. But the way children learn is you gonna hit your fucking head, and it's gonna fucking hurt and you won't fucking do it again." Each utterance of "fucking" is so suddenly loud and aggressive it feels like blows from his past are surfacing. But again, unspecified.
He says he lost friends to HIV/AIDS.
"And I will continue to lose people. My point is that life happens. How it happens, the circumstances, it doesn't matter. It will happen, just like in nature. The strong survive."
Again answering a question that was not posed, he adds:
"My heart broken? Sure. It's gonna get broken a lot, but it's OK. That's just life. It doesn't stop Pollyanna looking on the bright side. Yes, you can focus on the darkness, it's there, and you can focus on light. But one will bring you joy and one will bring you pain. It's your choice."
This toughness re-emerges as we talk about the gay scene, and concerns over numerous venues closing.
"I was teenager in the disco era," he says. "I've seen it come and go. Yeah, things are gonna close. Gay people come and make things really pretty and rich people say 'I want that' and they take it and it's fine. I've had my party. And you young fuckers, if you wanna party, go make a party."
Warming to the subject, arms gesticulating widely, he says: "There was a part of me in New York years ago that thought, 'I've got to change this, I've gotta help them [the clubs].'" But then, he says, he thought: "Oh no, you do it. I've had my party." He segues into an anecdote:
"I remember once I had this place that overlooked the Hudson River, and I saw this guy on a sailboat and it had capsized and I went to the phone thinking, 'I've got to call someone.' But then I thought, 'What's the best thing I can do? You know what? I'm gonna pray for this person. I'm gonna send them loving energy.'"
He does not say whether the man survived.
Instead, he circles back to gay clubs closing. "There's a tendency to say, 'We must save the clubs! Save them!' No. If they were savable you bitches would've been paying money to go there and they would have made money and it would have worked. Let life be life. If you want to change the world, change yourself."
Days before our encounter, the world did change: The Irish people became the first to introduce same-sex marriage through popular vote. At the forefront of the campaign was Dublin-based drag queen Panti Bliss, building on her speeches about the oppression of homophobia, which went viral last year. They chimed widely because, like a Drag Race contestant, she spoke of how it feels to be subject to homophobic bullying every day. "That feels oppressive," she repeated after each example, building a devastating picture of the internal lives of gay people.
"I absolutely love the Panti explosion," says RuPaul. "I saw a picture of her after the Irish verdict. She really represents a new wave of drag, but in a way it's what drag has always been, which is politically pushing the culture forward. When you become the image of your own imagination, it's the most political thing you can do. When you decide to become a drag queen, which is contrary to everything this male-dominated culture is about, it is the most rebellious act."
As if to avoid any possibility of pomposity, he adds, "Drag at its core is about reminding the culture to not take itself too seriously."
Even in the bubble of Drag Race, politics is unavoidable, however. Earlier seasons used the word "she-mail" when a message from RuPaul was beamed to the contestants. Complaints from transgender activists eventually led to this being replaced. Did that criticism annoy him?
"My intention is always coming from a place of love," he says. "On paper, things can be interpreted however the reader sees fit. Drag is never about trying to put someone down. So if you need me to change a word, I'll do it, if that makes you feel better. Life is too short."
Tellingly, he explains that it was "the network" that changed the word "she-mail", before launching into a reference to The Witches of Eastwick to illustrate that "it's more important to laugh" in difficult situations.
This sudden switch of mood is also one of the devices key to Drag Race's success. Moments after two queens have lip-synched "for their lives" – in a glorious showdown of jumping splits and bravura dramatics that the songs' original singers couldn't have come close to – one will break down to reveal a great tragedy from her past. On one occasion, Roxxxy Andrews said her mother had abandoned her at a bus stop aged 3. Two contestants, Ongina and Trinity K Bonet, disclosed that they are HIV positive. Another, Pandora Boxx, shared her experience of attempting suicide after homophobic bullying.
As queens fight it out to become "America's next drag superstar" and attach each other with scalding put-downs, cameras dart between one semi–made-up fuming face and another. In the middle there is RuPaul, the totem, the house mother, graceful, still, bestowing nuggets of wisdom like Glinda, the Good Witch of the South.
"These people we put on the show have been through hell and high water," he says. "So all of those things are gonna come out, especially in the competition when they're sleep-deprived and pushed to their limits, because they have nowhere else to go. When Roxxy Andrews revealed she was left at a bus stop you think, 'What? What are you saying?' Every season so many things happen that we have no way of planning it." He admits, however, that they "produce the fuck out of the show".
Unlike many of the contestants, RuPaul's personal life is remarkably solid. For more than 20 years, he's been in a relationship with Georges LeBar, who owns a 50,000-acre ranch in Wyoming.
"He's so kind and funny," says RuPaul. "I remember praying, 'I want a sweet, sensitive man,' and I got an Australian who's just lovely." Will they marry?
"No, I don't stand on ceremony, I never want to conform to anything. We looked into it if we could get a tax break and stuff but not because... Is he devoted to me? Am I devoted to him? Oh, hell yes. [But] I never want to be like everybody else." Does he not support same-sex marriage though in general?
"Yes," he snaps, before doing a screeching impression of Elizabeth Taylor when she was asked if she would marry Jason Winters: "Married?!!" RuPaul omits the part where Taylor started howling like a wolf.
His publicist calls time on the interview as BuzzFeed's photographer enters the room. To lighten the somewhat tense mood, and, frankly, to try to squeeze out some more answers, I suggest that while the pictures are taken we try some quickfire questions.
He turns his head away.
"I thought we were done," he says, with deadly dismissiveness. There are many ways to throw shade.
The photographer starts to snap away, while I look at our interviewee from a few feet away and consider the exchange. I do not think I met RuPaul; I met "RuPaul", the construct, the shield. The real one, the inner Ru, was probably in another adjoining room. And why not? Why would anyone blood-let their vulnerabilities to a stranger in a hotel room in the course of 29 minutes? Even Grindr hook-ups don't go that far. Normally.
It would have been impossible to claw his way up by his glue-ons to become Queen of Drag Queens without diamond-solid protection mechanisms. To achieve what no one else has rarely hinges solely on "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent" – as RuPaul's mantra has it – but also a willingness to, at times, embody the acronym therein.
This also applies to journalists. As he continues to face the other way, I ask the questions anyway. Has he ever used Grindr?
"Have I ever used what?"
Grindr, I repeat.
"NO!" he shrieks. If he could look like any man for a day who would it be?
"I met David Gandy last night. It would be interesting to see what reaction that would get from people. I could barely look him in the eye."
Which songs would he like at his funeral?
"'Achy-Breaky Heart'. 'Boogie Wonderland'. 'Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That' by Dolly Parton." Would he ever let himself get fat?
"Probably not." What is his most embarrassing moment? He turns to me one more time, and replies, deadpan:
"Probably right now."
RuPaul’s Drag Race will air every Monday and Tuesday at 10pm from 1st June on truTV, Freeview channel 68, Sky channel 198 and FreeSat channel 154. It’s followed by RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked, that contains never-seen-before behind the scenes content.
Patrick Strudwick is a LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Strudwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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