It's shocking, at first. Not because the makeup-less face of RuPaul isn't beautiful, his lightly freckled skin still impeccable. In a way, it's better, frankly – more inviting, with its open sincerity, than the friendly-diva persona that's made him the world's most famous drag queen for decades now. But it's nevertheless an adjustment. His glinting bald head seems, without the piles of synthetic blond locks, small.
"If I never go drag again after today," he says, "I don't care. It's not that important to me. It never was." He is wearing a burgundy-on-cream seersucker suit, with three undone buttons exposing a smooth chest. This is how he almost always dresses these days. "I looooove wearing suits," he says.
And that isn't close to the biggest change RuPaul's got going right now. If we'd met during his first rise to fame, he would have been drinking. He would have been smoking. There's a one in seven chance he'd have dropped acid that day, and certainly pot would have been involved, as the musician/spokesmodel/author/drag star was a daily wake-and-baker from the ages of 10 to 39. And then there would be the thing where the six-foot-four gay stoned black man was in a dress.
That RuPaul is unrecognizable, in every sense, from the suited RuPaul who walked into his usual West Hollywood cafe at 7 a.m. on a recent Friday morning. He had been up for many hours already, not in the nightclubbing way but in the went-to-bed-while-it-was-still-light-outside-like-a-toddler way. Most mornings, he has to wait for the gym to open, at five. Meditation group or hiking starts by 6:30. The RuPaul you watched on VH1 in the Nineties, interviewing Cher on his talk show or duetting with Elton John, didn't make television appearances dressed as a man, but today's Ru – as he introduces himself, and is called by friends and fans – shows up unfrocked and wigless, deploying a mixture of politeness and a complete lack of bullshit, like when the clerk at CVS tells him she wishes he'd come in drag. "That," he says to her, cordially but not smiling, "costs extra."
Drag-hustling is for the young and hungry contestants of his surprise crossover hit show, RuPaul's Drag Race. The concept is formulaic enough: A group of queens compete to become "America's next . . . drag . . . superstarrrr," as Ru whispers from the judges' table. But sincerity abounds as contestants try to prove who has the most charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. In one episode, when a drag queen who went to prison makes it to the finals but gets eliminated, she starts crying that Ru changed her life; as Ru moves the show along, guest judge Rose McGowan is crying; soon, you start crying. "I just have to say one thing," Pamela Anderson interrupted the episode she was guest-hosting to declare. "America's Got Talent has nothing on this show."
The 91 countries that have licensed it for syndication and multiple Critics' Choice Television Awards nominations would seem to agree. "Right now, I am even bigger than I was when I hit it all those years ago," Ru says. At 52, Ru is fully realized. He hasn't had a drink since 1999 – "I had my share, and then some" – and it's been even longer since he huffed paint. Instead, he listens to Eckhart Tolle tapes on loop as he careens around the L.A. hills in his Mercedes-Benz SUV, and he doesn't do anything for anyone if he doesn't want to.
Swishing around the San Diego projects where he was raised with his three sisters in the Sixties, RuPaul had his sexuality pegged by everyone else before he even knew what sexuality was. But sexuality wasn't the only way he felt different, and he wasn't the only one who thought he was destined for something apart. "He's gonna be a star," his mother proclaimed after naming him RuPaul Andre Charles – "'cause ain't another motherfucker alive with a name like that."
The performing started early, if initially to make his dad, a superficial charmer who preferred the company of women, pay attention to him. "It's not an accident," Ru says, "that eventually I became the prettiest of all the girls." While little Ru was singing and dancing around the house, his mother had other ways of commanding her husband's attention – say, dousing his car in gasoline and taunting him with a book of matches. "She was a bad bitch," Ru says affectionately of her. "Everyone in the neighborhood called her Mean Miss Charles, and I said, 'No, she's not mean, she's just direct.'" Still, he decided to escape his volatile parents at 15, fleeing to Atlanta with an older sister, where he enrolled in a performing-arts school.
He soon dropped out. He sold used cars and smoked alarming amounts of weed. By 21, Ru felt it was time to do what he had always felt meant to do: become famous. "I knew I had a personality, had something that I thought had value," he says. "I just didn't know specifically what language or what venue it would be."
The venues he experimented with ran an interesting gamut. There was a punk band called Wee Wee Pole. A gay/political talk-show hybrid on Atlanta cable access. For money, he go-go-danced. He gained notoriety MC'ing local events dressed in Eighties Mad Max- or Rocky Horror-type get-ups. But Atlanta Famous wasn't Famous Famous, so he moved to New York.
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