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.
"We couldn't get arrested," he writes in his 1995 autobiography, Lettin' It All Hang Out. "New Year's Eve of 1987 I was working coat check at a party at the Hotel Amazon down at Rivington. And I thought, 'Here I am, superstar RuPaul, working in coat check!'" He ended up moving back in with another sister, in Los Angeles. At 28, couch-surfing and careerless, amid long-standing habits of drinking and toking and weekly tripping, he ended up contemplating suicide. But he was also watching a lot of Oprah. And Oprah kept telling him to persevere. So in January 1989, RuPaul arrived back in New York ready to do whatever it took. That, at that time on the gay scene, was drag realness, true lady-impersonating, and if Ru had to shave his entire body and push his balls up into his pelvic cavity, so be it. Drag, he says, "was a great social commentary, and people responded to me in drag like I never experienced before."
In short order, he became a featured club event and the Queen of Manhattan. He started cleaning up after being fired from a Robert Palmer video shoot for quaalude-intensified drunkenness. He recorded a demo, and Tommy Boy Records signed him. His 1992 single "Supermodel (You Better Work)" was a worldwide hit. He hosted a morning radio show, toured nonstop, got a VH1 vehicle and signed a MAC cosmetics modeling contract.
His timing was impeccable; the vibe in the country was relaxed and flush. Clinton was in office. The world was ready for its first supermodel drag queen, and Ru was performing satisfactorily subversive art. "Doing drag in a male-dominant culture is an act of treason," he says. "It's the most punk-rock thing you can do."
RuPaul does not care if you roll your eyes when he talks about The Universe. The most important role he plays in life right now is as a "seeker." That's "the person who's like, 'This is all a fucking hoax. I'm willing to go deeper. What's really going on here?' And you say those magic words, and the universe goes, 'OK, here.'"
Ru started the seeking process in earnest around 2000, when he abruptly disappeared from the public. Partly, it was time for a break, because he was exhausted. But partly, as a cross-dressing gay, he felt that the rise of G.W. Bush made us more xenophobic. More homophobic. Less permissive. "Post-9/11, there was a hostile fear that had taken over the country," he says. "When that happened, anything to do with gender or sexual exploration went way underground. So I decided I would step away from the canvas, so to speak, in terms of show business." He still did club shows to pay the bills, but while society took "one step forward and two steps back," as he puts it, RuPaul made his primary project himself.
Suddenly, there you are, semiretired at 40 years old. You get a therapist. You still cry every day for your mother, who succumbed to cancer just after watching her predictions about you come true, because she accepted you for the special queer you were and you "fucking love that bitch so much." And your dad, well, you guys are polite, but you realize that his emotional distance is about him, not about you. So now you're discovering that what drives you and what you love most of all is being creative. You just have to find the right outlet – which turns out to be, of all things, hosting a reality show beginning in 2009.
On the set of Season Six of Drag Race, Ru is ultraprofessional, reworking lines but laughing at himself when he fucks up – he's the boss you always wanted. Today, he is wearing a powder-pink suit. Male drag, that's what he calls it. Each of his Season Five suits secretly has these words stitched on the inside pocket: YOU'RE BORN NAKED, with the inside collar finishing, AND THE REST IS DRAG.
Around the soundstage, errant feathers lie here and there. Contestants furiously apply makeup while having a protracted conversation about ball play. On the show, Ru cracks the kinds of BJ jokes that might make straights nervous (though he never talks about his personal exploits – he's had the same hunky Australian boyfriend for 19 years, and in any case sums up his feelings about sex as "I've had sex, I've enjoyed sex, it's not that important to me").
For Ru, his business is taking on the role of "the shaman, or the witch doctors, and the court jester whose job it is to remind the culture: This is all facade. Don't take it too seriously." That the vehicle for this is a reality show that explores the most artificial aesthetics man can achieve is ironic, or else it makes perfect sense.
The world's pre-eminent drag queen might not consider drag his greatest passion, but he's still a big believer in its power. "All things to do with drag are inherently therapeutic because the realization of your own insanity is the beginning of sanity," he says. "You have to go into this complete artifice to figure out who you really are." This does not apply to Tyler Perry or Jack Benny-style drag. "There's a certain genre of drag," Ru says, "that is sanctioned and it's OK because they are saying to the audience, 'Oh, and by the way, I'm making fun of this,' but then there is the drag that I do, and my girls do, which is really taking the piss out of all identity."
Ru's own transformation into drag is described by one of his staffers as a "mystical, magical process." It is off-limits to press and all but the most select handlers. It involves a lot of bathing, shaving, moisturizing, padding, tucking, corsets, makeup, ultratight panties, bodysuits, push-up bras, tape, shoes, hair, custom-gown-donning, and accessorizing. When I arrive on set to gaze upon the finished product in person, Ru has been becoming RuPaul the Drag Queen for six hours. The metamorphosis is staggeringly elaborate, physically, but otherwise these days Ru is always Ru. "I told my therapist that I used to feel like Superman in drag, to my everyday Clark Kent," he says. "Now the only difference is I always have that power."
Ru doesn't for a second believe that he's catwalking in the golden age of acceptance. He acknowledges that Obama and other progressive victories are "part of the pendulum swinging to the left," he says, sitting in his dressing room. But the thing about pendulums is that they always swing back. Is he surprised that Drag Race made it to six seasons? "No. This show is gonna go until we get sick of it.
"Or," he reconsiders, "until the Republicans get back into office."
This story is from the September 26th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.