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Music

The pioneering punk spirit of RuPaul

RuPaul Charles is perhaps the most iconic drag queen of all time. He has helped to gain huge exposure for the LGBTQ+ community in the mainstream whilst also helping to highlight issues faced by the once-maligned community. Quite frankly, his cultural impact has been monumental, and it is fair to say that without his pioneering steps, the LGBTQ+ community wouldn’t have the same voice within the heteronormative dominated mainstream.

Obviously, we all know RuPaul for his hugely successful television show, Drag Race, and the program has undoubtedly made the most significant impact on giving publicity to the LGBTQ+ community, but RuPaul has actually been making major strides in this field for many years. 

Whether it be in his short-lived punk band Wee Wee Pole, the appearance in the 1989 video for the iconic B-52’s single ‘Love Shack’, or his classic drag performances on the New York and Georgia nightclub scene in the 1980s and ’90s, RuPaul has had such a diverse and extensive career that it’s screaming to be made into a biopic. 

However, the aforementioned achievements were just tiny strides in comparison to what followed over the rest of the ’90s. In 1993, he shared the dance album Supermodel of the World. Released through the label Tommy Boy Records, home of Queen Latifah and De La Soul, it spawned the hit ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’, and the level of its success was a surprise, to say the least. It managed to compete with the genres of grunge and rap that were in the supremacy, and the music video was an MTV triumph. A dance classic, it made RuPaul a queer icon almost overnight.

After the success of Supermodel of the World, RuPaul released two more hit dance singles, ‘Back to My Roots’ and ‘A Shade Shady (Now Prance)’. The duo of tracks built on the campy media persona he had established with the 1993 record. He was then awarded a modelling contract for MAC Cosmetics, a huge achievement for the era when gender and sexual politics were still seemingly stuck in a rather medieval stage. RuPaul appeared on billboards across the world featured in drag, accompanied by the text: “I am the MAC girl”. 

The next dent RuPaul made on culture was even greater. This came in the guise of the VH1 talk/variety serial The RuPaul Show, a project which premiered in 1996. The first-ever show in the US to have a drag queen as a host, this was the culmination of the incremental steps he had made up until this point. Joined by partner Michelle Visage, his co-host from a WKTU radio show, he welcomed a diverse mixture of high profile guests, including Cher, Lil Kim, Diana Ross and Duran Duran.

RuPaul at the 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. (Credit: Alamy)

The show broke many taboos over its 100-episode span, and arguably, the most ‘notorious’ came when RuPaul and Visage discussed the gay porn industry with filmmakers Chi Chi LaRue and Tom Chase. Other discussions included Black empowerment, female empowerment, misogyny and liberal politics. Together, given the time period, this was groundbreaking. It was so effective that in 1999, RuPaul was awarded the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Media Awards for promoting equality in the LGBTQ+ community.

In a 2007 interview with Wikinews, RuPaul discussed his ethos, stating: “What other people think of me is not my business. What I do is what I do. How people see me doesn’t change what I decide to do. I don’t choose projects so people don’t see me as one thing or another. I choose projects that excite me. I think the problem is that people refuse to understand what drag is outside of their own belief system”. 

This is the true brilliance of RuPaul. He carried on the punk ethos that he first espoused in Wee Wee Pole and attributed it to everything he’s done since, a confirmation that punk is a mindset as much as anything else. This unashamed dedication to fluidity and to furthering the causes that he holds dear has been incredible. His contributions have shone a bright light on the LGBTQ+ community and will be remembered forever. In a 2017 interview with the Huffington Post, RuPaul further expanded on his ethos, and it’s something we can all admire. He said plainly: “Drag challenges the status quo”.

He continued: “It’s always challenged the matrix – the matrix being ‘choose an identity and stick with it the rest of your life because that’s how we want to sell products to you, so we’ll know who you are and can put you in a box and then sell you beer and shampoo. Well, drag says ‘I’m a shapeshifter, I do whatever the hell I want at any given time.’ And that is very, very political.”

RuPaul has always understood the nature of drag, in the same way that Leigh Bowery did. It is a potent tool that can be used to undo bigoted social mores, and help to drag society into the future. Over their career, he’s used his platform to empower many across the globe, and via that unabashed punk spirit, he’s taken the resilient LGBTQ+ community onto the world stage and made himself an icon in the process. 

Watch a clip from The RuPaul Show below.