Born RuPaul Andre Charles, c. 1965, in San Diego, CA; son of Irving (an electrician) and Ernestine (a college clerk) Charles. Addresses: Record company--Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
Gender-bending RuPaul, who impersonates a glamorous blond diva with such success that reports from some corners have asserted fans may be unaware of his actual identity, was the first cross-dressing act to ever appear on the American pop charts. His 1993 single "Supermodel (You Better Work)" was a catchy club hit--disco-tempoed and zany--but some also saw the song and its success as symbolizing mainstream acceptance of another aspect of urban gay culture. "Every time I bat my eyelashes it's a political act," RuPaul once told Guy Trebay in the Village Voice.
"I always knew I would be famous," declared RuPaul in an interview with Billboard's Larry Flick. His origins as a diva lie in southern California in the mid-1960s, where he was born RuPaul Andre Charles, son of an electrician and a college clerk. The Charles family also included twin sisters, several years his senior, who were an important influence upon him. They adored clothes, and helped fuel his early obsessions with early-Seventies glamour queens like Cher and Diana Ross. Other women also influenced RuPaul greatly: "I got turned on to mules by my kindergarten teacher, Miss Garfield, and she drove a Cadillac and wore really sexy clothes," he told Rolling Stone writer Mim Udovitch. From his mother, however, he would inherit a deep personal spirituality that surfaced in song lyrics later on. Ernestine Charles, who died of cancer just as her son was becoming a household name, was from rural Louisiana, "a very spiritual, spooky part of the country," RuPaul told Liz Smith in Interview.
RuPaul's early life was anything but idyllic, however. His parents divorced when he was seven, and as a teenager he suffered at home and at school. Escape seemed like a good choice, so at the age of fifteen he moved to Atlanta with his older sister, who had taken a job there. There he thrived, attending a performing-arts high school by day and, in time, appearing onstage in drag in the city's club scene by night. With a group of friends he moved to New York in 1987. By now, RuPaul's drag look was finessed to an extravagant degree, and he became well-known performer in the city's receptive nightclub scene. His act was noteworthy for the fact that he did not impersonate someone else, such as Marilyn Monroe, but instead appeared as just a goddess-like, towering African-American with long blond hair; he also made a name by singing in his own voice, not lip-synching as many female impersonators do.
RuPaul's success among the Manhattan demimonde led to a few brief record contracts for a single or two. But superstardom was what RuPaul had in mind. "Life is tough whether you choose to do nothing or climb Mount Everest--so why not climb Mount Everest?" he once told People's Tim Allis. By 1992 Tommy Boy Records had recognized RuPaul's potential and signed him. He recorded an entire album of songs, then hit the road for an exhausting ground-level marketing approach. In the first months of 1993--incidentally, not long after Madonna had added "voguing" to the common vernacular and the first Democratic president had been elected to the White House in sixteen years--RuPaul undertook a slew of tour dates in nightclubs across the country. The goal was to create momentum for the album's first single, "Supermodel (You Better Work)," by getting it on club DJ playlists, and eventually, radio stations. A video for "Supermodel" also helped awaken interest, but still, Tommy Boy marketing people were slightly skeptical of the record selling in great numbers outside of the major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the drag-queen scene was well-established. Yet the catchy song caught on. "Tower Records and radio hotshots can't take full credit for RuPaul's success," one music retailer told Billboard's Flick. "It started in the clubs and in the gay community."
RuPaul's full-length Supermodel of the World album was released later in 1993, and included tracks like "A Shade Shadey (Now Prance)," "House of Love," "Back to My Roots," and even a cover of the classic disco hit from Chic, "Everybody Dance." Fred Schneider from the B-52s made a guest appearance on the track "Stinky Dinky." As a packaged whole, wrote Vince Aletti in the Village Voice, the record "conveys the fizzy, optimistic feel of late 1970s dance music without sounding a bit retro." Aletti lauded the successful way in which RuPaul had blended camp and commerce into accessible pop. "Ru struts through all this froth with a lot less attitude and a lot more down-to-earth talent than you had any reason to expect," Aletti noted, and saved particular praise for the cut "Back to My Roots," a homage to elaborate African-American `dos. "Who else could have turned an annotated mantra of black hair styles into an Afrocentric aria?" Aletti wondered.
Two other singles from Supermodel of the World also did well on the charts, and RuPaul's star rose. He was especially pleased that his personal beliefs were evident in the mix. "I feel a strong sense of responsibility to convey strong messages of self-love and hope in my songs," the singer told Billboard's Flick. "Sometimes I feel like [I am the] embodiment of the life plight--and the embodiment of survival and victory. I derive so much energy from that. I'm going for it in life not just for myself, but to also show people that anything is possible. I'm living proof of that." Yet fame did have its downside, and the subtleties behind RuPaul's get-over- yourself approach weren't always fully grasped. At the MTV Video Music Awards in September of 1993, he went onstage with senior comic Milton Berle (who used to dress as a woman in the 1950s), but the pair hissed insults at one another on the air, and RuPaul was the recipient of a large amount of media reproach for his remarks. Later, RuPaul declared he got over the whole incident relatively quickly. "One thing I've learned about being in the spotlight is that things do change, and today's press is tomorrow's poopie litter," he told Flick in Billboard.
Between albums, some major coups came RuPaul's way. He was named spokesmodel for M.A.C. Cosmetics, appeared in A Very Brady Sequel, and landed his own talk show on the VH1 cable network in which he interviewed celebrities such as Cher and Dennis Rodman. Yet RuPaul out of costume went virtually unrecognized on the street, a mixed blessing of sorts. "When I'm dressed up as this goddess, people trip over themselves to give me things," RuPaul pointed out to People writer Allis. "But as an African-American male, I can walk into an elevator and have people clutch their handbags."
Rhino Records became RuPaul's new label with his second release, Foxy Lady. He co-wrote most of the songs, and as he explained to gossip columnist Smith in the Interview chat, "it's been scientifically engineered with my new radio ears for airplay, and it fits into a lot of different formats. One song, `Falling,' is about falling in love again--which is tricky because people don't want to hear me sing about anything like that. They want [to hear] `All right! You can do it!' Or `You look good! C'mon out here!'" That track, "Falling," was an unusually mainstream R&B number, but Foxy Lady's first single was "Snapshot," the behind-the-wig tale of a drag queen. It would become the first Rhino pop song to chart since 1987. Alanna Nash critiqued the album for Stereo Review and faulted a disco-beat-heavy production, which she theorized was perhaps the result of its several producers. "Foxy Lady often sounds like the rumblings of a bank of overheated computers," Nash opined.
With a talk show, a music career, his 1995 autobiography, and steady film offers, RuPaul's plans to conquer the world with love and lipliner seem to be on the right trajectory. "We're all on this planet to learn and evolve and to be more godlike," RuPaul told Rolling Stone writer Anthony Bozza. "Each of us has such incredible energy, and once you understand it, the party really begins."
by Carol Brennan
Began performing as a female impersonator in nightclubs in the Atlanta (Georgia) area, mid-1980s; moved to New York City, 1987, and performed in nightclubs and dance clubs there; released several singles; signed with Tommy Boy Records, c. 1992; released Supermodel of the World, 1993; signed with Rhino Records, c. 1996; released Foxy Lady, 1997.
- Selective Works
- Singles "Supermodel (You Better Work)," Tommy Boy, 1993.
- LPs Supermodel of the World, Tommy Boy, 1993.
- Foxy Lady, Rhino, 1997.
- Lettin' It All Hang Out (autobiography) Hyperion, 1995.
- Billboard, June 5, 1993, p. 1; December 25, 1993, p. 46; November 2, 1996, p. 100.
- Interview, January 1997, p. 33.
- People, July 26, 1993, pp. 147-48; September 23, 1996, p. 148.
- Premiere, October 1992, p. 120.
- Rolling Stone, August 5, 1993, p. 24; April 3, 1997, p. 28.
- Stereo Review, February 1997, p. 136.
- Village Voice, September 8, 1992, p. 19; July 6, 1993, p. 63.