Before RuPaul Andre Charles was born in San Diego in 1960, a psychic told his pregnant mother two things: that the baby would be a boy, and that he would be famous. And girl, would he ever. Whether you’ve watched all nine seasons of his Emmy-winning reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race or only know him as the guiding voice behind “You better work” and “Sashay, shante,” RuPaul has been knocking his heels around pop culture for more than 30 years, changing the game for LGBTQ representation moment by moment along the way. Drag—that ancient act of one gender dressing as another—has long been a marginalized art form, but RuPaul used it to build an empire as one of the first performers to really break into the mainstream as an author, actor, model, TV host, and recording artist. As EW discovered in speaking to Ru and a roster of crucial people who witnessed his ascent into history, stardom wasn’t an accident for the man who would become the world’s most influential drag queen. It was really a simple matter of destiny.

RUPAUL IN 1979: TOM HILL/WIREIMAGE

Before RuPaul Andre Charles was born in San Diego in 1960, a psychic told his pregnant mother two things: that the baby would be a boy, and that he would be famous. And girl, would he ever. Whether you’ve watched all nine seasons of his Emmy-winning reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race or only know him as the guiding voice behind “You better work” and “Sashay, shante,” RuPaul has been knocking his heels around pop culture for more than 30 years, changing the game for LGBTQ representation moment by moment along the way. Drag—that ancient act of one gender dressing as another—has long been a marginalized art form, but RuPaul used it to build an empire as one of the first performers to really break into the mainstream as an author, actor, model, TV host, and recording artist. As EW discovered in speaking to Ru and a roster of crucial people who witnessed his ascent into history, stardom wasn’t an accident for the man who would become the world’s most influential drag queen. It was really a simple matter of destiny.

BY MARC SNETIKER @MARCSNETIKER PHOTOGRAPHS BY TONY KELLY

I. THE QUEEN OF MANHATTAN

Even as a 12-year-old growing up in San Diego, RuPaul’s focus on fame propelled every choice he made, especially when his teenage years arrived.

RuPaul I knew that I would be famous and I knew that I would be a star, but I knew I couldn’t go directly to Los Angeles. I knew, based on my reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, that I would have to go to New York, become a downtown superstar, and that would be the way I could transfer into mainstream stardom and get into Hollywood. I’m telling you, I knew this at 12 years old. So I moved to Atlanta when I was 15, went to the School of Performing Arts, worked in my family business [selling used cars] for six years, and then started my act.

No, RuPaul did not immediately become the drag queen you know today. Discovering the city to be a mecca for drag queens, Ru instead developed an interest in using drag as a political statement. He flocked to a sloppy, rebellious style, known briefly (and beautifully) as gender-f—k.

RuPaul Drag was a tool because it was the most punk rock antiestablishment thing we could do. It had nothing to do with being gay, nothing to do with wanting to be a woman. It was about challenging the status quo, challenging ideals of identity. I decided to start doing drag more as a way to get a rise out of the existing drag community and the preppy Reagan ‘80s anti-disco story line. It was a way to capture some of that Warhol fun and make a statement. Smeared lipstick and combat boots and ratty wigs. It was a great golden era of drag—there was a tradition and a language attached to it. But we busted in and broke all the rules.

Lady Bunny (friend/drag performer) Back in Atlanta, the status quo of drag was phenomenal, very old-school beautiful queens who spent a fortune on costumes and stylists. Ru and I were broke and bought whatever we could squeeze into from thrift stores. One of Ru’s early looks was, like, fishermen’s wading boots that he would wear with garters that kept them up and a ripped T-shirt. We didn’t want any of that polish. We hung out at rock clubs and wanted a bit more of an edge. So we were treated by the more established glamour girls as slightly pathetic.

Ru spent his early 20s treating the city like a creative playground, finding ins as a go-go dancer and emcee, through music theater and public-access television (notably, on the bohemian American Music Show). An attempted move to New York in 1984 proved far too early—“The city spit me back out after six months,” he says—but it afforded Ru some city cache, and he focused his energy on working up a reputation in Atlanta. It was in amateur movies featuring his original drag character, undercover model Starrbooty, that RuPaul tested the waters of a different style of drag.

In Atlanta, he also met two young musicians—Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato—who would later become his managers and longtime business partners.

RuPaul Starrbooty was code for draggin’ it up and letting these bitches have it. In the gay world, I wasn’t a black muscle stud, but in the club world, when I was in drag, it was the first time that I possessed sexual power. When I got into drag, straight men, straight women, everybody would go, “Bitch, damn.” And I could feel it. I had never felt it before. I knew I had power. And I knew that it was important for me to get a lot of work done, wherever I was. I wrote and produced and put together shows. I made about 16 Starrbootys, these trashy little movies on VHS. Atlanta gave me the freedom to produce that kind of stuff. Those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about [needing to master anything]—that was that period for me, between 1982 and 1992. Not making a dime, but putting in hard yards. I would write books. I would sell postcards at the club. I would do whatever it took to make up the credits for those 10,000 hours.

Fenton Bailey (cofounder, World of Wonder) When we met him, he was wheat-pasting posters of himself that said, “RuPaul Is Everything.” I often think of that moment because it was just so symbolic in many ways. It contained the fundamental message of Ru from the beginning. You have to hustle, you have to find and connect with your audience. It’s all part of the job of being an artist, and when we met Ru, he wasn’t sitting around waiting to be discovered.

RuPaul I would paste my poster all over midtown to let people know who I was and keep my name in their consciousness. It’s showbiz 101. People would wake up one morning and the whole city would have my face on it. “RuPaul Is Everything.” “RuPaul Is Red Hot.”

Randy Barbato (cofounder, World of Wonder) He was fully realized. He was working a total gender-f—k punk rock look, this incredible creature that you could not ignore, but also equally impactful was his sense of spirituality. It was undeniable that we were in the presence of this huge star, because it wasn’t just the look. It was the heart. It was all there.

Bailey And it was instant recognition. You couldn’t miss it. Like when you see a UFO. You knew what you were seeing. He was a motherf—ing star.

In 1987, three years after his first attempt at moving to New York, RuPaul made an official move again, departing Atlanta with friends DJ Larry Tee and drag queen Lahoma Van Zandt. (Years earlier, Lady Bunny had moved to New York and stayed.)

Larry Tee (friend/DJ) We had worked every possible angle in Atlanta, and we all just held hands and jumped together. Ru was 27, I was 28, and we all packed in a van with all the wigs and disco balls and crazy outfits and musical instruments. And right as we were crossing the Tennessee border, the tire blew and the van flipped on the interstate. The back popped open and these wigs and disco balls and everything just went flying out onto the interstate. I remember after we had done a complete somersault, it flipped back over and we were sitting in the van, just absolutely shocked and quiet. And Ru hit me on the arm and said, “Larry, I think we should get out.” Luckily we grabbed the pictures—the archive of those early RuPaul photos of the Atlanta scene—but we did lose some good wigs.

Arriving in New York, Ru and his Atlanta cohorts were greeted as a breath of fresh energy in a gay scene ravaged by loss.

Tee When we showed up, it was post-AIDS, which wiped out a whole generation of entertainers and DJs and creatives. We had no idea what we were driving into. It was like a funeral, and we showed up, she in her Daisy Dukes and colorful tops, me as raver Liberace. We must have looked a sight for sore eyes at a time when there needed to be some optimism.

Over the next year, Ru’s name as a go-go dancer flourished, particularly at the legendary Pyramid Club and among a group of counterculture nightlife entertainers known as Club Kids. Among them: Michelle Visage, who would become RuPaul’s on-air sidekick and one of his closest friends.

"When I got into drag, straight men, straight women, everybody would go, “Bitch, damn."

-- RUPAUL

RUPAUL IN 1979, POSING WITH HIS FIRST RECORDING TOM HILL/WIREIMAGE

RUPAUL, 1980S Steve Eichner/Getty ImageS

RUPAUL: December 1989. Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Michelle Visage (co-host, The RuPaul Show; judge, RuPaul’s Drag Race) I was hired by Suzanne Bartsch, the club impresario, who would hire fabulous people at her events—Leigh Bowery, James. St. James, Michael Alig, all the Club Kids. And she hired Ru to work her parties, just to be RuPaul. And I would see her everywhere. I’d always be with my five or six little fem queens vogueing onstage, but I’d see Ru doing her thing. And we’d pass each other with a “Hey, girl” with drinks in our hands, walking on. But even across the club, we were drawn to look at each other for some reason.

Lady Bunny A Club Kid was a little crazier than a drag queen. A Club Kid might dress up as an alien or a dog bowl or a 1930s showgirl from the waist up and a policeman from the waist down. A drag queen wears clothing of the opposite sex. And Ru was a little bit different because he didn’t always do drag. He really pushed it with a Mohawk and his own hair shaved on the sides. He did a new wave drag.

Tee Ru always knew he was a star, and during the Club Kid era, he had to kind of hold his nose and just dive in and do it. He wasn’t the epitome of a Club Kid at all. Club Kids were more about their look. He was actually very talented and all about being an entertainer.

He was thriving in the underground circuit, but a year into his new New York experience, RuPaul’s career wasn’t rising as fast as his ambition.

RuPaul Everything came to a screeching halt when I turned 28 in November of 1988. That August, I moved to LA because nothing was happening for me. I was sleeping on my sister’s couch—my baby sister—not a penny to my name. I would walk the streets of LA and come in at 2 o’clock in the morning because I didn’t want her to really know that I was there. I eventually wound up in San Diego at my mother’s house trying to figure out what my next move was. I was at the end of my rope. I thought, “Could it be that this is not meant for me?” It was this horrible existence. And one day, Larry Tee called me and said, “Ru, what the f—k are you doing? You are a f—ing star. Get your ass back to New York. I will pay for your ticket. But get your ass back here and get your s—t together.” And I did. You need those friends who are going to shake you up and say, “Dorothy, wake up” when you get stuck in the poppy field. So I got a plane ticket and decided I was going to f—ing shave these legs, I’m going to shave my chest, I’m going to put some f—ing titties in—rolled-up socks, not implants—and I’m going to go back to New York and give those bitches exactly what they want from me. And overnight, I became the star of downtown.

In his return to Manhattan in 1989, Ru’s friends, the B-52s, whom he had met during his days working public access in Atlanta, soon gave him a cameo in their video for “Love Shack”—his first major taste of national exposure.

Kate Pierson (singer, B-52s) I saw him perform as Wee Wee Pole early on in Atlanta with his backup singers, The U-Hauls. He was amazing and I could see that Ru was something extra special and a positive force in the Ru-niverse, which was a place of dancing, good vibes, and laughs. He could turn a phrase and turn the waiting line at the DMV into a party. He'd talk to anyone, be totally irreverent, and lift the spirits of everyone lucky enough to be in his orbit. We had to be on the set [of “Love Shack”] super early. There was a table with a few donuts with flies buzzing around. Extras were hungry. It got hot and people were getting cranky. Ru kept people's spirits high. And then came the video’s "party scene,” and all of a sudden Ru sprang into action, transforming chaos into a dance line. He commanded everyone's attention and organized a Soul Train line. The whole video set turned into a real party. We even forgot for a while it was a video.

"The whole video set turned into a real party. We even forgot for a while it was a video."

B-52 MEMBER KATE PIERSON ON RU SPRINGING INTO ACTION DURING THE FILMING OF "LOVE SHACK"

RU IN THE B-52'S 1989 MUSIC VIDEO FOR "LOVE SHACK"

Lady Bunny Drag queens had been represented in music videos, but I don’t know if they were represented in songs that popular. But it was hard to miss a seven-foot-
tall black drag queen in a blonde wig. Even in a B-52’s party scene, he literally stood out.

By the end of 1989, a panel of club owners and promoters awarded Ru the coveted underground title: Queen of Manhattan.

RuPaul That was the pinnacle of downtown success. That summer, I f—ing ruled downtown New York. I switched my look from gender-f—k to Soul Train dancer slash black hooker. I got the shortest skirts, highest hair, and everybody f—ing lost it. And I thought, “Okay, I know what’s happening now.” But I had to go all the way to the bottom to really get the message. And after my reign was done in September of 1990, I was ready to move to the next level. So I went to Randy and Fenton and in the beginning of 1991 they began to manage my career.

II. THE SUPERMODEL OF THE WORLD

One of Bailey and Barbato’s first moves was giving Ru an unprecedented woman-on-the-street segment on their quirky U.K. show Manhattan Cable. At the same time, RuPaul had been crystallizing a new drag look that would have big reverberations: He was going glam.

"You can call me he, you can call me she, you can call me Regis and Kathie Lee, just so long as you call me."

RUPAUL, ON PRONOUNS, FROM THE 1995 AUTOBIOGRAPHY LETTIN IT ALL HANG OUT

RUPAUL: ZALDY

Tee We had gone to see the Versace show in Milan because we had gotten a gig. And all of the supermodels were there—Linda, Christy, Naomi, Cindy—and they all held hands singing George Michael’s “Freedom!” And when we came back, I remember thinking, “Well, what could Ru sing about?” There was nothing like RuPaul in media at the time, and I liked the idea of tapping into the supermodel moment and the growing interest in the gender conversation. I thought, “It has to be something that would be played on a runway, and it has to be something Ru can’t resist.”

RuPaul, Tee, and music producer Jimmy Harry would workshop Tee’s brief lyrics and transform them into Ru’s dance-pop single, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Bailey and Barbato shopped the demo around town, but it was rejected everywhere until it caught the ear of Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy Records, a label primarily known for rap and hip-hop.

Monica Lynch (former president, Tommy Boy Records) I remember getting a cassette and I loved it and decided to go for it. Being a female label head, maybe I didn’t have a fear putting it out that most of the other big independent labels might have [because] they were all guys. I understood the drag scene and the fashion scene, and I really appreciated the world that Ru traveled in. And the song was just so brilliantly conceived and I had a good understanding of what to do to make the most of it.

“Supermodel” debuted in November 1992 and, bolstered by a scrappy video, sparked a phenomenon leading into RuPaul’s first studio album, Supermodel of the World, the following June. The single would become one of 1993’s best-selling dance records.

Lynch I got the big young designers like Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi to premiere the song during Fashion Week. The music video played an enormous role—having a video of a seven-foot-tall drag queen doing “Sashay, shante” on MTV was a pretty bold move. And then there was Kurt Cobain, who said it was one of his favorite records of the year. It was a huge, fun record and this perfect, vibrant moment—a true sensation. And Ru took to stardom like a duck to water.

Bailey “Supermodel” was a bolt of lightning. It was clear as day. This celebration and parody of the supermodel was pitch-perfect timing. Supermodel culture had been around in earnest a little bit, and it was the right moment to twist it.

Diane Warren (friend/songwriter) Everyone was like, “What the f--- is this?!” It was awesome. He did something that was unique and fresh and hadn’t been done before at that level. Everybody I knew embraced it. Because how did you not love that? You had to be a real asshole not to love him and love that record.

Barbato There was no money to do the music video, but we realized that if we were going to have any impact with it, we needed to make it ourselves. Everything about that video was more than what we had. It was so guerrilla. Making that video, how we made it, was drag on a dime.

Chris McCarthy (president, MTV/VH1/ Logo) That music video was gritty New York. It is the original dawn of that era. And there was something so dirty and so right and so naughty about it that you yearned for it. There are a few quintessential moments in gay history and, for me, this was one. Growing up as a gay kid, there weren’t many gay characters for us. Ru was one of the first faces that gave spirit to so many of us around the country who were struggling with our own identities. Ru was the original “other.” And as a gay guy growing up, that resonated with me.

Chad Michaels (winner, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars) I started bartending right after I turned 21, and the videos were starting to flow in, and boom, there’s RuPaul with “Supermodel.” I was absolutely fascinated. I had never seen this before on television or in a video format with this outlandish drag queen, this fabulous creature. It made a big impact on me. It was gobsmacking, really. I wouldn’t say I started doing drag because of RuPaul… however, RuPaul was the fire underneath it all, going, “This makes it possible.”

Lynch MTV had this big deal every year called MTV Spring Break, and they would ship the big artists of the moment down to Florida. Who goes to spring break? Every yahoo kid hanging out, baking in the sun, drinking in excess for days on end. And there was Ru, performing for this decidedly hetero young college kid crowd, loving it, being introduced by the host of the biggest rap show on MTV. That right there gives you an idea about how much that song broke down barriers.

During a national promotional tour, Ru would credit a 1993 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show as the moment when his career really broke into the heartland.

RuPaul That was the moment when nothing would ever be the same again. When I was ready to go mainstream, I took the sexualized raunchiness out. The glamazon supermodel was a caricature that you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad. It didn’t have the sexualized raunch. I didn’t do any of the double entendres I would do in the clubs. I was well-spoken. I was Miss Black America.

Barbato There are a number of reasons why he broke through. Obviously, the timing of “Supermodel” and the track itself. But it’s all down to his heart. He was able to put people at ease. When he was on Arsenio Hall, he was like, “I’m just a regular Joe with the ability to accessorize.” He invited everyone in and he was nonthreatening. And you could say that was calculated, but it’s just who RuPaul is and always has been.

Tee Ru’s real cosmic mother is Diana Ross, because I think a young Ru really believed that message she heard from Diana all those years and connected to it. Diana Ross had the ability to reach out to a person and make them feel that she was talking directly to them. And I think in many respects, a lot of Ru channeling that positive energy came from Diana.

Lynch He is this combination of fantastical visual magnetism, sort of like Oprah meets Deepak Chopra meets LaWanda Page. He had this message of loving yourself and has stayed on message for the last 25 years. He’s expanded the platform, but he’ll still come back to that same message that was right there in “Supermodel.” Women wanted to be RuPaul, and guys were trying to figure out if they wanted to get with RuPaul.

With the expansion of his platform, there was also room for controversy. One of the most notable early hiccups in Ru’s career came during the MTV Video Music Awards in 1993 when Ru exchanged barbs with Milton Berle onstage after the latter insulted him.

Bianca Del Rio (winner, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6) I remember saying, “Who is this person?” because I had never seen someone slip into pop culture so quickly and not know anything about them. Here’s Milton Berle, who’s made a career out of making fun of people throughout his life, and I think [Ru] took him by surprise. He’s up there with a drag queen. You’re playing with fire. I guess he didn’t expect Ru to lash out, but I thought, “F—k it. Do it! You shouldn’t hold your tongue!” I thought it was genius.

Michaels RuPaul’s not taking any s—t, no matter who it is. Even Uncle Milty, who was a living legend. And there’s RuPaul going, “You’re not talking to me like that, in front of God, and everybody, and the Academy.” That was amazing. It set a precedent [that] you can’t talk to people like that.

Tee That scandal, in a weird way, launched Ru into the living rooms of everyone.

Ru would claim a decidedly happier victory in living rooms when, in 1994, he landed a modeling contract as the first face of MAC Cosmetics’ Viva Glam line.

Frank Toskan (cofounder, MAC Cosmetics) We had plastered billboards all over the city: “Who will be the new MAC girl?” Because everybody was wondering why we never had a face for our product line, and I don’t think we ever would have had I not come upon RuPaul. A light bulb went off. At that point I couldn’t see anybody representing us like RuPaul could. He wasn’t just another pretty face; he embodied beauty and integrity and compassion and intelligence and everything we were about in one beautiful package.

Michaels I was working at MAC at the time. It was astounding to see this person making these strides that nobody had made before. There’s your first drag queen spokesperson for a massive cosmetic line.

Latrice Royale (drag performer, RuPaul’s Drag Race) That was a huge deal. It made you feel like you were being seen, and people knew that we were a viable career choice and not just a joke or an afterthought in the nightclub.

Toskan It was very controversial. The concerns were from our retail partners who were shocked by the first images. The first VIVA Glam poster had RuPaul spelling the M with his legs spread. We had customers that didn’t know what to make of it. But we needed a voice—and a very loud one—and he was it. There were questions in the beginning, but everybody applauded and celebrated us by the end.

"My goal was to do whatever it took to get out of this life what I wanted."

-- RUPAUL

RUPAUL THEN: ON THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW

RUPAUL 2017

Bob Mackie (fashion designer) MAC never goes for the average, pretty little girl. Usually she always has something that makes her edgy or out of the ordinary, and it made perfect sense for Ru. If this man can make himself look like that, just think what you can do if you’re a girl. But the thing is, a real girl could never even look like that. He’s a completely rare bird. In design school, we used to have what we call fashion drawings, and they were always ten heads tall—and that’s the way RuPaul is. He’s like a drawing. He has nothing to do with the real human race as far as proportion goes, and it makes him always look amazing.

Lady Bunny Ru’s contribution to drag is unique in that Ru presented himself as pretty, and the only way that the mainstream had embraced drag was to have [men] in Some Like It Hot doing drag because they were hiding. Tootsie, unable to find work. Mrs. Doubtfire. There was always a reason a man had to do drag. Ru didn’t need a reason. That was a huge benchmark for him to say, “I want to do drag because I look gorgeous—don’t you agree?” And for the world to say, “Yes.”

Suddenly, RuPaul belonged to the world. But his rise meant leaving his club days—and some queens—behind.

Tee “Supermodel” sold five million copies. It was in three Disney movies and a Duracell commercial. Liza Minnelli and Bjork and the supermodels would come watch RuPaul at the Love Machine. But it got to a point where Ru had to make a choice. The single was still working clubs, but Ru always knew he had a higher calling.

Lady Bunny Ru had moved out of this big house where a bunch of people including DJ Larry Tee were living. Ru would come back and do [annual drag event] Wigstock, but I know that his management kind of said, “Don’t do anymore club gigs like the kind that you used to do.” They wanted everyone to notice the shift—that Ru was no longer one of us working out in the club. He was Ru the recording artist, and this is how Ru the recording artist looked.

Barbato There were moments for Ru when it was really hard. Moments where, if he was going to do what he was born to do, he had to keep moving in that direction. I think he tried to bring people along, but there was a period where it became isolating for him, because he had to do the work—and to do the work meant to not be out clubbing. I think there was jealousy, and I think he struggled a bit. I think that also meant that he was on his own.

RuPaul My parents had a horrible divorce when I was 7, and I learned early on how to be a diplomat. A lot of those people I used to party with wouldn’t speak to me because I wasn’t drinking or partying anymore, and they felt threatened by it. When you have your path set on the horizon, there are going to be people who fall away. One day, I will fall away. But in having a goal set, there are always going to be people who are going to feel threatened by the train moving away. But I’ve always had my hand ready for all of those people, to say, “Come on, come with.” But most of those people could not take my hand because it would mean they have to leave behind their self-imposed image of being a starving artist or being East Village cool, and I had no allegiance to that. My goal was to do whatever it took to get out of this life what I wanted. But I was not going to be stuck. I was not going to chain myself with the label of anything.

At the same time, RuPaul was slowly gaining a new community. As a fledgling spokesman for the gay rights movement, Ru performed at the LGBT march on Washington in 1993.

Bailey It was an iconic moment. Ru in front of hundreds of thousands of people. It was a great moment in a great place. Ru has always said, “Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political act.” But it’s true. It felt like such a powerful statement about who we are as a society, where we’re trying to go, and what we believe in.

Tom Campbell (executive producer, Drag Race) I went with a bunch of friends from Los Angeles. AIDS was still very much alive, and the planes and trains leading to the mall in Washington were full of gay men. It was a very well-meaning group of people—Jesse Jackson was speaking, Cybill Shepherd was talking, lesbians were singing—but it came to my mind that while it was great we were here, we had no one who was really cohesively bringing us together. And then they said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the supermodel of the world!” and Ru burst onto the stage. And I swear to God, every man, woman, and child stopped what they were doing, turned, and watched. He yelled “Next year we’re gonna take the White House and we’re gonna paint the motherf—r pink!” And in that moment, I thought, “It takes a drag queen. RuPaul is our leader.”

RuPaul I knew, based on the questions I was asked, that I had to represent, and I knew that my days of having fun in drag were over. In the club world, it was so much fun. We would terrorize the neighborhoods and have a great time doing lots of naughty, naughty things. But I knew that those days were over as soon as I got the news, because it was clear I had to represent a faction of society that had gone unnoticed and didn’t have a voice.

"Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political act. "

-- RUPAUL

THE RUPAUL SHOW

GETTY IMAGES

III. THE TALK OF TELEVISION

Now the country’s most recognizable drag queen, RuPaul was in high demand. On TV, he popped up everywhere from Nash Bridges and Sister, Sister to MADtv, Ellen, and Saturday Night Live; on film, he added memorable roles to his résumé in The Brady Bunch Movie, Crooklyn, and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar.

Del Rio When Ru was on Joan Rivers’ show, I witnessed Joan welcoming gay men in drag, and it wasn’t crazy crap about them eating baby food or having some sick fetish. Joan presented them as entertainers. Something magical was happening.

RuPaul I remember when I got the script for Brady Bunch, I thought, “Oh well, this will go direct to video.” But I’m an old hoofer and if somebody’s going to give me a job, I’m going to do it anyway, and then the movie ended up being really funny. With To Wong Foo, I remember I didn’t have any scenes with Stockard Channing, but she walked into the production office when I was in there at one point and I said, “Hey Riz, this year we are gonna rule the school!” and she looked at me and cut her eyes like, “You are a f—ing fool.” And then, for the next five years, I was in more film and TV projects with her than any other person.

Jinkx Monsoon (winner, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 5): I don’t think I knew Ru was a drag queen when I saw her in The Brady Bunch Movie. When I came out at 14 and started really delving into queer movies, I remember she was there, in But I’m a Cheerleader, out of drag. I can find all these little moments throughout my life where she’s been there. Even though it was a cameo, I think about To Wong Foo. It was like saying, “These three straight famous actors are playing drag queens, but they still have to bow down to RuPaul.” That was the clear-cut moment when we realized, of all the drag queens in the world, there is one queen to rule them all.

In 1996, New York’s WKTU station gave RuPaul a morning radio show, reuniting him with Club Kid Michelle Visage on a chance audition as co-hosts.

Visage I auditioned for two weeks straight. They would stunt a different DJ each week to see who the crowd responded to best. And one week, RuPaul walks in. And he sees me and he goes, “Of course it’s you. Who else would it be?” That was ’96. I hadn’t seen him since ’92. It was like kismet, and that’s where everything started. It was obvious that this was the team. You can’t describe it. In life, there’s chemistry that cannot be forced and it cannot be bought and it cannot be created. Some things are just meant to be. Coffee and cream, bread and butter. These are things that were just meant to be. Ru and I were meant to be. We’re a puzzle piece that just fits perfectly together.

Something even bigger was brewing for Ru. In 1995, he had stolen the show in an appearance at the VH1 Fashion and Music Awards, and the network subsequently approached World of Wonder about creating a show. In 1996, The RuPaul Show debuted on VH1, introducing Ru as national TV’s first openly gay talk show host. Not to mention drag queen.

Lauren Zalaznick (former VH1 development executive) Truth be told, Ru was very much already on the radar as someone I wanted VH1 to be in business with, but then he killed it at the Fashion Awards. The RuPaul Show was greenlighted as the second-ever regular series [on VH1] after Pop-Up Video. And back in 1995, 1975 was a lot closer in time, so in all of our heads, we had everything from Mike Douglas and American Bandstand to Sonny and Cher and Merv Griffin. You couldn’t explicitly craft a talk show that could be campy but serious, with an insider view of pop culture that could book outsiders, until we found RuPaul and all that came to life. It was a modestly produced show, but to us, it looked like a million bucks.

Visage (co-host) Ru and I would go to New Jersey at 4:15 in the morning to do our radio show, and then pack up and go right to the studio in the city and film back-to-back episodes of The RuPaul Show. Then we’d go home, undrag, and do it all again the next day.

Bailey We would tape two, sometimes three shows a day. I remember two things. One, that the studio just smelled horrible, like something had died in there, and two, all the incredible names we got: Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Cher, LaToya Jackson.

RuPaul The guests we got were all based on people who spoke to my sensibility. It wasn’t just people promoting a book or movie. We got Bea Arthur because we just wanted Bea Arthur. Diana Ross was my first guest, and she was a pinch-me moment. Cher was a pinch-me moment. They really all were.

Zalaznick The highest level, most amazing day was the Diana Ross episode. It was truly the apotheosis of everyone’s dream. That phrase, “If I died right now, it will have been enough…” That was the vibe of everyone on the show.

Del Rio When you have Diana Ross on your show, when you have actual Cher on your show, that’s a big f—ing deal.

Mackie Cher, Diana, Tina Turner… they all knew Ru. Eventually he met them all, and they loved him. He has all those qualities that those girls have. They’re absolutely at home and comfortable in their glamour. It’s a part of them. They’re not intimidated by getting dressed up. In fact it never even occurs to them. When Cher was on his show, I’ll never forget, she looked like she was five feet tall next to him, which was the strangest thing because she always towers.

Visage It was really fun and energetic and really alive, and that was the beauty of it. Ru would do his opening number, singing live, then he and I would do a little sketch or a Mission Visage where I had undercover cameras, and then he’d have an interview. It was a brilliant f—ing show and it was way before its time. I mean, we had a TV show with a drag queen and his best girl friend being clowns, making fun of everything, taking the piss out of life and out of pop culture. I knew when I was in it that it was different, but it didn’t feel different as in weird. It felt different as in groundbreaking. I didn’t feel like we were moving mountains, but it was definitely the only thing like it on the landscape.

Zalaznick We did what we thought America could be ready for, but there were tons of folks who just didn’t get it, who were uncomfortable with the idea of a gay man in drag. I know that from a network perspective, it was very tough for ad sales to sell to premium sponsors. And there was some difficulty in booking the show. It wasn’t huge in ratings, but in all honesty, I think there was resistance to putting a very big artist or a particularly straight male artist with a straight male fanbase on a drag queen’s talk show.

After 100 episodes—or 99, depending on you who ask—The RuPaul Show was abruptly canceled. Suddenly, in 1998, RuPaul was untethered. He and Tommy Boy Records had parted ways over creative differences. His break-out talk show was scrapped despite its cult following. And Ru himself was uninterested in returning to the club circuit but seen as having momentarily plateaued in Hollywood. So he decided to step away—a hiatus that would last almost eight years.

Bailey For us pitching him, every time, almost every project, it was like starting over again. Often the idea is that you do one thing and then somehow the rest comes easy. But I don’t think that’s ever been the case.

Tee He could still make a living. People wanted him. He was sort of like a Grace Jones, a total icon that people were hungry to see live. But that was never really what he wanted to do, to go and do every club. The idea didn’t appeal to him. So he had a hard time trying to find himself again.

Barbato I think Ru really suffered from this notion of people thinking that he was a one-trick pony, a novelty act. That’s the only way people could accept what he was doing—not necessarily people in the audience, but the media gatekeepers in the business. He had 100 episodes of a talk show, but I still don’t think people ever thought Ru had legs. They were looking at the clock, and Ru was very aware of it.

RuPaul I had been hustling show business for so long. When my number came up with “Supermodel,” I was doing the morning show, TV, the MAC contract, the book, and the nightclub act. By the time 1998 came around and the VH1 show ended, I decided I needed to move out to LA to reclaim my own personal rhythm. I became sober. I started having afternoon parties for my family and friends to get back into real life. And it came about at a time when there was a change in the air, politically, and a hostility I could feel. I knew I needed to step away. And when I look back at those years, they’re so important. I got to be myself again and remember what that is. Therapy led me to understanding why I do what I do. And I was able to let my father off the hook, because a lot of what I did with my ambition was to get his attention, and therapy allowed me to let that s—t go.

Ru worked during that time, developing more music and notching more TV and film guest appearances (like Veronica’s Closet, EDtv, and Popular). It was around 2004 when New York called to get Ru and Visage back on radio. The show fell apart before it aired (blame an ill-fated Christmas party) but the wheels were seemingly back in motion.

RuPaul When I came back to show business, I was doing it for different reasons—color and music and love and laughter and beauty and dancing and creativity. All of those reasons why I get out of bed in the morning. I was very close to not coming back, to saying I want to do something else. But when I finally did come back, I was inspired. I had finished this album that I had been working on [2004’s Red Hot] and after the radio station fell apart, I talked to Randy, and he said, “You should do another Starrbooty movie.” But you know what that really meant? More than anything, it was a way for Randy and Fenton to know I was really serious about coming back.

IV. LEADER OF THE RACE

Tom Campbell had been hired as World of Wonder’s head of development in 2006, and he asked Barbato and Bailey the obvious question: “Why aren’t we doing something with RuPaul?” The duo had pitched reality with Ru for years, but he was resistant to the genre, knowing it to be typically “mean-spirited.” Nevertheless, it was Campbell who happened onto the double entendre that would eventually sell Ru on the concept—drag racing.

"Our show exemplifies the movement of a bigger consciousness arising. "

-- RUPAUL

RUPAUL''S DRAG RACE

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Campbell Ru had said, “I’ll do anything but a competition elimination show.” So we spent three or four days coming up with a loosely scripted show, like Strangers With Candy. And Ru goes, “This is great, but you know what? We should do a reality competition show.” We really thought it was going to be mainstream, that people were finally ready for it. We went to E! and Bravo and Oxygen and Lifetime and they were all really amused but said no thanks.

Pam Post (SVP of programming, Logo) Drag had been pitched around a bit prior, but as soon as you have RuPaul in that conversation, it changes it, because you actually get the magnitude of it. Somebody who had had international success, really, is the only person who could be the cornerstone of a franchise like that. And quite honestly, the group of people who auditioned for the first season were really pioneers in their own right along with Ru.

Season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race began modestly, in a scrappy studio in Burbank with hallways for set pieces and closets for control rooms.

RuPaul I could feel that we were doing something really phenomenal, although you would never know it by that first day of shooting. If you saw the studio that we were in, you would be like, “What the f—k is this?” It was some office park in Burbank. But what I learned in the first two seasons of doing the show is that it had to be anchored in my love of these outrageously beautiful and courageous characters and that my compassion for them is what the show is about. We choose the girls during the audition, I fall in love with them, I know what their potential is, and through the course of filming, my wish is for them to reach that potential. I learned that and I do that to this day. I learned that all this hinges on how open my heart is to them.

Campbell We could have pitched a show about drag queens and it wouldn’t be what RuPaul’s Drag Race is, even if it was the same format. The first season, all the challenges were “Ru did this, so you did this.” It was Ru’s philosophy. And when things break down and people cry, it’s all Ru’s reaction, and sometimes, if he loses his temper, or if he says pay attention or be prepared, it’s real.

Post RuPaul does something that no other host does. Ru plays two roles, and it’s heavy lifting throughout a show. There’s transformation involved. Most other shows have two people who cover that job. Ru does two jobs. And part of that is the gameplay and the setting up these challenges and all of that, but it’s also the decision-making around it. And Ru does it in his male drag and then female drag, and those are not easy.

McCarthy He is 150 percent authentic. When he believes something creatively and culturally, he’s certainly open to hearing other points of view, but he is the creative force behind the show and his passion is second to none. And the team at World of Wonder, who have been on queer culture are in their own lane as well. In many ways, the show and the network are, thankfully, like a family. And Ru takes that family well beyond the show.

With each season, characters emerged from the pack of drag queens competing for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. High-profile guest judges flocked, with a list of names like Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Marc Jacobs, LaToya Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, and Khloe Kardashian. Budgets grew, as did ratings—a rarity for television.

RUPAUL: ZALDY

"Learning to love yourself. That’s what it’s about. Maybe I’m just doing it with a pair of cha-cha heels."

-- RUPAUL

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Barbato Everything about Ru’s career has been a slow rise. There were a lot of people—not just mainstream but gay people—who heard about it and said, “I’m not going to watch a drag show.” So I think it’s been a natural evolution, this slow burn word of mouth.

Visage Season 3 is when it really started to get attention, and not just because that’s when I came. That’s when Perez Hilton leaked that Raja was the winner before it even aired. Four is when the tide turns, where, oh my God, this show is f—ing unbelievable, and a weirdo creep freaky drag queen named Sharon Needles won. And 5 is when it was off and running. This show is an anomaly.

Post Sharon Needles coming onto the scene was another turning point. We were creating our own language about what drag meant to a broader universe, and Sharon came in and it was another moment where it brought a new sense that drag didn’t have to be perfectly polished to be good.

Monsoon There are other drag queens, an old guard of drag, who were big before there was a TV show dedicated to drag queens. People like Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Peaches Christ, Coco Peru, Charles Busch—they got as far as you could possibly go before the industry and mainstream culture were giving drag queens a chance. Even then, you can’t compare any other drag queen’s career to RuPaul’s. Maybe Dame Edna. But RuPaul is actually queer and part of our community, and I truly believe her when she says she created Drag Race as a way for her to share her success with other drag queens—because she knew if you give drag queens a chance, if you give queer people a chance, they will show you that they have so much to offer.

Lady Bunny Listen, honey. You don’t need to hear it from me. It’s a worldwide phenomenon and it’s definitely brought drag into the mainstream. And it’s not just a gay thing—there are all kinds of girls, women, men who are fans. Drag Race really puts drag out there. We’ve gotten to know some really talented queens who do everything from emcee, like the hilarious Bianca Del Rio, to old school lip sync numbers, like Latrice Royale, to ones who have a little bit of both. Some of them have wonderful personalities. Some are popular because of a catchphrase, but they’re not good performers. But the club’s not complaining. Clubs have died to such an extent that thank god the Drag Race queens can draw in a bunch of people to stay open.

Campbell There are multiple points of entry on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a gay show, a makeup show, a costume show, a fashion show, a comedy show. It’s a show about outsiders overcoming, period.

Plus, it’s just damn fun.

Barbato Most celebrities don’t want to leave the set.

Bailey Lady Gaga had to be removed.

Campbell She insisted on talking to each of the queens. She pulled us aside and said that in her ten years in the business, this was the second best experience she ever had. And the best lighting.

In 2016, with Ru scooping up an Emmy for hosting, the show continued its streak with strong legs on social media and a palpably increasing zeitgeist presence (which nobody seems to be able to pinpoint on one moment). In its ninth season, RuPaul’s Drag Race moved from Logo to VH1 for its ninth season, and it’s since experienced its highest ratings ever.

McCarthy There are certainly a few true characters who really transcended. It was always Ru, but then it became Ru and Bianca, or Ru and Latrice. We keep trying to pin it on a moment, but I actually think that culture finally caught up to where the show was.

Royale The show surpassed the LGBTQ community. This is now a situation where we have families that are totally invested and love the show because of the emotional connection that they get from the queens and the stories. They can relate and see that whatever they’re going through, they can figure it out and get better as well. It’s done wonders.

RuPaul Our show exemplifies the movement of a bigger consciousness arising. Drag is part of that consciousness. It’s having fun and understanding who you really are, which is an extension of the power that created the whole universe. The idea of an identity, of shape-shifting and changing—it’s an extension of that. The expansion of Drag Race coincides with this expansion of the 21st century and who we, as humans on this planet, are going to be and what we are evolving to. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be in drag. It just means that everybody is expanding their definition of who they are. Watching a drag queen who was bullied as a kid becoming a star on her own terms is a rush for a lot of people who watch our show because they, too, have those dreams and they, too, have longed for something, but didn’t quite know what.

Visage The realization happened that we are all the same person, but all very different. People who have been shunned and marginalized and negated their whole lives finally had a voice and finally mattered. Drag is now finally mainstreamed to the point where it’s being appreciated as the art form it’s always been. You go to DragCon and you see families. Nothing is more heartfelt and moving to me than seeing the mother of a queer, bi trans kid stand by their side and support them. People say mainstreaming as a curse word, and I think about me being that weird kid when I was 13, who nobody f—ing understood and who got bullied and beat up. If I had something like RuPaul’s Drag Race growing up, it maybe would have let me not think about those dark thoughts. I maybe would have said, “Well, those people do it, too, and they’re on TV.” Mainstreaming is saving lives.

"My next act has to do with my legacy, which has to do with passing on my point of view. "

-- RUPAUL

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VH-1

V. RU, REVERED

It’s hard to imagine, but one day, RuPaul’s Drag Race will end. Not soon, but someday.

RuPaul Everything ends. I don’t see it in my horizon right now. I could see if we got into f—ing World War III, it could end. I could see where fear could nip us in the bud. It’s a very real possibility.

But at 56 years old, the world’s greatest drag queen is not pumping his brakes. Ru’s auditioning (catch him on Girlboss or the next season of Broad City), he’s podcasting (RuPaul: What’s The Tee? With Michelle Visage just clocked its 100th episode), and J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions is set to turn Ru’s ‘80s club days into a scripted series. Stardom is still on Ru’s mind, but now, so is another word: legacy.

Barbato His acting career is something that’s going to surprise people, as are his chops as a musical producer. One day, someone’s going to recognize his music catalog and think, “What the f—?” He’s like Prince. But a queen.

RuPaul My next act has to do with my legacy, which has to do with passing on my point of view. I’m writing a book. I’m doing lectures. I’m trying to be a curator to my philosophy. I didn’t come up with it, but I carry the torch of a philosophy that many people laid down before me: Learning to love yourself. That’s what it’s about. Maybe I’m just doing it with a pair of cha-cha heels.

Michaels He’s filling a spot in our culture that is irreplaceable, but we almost didn’t know we needed it until we had it. And now we couldn’t live without it.

McCarthy I remember sneaking away in my fraternity house to watch The RuPaul Show. When I had the privilege to run Logo, I was shell-shocked the first moment I met Ru. It was at the NASDAQ stock exchange, and he comes in wearing an over-the-top orange angora suit and grabs a bag of cash and throws it up in the air and says, “Make it rain, bitches!” And oh my God, it was so liberating. Ru is in a class of his own. Truly, that is a Club Kid who made it himself and you know, f— the world. Nobody was going to make it for him. He was going to love himself.

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Zalaznick Ru did a tremendous amount of lift for the awareness and acceptance of a completely different world. She jimmied in there along a different continuum—men in drag on television. In this world of TV, at points along the way, men in drag were highlighted, accepted, and beloved. The Milton Berle to Bosom Buddies continuum. And when you put onto that an actual drag queen, she shifted the conversation to the beginnings of a different place and built the platform for certain elements of life, legislation, and acceptance today.

Tee She opened a door for the whole gender conversation. So many people are in a variation of man and woman, and she was the first person that would personify that conversation. Some of the things we said back then—the nasty talk, the stuff we had learned from the mean drag queens in Atlanta—some of that doesn’t make sense in the new gender conversation. Can’t say this, can’t say that. She’s had issues with that. But as we’ve all realized that we’re not so male or female, that all of us have little bits of everything in us, Ru was one of the first to open up that conversation in America and the world. There had never been anything like RuPaul.

Visage There’s never going to be another drag queen like Ru, ever. It’s not going to happen in our generation. Maybe 100 years down the line. But you’re not going to see it again. Nobody has what Ru has. He was put on this planet—that’s why his mother named him RuPaul—to be a star. If people only knew what a giving, loving, generous, all-inclusive human being that RuPaul Andre Charles is, they would understand life more. They would understand themselves more. They would be better people because of him. He’s making a better generation. ♦

Additional reporting by Joey Nolfi

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