RuPaul Reflects on Early Inspirations and a Key Drag Breakthrough

As a child, RuPaul would go on road trips with his family to visit Los Angeles from his hometown of San Diego. He would ask his parents to stop on Hollywood Boulevard so that he could gaze at the stars and he’d wander around the Hollywood Walk of Fame until his family picked him up two hours later.

Little did RuPaul know he would grow up to become the most famous drag queen of all time, who would earn his own star on the Walk of Fame, with a ceremony set for March 16.

“It is the benchmark for the success that I imagined as a kid,” RuPaul says of the honor. “[It is] the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom.”

Back in his early days, RuPaul looked up to icons such as David Bowie, Cher and Diana Ross. “They were unlikely superstars and outsiders in their own way,” he says. “Just knowing that they existed helped me achieve my stardom and helped me to keep going during the times when I didn’t have a lot going in my way.”

Today, the Emmy-winning host, producer, actor, singer and television personality realizes that he is a role model to many who have big dreams similar to those he did.

“I think having someone see my star and imagine what they could do, knowing that I, against all odds, have been able to find success — I think that’s a huge statement to the human soul,” RuPaul says.

Nowadays, the 57-year-old is heading into the 10th season of his VH1 reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which is experiencing a surge in late-bloomer popularly with its highest ratings ever and two recent major award wins for RuPaul as host. But decades ago, he struggled to make a name for himself as a hopeful performer in the ‘80s, sleeping on his younger sister’s couch in Los Angeles with no car, no paycheck and no job prospects.

“For the first 11 years of my career, I was working clubs and discos, and really the underground. It was my 10,000 hours of the hard yards,” RuPaul recalls. “I was really doing everything that I do today — I was writing, acting, singing, performing, all that stuff. It’s just that I was too early. A lot of times, it’s important to stick it out until your number comes up, so all of the time it takes to stick with it, that’s the hard part.”

Though he found his groove as a prominent fixture on the late-night drag scene in New York City, it wasn’t until 1993 that RuPaul found mainstream success with his hit single, “Supermodel,” which topped the charts, earned him an MTV Video Music Award nomination and shot him to international superstardom as a drag queen. The following year, he became the face of MAC Cosmetics, raising money for the company’s AIDS fund, and in 1996, he landed his own self-titled VH1 talk show, becoming the first-ever openly gay national television host.

Despite his groundbreaking achievements, RuPaul never trully thought his drag niche would be the answer to his success.

“When drag presented itself, initially, I said this is fine for downtown and the clubs, but I wanted to go mainstream,” he says. “That breakthrough when I realized it would work uptown, that was major. It was like I unlocked some Mayan ancient doors that have never been opened, and I went, ‘Oh my god! I had the key the whole time!’ I had to unlock my mind and get rid of old ideas that didn’t serve me.”

RuPaul admits that others did try to hold him back at times, but he never took that personally. Instead, he acknowledges that he, himself, was often in his own way.

“Looking back, the biggest obstacles were set in place by me,” he says. “I know that sounds so weird and sacrilegious to say, given that I am black and gay and a drag queen and all these things, but I still believe the biggest obstacles were set by me, which is really outrageous.”

Although he says he put limitations on himself, RuPaul has always proudly been on the fringe and gone up against the status quo, which is what he says drag is all about.

“The art of drag is a big F-U to masculine culture. Our culture is obsessed with masculinity, which would be perfectly fine if there was some balance to it, but there isn’t balance to it,” he says. “You go to any restaurant and they’re playing fucking sports. Why can’t you walk into a bar and they’re playing ‘The Golden Girls?’ What’s wrong with that!?”

Experiencing such stereotypical expressions of masculinity at a young age is what turned his attention to art, specifically drag.

“You see this masculine dominance in every facet of our culture,” RuPaul says. “So us little boys who never fit into that box, we gravitated toward drag because it was a place that we could find some type of power where we could be recognized as viable, and we thought it was fun.”

RuPaul also attributes part of his success to working with the same “tribe” since the early days, something that has motivated him throughout the dark times.

His “Drag Race” producing partners, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of World of Wonder, directed his early ‘90s “Supermodel” music video, and the duo says RuPaul has always been a workhorse multi-hyphenate ahead of his time.

“With Ru, it was a great working relationship from the beginning,” says Bailey. “We’ve had a different relationship over the years, but it’s always been a constant collaboration, and he’s as inspiring on the show as he is in real life.”

While society is evolving very slowly, RuPaul says one place he’s seen real cultural progress is with younger people. He’s been able to witness this through his fans every year at the DragCon, where he’s become a beacon of inspiration for the up-and-coming generation.

“There’s an emerging consciousness with people who are 11, 12, 13 [years old]. There’s a slight shift in how they view identity and how they view an open mind and open heart,” RuPaul says. “It’s a small movement, but it is significant. I think that’s where the big change is.”

More TV

  • Sean Spicer Emmys

    Sean Spicer's Casting Explained? Red States Love 'Dancing With the Stars'

    ABC faced backlash this week after casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars.” But that outrage might actually spice up the dancing competition’s dwindling ratings — particularly in Trump Country. “Dancing with the Stars” has faced a relatively alarming decline in ratings over the past two cycles, falling 32% [...]

  • Peppa Pig

    Hasbro Acquires Entertainment One in $4 Billion All-Cash Deal

    Toymaker Hasbro is acquiring studio Entertainment One in an all-cash transaction valued at $4 billion, bringing My Little Pony and Nerf under the same umbrella as “Peppa Pig” and “PJ Masks” and furthering Hasbro’s growth goals in the infant and preschool categories. Hasbro aims to expand its operations in film and TV. Entertainment One’s production [...]

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar

    'Other People's Houses' Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Works at Fox

    Sarah Michelle Gellar is looking to reunite with “Ringer” creators Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder on a dramedy co-produced by Fox Entertainment and UTV. Fox is developing “Other People’s Houses,” Variety has learned, and has given the project a script commitment. Charmelo and Snyder will write and executive produce, while Neil Meron, Sarah Michelle Gellar [...]

  • Ann Sarnoff Warner Bros

    Ann Sarnoff Formally Takes Reins of Warner Bros. as CEO

    The Ann Sarnoff era at Warner Bros. has begun. Sarnoff formally took the reins as Warner Bros. chair-CEO on Thursday, two months after she was appointed to the post. Sarnoff told employees in a memo that she has been impressed by the company’s track record during the past year amid a period of upheaval for [...]

  • Jamie-Lynn Sigler'Woke Up This Morning: The

    ‘Sopranos’ Cast Members to Present at VMAs in New Jersey

    The VMAs will reunite “Sopranos” castmates for the big awards show happening Monday night in Newark, New Jersey — right next door to America’s favorite crime family.  Drea De Matteo (who played the mobster girlfriend-turned F.B.I. informant Adriana La Cerva), Jamie-Lynn Sigler (who played Tony Soprano’s precocious daughter Meadow Soprano) and Vincent Pastore (who played [...]

  • The L Word

    'The L Word: Generation Q' Teaser Unites Original Cast, New Characters

    Showtime has released the first look at the next generation of “The L Word” and its new cast including Rosanny Zayas, Jacqueline Toboni, Sepideh Moafi, Arienne Mandi, and Micah Lee. Along with some of the original cast, including Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Katherine Moennig, the series sequel picks up where its creator Ilene Chaiken [...]

  • ACCESS HOLLYWOOD -- Season: 24 --

    'Access Hollywood' Franchise Adds New Half-Hour Show

    After a spate of recent layoffs and the departure of host Natalie Morales, “Access Hollywood” is extending its brand with a new half-hour series. “All Access,” premiering Sept. 9, will take an in-depth look into the national headlines and look to uncover the real-life drama occurring in everyday places, exploring a blend of true crime [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content