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"Launching new drag acts is my legacy and I'm so proud"

Straight-talking American RuPaul has transformed the image of drag. He tells all about battling to find his own place in the world and his philosophy for a fulfilling life

By Ella Walker

San Diego-born RuPaul has taken drag mainstream, thanks to glamorous models, celebrity backing and bucket-loads of charisma on his show RuPaul's Drag Race. Still hunting for America's Next Drag Superstar, the first ever drag supermodel promises series seven will "blow your socks off", but notes that part of the reality show's charm is how "young people can see that there is more than one way to go about your life".

Putting on a dress is what propelled RuPaul to stardom: "Even as a kid I would dress up in my sisters' clothes, in cowboy outfits, in sailor outfits. I loved putting on different costumes."

In 1989, he moved to New York to pursue a drag career, dancing in the B-52s' Love Shack video, hosting his own chat show on VH1 and releasing smash hit single, Supermodel (You Better Work), before he went and became the first male face of MAC cosmetics.

A fan of motivational quotes, he has "we were born naked and the rest is drag", stitched into his Drag Race outfits.

"If you pay attention to your heart and not what other people say, you probably will have a really good time here on this planet. That is what our show is about - it's about the tenacity of the human spirit," he explains.

"Drag doesn't change who you are, it actually reveals who you are, and it's so interesting to see how those personas emerge."

In that he sense, he says, he didn't turn to drag as a shield or a way to mark his identity.

"Drag is not an identity; it is a lack of identity. Drag is mocking identity. It's not something I sought, it was something I stumbled on and realised I was good at, and it also fell into my own philosophy, which is 'we are God in drag' and that's the truth.

"We are spiritual beings who are having a human experience. So when I realised I was good at it, it fitted into my personal philosophy that this isn't real. It's all an illusion and you cannot take any of life on this planet seriously. It's all a fleeting experience, there's no right or wrong, it's just an experience.

"So drag happens to be the thing that became my vehicle, but it's not something that I yearned to do. It wasn't like, 'oh my God, get me to a pair of women's panties.' That was never the case."

Born RuPaul Andre Charles, he was bullied as a child, left home at 15 to study performing arts in Atlanta and, as a young teen, reportedly considered suicide.

"I knew I didn't fit into society," he explains. "I was not sure which way to turn, but I had the support of my family and music and a belief that one day I would find my own tribe. I finally decided I had to be myself and do it my way, and I kept on, even though it was hard.

"At 28, I wasn't sure that my career would actually happen and it was a very, very dark period, but ultimately, through perseverance and weathering the storm, I was able to get to the other side of it.

"Horrible, awful things happen and somehow you persevere and make it through."

The performer, who has dueted with Elton John, is well known for his catchphrases, from "gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win" to "sashay away". One of his best is: "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?"

"I really believe and know that is true," he says. "You have to look for those mantras or philosophies that help you get through those dark days, and every human on this planet will face that. That is a part of life.

"Parents of young children try to protect their kids from all the dark things in life, but the truth is, you have to prepare them for it. You can't just ignore it and sugar-coat everything. We have a generation of kids who are offended by everything because their parents have a sugar-coated life.

"Let me tell you something, life is hard. There is no way to get around that. Life is difficult and hard - it is beautiful and wonderful also - but you have to be able to prepare your child and give them the tools to process this information.

"Only the strong survive and if you're not strong, you won't survive. End of story."

RuPaul is certainly strong, but parenthood itself, he says, is "not for me, it's too hard". However, he does add: "I feel like on Drag Race, all of my girls are my children, so I am a parent in a way. Some of them have had very tough times and it's lovely to see them blossoming."

When it comes to family, the singer has been with his Australian partner Georges for two decades. What's the secret to their relationship?

"I just really like him a lot. He's funny and just a lovely, sweet, sensitive man and I love being with him."

And yes, it was love at first sight. "I saw him on the dance floor and I went over and I asked him, 'what kind of dancing is this that you're doing?'" RuPaul recalls. "He's very tall and he was dancing like he didn't care what people thought and that's when I had to go over and say, 'what the hell are you doing? I love it.'"

Aside from dancing, RuPaul stays in shape by going to the gym, doing yoga, hiking in the countryside, and avoiding alcohol, but at 55, and considering the industry he's in, ageing is a concern.

"I live in Hollywood and it's something you think about there, especially as my body and the way I look is a big part of my business. Ultimately, I'm old enough to know 'let the chips fall as they may'."

That said, he's not averse to the idea of plastic surgery.

"I'd think about it," he muses. "We get new tyres for a car and change the oil and get a new sunroof, why not do things for my body? I have no judgement against that."

Despite his position and his personal achievements, he isn't convinced that wider attitudes towards transgender are evolving.

"Are barriers breaking down? I don't know if things are changing. As far as the press is concerned, maybe, but when you get out in the real world, have attitudes changed? My guess is no," he admits. "I mean, you know human beings ..."

In RuPaul's world, though, things are only looking positive.

"I never take my success for granted. I am amazed at how things have turned out for me, especially given we are a primitive culture on this planet, and the things I've been able to do are so provocative it amazes me. On top of that, to create a show that launches the careers of other drag queens? That is my legacy and I couldn't be more proud."

RuPaul's Drag Race, season seven, airs every Monday at 10pm on truTV, freeview channel 68

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