“I’m a marketing genius! I marketed…subversive drag to one-hundred million muthaf—as in the world!”—RuPaul Andre Charles.
RuPaul Andre Charles is an American drag queen entertainer, Emmy award-winning game show host, and an acclaimed actor and singer who has been in the public eye since the late 1980s. Now, reaching a global audience through Netflix and with his media company, WOWpresents and subscription service WOWpresents plus, his mega-successful reality-competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race (now in its tenth regular season and third All Stars season, with a franchise show in Thailand), reaches millions of people, influencing global queer representation, politics, and identity. RuPaul continues to innovate and embodies a quintessentially American-ness that endures and perseveres with flair.
1.) Early Life & Career
2.) Early Aesthetic & Drag
3.) ‘Glamazon’ 1990s Success
3.1) 1990s ‘Post-Racial’ Appeal
4.) Aesthetic Changes & RuPaul’s Drag Race
- 1.) Early Life & Career
Born on November 17, 1960, RuPaul spent his childhood growing up in in San Diego, CA. Purporting a rocky relationship with his father and a sensitive mother with quick wit, RuPaul went to live with his sister in Atlanta after his parents’ divorce in 1967, beginning a string of moves during his adolescent years.
RuPaul documents her moves from Atlanta to N.Y.C. during the ‘80s, with fellow drag queen, peer, and friend, Lady Bunny, who both performed and lived in Greenwich Village with emerging queer artists, performers, and intellectuals in the mid-to-late 1980s. Besides the aforementioned, other notable persons include: famous painter Keith Haring and Village Voice journalist and critic Michael Musto.
- 2.) Early Aesthetic & Drag
RuPaul, a consummate performer who attended a performing arts high school, was still developing his drag aesthetic before his 1990s success crystalized. He says he got into drag because of music and his involvement with the punk scene. Calling his look during this time “Gender F—,” which embodies a rebellious, counter-culture, and gender non-conforming adoption of expression and adornment through bodily performance, also invoking the Stonewall riots and gender policing of the late 1960s. An early break in his career came from fellow Georgians, the B-52’s, who cast RuPaul in their music video for “Love Shack” in 1989.
RuPaul has many aesthetic inspirations for his drag, including his ‘80s experience in gay N.Y.C. nightclubs, the queer persons of color the Harlem Ball scene (as made famous by Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning), and Blaxploitation films centering around prostitution narratives and camp aesthetics. However, RuPaul’s look will is most linked to the 1990s ‘supermodel’ aesthetic in the fashion industry, which catapulted him to national recognition through aesthetic adoption and coining the self-appointed nickname: “Supermodel of the World.”
3.) ‘Glamazon’ 1990s Success
RuPaul credits her “Glamazonian: supermodel of the world” mainstream look to collaborations with Emmy-award winning costume designer Zaldy Goco and renowned make-up artist and stylist Mathu Anderson. The look, dubbed ‘Glamazon’ by RuPaul himself, takes inspiration from fashion industry’s hyper-thin and idealized ‘Supermodel’ aesthetic of the early 1990s, colloquially dubbed “the waif” look or “heroin chic,” coupled with the mainstream ‘Blonde Bombshell Revival’ of the same time. Thinness remains a constant ideal, as exemplified by 1990s celebrities Kate Moss, Christina Applegate from Married With Children, and even the feminized male ‘glam’ rock look adopted by hair-metal bands, evolving from the mid-to-late 1970s punk scene into the gender-blended mainstream looks of the early 1990s. Also, embodied within RuPaul are ideals associated with Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra, who were larger than life feminine sex symbols of the 1990s.
3.1) 1990s ‘Post-Racial’ Appeal
RuPaul’s look and celebrity enacted a “post-racial” discourse in society and media of the time that highlighted multiculturalism and ethnically ambiguous celebrities as leaders of a ‘post-racial’ America that was allegedly moving beyond racial stratification or individual racial affiliations. Entertainers like Michael Jackson, Carmen Electra, and Tiger Woods were highlighted and marketed in mainstream American as appealing to a vast majority of the country. Entertainers embodied an integrated and visually homogenous ideology of racial harmony without larger social or political discussions of race relations in America. While RuPaul fits into this discourse, he has always been politically aware and culturally conscious. An early acting role of his features his portrayal of the character Rachel Tensions in Beeban Kidron’s (1995) Too Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar, who wears a confederate flag gown while hosting a drag pageant (Figure 5).
RuPaul had major filmic success, a morning radio show with long time best friend, current RPDR judge, and podcast partner, Michelle Visage, and his original VH1 show, in which he hosted a skit/talk show and conversed with many iconic celebrities and inspirations.
4.) Aesthetic Changes & RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul describes the period 2001–2008 as a “closed window” for his career and for mainstream acceptability of drag and the larger queer culture. Indeed, while still working and putting out music, national exposure dried up amidst a conservative and nationalist push after 9/11. In 2007, RuPaul wrote, produced, recorded the soundtrack, and starred in a self-released Blaxploitation satire called Starrbooty, in which her character, a detective named Cupcake, goes undercover as a prostitute to discover the culprit behind a slew of missing young women, and to rescue her cousin Cornisha. Indeed, other breakthroughs in drag culture occurred around the same time, signaling the early signs of a drag revival, like Kelley’s viral YouTube video “Shoes.”
In 2009, the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired on Logo, and the world was forever changed. Still portraying his ‘Glamazon’ look and perhaps embodying it to its fullest heights, with a single and album also called (2011) Glamazon, RuPaul’s style has evolved and become more “Motherly” oriented—not matronly—embracing the aesthetic of a legendary drag mother. Essentially launching the House of Ru (or as All Stars 2 winner Alaska Thunderf— phrases it, her “Ru-Girl’s”), one hundred queens (and counting) have appeared on the show, experiencing national fame and/or infamy. Her aesthetic has matured, most notably during season nine with the public-media parting of longtime stylist and friend Mathu Anderson. Fans immediately noticed Ru’s style progression throughout the season because his makeup and wigs were styled differently, with former contestant and All Star, Raven, now doing her makeup, and former contestant Delta Work styling her wigs. A media storm soon followed the show’s first Emmy nomination. WOW presented the first episode of season nine to the Academy for consideration and Mathu Anderson was still on set as makeup stylist, but Raven received the nomination because she worked on the season from episode two onwards.
Differences in wig styling were immediately noticeable to careful viewers, as Mathu’s wigs appear more ‘beachy,’ textured, and flowing, while Delta’s wigs are round, done-up, and frizzier in comparison. Ru’s makeup was also noticeably different, with the eyebrows raised and the nose more pointed and contoured. While a learning curve to taking on Ru’s iconic look was visibly noticeable, Raven and Delta have since found a rhythm and balance they are maintaining and crafting into the new era of RuPaul’s look.
- Charles, RuPaul. “Lettin’ It All Hang Out: An Autobiography.” Hyperion, New York, 1995.
- Mathu Anderson on RuPaul’s iconic look, YouTube, uploaded by Hey Qween, 21 May 2015.
- The 5ninthavenueproject. Nelson Sullivan’s home-video archives of mid-1980s queer New York City.
 WOWpresents. (2016, September 28). “Drag Fish Tank.” E.P., RuPaul Charles. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 2 Episode 6. Los Angeles, CA.
 Perrotty, Chelsea. “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 Will Be Available On WOW Presents Plus In These Countries…” The WOW Report, 18 Jan 2018; WOWpresents. (2018, February 15). E.P. RuPaul Charles. Drag Race Thailand.
 “Keith Haring’s New Year’s Eve Party with his paintings and favorite music.” YouTube, uploaded by 5ninthavenueproject, 28 Sep 2015; “RuPaul arrives at Michael Musto’s Birthday Party and Michael’s favorite Suzanne Somers poem.” YouTube, uploaded by 5ninthavenueproject, 7 Feb 2018.
 “RuPaul being ‘wonderfully glamorous’ at the Pyramid Club in 1985.” YouTube, uploaded by 5ninthavenueproject, 7 Feb 2018.
 WOWpresents. (2010, March 29). “Golden Gals.” E.P., RuPaul Charles. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 2 Episode 9. Los Angeles, CA.
 WOWpresents. (2016, March 27). “New Wave Queens.” E.P., RuPaul Charles. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 Episode 4. Los Angeles, CA; “The B-52’s – “Love Shack” (Official Music Video).” YouTube, uploaded by Rhino, 2 Dec 2013.
 Auslander, P. (2006). Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music. University of Michigan Press.
 Squires, C. R. (2014). The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. NYU Press. 54–55.
 Dommu, Rose. “Look, we’ve stayed silent long enough: We need to talk about RuPaul’s makeup on ‘Drag Race.’” Mic, 28 April 2017.
 Schmidt, Scott. “Raven, Delta Work No Longer Emmy-Nominated, Willam Lashes Out At Their Fans.” This is West Hollywood, 6 Sep 2017.
 “Raven On EMMY Nomination, RuPaul’s Makeup, Drag Race, Mathu Andersen.” YouTube, uploaded by Mitchell Wiggs, 14 Jul 2017.
NW is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, and a minor in studio arts from ODU with concentrations in art history, graphic design, and linguistics. In his scholarship, he is interested in body, gender, sex, and sexuality studies — focusing on the masculine body — as applied to American media and cultural studies. Nathan has interests in digital humanities scholarship, and loves good puns.