Fans of the VH1 reality show RuPaul's Drag Race know that every episode ends with a mantra. After finishing the weekly challenge, the drag queens competing for the title of "America's Next Drag Superstar" (and a hefty cash prize) gather on the runway before host RuPaul Charles, where the drag icon proclaims: "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?"
RuPaul says that repeating these words is an important touchstone — both for the show and for life: "These mantras are set to align you with the truth of who you are," he says. "You are love — and you cannot give something that you do not have."
RuPaul got his start in Atlanta in the '80s, performing a punk-inspired "genderf***" drag — for example, pairing an old prom dress and a tiara with combat boots and a mohawk.
"We did drag as a social commentary," he says. "It was a reaction to the Reagan '80s, and it wasn't trying to look real or pass [as a woman]. It was a rebellion against the status quo."
In 1993, RuPaul's break-out hit "Supermodel (You Better Work)" brought him — and drag — national attention. Now 59, he sits at the helm of a drag empire. Since it began in 2009, RuPaul's Drag Race has launched the careers of hundreds of drag queens. The Emmy-winning series, now in its 12th season, has spin-offs in Chile, Thailand, Canada and the U.K.
RuPaul, who splits time between Los Angeles and a 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming, says one of the secrets to his success is adaptability.
"In this life, if you can stay flexible, you have a really good chance of navigating a really rich experience for yourself on this planet," he says.
On his belief that identity is an illusion
It's all a lie — this world is a lie. So don't base your value on the lie. I've always been attracted to things that were irreverent, [like] Monty Python, I thought, "Oh, there's my tribe!" Because even as a kid, I knew that I had a sense that none of this was real, that it was all an illusion and that it would be a mistake to base my value on the lie: Boys, go here. Girls go there. Blacks over here, whites over here ... all these superficial rules we come up with are just BS!
On how his mother influenced his punk sensibility
My mother was very world-weary. She was someone who I suspect — and she wasn't very open about anything in her childhood or her background — but I suspect that some horrible thing had happened to her. I felt that. She never talked about it, but she was someone who, because of her world weariness, she instilled in me the ability to not pay attention to what other people had to say about what I was doing. She loved me so much, and she was so proud of the fact that I was gonna do my own thing.
So it was a very punk rock approach to life, and I got that from her. She famously says, "If they ain't paying your bills, pay them no mind." And I lived my life that way. Yes, I mean, people have said lots of nasty things about me to me and still do, but am I gonna let that stop me? Uh-uh. I will laugh at it and say ... The joke is on you, person, because I am going to get as much out of this life as I possibly can — and I have! At 59 years old, I have done a lot of stuff and I'm still going to do a lot of stuff.
On the nightclub scene in the Village in New York in the late '80s
We were the children of Warhol. We were the children of David Bowie. And all things were possible. There was a club scene. And back then there were so many clubs. You could go to six different nightclubs per night. And we're talking Monday through Sunday. You could go every night to a different nightclub. And back then, the clubs were filled with everyone — straight, gay, black, white, Puerto Rican, uptown, downtown, men, women, everybody. And that was the scene, that tapestry of what New York is, or was, was so evident in the nightclub scene. And it was fabulous! It was gorgeous. I'm so proud and so happy I got to experience that.
On establishing the "Glamizon" look of drag he's now known for today
[In 1989] I worked on a demo tape so I could send it to a record company. And that's what I did for a year. I worked on a demo and basically ate popcorn and seltzer water from the Film Forum because I had a friend who worked there, and so that's how I sustained myself. And I do a ... few gigs here and there. But I wasn't in the clubs every night like I had been. And in '92, I got a record deal with Tommy Boy Records, which was a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records. I had also met with Mathu and Zaldy, two visual designers [on] costume, makeup, everything, and we'd come up with my look, which was then elevated from my Soul Train dancer look ... to the glamazon that you know today. It's very studied and precise ... and that's how it came about.
But also, I knew that, commercially, as someone who's paying attention, that if I wanted to make it mainstream, I would have to be non-threatening to Betty and Joe Beer Can. And what I did was I came up with a recipe, which was one-part Cher, two-parts David Bowie, one-part Diana Ross and two heaping spoonfuls of Dolly Parton.
On why drag queens model themselves after the icons like Cher, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross
I'll tell you exactly what it is: It is that they embody both strength and vulnerability. And that is what the child in you, in me and everyone listening remembers, deep in the recesses of your consciousness. ... The ability to oscillate between those two emotions, that the strength and the vulnerability is what we are doing on this planet. And that balance, dear listener, is what life is all about. It's not one or the other. And all of these women that you talked about — Cher and Diana, Barbra — they all exemplify ... that vulnerability and strength, that duality.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest RuPaul became the most famous drag queen in the world after bringing drag into the mainstream with his reality competition series "RuPaul's Drag Race." It premiered in 2009 and just started its 12th season on VH1. The series is now popular in countries around the world. Each season, a group of drag queens compete for a large cash prize and the title of America's next drag superstar. The judges rate the queens on their outfits and makeup, their runway walks acting and whatever challenges RuPaul throws at them.
Each week, the two drag queens on the verge of elimination have a final chance to impress RuPaul in a lip sync competition or, as RuPaul puts it, lip sync for your life. The loser of the lip sync is eliminated and has to sashay away. Although the show is a competition, it's a celebration of drag queens and drag culture. As we'll hear, for RuPaul, drag is a way to defy conformity and challenge preconceptions about gender. And that dates back to the '80s, when he was performing in bands in Atlanta, dressing in a punk style of drag.
RuPaul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. Your show is very entertaining, but it's also had a big impact on many people's lives. It's launched the career of dozens of drag queens, but it's also had a big impact on many viewers who feel affirmed by the show. Each episode ends with you saying - would you say it?
RUPAUL: If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?
GROSS: Thank you.
RUPAUL: It's a mantra. You need touchstones and totems. And actually, it's a tradition my mother passed on to me, which is having sayings that can help realign you in this life, a life with advertising that says you're not really clean unless your Zestfully (ph) clean.
GROSS: (Laughter) I remember that one.
RUPAUL: It's absolutely ridiculous. But it plays...
GROSS: Zest was a soap in case - for people who don't know, yes.
RUPAUL: Yes. But it plays on the insecurities that every human has, which is - are they going to like me? Do I smell? Do they not like me because I smell? So these mantras are set to align you with the truth of who you are, which is - you are love, and you cannot give something that you do not have.
GROSS: I'd love to hear some more of the sayings that your mother passed on to you.
RUPAUL: Well, Mama had a lot of them. And one of hers was, I don't lend, I don't borrow, and I don't visit.
GROSS: Did she live by that saying?
RUPAUL: She absolutely did. She was not a social person. She was - she stayed to herself. You know, when her sisters would come to visit, she'd say, listen - y'all can come, but bring your own milk and sugar; I'll supply the coffee.
GROSS: So I want to talk to you a little bit about being a businessman. Like, you've been very successful as a businessperson in addition to being successful as a performer. And in your early days performing, you had to promote yourself. How did you do it?
RUPAUL: By any means necessary. I would make posters, and we'd post them around Atlanta. Now, this is before the cities had skyping (ph). You know, when you see all the wheatpasted billboards around New York and LA and major cities, that's called skyping, by the way. And you would only see it in New York in the '80s, but I saw it in New York and brought it down to Atlanta. It had never been done in Atlanta before. So I would take wheatpaste - overnight, I would take a bunch of posters and wheatpaste them on phone posts and bus kiosk and all over midtown Atlanta. And then I would go out and promote myself in clubs and on public access television in Atlanta.
GROSS: Oh, really?
RUPAUL: Yeah. I got my start in television 38 years ago on a show in Atlanta called "The American Music Show." And it was on public access. And public access, for you guys who don't know, when cable television came along, they used the telephone lines and underground cables that were public property, city property. So in order to get access to that, the cable companies had to allow certain channels on the cable box for the public.
So these guys who were ex - these people who were about 12 years older than me, they had all met as volunteers to the McGovern campaign in Atlanta, and they continued their friendship, and then they created this television show called "The American Music Show." I saw it once, wrote into them and said, I love your show; I want to be on it. It was so irreverent and fun. They wrote - they actually called me and said, come on down. And that's how I really started my career in television 38 years ago. So...
GROSS: What did you do your first time on that show?
RUPAUL: On that show - I had these friends of mine, these two girls. We called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.
RUPAUL: And we came up with a dance routine to Junior Walker & the All Stars' song, hit song, "Shotgun." And that was the first appearance.
GROSS: Shoot them before for they run.
RUPAUL: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) What were you wearing?
RUPAUL: Some outfits that I had made (laughter). My mother taught me how to sew. And I, you know, sewed up some outfits for us. It's probably - this - that appearance is probably on YouTube right now. I mean, I won't watch it because it's still too soon to watch it.
GROSS: So what were those posters, those handmade posters like that you pasted all over town?
RUPAUL: You know, I've always loved advertising. I love a good advertising campaign. So I would put together these campaigns. And one campaign was RuPaul is red hot. RuPaul is everything. One campaign was, if you love me, give it to me, you know. And I've collected slogans and sayings and imagery. And I grew up loving the TV show "Bewitched," which is really a smart show because it really chronicles the life of a supersmart woman who dumbs down herself just so that she can have a little bit of domestic bliss, which turns out to be a story for all of us. I mean, how many times have we all dumbed down just for a little sex. I mean, come on, you know.
RUPAUL: And - but anyway, Samantha Stephens, the protagonist in this show, was always coming up with these brilliant slogans. And they were smart because she understood what the subconscious of the consumer - what that was, what the product was. It was a 360 concept. And that's - I followed that rule when I would advertise myself.
GROSS: So when you were advertising yourself early on through these handbills that you made yourself and you said RuPaul is red hot, RuPaul is everything, like, no one knew who you were yet, so what was behind your thinking of making it seem like you are on fire and you are famous and...
RUPAUL: Right. Well, I just - I saw a billboard for a show on one of the streaming services. It's all about Imelda Marcos. And they quote her as saying, perception is everything; truth is not. I'm paraphrasing. But, you know, if you create it, if you create the perception, then people will get on board. And it's sad to say that people are that easy (laughter), but they are. And I had - you know, as soon as I hit the scene in Atlanta, I had made a name for myself. So I was famous pretty early on in that scene.
RUPAUL: And this is 1982 and then on throughout a lot of the '80s, before I moved to New York.
GROSS: So you grew up in San Diego, and then you moved at about the age of 15 to Atlanta. Your parents, at this point, were divorced. And you moved to Atlanta with your mother and her husband. So, you know, you've said that in Atlanta, you were not used to seeing so many African Americans because it wasn't like that in San Diego. Tell us more about what it was like to move there as, you know, a black teenager.
RUPAUL: Well, I had - I moved there with my sister and her husband. And we moved to Atlanta, Ga., during one of its many, many booms. We moved to Atlanta in July of 1976. And this is two years after Atlanta had its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. And it was in the middle of this huge boom. So it was an interesting time to be there and a lovely time to be there. It was like my bar mitzvah. It was the best time for me to explore who I wanted to be. And being around so many black folks was amazing. Seeing so many different types of people and so many different types of successes was everything to me. It was a great time.
GROSS: I think it's funny that you compare moving to Atlanta to having your bar mitzvah (laughter). What's the comparison?
RUPAUL: Well, the comparison is that in San Diego, I felt very stifled. And back then, as I think still today, San Diego's very conservative Republican - and very white, white, white back then. Moving to Atlanta allowed me to spread my wings and explore everything I ever wanted to be. And yeah, you know, some people weren't ready for that. But I certainly felt comfortable in exploring everything in my consciousness.
GROSS: What did you think your future was going to be?
RUPAUL: I thought my future would be I'd be a star. I'd be a famous star. I didn't know how I would do that. In my mind I thought, well, we'll start with, I'll be the next David Bowie. And that's where it started. But then as life unfolded, other things came up. And I said, oh, OK. You know, part of being a human on this planet is learning how to read the landscape. And I learned how to read the landscape. And drag presented itself to me. And I thought, well, OK. That's what I'll do.
GROSS: We need to take a short break right here. But we'll be back in just a few seconds. If you're just joining us, my guest is RuPaul. And a new season, season 12 of "RuPaul's Drag Race," is underway on VH1. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is RuPaul. And the 12th season of "RuPaul's Drag Race" is now underway on VH1.
So you said, drag presented itself to me. How did drag present itself?
RUPAUL: Well, I was in rock 'n' roll bands and punk rock bands and all that stuff. And we, as a ruse, just did drag for a performance. And the reaction I got from people was like none other. And I thought, oh, note to self. There's something here. And so that was the first time it presented itself to me. And really, I understood that I had some real power there.
GROSS: What was the reaction in drag that was different from reactions you've gotten before?
RUPAUL: Well, I - the reaction I got really shocked me because people saw me sexually, people's - men, straight men. And this is me doing gender F-word drag. This was not "Glamazon" or "Soul Train" dancer look. It was gender F-word.
GROSS: So describe what you mean when you say that.
RUPAUL: It's punk rock. It's a rebellion against the status quo. It's taking everything that society holds near and dear and throwing it onto my body and saying, I'm going to do what I want. And it's pretty much been that way ever since.
GROSS: So give me an example of something that you might've worn then.
RUPAUL: Well, some combat boots with an old prom dress and maybe a mohawk with a tiara and some lipstick that's been smeared off to the side of my face. And the reaction I got from men - so we're talking straight men, and we could do a whole show on that - was revolutionary. And it scared me initially because I thought, wait. Why are you looking at me like that? (Laughter) I'd never experienced that before.
GROSS: Now, tell me more about that. You said we could do a whole show on it, so let me at least ask one follow-up here (laughter).
RUPAUL: Well, the real story - and, you know, every drag queen can tell you that when you're alone with a straight man, a lot of things become very clear. And I'm just - I'm dancing around this. But what I'm saying is that...
GROSS: Can you get more specific instead of dancing around it?
RUPAUL: Well, more specific is that none of the rules apply. It's every man for himself.
RUPAUL: So what I'm saying is that, you know, men like to do things. That's just simple as that. And, you know, they would never say that in public. But that's the way it is.
GROSS: So what - how did it change your perception to see straight men being attracted to you or finding you very attractive when you were dressing in drag?
RUPAUL: Well, that wasn't the goal. That was sort of a side - that was just an interesting development in the whole drag thing. That was never the goal. It was just an interesting - and it also confirmed my concept that this whole world is an illusion. It's all a lie. This world is a lie, so don't base your value on the lie, you know? I've always been attracted to things that were irreverent - you know, Monty Python. I thought, oh, there's my tribe because even as a kid, I knew that - I had a sense that none of this was real, that it was all an illusion and that it would be a mistake to base my value on the lie. Boys go here. Girls go there. Blacks over here. Whites over here. This and that, you know? - and all these superficial rules that we come up with are just BS. BS.
GROSS: So when you started performing in Atlanta, were you in, like, music clubs or drag clubs?
RUPAUL: No. We - it was always punk rock clubs and music clubs. Drag clubs - you know, I never really worked in drag clubs because we were punk rock. We were anti-establishment. Atlanta back then - and it may still be this way - was like Mecca for drag. It had the traditional drag queens who were female impersonators. But, you know, I had come from the punk rock side of the tracks, and we did drag as a social commentary. It was a reaction to the Reagan '80s. And it wasn't trying to look real or pass; it was a rebellion against the status quo. So never really worked in the drag clubs. We did drag, but we did drag as a punk rock statement. So that's what that was.
GROSS: So what was the transition from, you know, a kind of punk rock version of drag to the more glam version?
RUPAUL: Well, rent had to be paid.
RUPAUL: Yes. That was the transition. And so went from that - moved to New York. And the way to make money was go-go dancing, to host different club nights. So I decided, you know what? I'm going to shave my legs. I'm going to shave my chest. And I'm going to put some - roll some socks tightly into a bra, and I'm going to go out there and look like a "Soul Train" dancer. And it worked, and I started making money. And that was - that's where it went.
GROSS: Is that how you got into the "Love Shack" video?
RUPAUL: Well, the "Love Shack" video - yeah. The "Love Shack" video - I knew The B-52's from Atlanta, you know. A lot of the kids in my group of - my crowd had sort of congregated on Atlanta because The B-52's had become very famous with their song "Rock Lobster" in 1980. And there was a huge group of young people in early 20s who I include in this group doing clubs and making art films and just being artistic, right? So when we all moved to New York, they became aware of us because we had become a sensation down in the Village in New York. And they then asked me to be in their music video.
And that music - and the "Love Shack" music video, I had been up all night up in the club, and whatever - what I'm wearing in the video (laughter) is what I had had on in the club the night before. And of course, the video - it took all day to film that video. And so by the end of the day, I'd been up for, of course, 24 hours, which was not unusual for me (laughter).
GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your mother worked for Planned Parenthood?
RUPAUL: Yes, she did. And after the divorce in '67, she sort of sat out in her room for about two years, and then my two older sisters sort of took over running the house. And then in 1970, she got a job, and she got a job at Planned Parenthood. And that was a huge breakthrough for her.
GROSS: Was she a counselor?
RUPAUL: I think she started answering the phones, and then she did move on to counseling. And she was very proud of that job.
GROSS: Was she, like, very enlightened about sexuality and gender?
RUPAUL: She was, but my mother was very world-weary. She was someone who I suspect - and she wasn't very open about anything in her childhood or her background, but I suspect that there was something - some horrible thing had happened to her. I could feel that. She never talked about it. But she was someone who, because of her world-weariness, she instilled in me the ability to not pay attention to what other people had to say about what I was doing. She loved me so much, and she was so proud of the fact that I was going to do my own thing.
So it was a very punk rock approach to life, and I got that from her, which is - and she's - famously says, you know, if they ain't paying your bills, pay them no mind. And I live my life that way. And yes, I mean, people have said lots of nasty things about me, to me and still do. But am I going to let that stop me? Nuh-uh (ph). (laughter). I will laugh at it and say, you know, the joke is on you, mama or child - not my mother. But the joke is on you, person, because I am going to get as much out of this life as I possibly can. And I have. I'm 59 years old. I have done a lot of stuff.
RUPAUL: And I'm still going to do a lot of stuff.
GROSS: My guest is RuPaul. The 12th season of his reality competition series "RuPaul's Drag Race" is now underway on VH1. After a break, we'll talk about how he went from his punk style of drag to the style he describes as glamazon (ph). And our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will have an appreciation of pianist McCoy Tyner. He became famous as a member of John Coltrane's quartet. Tyner died Friday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SHACK")
THE B-52'S: (Singing) If you see a faded sign by the side of the road that says 15 miles to the love shack - love shack, yeah.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with RuPaul, the creator and host of the reality competition series "RuPaul's Drag Race," in which drag queens compete to become America's next drag superstar. The 12th season of the show is now underway on VH1. Earlier, we were talking about how he started performing in Atlanta in the '80s, when he was in punk bands and dressed in a punk style of drag as a rebellion against the status quo. In the '90s, after moving to New York, he created what he calls his glamazon image, the image he became famous for.
So I want to get back to when you went to New York, and you started, like, changing your drag to more of a glam thing. What was the scene you were part of then?
RUPAUL: I was part of the Village people.
RUPAUL: Not that Village People.
RUPAUL: But, you know, the kids down below 14th Street. There was a huge scene down there. It was different than it is today. But it was - we were the children of Warhol. We were the children of David Bowie. And all things were possible. So it was - there was a club scene. And back then, there were so many clubs. You could go to six different nightclubs per night, and we're talking Monday through Sunday. You could go every night to a different nightclub. And back then, the clubs were filled with everyone - straight, gay, black, white, Puerto Rican, uptown, downtown, men, women, everybody. And that was the scene. That tapestry of what New York is, or was, was so evident in the nightclub scene. And it was fabulous. It was gorgeous. I'm so proud that I - and so happy I got to experience that.
GROSS: Did you ever become part of the ball scene?
RUPAUL: Not really. I went to balls. But, you know, the kids at the ballroom were from a different - they weren't the children of Warhol. They weren't the David Bowie kids. They were kids who were shut out with society and wanted to emulate what society was doing - right? - or what high society was doing. We were the kids who were making fun of high society in a knowing - in a conscious way, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Mmm hmm. No, I - yeah, I get that. So when you started to do a more kind of glam drag, how did you find your look?
RUPAUL: Well, what happened was I - in 1989, I had been crowned the queen of Manhattan, which was an annual event that club owners and society newspaper columnists and everybody would get together and vote on. And that year it was myself and Kenny Kenny, who is a famous door person. And he was crowned - Kenny Kenny was crowned the king of New York, and I was the queen.
So when my reign ended in September of 1990, I decided, OK, I need to go above ground. I need to go above 14th street, so to speak. And I got serious, and I started - I worked on a demo tape so I could send it to a record company. And that's what I did for a year. I worked on a demo and basically ate popcorn and seltzer water from the Film Forum because I had a friend who worked there, and so that's how I sustained myself. And I'd do, you know, a little - few gigs here and there, but I wasn't in the clubs every night like I had been.
And in '92, I got a record deal with Tommy Boy Records, which was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Records. And I had also met with Mathu and Zaldy, two visual designers - costume, makeup, everything. And we had come up with my look, which was then elevated from my "Soul Train" dancer look, which I had been for the queen of Manhattan, to the glamazon that you know today, which was - it's very studied and precise. And so that's how that look - and that's how that look came about.
But also, I knew that, commercially, and as someone who's paying attention, that if I wanted to make it mainstream, I would have to be nonthreatening to Betty and Joe Beercan (ph). And what I did was I came up with a recipe, which was one part Cher, two parts David Bowie, one part...
RUPAUL: ...You know, Diana Ross and two heaping spoonfuls of Dolly Parton. And I took the - what would be perceived by Betty and Joe Beercan as subversive sexuality, I took that out of the equation, and people responded.
GROSS: So what was the part that you think Joe and Betty Beercan would have found threatening?
RUPAUL: Well, the - they think of drag as a subversive sexuality. And we all know that Americans especially are afraid of sex. We Americans are afraid of sex and sexuality. So that was the part. And that was the part that every famous drag queen who had come before me had not taken out of the equation - you know, Divine or - you know, I grew up watching Flip Wilson do drag as Geraldine on television. So - and Harvey Korman in drag on "The Carol Burnett Show." But that was sort of straight men's version of women, and that was actually more misogynistic than...
GROSS: Yeah, I was going to say it's almost like mocking women.
RUPAUL: Yes. Yeah. But...
GROSS: Yeah. Milton Berle, also, in earlier days.
RUPAUL: Right. So that's how the look came about.
GROSS: You know, you described earlier that when you started wearing your gender F-word drag, you were surprised to see how many straight men kind of stared at you in a sexual way, and you weren't used to that. So when you started doing your glamazon look, what kind of reaction did you get from straight men?
RUPAUL: Well, I wasn't around any straight men. I was...
RUPAUL: By the time I got famous, I wasn't around just people hanging out in the club. I wasn't doing that. But, you know, before I got famous, I would hang out because, you know, I like to smoke a little, you know. I'm born in 1960, you know. But I haven't smoked a joint in 20 years or had a drink in 20 years. But when I got famous, I was ushered in, I came in a limousine, I'd go through the stage door, go on stage and then go back to that limousine and back to the hotel. So I wasn't (laughter) - there was no real reaction with everyday people. I got that reaction when I was in clubs in - you know, when I was hanging out in clubs in New York and in Atlanta, you know. But no, I was - I'm never around everyday people (laughter).
GROSS: Is that because you'll be recognized or...
RUPAUL: No. No, it's because I'm working. I'm going to work.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
RUPAUL: I'm not even sort of sitting around with people. I'm either waiting to go onstage or, you know, leaving stage. You know what I mean?
GROSS: You're not hanging out.
RUPAUL: No. No, I'm at work.
GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned your recipe for creating your glam drag image, and you mentioned Dolly Parton, and you mentioned Cher. I mean, there's certain kind of, like, classics for people who do drag, and that includes, you know, Cher and Liza and Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, of course. Like, what do you think it is about them that have made them some of, like, the classics that people in drag have modeled themselves over?
RUPAUL: Well, I'll tell you exactly what it is. It is that they embody both strength and vulnerability, and that is what the child in you and me and everyone listening remembers. Deep in the recesses of your consciousness who - you, sweet listener - on the plane just last week - I don't know how many times I've seen Judy's "Star Is Born." But I fast-forwarded to these two scenes specifically that really get me and that really exemplify that strength and the vulnerability at the same time because - by the way, dear listener, vulnerability is strength. I know. Look it up. You'll figure it out one day. There's a scene in the beginning when she sings the song written for her for this movie, "The Man That Got Away."
GROSS: Oh, God. I love that so much.
RUPAUL: Oh, my goodness. This is Judy Garland singing live on a soundstage. She's not lip syncing herself. She is singing live on a soundstage, singing - and she tears that song up, tears it up. And then there's the scene later - and I get choked up when I talk about it even - where she's doing - she's dressed up like a clown. She's got the freckles painted on. And she does this killer number. And they say, OK, Vicki, take five. We're going to come in later for the close-up. She goes to the dressing room. And she - and the studio head comes and talks to her. And she talks about her husband and how hard it is dealing with someone who she loves so much who is so self-destructive. And she - as an actor, she gives you everything.
I actually have a tear for - dear listener, in my eye, as I'm wiping it away right now. She gives you everything and then goes back out to do the close-ups - she's shooting a film within this film - and tears it up again. And you think, my goodness, the ability to oscillate between those two emotions. The strength and the vulnerability is what we are doing on this planet. And that balance, dear listener, is what life is all about; it's not one or the other. And all of these women that you talked about - Cher and Diana and, you know, all of - Barbra - they all exemplify - and Joan, the queen of Hollywood...
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, yes.
RUPAUL: ...Exemplify that vulnerability and strength, that duality.
GROSS: Did you ever see Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar?" Because it's such a different side of her.
RUPAUL: Absolutely, with Mercedes McCambridge. My goodness.
GROSS: Yeah. Do you love that film?
RUPAUL: Oh, my goodness.
GROSS: Me, too (laughter). Yeah.
RUPAUL: Just - for the slacks alone.
GROSS: She's very butch in it.
RUPAUL: Yes. Oh, my goodness. I love - she's - Wow.
GROSS: OK. And while we're talking about "The Man That Got Away," do you love the outtake version that they added later in the restoration?
RUPAUL: Oh, my goodness. I think the restoration is brilliant, even where they show the stills.
RUPAUL: It adds another layer of texture to the film that, you know, they could never have conceived, you know, in making it. But for you guys who don't know, they lost some of the footage that was cut out because Jack Warner thought it was too long. They cut it out; they put it back in the restoration, and they used stills from the film with dialogue from the film - stills. And they do that sort of Ken Burns, you know, sort of zoom in to a still thing, and it actually is beautiful. It's fabulous. It actually - it creates a deeper narrative to the film that they could have never conceived in making it. It's a masterpiece.
GROSS: You know, listening to you talk about how, like, everything in life is an illusion, there seems to be part of you that has this very kind of, like, mystical view of life. And at the same time, there seems to be a part of you that just has a very alienated (laughter) view of life. Do you see a kind of duality in yourself like that?
RUPAUL: Absolutely. Both are true at the same time. That is what you - one finds. Once you, the seeker, once you go out to find the truth, you realize that both are true and that you - it's not just one or the other; both exist simultaneously. Two opposite views can absolutely exist at the same time.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is RuPaul, and the new season of "RuPaul's Drag Race," Season 12, is underway on VH1. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALTRUDA & HIS COCKTAIL CREW'S "A MARTINI FOR MANCINI")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is RuPaul, and Season 12 of "RuPaul's Drag Race" is underway on VH1. So let's talk about your life today. You and your husband have - what? - 60 acres in Wyoming and South Dakota.
RUPAUL: Oh, no, no, no.
RUPAUL: No, no, no. Sixty thousand acres.
GROSS: Sixty thousand acres?
RUPAUL: Sixty thousand acres.
GROSS: That's like a national park.
RUPAUL: Yeah. Yeah. It's a lot.
GROSS: What are you doing with them? I mean - that came out a little weird.
GROSS: But I mean, do you have, like, horses or cattle or a farm or...
RUPAUL: Well, a modern ranch, 21st century ranch, is really land management. It is - you lease the mineral rights to oil companies. And you sell water to oil companies. And then you lease the grazing rights to different ranchers. So it's land management. Yeah.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to live on a ranch? I mean, you're so, like, New York, Atlanta.
RUPAUL: I am...
GROSS: And LA. Yeah.
RUPAUL: I'm adaptable. This is the secret of my success - is that I can adapt to whatever. And that is the strongest suit - power that each of us holds - is our ability to adapt and, you know, staying flexible. You know, I always say that, you know, being youthful is about being flexible, both literally and figuratively. In this life, if you can stay flexible, you have a really good chance of navigating a really rich experience for yourself on this planet.
GROSS: What's it like for you to be on 60,000 acres and away from an urban center?
RUPAUL: I have no problem with that. I am very - I'm like - I'm not a phone person. Like, I don't sit and look at my phone or drive and look at my phone or walk down the street and look at my phone. I like to be aware of what's happening. And I like to see - I like to be present for what the universe has for me. So I meditate, and I pray. And I have a lovely time paying attention to the stillness. And there's a lot of stillness on the ranch.
GROSS: When you pray, are you praying to a god?
RUPAUL: I'm praying to a higher power. But, you know, if you think of our brains as an operating system like, say, OS - I don't know what we're on now. Let's say OS 25. Even that operating system can't understand the concept of what God is. So God is the word we use for that which cannot be described. So I don't need to know what it is. I just need to know that it is. Can I get an amen up in here?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So is being the host of "RuPaul's Drag Race" a big responsibility in the sense that you're kind of, like, the matriarch of a certain part of drag culture? And the way people present themselves on your show is going to have a profound effect on their future. And so...
RUPAUL: So to answer the first question - is it a big responsibility? - no. I host a TV show. It's just a TV show, you know? And a profound effect, that's - if it's profound, that's your business. It ain't none of my business. A profound effect on your life? Great. Sure. I've done lots of - I did "The Gong Show" 30...
GROSS: Oh, no.
GROSS: Did you really?
RUPAUL: I did, 33...
GROSS: Oh, I have to hear about this.
RUPAUL: It was in '88. It was in 1988 here in Los Angeles. I didn't win, but I didn't get gonged either. Salt-N-Pepa...
GROSS: What was your act?
RUPAUL: I sang one of my original songs. But an Elvis impersonator won that show. I did not win. Salt-N-Pepa were judges. And last week, I did a special celebrity episode of "The Price Is Right" in the very same studio. So long story long...
RUPAUL: ...Profound effect? I could have - I didn't get gonged. I could have ended my career there. That's up to me. That's my decision. But I just host a television show. It's fun. We have a lot of fun. But it's not that big a deal. It's not that big a deal to me. But if it's a big deal to you, right on, lady. Go for it. Do your thing.
RUPAUL: But, you know, I'm just - I'm living my life.
GROSS: RuPaul, it has just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show. It's been just such a pleasure.
RUPAUL: It was a joy. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: RuPaul is the creator and host of the reality competition series "RuPaul's Drag Race." The 12th season is now underway on VH1. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will have an appreciation of pianist McCoy Tyner, who became famous as a member of John Coltrane's quartet. Tyner died Friday. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "THE SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.