IT WAS right and fitting that RuPaul Charles, America's most famous drag queen, should be headlining at Las Vegas because Las Vegas is a city of transformations. Seen across the desert at dusk, the distant city seems to float on the sands, rising glittering out of nowhere, its towers gleaming like the land of Oz. Even up close and tawdry, Las Vegas is still about achieving the impossible: winning $1m, staying in a hotel based on an Egyptian pyramid or watching magicians Siegfried and Roy make whi te tigers disappear into thin air. RuPaul's performance was actually one of the more normal events there.
RuPaul was playing at the Sahara, which is among Las Vegas's older hotels. In the lobby a young woman with a 50in bust wobbled on 6in spike heels past the reception desk. Her enormous breasts, which were squeezed into violet latex, threatened to overbalance her tiny frame, and she clung to the arm of her escort, a stolid man with a greasy pony-tail. A few yards away tottered a bleached blonde whose equally vast bosom was strapped into a black vinyl corset. And there were others: in red rubber mini-dresses and black leather and skyscraper heels, some with siliconed lips grossly puffed out to match their painfully bulging breasts.
As a girl wearing a perfectly transparent nylon dress over black underwear walked past, I wondered if I'd stumbled across some peculiar Vegas dress code - perhaps women from all over the country came here for the chance to parade naked - or maybe they were simply hookers working the hotel. There was another explanation. The Sahara was hosting the Consumer Electronics Fair, and these women belonged to the Adult Entertainment division: they were porn stars come to promote their videos. That n ight, RuPaulpaid them tribute during his encore: "Since you are all so wonderful - since you are all so surgically enhanced - I'm going to sing another number," he cooed before launching into ``Viva Las Vegas!"
RuPaul was the most successful female transformation in the place, and all without surgery. He'd first walked out on stage in a flesh-coloured sequinned body-stocking, creating a masterful illusion of cleavage: "I am RuPaul, Queen of Las Vegas," he announced, pirouetting for the audience. "And this is the front and this is the back." The performance is an incantation summoning up a series of Vegas divas: it opens with a pin-up slide show in homage to Ann-Margret, then Ru bounces on stage flanked by twohunky dancers a la Madonna, changes into dress after dress by Cher's favourite designer Bob Mackie and delivers sexual innuendo like Tina Turner, the whole thing wrapped in a silvery pop glamour inspired by his greatest idol, Miss Diana Ross. Outside they were selling T-shirts and programmes emblazoned: RuPaul - snatched for the gods.
I FIRST met RuPaul in the summer of 1991, when we ended up sharing an apartment that belonged to his managers. I was renting it, and as he had nowhere else to live he more or less came with the premises. When I first arrived late one night from the airport with all my suitcases I found a very tall young African-American with a shaved head and light brown skin and freckles folded up on the couch intently watching his favourite film. This was his own version of Mommie Dearest, which he had re-edited so that all his favourite moments were repeated several times.
As I sat down to watch, Faye Dunaway, playing Joan Crawford, was dementedly screaming "Christina! Christina!" over and over as she threatened her daughter with a wire coat- hanger. "Look at her," Ru said, gazing raptly into the blue light of the screen, "she's so kabuki. Every gesture means something. She's a total drag queen."
I found out later that Ru had not only read more or less every star biography ever published, but had re-read them. He would watch his favourite movies over and over again with the deep concentration of a young Zen master, calm and focused as he deconstructed their performances, searching for the lessons within. That summer, Cher had a hit single, and he would play the record 15 or 16 times in a row. There were some drawbacks to sharing an apartment with RuPaul.
This was a traumatic time for him. For years he had been a star on a downtown drag scene and now he had cut himself off from the world. He had retreated into himself, to study and prepare and gather strength for the big leap forward, to try and crack themainstream. The other queens were furious. "They felt threatened," he says now, "because I'd quit drinking, quit doing drugs, started doing aerobics. Everybody was ragging on me, everybody put me down. I lost all my friends - that was the hardest. We'd all come to New York to become stars and we'd achieved that on a certain level, but I wanted to take it higher."
In those days it was a mystery how Ru survived. He had no money and lived off breakfast cereal and the free popcorn and seltzer he'd get from his friends who worked at the art cinema around the corner. He'd cut himself off from the world and had yet to make it in another. And if he didn't make it - having so much emotional investment in stardom - what was he to do? The long-term prospects of a drag queen are not bright.
His managers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbado, were a music duo called the Pop Tarts, with a television production company, World of Wonder, who had just had a big success in Britain with "Manhattan Cable". "Every moment that RuPaul is not a superstar isa crime against mankind," Fenton would say. He and Randy had taken on RuPaul's management as a kind of personal crusade. "Drag is the punk of the Nineties" was another catchphrase. There were no immediate signs of drag's mass appeal, but by the following January they'd scored a coup, signing RuPaul to an important independent label, Tommy Boy records. A few months later I was in the grocery store and heard Ru's first record "Supermodel" come over the radio, and I knew something was working.
By the time he got his first big television break, an appearance on Arsenio Hall's talk show, he was more than ready. He'd been rehearsing his whole life.
THAT SUMMER, when I mentioned that I was sharing an apartment with a drag queen, there would be the inevitable jokes about not letting him borrow my clothes. But what on earth would there have been in my closet that RuPaul would want to wear? I had no marabou, no sequinned mini-dresses, no thigh-high black vinyl boots. Ru himself says: "When people say `You dress like a woman,' I say I don't think I do, because women really don't dress like this. I dress like our cultural made-up version of what feminin ity is, which isn't real." Or, as The Philosophy of Andy Warhol puts it, "Drag queens are ambulatory archives of movie star womanhood."
In real life RuPaul never wore women's clothes, or even a touch of make-up; he was just a very tall, pleasant-looking but in no way remarkable young man in a baseball cap who had trouble getting cabs just like any other black man in America. He was soft spoken but not noticeably effeminate and in private life was sweet and quiet, almost withdrawn, as if half his energy was being siphoned off to feed the flamboyant star monster within. The transformation into RuPaul, drag queen, was a process that took three or four hours in the bathroom (luckily there were two bathrooms in the apartment), involving an arcane and mysterious process of tucking and binding and painting before the appearance of the astonishing supernatural beauty that was the diva RuPaul. And at that point one naturally stopped referring to "him" and began to say "she".
One night I went with Ru's friend Alison, who worked at World of Wonder, to a fashion opening. Ru, who is 7ft tall in heels, was resplendent in a glittering silver mini and a new blonde wig. Alison and I were dressed in the New York working woman's uniform of black and grey and trotted along the pavement like two drab little peahens following a peacock, prompting thoughts that it might be bad for the confidence to spend too much time around drag queens.
We got into a taxi, and after Ru told him the address the driver turned round to this Diana Ross lookalike and smirked "Yes, sir." It was an unkind moment, a moment of gratuitous rudeness, but Ru's face betrayed not a flicker of reaction. Perhaps after alifetime of such remarks it had no sting, but I wondered about RuPaul's secret history and how much pain and persecution it might hold. If he had suffered he never talked about it, preferring to accentuate the positive. On- and off-stage he has his own private philosophy, a mixture of the Baptist church, self-help theory and New Age mysticism, and at Las Vegas there are moments when his show takes on the sound of gospel incantation. Now dressed in shocking pink chiffon trimmed with marabou, he strides across the stage preaching to "my gay brothers and sisters . . .
"The day I started lovin' myself, that's the day I got snatched for the gods. Do I hear another Amen in here? Love is a powerful thing - everybody say love!"
RuPaul loves films like Mahogany and Imitation of Life that tell the story of poor girls struggling their way to stardom. Ru grew up blue collar; his mother worked as a hairdresser in San Diego, California, after his father abandoned the family. As a child he was sensitive and feminine, loving his older sisters, who "taught me everything about pop culture. I grew up on the Cher show and Miss Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand - I thought I was Funny Girl. But I also loved the male divas like Liberace or Ja mes Brown or David Bowie. I learnt from all of them, you know."
At 14 he was writing BOWIE over every surface he could find, cutting classes and misbehaving in school until they threw him out. His favourite sister, Renetta, rescued him and took him with her to Atlanta when she moved there with her husband. Atlanta - home of Little Richard, the original Queen of Rock 'n' Roll - proved to be a godsend for a young gay teenager, as it was a haven for nonconformity.
After dropping out of high school, Ru grew his hair in a Mohican and formed a punk band, RuPaul and the U-Hauls, to play the local New Wave clubs. These were the early Reagan years, when arty kids were revelling in the shock tactics of what they called "Gender fuck, where you wear combat boots, a ratty wig, smear some lipstick all over your face. We were just downtown kids who were anti-establishment and doing experimental stuff, performance art. But nothing too serious - it was all done with a wink."
It was in these young punk days that RuPaul Charles had a transfigurative experience. A band he was friends with were holding a mock wedding on stage in which everybody cross-dressed. Ru was one of the bridesmaids. "It was the first time I'd ever dressedup in glamorous drag, where I put in socks for breasts and shaved my legs, and really went all out for this. And the reaction I got from people was incredible, and from that moment I was hooked. From that moment I understood the power of drag, and couldfeel that power in myself."
This power was clearly not a sexual thing. Although his older sister once tactfully slipped him an article about Christine Jorgenson's sex change ("What is she trying to tell me? I thought . . .") Ru has never been unhappy with his own body or his identity as a gay man. He says he is not a transvestite, which he defines as "More of a fetish thing. A transvestite wants to wear what a real woman would wear: a smart little business suit." For RuPaul, becoming a drag queen is something to do with persona, with unleashing the power of the woman within. For him, putting on drag for the first time "was like a superhero putting on his costume and coming into his own."
However, a drag queen doesn't want to be just any woman: hence the fascination with Mommie Dearest and all the other great movie- star bitches. "All the divas whom the queens love, like a Barbra Streisand or a Diana Ross or a Joan Crawford or a Bette Davis, have that bad reputation, because in our culture if a woman shows strength we call her a bitch. But we queens who have taken these women on as our idols understand what it takes to make something happen. And when you have something of beauty, you have to have a monster to protect it. When you have a princess, you need a monster or a beast there to protect this beauty because otherwise it'll be taken advantage of. And these women have to take on the role of both the princess and the beast."
For Ru, the persona of a tough movie diva allows one to reconcile both the male and female side. "It's a beautiful balance. It's being able to cry when you feel sad and laugh when you feel happy and also kick some ass when you want to. And people relate to that. People are hypnotised by the duality of the masculine and feminine in one organism. When you see a man get into drag it's like seeing the dark side of the moon."
Ru has been attacked by Ebony magazine for wearing a blonde wig, but protests, "Who says I'm any less African-American because I wear blonde hair? I decided I was going to use the most powerful images our culture has created to skyrocket to fame: blonde hair. Big boobs. Long legs. It's Barbie! Dolly Parton, who's no fool, did the same thing. So did Madonna."
"In a previous age Ru would have been completely marginalised and excluded," explains Randy Barbado, when discussing RuPaul's career, and it's true. Although there was a brief "pansy craze" for drag balls and gay cabaret in America in the 1930s, up untilthe end of the 1960s drag was illegal: the only night a drag queen could go out on the streets dressed as a woman without fear of arrest was Halloween, which is why it is still such a cherished night for them. Eventually persecution of drag queens helped spark the Stonewall riots that launched gay liberation.
In the late Sixties that drag culture began to slowly emerge from the underground. As Andy Warhol wrote in Popism, "As late as '67, drag queens still weren't accepted in the mainstream freak circles. They were still hanging around where they'd always hung around - on the fringes, around the big cities, usually in crummy little hotels, sticking to their own circles - outcasts with bad teeth and body odour and cheap make-up and creepy clothes."
These were the drag queens photographed by Diane Arbus, the ones with stubble peering through pancake make-up and badly plucked eyebrows. Men with hairy legs in curlers sitting around grim little rooms with threadbare carpets and dirty windows. Deviants.
Outcasts. "But then," Warhol wrote, "just like drugs had come into the average person's life, sexual blurs did, too, and people began identifying a little more with drag queens, seeing them more as `sexual radicals' than as depressing losers." Warhol ha d a great deal to do with this, as he did for taking so much of the gay sensibility mainstream. The patron saint of Sixties drag was Candy Darling, an exquisitely beautiful boy from Long Island (born Jimmy Slattery) who became a Warhol superstar and appeared in his movies Flesh and Women In Revolt. She was charming, witty, vulnerable ("How often do you have your period, Candy?" Warhol once asked her maliciously. "Every day, Andy - I'm such a woman," Candy replied) and ended up a martyr to the cause of t ransformation. Candy took many illegal and dangerous hormone injections as a preliminary to a sex change and died of cancer of the blood at the age of 30.
RuPaul is to Candy Darling what Madonna is to Marilyn Monroe - a tough post-modern re-working of a lost idol, keeping the glamour and hoping to lose the unhappy ending. So far RuPaul is the only downtown drag-queen diva to make the mainstream, and he hasbroken through in a way that has far outstripped anyone's predictions. He's almost a household name; he's a frequent talk show guest, Disney has commissioned a short film and is considering putting him in a feature. Fenton and Randy say, hyperbolically,that they won't rest until he becomes "an all-American icon like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Coca-Cola, Big Mac."
Why has he made it where the others haven't? One reason is that while remaining strongly gay-identified he has managed to project a kind of benevolent asexuality. On stage (now in an A-line white Lurex mini-dress) RuPaul dances around hugging a giant teddy bear, as if to emphasise his own harmlessness. He takes the most threatening images American society has to offer - black man, homosexual, transvestite - and renders them unthreatening and lovable. His persona is that of a kindly cartoon character, a friendly creature from another planet; in other words, RuPaul is ET.
Most drag-queen divas, like Ru's former friend and colleague Lady Bunny, are famous for their whiplash tongues. "Traditionally little boys who become drag queens have been smeared, have been put down, so once they get the power, once they get the microphone in their hand they start to do what the oppressor did. But I never do the bitchy thing," Ru says.
On stage he teases rather than intimidates his audience. At one point he invites questions from the crowd, and when asked: "Who does your make-up?" he turns to them, batting his false eyelashes, and says: "But I don't wear make-up! Really, I don't wear make-up. I prefer a natural look . . ."
I have a feeling that no one needs to worry too much about RuPaul's future: he's reached the safety zone. He seems set for a successful career as a personality and actor, if not necessarily as a singer (after the first hit the recording career never quite took off) and in this his career has coincided with, and indeed helped propel, the mainstreaming of drag in America. Hollywood is drag crazy. First there was Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire, then Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a surprise hit. DannyAiello dragged up in Pret-a-Porter, Johnny Depp put on angora as Ed Wood; recently Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes squeezed into high heels for Beeban Kidran's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, which some say is based on the story of RuPaul.
Why does everyone suddenly find drag queens lovable? Is it, as Warhol said, because we are in a time of gender confusion? Fenton and Randy see it in another way, as a product of the new electronic age. "An industrial society is about suppressing identity, but in an information age what is at a premium is individuality, something you can market." What was once taboo becomes another form of entertainment choice, of lifestyle.
As for RuPaul, he persists in his evangelical view. "Once you believe you are what they tell you, you are lost. It's important for us to remember we are not these bodies, we are not these clothes. If I thought I was just an African-American gay male . . .'' he shakes his head at the thought of how bleak his future would be ". . . but I think of myself as RuPaul, an extension of the power that created the universe."
The message makes sense when you see RuPaul's audience and how many gay couples there are mixed in with the jolly matrons and package tours in this Las Vegas crowd. Very few mainstream Hollywood entertainers have come out of the closet, and for a black male performer it is almost unheard of. At the finale, when RuPaul emerged in a white and silver winged victory outfit, like an enormous car bonnet ornament, he thanked everyone, including "my gay brothers and sisters", before encouraging them to follow their dreams: "All my dreams have come true. I'm a 9ft tall black drag queen - there were no openings. Everybody said it wouldn't work."
I turn to look at a rather straight-looking man at the table next to me and see that he is applauding furiously, his eyes filled with tears.
Everybody say love. !
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