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RuPaul on David Bowie, Natalie Cole, and 100 Episodes of ‘Drag Race’ Herstory

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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This is a busy week for Sir RuPaul Charles – as he of course should always be known – with the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 premiere (the groundbreaking reality series’ 100th episode, featuring its 100th contestant) and the release of his 11th album, Butch Queen. The new album, which Ru sickeningly describes as “if I had a Harlem vogue ball, this would be the soundtrack,” features a guest spot by ‘80s diva Taylor Dayne, continuing a long tradition of Ru duets (or “Ru-ets”) that has included collabos with Lady Gaga, Martha Wash, Big Freedia, and even Sir Elton John. When asked by Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks about his dream duet partners, RuPaul unsurprisingly namechecks Dolly Parton and Cher, but also says he wishes he’d had the chance to work with another one of his idols: the late gender-bending glam pioneer David Bowie.

As it turns out, Bowie was definitely aware of RuPaul; we can only dream what might have been. “I saw an interview with him from 1997, and he’s talking about Lou Reed’s Transformers [which Bowie produced], and he’s talking about each track,” RuPaul recalls. “And he’s asked, ‘Who do you think could cover these tracks today?’ And he says, ‘I think RuPaul would be good for this track [“Make Up”] here.’ I’d never seen that interview until recently, and it just blew my mind.”

One late musical icon that RuPaul did get to work with was Natalie Cole, one of his favorite Drag Race musical guest stars (along with Henry Rollins and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams), and the guest judge of one of his all-time favorite Drag Race lip-sync showdowns (“This Will Be” by Dida Ritz and the Princess, from Season 4). RuPaul, who at age 55 has basically done and seen it all, gets philosophical when reflecting on Cole’s recent passing.

“I’ve known her for many, many years. You know, it’s interesting, this life. People come and go, but really, but when you leave such a wealth of entertainment and beauty behind, you never really go. We’ve also had one of our girls, [Season 2 contestant] Sahara Davenport, move on [Davenport died of heart failure in 2012]. But she lives through this show. So is there such a thing as death? I don’t think so.”

On a lighter note, Ru’s absolute favorite “lip-sync for your life” in Drag Race herstory is “Whip My Hair,” by Alyssa Edwards and the fabulously double-wigged Roxxxy Andrews. Enjoy:

But like RuPaul – who, after making a name for himself in the Atlanta and NYC club scenes and singing for the early-‘80s punk band Wee Wee Pole, launched his pop recording career with the 1986 low-budget soundtrack album Star Booty, first appeared on MTV dancing in the “Love Shack” video by fellow Georgia scenemakers the B-52’s, and then infiltrated the mainstream in 1993 with the Billboard Hot 100 hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” – there are some musically talented Drag Race alumni venturing beyond just lip-synching. Adore Delano, Sharon Needles, Alaska 5000, Courtney Act, and Jinkx Monsoon are among the past contestants with charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent that have released credible, iTunes-charting original albums. (Jinkx’s album even features a duet with the B-52’s’ Fred Schneider, in what seems like a real torch-passing moment)

“In New York, I was go-go dancing up on the bar at the Pyramid Club, and I got attention that way and got people in the mainstream business interested in me. This show has now become the ‘bar of the Pyramid’ – where [today’s young drag queens] can actually launch a career from the ground zero,” RuPaul declares.

When asked if he gets proper credit for his trailblazing musical career, RuPaul just shrugs, exhibiting Jinkx’s own “water off a duck’s back” attitude. “Years ago, I made a deal with myself to not put so much emphasis on a) being taken seriously or b) getting the credit that I feel I deserve,” he says. “Because the way that I’ve constructed my whole career is based on really being an outsider. I made a deal with myself when I was 15 that I would never bite the apple; I would never succumb to the Matrix. That was the only way I thought I could possibly get through this life… I said to myself, ‘Listen, if you can do this without buying into society’s level of importance, you’ll be fine.’ So therefore, it doesn’t matter if they give me credit. Some of the greatest things on earth, the greatest people, never get credit… I feel comfortable just having fun. If I can have fun, that’s all the cred I need.”

(Incidentally, it was at age 15 that RuPaul hit another milestone: He won the titles of both Best Dancer and Best Afro in his ninth-grade class. Condragulations, Ru.)

However, with Drag Race now airing its 100th episode, RuPaul is in a reflective mood, and is un-RuPaul-ogetically willing to acknowledge just how influential and important the Logo talent competition has been. “I think people understand, because of the show, what it takes to fulfill your dream and to have a desire to be yourself, and to go after that. I think what keeps people there after all these years is the tenacity of the human spirit. You get to see these little boys, who come from all over the United States, who were outsiders, stumble onto drag and realize, ‘This is a hoot, this is so much fun, and this is a way for me to deal with the mundane hypocrisy of everyday life.’ So I think young kids who are watching this show think, 'You know, somewhere there is a place for me – and it’s probably out of this Podunk town. But somewhere, my tribe is waiting for me.’

“Now, will Middle America understand the deeper levels of what drag is? I don’t know. I don’t know if they’ll ever understand anything. That’s their business. But I do know that the people that are looking for that sort of guidance can find it in our show – the same way that I found that guidance in my idols, and tuning in and watching Monty Python as a kid and going, ‘This is my tribe! This is the irreverence, the drag, the breaking the rules and laughing about it.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

Butch Queen is available now. The queen-sized Season 8 RuPaul’s Drag Race premiere airs Monday, March 7 on Logo. You. Betta. Watch.

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