RuPaul Charles’s days in Wee Wee Pole, the band he fronted when he was a fixture on Atlanta’s early-’80s queer new wave/punk scene, are long gone. And lamentably, he tells Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks that only a bit of grainy VHS footage and a few tracks on the vinyl compilation Sex Freak provide any evidence of this underground era. But three-plus decades, eight regular RuPaul’s Drag Race seasons, 100-plus Drag Race episodes, and one 2016 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Reality Host later, RuPaul is still totally punk-rock.
“[The punk and drag scenes] are similar because both communities question the status quo — and not just question the status quo, but actually take on a lifestyle, a way of life, that lives completely off the grid and outside of what we’re supposed to do,” says Ru, whose second annual DragCon convention recently hosted a “Drag Is Punk” panel featuring Henry Rollins and Alice Bag. “From childhood, we’re trained to be a certain way, to behave a certain way — so that the power base can control us, really. And punk and drag are completely outside of that. And that why [punk’s] important; it’s why I was always attracted to it.”
True to his punk roots, Ru is still outspoken and political, as evidenced by his passionate speech at this year’s Logo Trailblazer Honors — delivered just days after the horrific attack at Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse — when he stared down the camera and fiercely asserted, “Don’t f— with my family.”
Recalling that moment, and the Orlando tragedy in general, RuPaul tells Yahoo, “Unfortunately, as we move forward as human beings, a lot of blood is still yet to be shed. Because there are entities that don’t want that forward movement. I hate to say it, but I’ve been on the planet [a long time], and that’s what happens when you move forward. There will be fatalities. It’s just awful. It doesn’t get easier.”
Ru remains cautiously optimistic about the current social and political climate, saying it’s “very possible” that an LGBT candidate could get elected to the Oval Office in his lifetime, and adding: “I think our culture is moving forward — slowly. And also, as we move forward, we’re witnessing some of the old stalwarts rejecting that forward motion. So it’s the best of times, and it’s also the worst of times… I think that this forward movement that we’re experiencing now — which is in its infancy, I think — will continue. It will continue unless fear-based ideas take over, which could easily happen. You know, we have fear, and we have love. Throughout my life, I have always believed in love; I’ve always put my heart in love. But I’ve seen fear take people so often. It’s very scary.”
As for whether he has his own fears about the outcome of this year’s Presidential election, RuPaul says, “No, I’m not afraid of it, because I believe even if the worst happens, it may accelerate this forward motion. It may invigorate people to even push harder into the 21st century.”
The fact that 23,000 people, from all walks of life, attended Ru’s above-mentioned DragCon convention this year is a heartening sign that society is evolving, but Ru is quick to realistically point out: “You know, when you travel around the country, those 23,000 people get absorbed into the great unwashed, and it almost feels like it doesn’t make an impact! Especially when you look at this election. Regardless of who the New York guy [Donald Trump] is or what his craziness is, if you focus on the people who are following it, that’s even more dangerous! The people who are actually buying that crap! That’s more dangerous. So yeah, 23,000 is significant at DragCon — but most people are still living in the Dark Ages.”
All this societal upheaval and unrest makes Ru’s Emmy nomination — for a show on the niche gay cable network Logo — all the more significant in 2016. But ever in line with his punk-rock ethos, RuPaul doesn’t seem too excited about the mainstream honor. “I’ve always lived my life outside of the status quo, and I’ve been able to, you know, become a name outside of the system. So when the system says, ‘We acknowledge you,’ I can’t all of a sudden just say, ‘OK, OK, you acknowledge me! I’m gonna lift up my panties now and let you have your way!’ There’s a part of me that I wouldn’t say is resistant, but I would just say kind of unmoved by it.
“I really don’t expect to win,” he continues. “I’ve never said this out loud before. But I don’t really expect to. I feel like it’s almost like a gesture by the Academy to say, ‘Hey, we are a part of this forward movement.’ But they are still the establishment.”
Still, RuPaul acknowledges that his nomination — alongside more mainstream hosts Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars), Steve Harvey (Little Big Shots), Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn (Project Runway), Jane Lynch (Hollywood Game Night), and Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) — means a great deal to devoted Drag Race fans. “Everyone wants to be recognized. Everyone wants to know that the world has said, ‘We see you.’ On Twitter all the time, people write to me: ‘Please see me, please notice me!’ And I know what they’re really saying is, ‘Please fill this God-sized hole I feel in my life.’… So I think what it would mean to the fans around the world if our show got recognized with an Emmy, it just says: ‘You exist. You exist, and we see you.’”
RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 2 premieres on Logo Aug. 25, while Season 9 of the regular competition is currently in production. The 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will air on Sept. 18, and even if winning an Emmy isn’t very punk-rock, we’re still totally rooting for Ru.