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Long before he was the Supermodel of the World or the Emmy-winning host of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a young Atlanta drag queen named RuPaul Charles got his first big mainstream break in the 1989 music video for “Love Shack,” by fellow out-of-bounds Georgians the B-52’s. Wearin’ next to nothin’ (or, more specifically, a lavender halter/hot pants matching set and massive Afro wig), ‘cause it was hot as an oven, RuPaul shook his cosmic thing, danced this mess around, and busted out some supremely funky moves in that funky little shack. And the rest was herstory.
“He was already really working on his look, his star look,” B-52’s frontman Fred Schneider tells Yahoo Music with a chuckle. “He got the line-dance going, that’s for sure!”
RuPaul recently told Billboard: “The big story — and the B’s always remind me this — is that they wanted to do a Soul Train line. They couldn’t. It wasn’t going right. So I had to step in and say, ‘OK, listen. This is how you do a Soul Train line.’ It’s like two wheels that are sort of smashing pasta out; it’s like a pasta machine. The two wheels have to be rotating. So when the two people are going down the middle, the line is actually in rotation, so it replenishes the two new people that come down the middle. They were very impressed by the fact that I was able to do that.”
Four years later, RuPaul was back on MTV, werking it as a solo pop star, and his debut studio album featured an irreverent club banger, “Stinky Dinky,” co-written by the snarky Schneider. And in the ensuing decades, RuPaul went on to become what Schneider lovingly calls “a gay treasure.”
Now, this week, Ru and the B-52’s come full-circle, as Schneider and his beehived bandmates Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson guest-judge RuPaul’s Drag Race — with two of the up-for-elimination queens lip-synching for their lives to one of the B-52’s’ most beloved hits.
While Schneider doesn’t think his band’s cartoonish, wig-topped aesthetic was directly influenced by the drag world, he does have fond memories of the Georgia drag scene in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, when the B-52’s were first coming up — and he reveals that he wasn’t averse to donning the occasional thrift-store frock himself.
“I loved the [drag] attitude, you know: ‘We don’t give a s***!’” he laughs. “We were lucky to live in a college town [Athens], and we basically pranked our friends. We would dress up in drag just to be ridiculous — like, running past restaurants, acting like zombies. It was crazy. I had a brick thrown at me; I think I was drunk. We would just do it to be obnoxious. I had this dress, this gawd-awful dress, and I didn’t realize it was see-through under the light! And then I had blue lipstick. I always bought the blue lipstick.”
Schneider — who first met RuPaul not in Georgia, but in 1980s New York with comedic drag icon Lady Bunny — has been a Ru admirer all these years, and he recently collaborated with Season 5 Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon on her single “The Bacon Shake” and upcoming sophomore album, after seeing Jinkx perform at NYC’s Laurie Beechman Theater. (“If you want to see your favorite drag artist, go there,” he recommends.) Schneider is also a fan of other singing Drag Race alumni like Alaska and Adore Delano, and says, “I would absolutely love to work with [Season 4 winner] Sharon Needles; I really like her. I’m totally interested.”
However, Schneider admits that he hasn’t watched Drag Race much. (He didn’t even see last season’s obviously B-52’s-inspired Street Meatz performance, from the “New Wave Queens” episode!) “I am so not hooked into watching TV or listening to the radio, to be honest. Usually, when I do, I get angry… so I try to avoid the news, because I can’t believe what’s going on,” he grumbles. “I’ll tell you what: Everything about the Trump administration is scary. And if they get rid of him, we get Pence, and he’s just as horrible.”
While the party-hardy B-52’s don’t exactly specialize in serious protest music (“I save the politics for my interviews,” Schneider quips), and RuPaul’s Drag Race is pretty light-hearted as well, Schneider acknowledges that both forms of subversive entertainment have provided a service and outlet for beleaguered LGBTQ fans.
“Our music and aesthetics definitely resonated and gave a lot of gay people an outlook, living in horrible small towns,” says the openly gay Schneider, who recalls a “really scary” childhood when he was bullied and “people would kick me in my stomach almost every day,” and who tragically lost original bandmate Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother) to AIDS in 1985. Through the B-52’s, which he co-founded after he left home for a “very liberating” experience at the University of Georgia, Schneider found his tribe, and he says the B-52’s “still get people telling us that — thanking us for helping make [life] tolerable. We get letters saying, ‘Thank you for the music.’ It’s really rewarding. I mean, especially nowadays with Trump in office, that’s one of the best things about doing the band: giving people the strength to put up with what they have to put up with.”
The B-52’s will appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race this Friday at 8 p.m. PT/ET. The show, which moved to VH1 this year, shattered ratings records last week, when its Season 9 premiere starring Lady Gaga was the most-watched Drag Race episode ever.