A SIMPLE GIRL WITH A DREAM
I have one thing to say – RuPaul Andre Charles was an unlikely success story to say the very least. As a young drag queen in San Diego, his parents’ marriage ended in a bitter divorce when he was seven years old. Raised in a household of females, Ru became obsessed with fashion, style and music. Those interests, and a desire to be famous, drove him into a career in show business. His career, however, would take years of personal and professional turmoil to finally come to its star-spangled, glittering zenith.
In the early 1980’s, to set himself apart, Ru began to adopt the underground drag style known as “genderfuck.” In January of 1982, he appeared with his group RuPaul and the U-hauls on “The American Music Show”, an Atlanta public access show. This small notoriety landed the fledgling group an opening act slot with popular local group Now Explosion. Inspired by appearances in New York City, Ru began to plaster midtown Atlanta with posters promoting himself as a performer and all-around personality. The Xerox technique worked and in January of 1983 Ru was asked to join a new group with the classy moniker Wee Wee Pole. Despite his growing popularity and playing at the local new wave and punk clubs, Ru spent 1983 homeless.
After Wee Wee Pole broke up in 1984, the always ingenious Ru became an underground filmmaker and movie star. “Trilogy of Terror” (and its two sequels) was filmed with zero budget on a home video camera and featured Ru’s first on-screen appearance in drag. In July of 1984, the “RuPaul is Red Hot Revue” played New York City’s famous “Pyramid Club” and “Danceteria.” Ru remained in New York until the end of 1984 after spending months at other people’s apartments and even sleeping in Central Park. After returning to Atlanta in 1985, Ru recorded tracks for the Funtone Records U.S.A. EP titled “Sex Freak.” The release did little to further Ru’s grab for success. Also in 1985, Ru joined a production of “The Rocky Horror Show” and became a go-go dancer at a local discotheque.
In 1986, one of Ru’s most infamous early projects came together with the cult movie “Starrbooty.” Ru played a former model / government agent who kicked every ass and took every name. A soundtrack album followed and was produced by a group called The Pop Tarts. The buzz from “Starrbooty” led underground writer/director Wayne Hollowell to cast Ru in a number of tongue-in-cheek exploitation movies including “Mahogany 2” and “American Porn Star.” 1987 saw the release of the single “The Playboy / Ping Ting Ting” on Funtone U.S.A.. It was yet another failed musical project.
By 1989, Ru had moved back to New York City and changed his style from punk-inspired to “black hooker drag.” This tasteful move landed Ru regular gigs as a dancer, lip-sync artist and emcee at clubs such as “Love Machine” and “Copacabana.” The highlight of this period was a cameo in the B-52’s video “Love Shack.” Ru was even voted “Queen of Manhattan” at an annual awards show. It seemed as though Ru was finally getting some of the attention he deserved.Â Although seeing groups like Deee-lite having huge worldwide hits made him rethink and refocus his musical career. After getting The Pop Tarts to manage him, Ru and co-writer Jimmy Harry began writing material for a demo in 1991. The single “I’ve Got That Feelin'” was released on Cardiac Records but the feelin’ didn’t last long.
YOU BETTER WORK, BITCH!
Ru’s most successful style change came in the early ’90’s when he morphed into full, glorious “Glamazon” mode. Tommy Boy records offered Ru a record contract which he knew could be the huge break he’d been looking for. On his birthday in 1992, the single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Fashion runways, tacky wedding receptions and karaoke bars would never be the same. The huge, surprising success of the single was due in part to its colorful, free-spirited video. It was put into rotation at MTV during a time when the network was airing mainly badly-lit grunge videos and loud, grinding rock videos. The song and video were originally dismissed as little more than a gimmick but listeners quickly caught on to the song’s obvious charms and Ru’s outsize, outgoing personality. Comedic actress LaWanda Page contributes a sassy cameo where she helps Ru name-check the most popular supermodels of the ’90’s. “Supermodel” sashayed it’s way to #45 on the U.S. Hot 100 and to #2 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts before achieving gold status. Work, Mama!
The massive success of the first single helped propel the album Supermodel of the World into a hit as well. Followup singles “A Shade Shady (Now Prance)” and “House Of Love” also found major popularity with both landing at #1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts. “A Shade Shady” is built around the then-common slang “shady” which refers to someone who is mysterious, not trustworthy or hiding secrets. By this time, everyone knew that Ru was also sitting on a secret. “House of Love” opened its doors and became hugely popular among fans even without one of Ru’s splashy, day-glo videos. It didn’t make a showing on the US charts but got to #68 in the UK. A vibrating beat and wailing backup vocals help bring out the song’s message of love and acceptance for everyone regardless of color, gender, orientation or wig size. At Ru’s funky little place everyone is welcome. The door’s open, baby – come on in !
“Back to My Roots” weaves an all-out celebration of black heritage through decades of evolving hairstyles. Ru and his backing chorus pay tribute to a dizzying array of hairdos (and don’ts) including cornrows, afro puffs and flat top fades. Despite a classic extravaganza video, “Back to My Roots” was fried, dyed and laid to the side of the mainstream charts. However, it received huge play in dance clubs and remains one of Ru’s fiercest and best-loved tracks. Multiple collaborations followed including a breezy remake of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Elton John which went to #7 in the UK. In 1997, Ru and fellow club queen Martha Wash delivered a stomping, camped-up remake of The Weather Girls classic “It’s Raining Men.” Hallelujah!
The pop culture impact of Ru’s breakthrough album and its signature singles helped to further his outrageous yet down-to-earth image and make him a towering presence to pop/dance music fans. After years of hard work, professional struggle and numerous identity changes, Ru had finally been launched into the celebrity stratosphere. Look at the bitch, now!
1996 brought the much-anticipated second album Foxy Lady on Rhino Records. Delivering another set of hit dance tracks seemed inevitable for the newly-christened queen of clubs. However, staying current in the fickle, fast-moving world of mainstream pop music can be a daunting task even if you are a strutting, glammed-up 6’7″ force of nature. Foxy Lady was the chance to take a unique artist and turn him from a rainbow-colored dancefloor curiosity into a an ongoing pop/dance mainstay with a hopefully lengthy career.
Ru’s joyous personality starts this party quickly and keeps it going with high heels pointed in a forward direction. His tenor voice cuts a groove through an array of shiny synth-pop tracks that vamp it up much like his previous effort. Ru invites a club full of writers, producers and partners in rhyme to help provide the album with an energetic, driving sound. Nearly every song on the album was co-written by Ru and is supported by a variety of collaborators including Eric Kupper, Pete Lorimer and Richard “Humpty” Vission. You can also hear late disco diva Vicki Sue Robinson on the backup. She was still turning the beat around.
“A Little Bit Of Love”, written by Ru and Joe Carrano, was released as the album’s second single but only managed to get to #28 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man)” was written by Desmond Child and previously recorded by vocal heavyweight Bonnie Tyler. Ru does a clever gender-switch with the track and takes it from bombastic to bouncy in order to make it his own. Known for his love of all things Diana Ross, Ru works up a sweat and delivers his own slightly risque version of 1981’s Paul Jabara-penned “Work That Body.” It’s all enough to make you want to grab your barbell.
Even though Ru had continued to keep himself and his music engaging and fun, the album did not make it onto the Billboard album charts. Nonetheless, this is still an upbeat, dancefloor-shaking set of tunes. Some of them, in fact, rank among his best so far. Foxy Lady is out of sight!
Click! Click! The album’s kickoff single sounds at first like a sassy satire about Ru’s perceived public image. Behind the bright lights, however, it’s more about the raging obsession over celebrities and their need to be in the spotlight and have their airbrushed images splashed across the pages of glossy magazines. Knowingly or not, Ru is making his own statement about the superficial nature of fame and the people who whore themselves for it. Oh, and he’s having a damn good time doing it. All of this is set to an intense, pulsating beat that’s driven by Ru’s hot, commanding vocals. Everybody look at me!
“Snapshot” is easily one of Ru’s fiercest tracks and should have been a huge, worldwide smash. It did manage to reach #4 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart and #95 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to help the album develop it’s way out of the dark room and onto the charts. Still, “Snapshot” finds Ru being who he wants to be and commanding everyone else to do the same. Take my picture!
“Party Train” (download)
Come on ride the train! So who was asleep at the switch and didn’t think of releasing this one as a single ? It could easily have built up a head of steam and put the entire project back on track. The premise of the song is pretty simple – they’re havin’ a party on a train, ya’ll! Choo! Choo! The driving beat and Ru’s seductive vocals pull everyone down the groove line and work them up into a dancing frenzy. Written by Ru and Joe Caranno, this track was a real missed opportunity as it could have been huge if it had been properly released and given some promotion with radio airplay and a flashy video. Ultimately, the chance to take advantage of this potential hit went off the rails.
In 2004, the album Red Hot descended like a heat wave, began burning up the dancefloor and refused to be extinguished. Released on Ru’s own Ruco Inc. label, this album proves that you can’t keep a good drag queen down for long. Temperatures rise with a swirling mix of banging house tracks, empowering pop tunes, classic dance jams and light r&b ballads. Red Hot includes multiple songs that burned up the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts. The album itself topped out at #9 on the Top Electronic Albums chart.
First single “Looking Good, Feeling Gorgeous” rose to #2 on the dance charts and is a self-esteem anthem encouraging people to be happy with who they are instead of who they will never be. Second single “Workout” pumped its way to #5 and is an ode to “working it out” in every area of your life. The heartfelt ballad “Love Is Love” is about how people’s differences are exactly what make them all the same. “Are You Man Enough” is about the quest for mate who has more confidence than swagger.
“Ladies and gentlemen, good evenin’ and how you durrin’?” Taking a cue from Janet Jackson, Ru includes some cool segues between the steamy tracks. These are provided by the characters Shirley Q. Liquor and Watusi Jenkins who are performed by controversial comedian Chuck Knipp. Watusi kicks the whole thing off by asking the question that everyone wants to know:
WATUSI: “Is we allowed to smoke liquor up in heah?”
SHIRLEY: “No, honey, we in a recording studio. I’m fixin’ to introduce the lady.”
WATUSI: “What ladies?”
SHIRLEY: “The lady I was tellin’ you about.”
WATUSI: “What her name was?”
WATUSI: “Whopaul ?”
Offensive or not, they’re a high-pitched scream. Red Hot got its share of play in the clubs and on dance radio but received almost no press coverage in magazines or music review columns. Perhaps this was due to the lingering stigma that Ru was no more than a one-hit wonder with a he/she gimmick. It was easy for some to dismiss him as little more than a prettier version of infamous drag queen Divine or a less edgy, less sexual version of Sylvester. The image that artists need to set them apart can also be what gets them labeled and pushed aside.
“People Are People” (download)
The album’s third and final single is an unexpected but welcome cover of Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” Written by Martin Gore, it was the group’s first hit single in the U.S.. Ru performs it as a duet with Tom Trujillo and delivers a percolating techno delight. Perhaps the album’s most high profile track, it made it into the top 10 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts. You’ll be punching, kicking and shouting over this one.
ALL HAIL THE QUEEN!
After a couple of years away from the glare of the spotlight, Ru returned in 2006 with ReWorked on the Ruco Inc. label. The album featured house, trance and dance “RuMixes” of tracks from his previous projects. A re-recorded version of “Supermodel (You Better Work)” again worked the runway to #21 on the U.S. dance chart. In 2007, Ru starred in a remake of the underground cult movie “Starrbooty”and released a soundtrack to the film as well.
Dance Diva. Radio and Television Hostess. Fashion Icon. Soul Sister Survivor. Jan Brady’s Guidance Counselor. RuPaul is all of these things and more. After more than a decade of struggling in and out of various identities, Ru finally managed to break through in a big way. Perhaps even he was surprised. He found an audience that was ready to embrace something seemingly new that stood out amongst the self-serious artists of the time. There were no plaid shirts, melancholy songs of heartache or pity ditties in this gal’s closet – just hair, heels and major attitude. He was just the breath of fresh air that entertainment needed. It was all wrapped up in a tall, leggy, black, blond drag queen with sky high wigs, a 1,000 kilowatt smile, a personality as wide as the grand canyon and a message of love, peace and hair grease.