RuPaul’s Influence On Drag: You Better Work!

RuPaul Drag Race Season 1 Queens February 2009 | Courtesy of Fandom

Winner of the Spring 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Cultural History”

RuPaul’s most iconic and memorable moments were all fueled by a single ambition: to one day reach fame. RuPaul’s undeniable authenticity led him to gain an enormous amount of influence in the drag community. RuPaul’s hit single “Supermodel,” also known as “You Better Work,” opened many people’s interest to the drag community, in which RuPaul is a heavy influence. RuPaul’s great influence over the drag community is important because that influence allows a marginalized group of people to take power within themselves and express their art and talent. RuPaul lives an extraordinary life that influences people from all parts of the world to start embracing themselves. However, it did not start that way for RuPaul.

RuPaul Andre Charles grew up in San Diego, California learning fashion tips from his mother and three sisters during the late 60s. His mother and sisters heavily influenced him through fashion and beauty starting at a very young age. RuPaul was the only boy of his parents’ four children. At the age of seven, RuPaul began wearing his sisters’ clothes, which is when he began exploring cross-dressing. Some of RuPauls favorite people to emulate in his youth were stars like Diana Ross and Jane Fonda.1 Growing up in a home filled with tension due to RuPaul’s parents’ divorce, it heavily influenced him. The divorce then led RuPaul to move to Atlanta, Georgia, with his sister and her husband later in his teens.

Having always had an interest in cross dressing, RuPaul was more than excited to move to Atlanta, where the drag scene was more developed than it was in California. While in Atlanta, RuPaul attended the Northside School of Performing Arts, and although he didn’t graduate, it was a big step toward getting his feet wet in the world of performance and show business!2 While going to school in Atlanta, RuPaul made it by working as a used car salesman in the local area. After a few weeks working, RuPaul knew that this was not where he belonged, and that he was destined for much more. In 1982, RuPaul took that next step and sent a photo of himself to a local TV program called The American Music Show, asking to appear on air. Not long after, he was appearing on the series regularly, often with his newly formed band, RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

RuPaul at a party for the launch of her Strrbooty DVD, October 2007 | Courtesy of David Shakbone

RuPaul and the U-Hauls broke up and faded away not too long afterwards. RuPaul then made his first move into his dream of acting during this period in Atlanta, starting off small, but growing rapidly.3 RuPaul first made appearances in uncredited roles in low-budget movies and films. This is what gave RuPaul an urge to reach for more. RuPaul wanted to be in the spotlight now more than ever. Although these appearances did not help RuPaul reach fame, he never fell short of ideas to one day reach ultimate fame. RuPaul was very determined during this time that he never let himself fall behind. After some time in Atlanta, RuPaul then felt obligated to move somewhere more fitting for his future, and he headed to New York.

That first time walking the streets of New York City made RuPaul realize that he had made the right decision. He was in the right place. He could feel the excitement and eagerness he had to start climbing the ladder to fame. Being in the city where dreams come true, RuPaul realized why drag meant so much to him in that very moment. Drag, according to Charles, applies to us all, regardless of gender, race, or social background. It’s how we choose to show ourselves to the world, what personas we adopt as we move through life. “Why not make it work for you,” he said to Oprah Winfrey. “If you have the power to control how people see and interpret you, why not use it?”4 RuPaul not only did drag because it was his hobby, but also because it was his passion. Cross dressing is what helped him get through so many rough patches during his childhood, and even still in his adult life. RuPaul wanted to make people feel just as he feels every time he is on stage. Through his performances and music, RuPaul was determined to create an impact and empower his audience to live boldly and be 100% true to themselves.

RuPaul Cover of “Super Model” Single, November 1992 | Courtesy of Tommy Boy

Harnessing that power, RuPaul soon started performing in local Manhattan clubs, where he was best known for his flamboyance and ease on stage. These qualities making him a hit club dancer and by the end of the decade he was named the Queen of New York.5 Slowing reaching closer to fame, RuPaul got stuck in the life of living like a star and fell into a massive drug addiction hanging around the wrong people. Very unlike himself, RuPaul was stuck with his career, and in a dark place for a while, before he had the motivation to dig himself out. Luckily, a few months later, RuPaul got back on his feet and was offered a record deal with the hip-hop label Tommy Boy. His album Supermodel of the World was released in 1993, but failed on the Billboard Charts.

This meant that yet again, RuPaul had reached another low in his career. Life felt as if he was getting beat up over and over again, and it made RuPaul feel that fame was so very far away for him. However, this did not stop RuPaul from continuing to work for the fame he always believed he could reach. In 1994, his single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was released. It was a tribute to the divas of the fashion world, and it began to get recognition. Being placed in the top 30 on the Pop Charts, RuPaul had his first success! From that moment on, RuPaul’s life would changed forever. His single was not only popular in the US, but worldwide. His music video for the single, “You Better Work,” was then nominated for Best Dance Video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.5 The successes of “Supermodel” continued and had RuPaul performing at the Gay Rights rally in Washington D.C., in the exact same spot Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was truly a monumental time in his career. During that same year, RuPaul then started recording music with many well-known celebrities, including Elton John. Many were charted on the American charts, but they proved more successful in Europe. Through his hit single “You Better Work,” RuPaul had now paved the way for his career and the many lives he would change from then on.

Since then, RuPaul has more than proved himself in the drag community, as he has launched a makeup line named “Color Evolution”, co-written and co-produced 14 studio albums, and even started his very own show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is going on its eleventh successful season. Still standing for what he believed drag means, his show RuPaul’s Drag Race pushes the drag scene into the spotlight. “It would take about 10 years for something in gay culture to actually migrate to the mainstream,” but, “because of our show, gay pop culture is pop culture in the mainstream. Everybody knows all the terminology. It’s really interesting for us to bring a lot of the old ideas and gay culture forward to the pop culture mainstream.”7

RuPaul Drag Race Season 1 Queens February 2009 | Courtesy of Fandom

His infectious way to uplift people through music, performances, and shows continue to be noticed throughout the world. In March 2018, RuPaul was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, thereby becoming the first drag queen to receive the honor. Following an introductory speech by Jane Fonda, one of his early inspirations, he tearfully told the audience that this was “absolutely the most important moment in my professional career.”8 Throughout all RuPaul’s failures, he always found a way to continue and see the possible sides of things. In the famous words of RuPaul, “When you become an image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.” RuPaul Andrew Charles not only made a name for himself, but also brought the drag community a platform where men could enjoy sharing their talents of costume, make-up, and performance. Without RuPaul’s heavy influence, the drag community would not have the voice and success it has today. His struggles in life gave RuPaul the strength and courage to continue on with his dreams of becoming famous all while doing what he loves the most: DRAG.

  1. Marc Snetiker, “From Drag to Riches (Cover Story),” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1471 (June 2017): 23.
  2. Marc Snetiker, “From Drag to Riches (Cover Story),” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1471 (June 2017): 23.
  3. Colin Bertram, “The RuPaul Effect: How He Brought Drag to Mainstream Culture,” Biography.com (blog), June 20, 2018). https://www.biography.com/news/how-rupaul-brought-drag-to-mainstream-culture.
  4. Colin Bertram, “The RuPaul Effect: How He Brought Drag to Mainstream Culture,”Biography.com (blog), June 20, 2018). https://www.biography.com/news/how-rupaul-brought-drag-to-mainstream-culture.
  5. Marc Snetiker, “From Drag to Riches (Cover Story),” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1471 (June 2017): 23.
  6. Marc Snetiker, “From Drag to Riches (Cover Story),” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1471 (June 2017): 23.
  7. Chuck Arnold, RuPaul’s ‘Supermodel of the World’ Album turns 25: Why It Was More Than a Novelty, (Billboard, June 2018).
  8. Colin Bertram, “The RuPaul Effect: How He Brought Drag to Mainstream Culture,” Biography.com (blog), June 20, 2018). https://www.biography.com/news/how-rupaul-brought-drag-to-mainstream-culture.

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69 Responses

  1. Hi Nadia,
    Your article is an amazing portrayal of the life of RuPaul. I think you also captured the significance of his show and his breakthrough in mainstream media as it has been impactful for the LGBTQ+ community and only gets more popular. I am a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it was really interesting to learn more about RuPaul’s background and journey to becoming as iconic as he is today.

  2. It is quite extraordinary to read about the persistence and strength that RuPaul has continued to possess. Throughout the different season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, society has seen more representation of Drag Queens and the LGBTQ+ community. This representation has enabled people throughout the world to be true to themselves. RuPaul’s fearless attitude reveals the importance of staying true to who you are, no matter what kind of judgment may came your way.

  3. I never knew much about the drag races and everything the do. It’s terrible how RuPaul went through so many hardships and struggles, but he overcame it and became so famous and successful. It’s nice to see no matter what he went through he never lost track of who he was and what he wanted to be. It’s a good thing to have him out there inspiring these other kids just like him to be whatever they want to be no matter what other people say about you.

  4. This story was very inspiring because it showed how RuPaul struggled to achieve his goals up until his late 30s. Many of us expect to reach our ultimate goals as young as possible or straight out of college and I often forget how unrealistic that is. RuPaul has become a staple in the gay community and it took much hard work, self-reflection, and so much time. This article did a great job at not only highlighting RuPaul’s fascinating story but also reminding the reader that everyone’s life trajectories and goals are different and there is no right path to achieving success.

  5. Very interesting article! I had only heard about RuPaul through his show “RaPaul’s Drag Race”, but I was not aware of his past struggles to reach fame. His story is really a story of perseverance and inspiration, since he went through many falls before he reached his goals. His show definitely was the one that brought gay pop culture to the mainstream and changed everyone’s perspective on drag.

  6. I never truly knew about drag and the art of it until I saw RaPaul on a show and his personality cut through everyone else’s. I love that he never gave up, even though he may have felt discouraged at times and faced many obstacles and discrimination. He had become such an icon and has truly changed people’s perspective to drag. It is inspiring how successful he is, and how he did it by being who he truly is.

  7. I don’t know much about Drag races and I’ve only heard about RuPauls Drag Race show from other people, but it was really interesting to read about his life and how he was able to be true to himself in the end. He was able to stand out, despite drag races not being so popular during the time. But I think that in the end, it payed off because he changed the industry. In the end he became such a big influence and he got recognized for it.

  8. This article is super relevant in the face of today’s youth culture. So much popular lingo trickles down from the drag community and emerges in the mainstream, sometimes decades later. RuPaul’s drag race is often a way into the queer community for those who find themselves outside of it– everyone can enjoy watching reality television, and seeing the way that men transform themselves into queens. I’m glad to gain a better in-depth knowledge of RuPaul’s life and experiences.

  9. Having known of who RaPaul was because of his show “RaPaul’s Drag Race”, I never knew the struggles and hardships he went through to get to be as strong and successful as he is now. Having lived in a house being the only boy, his mother and sisters taught him all about fashion and the beauty community. RaPaul had a set goal in life and that was to have fame. He struggled along the way and felt like he would never make it, however, this didn’t stop him. Eventually RaPaul achieved his goal and taught people worldwide to express themselves however they like because it’s their life and they should take advantage of it.

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