RuPaul’s Influence On Drag: You Better Work!

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.

69 Responses

  1. Having watched RuPaul in his hit show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” I had a general idea of who he was and what he did as an individual. But after reading this article I found that there was so much I didn’t know about RuPaul and his life before his show. How he was able to overcome such hard times and become such a staple in the drag and LGBTQ+ community by being true to who he is will always be astounding.

  2. Very well written article. RuPaul is a very big Icon in the beauty, drag, and the LGBTQ+ community. I had heard about him but never really looked into him. I never knew how much he struggled in his past to get to where he is today and I found that he was really strong. He had failed many times but he kept going because he knew what he wanted and was very determined. I enjoyed learning about him and how he overcame his obstacles.

  3. I have heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race before, but have never watched the show or took the time to see what it is about. However after reading this article, I see that this was made from pure passion and freedom of expression. He did not have the desire to be famous, or rich, but he wanted to be able to express himself in a creative way while impacting the lives of others. It is an inspiring story to not give up on your desires and keep pushing through the obstacles.

  4. Before reading this article, the only thing I knew about RuPaul Andrew Charles was that there is a show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now I know how RuPaul’s Drag Race came into light and who made the show into reality. I thought it was really interesting to learn that RuPaul made music and cross dressed as a child. RuPaul had three sisters and was born in California and they moved to Atlanta. This article was really interesting and informative.

  5. It admirable on how RuPaul stopped at nothing to achieve his goal and passion. Despite having a hard time in the past, he succeeded in becoming a famous star that inspired many people. I love the fact on how he wanted the people to embrace themselves no matter what and show the world who you really are. It’s also amazing that not only he launched a successful TV show but also be the first drag queen ever to have the honor to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

  6. I have heard of drag race before but never exactly understood the purpose or use of it. These people that participate in it really get to embrace as what they define as beauty. RuPaul was really became an icon in this industry being an inspiration to many. This community has even been hand in hand with the LGBT community.

  7. I find Drag to be very interesting and a form of art. RuPaul was able to help individuals grow, accept and express themselves more through his encouraging words. This article does a great job at speaking about the back history or RuPaul and how he underwent many geographical changes throughout his life. He was able to find something that helped him in life; cross-dressing. You better work!

  8. I hear a lot about RuPaul’s drag race and I always wonder what exactly it is. I think that drag really shows true beauty and confidence. I think that he is so brave for staying true to himself and not letting bad times in his life take over his life. I think this story is a really important part of LGBTQIA+ history and I am glad that I was able to learn more about RuPaul.

  9. I like to see myself as an ally, apart of the LGBTQIA community and as you know RuPaul is a very big part of the LGBT+ community so I feel a bit ignorant when it comes to my knowledge on him. I never knew exactly how successful he was before RuPaul’s drag race. I also didn’t know he has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame but credit is due so it’s no surprise to me. I also wouldn’t have expected him to get down on himself multiple times throughout his career especially because he was a self-made celebrity.

  10. RuPaul is iconic in the beauty, drag, and LGBTQ+ community. I never knew how much he struggled in his past to get to where he is today. He had lots of failures, but he knew what he wanted and was determined to get there. He is an inspiration for all people who feel there are different. He inspires them to embrace themselves no matter what.

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