Longtime Atlantans fondly remember the days in the late ’80s when RuPaul was queen of the city’s genderfuck scene, performing in and out of drag with such bands as Wee Wee Pole and Now Explosion, appearing regularly on public-access TV, and starring in underground videos and low-budget movies. After moving to New York and making it big with “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and his own VH1 talk show, RuPaul Andre Charles continued to release albums, such as this year’s Champion, and make appearances in TV shows and films. He’ll soon start his second season hosting “Drag Race” on cable’s Logo network, a reality show in which contestants compete to be named the country’s top drag queen. RuPaul will appear at Primal Atlanta on June 25 at a fundraiser for the Atlanta Cotillion, which benefits AID Atlanta.
On “Drag Race,” you often appear in street clothes when talking to contestants. Is there any potential harm to a drag queen’s public image to be seen out of drag?
Appearing out of drag was to show my authority as an expert. If I didn’t appear out of drag, it would undermine my authority. I’ve appeared in and out of drag in movies and television for years. If I’d been smart, I wouldn’t have used my real name when I started my career in Atlanta 27 years ago. But I don’t think there are any real pitfalls with appearing out of drag.
A show about drag queens might have ratcheted up the drama by having them get catty with each other, but “Drag Race” shows contestants spending hours sewing costumes or practicing their act.
On this show, the drama comes in watching these real experts do their craft. Obviously, some drama is going to happen when you put human beings together, but the real entertainment value here is watching these truly creative and courageous people do what they do. And that alone is drama.
Is that because there was a conscious effort to avoid the usual drag-queen stereotypes?
Absolutely. I’ve been approached to do reality television for many, many years. And I didn’t want to go near it because it was too mean-spirited. But I knew that, with my friends who I’ve worked with for 25 years at [the production company] Worlds of Wonder, it would not be that; they would make sure it didn’t cross the line in that regard.
The Atlanta Cotillion is an annual drag queen debutante ball benefiting an AIDS charity. Does taking part in next week’s fundraiser have special importance to you?
You know, I do gigs. This weekend, I did three shows in three days in three different cities. That’s what I do for a living. They’re paying me, so I’m coming. If you had money, I’d be at your house.
How’s it feel to return to Atlanta?
It’s interesting. I’m from San Diego and I moved to Atlanta when I was 15 during the beginning of the city’s boom time. But it got to a place where it stopped being fun, which is about 1987, the year I left. That’s when all the big businesses came into Midtown and bought up all the affordable housing and started tearing everything down. So Atlanta to me is like a friend I grew up with, but who’s had extensive plastic surgery. Basically, I can sense that it’s the same person there, but she’s completely unrecognizable.
In doing research on the old 688 Club, it struck me that they used to have a hardcore punk band in there one night, a new wave band the next and your act the following night, all on the same stage. Does it seem as if drag shows have somehow become less mainstream since the ’80s?
That’s actually true all over the country right now. It’s a shame, especially in New York, because what made [that] city special was this tapestry of different cultures living together in one huge club or one huge community. Now, everything is polarized and separated and pop culture has become compartmentalized.
I think it’s part of the surge of political correctness, where nobody wants to offend anybody and everybody’s looking to be recognized as their own little community. So, when people ask, “Are you for gay rights?” I’m like, “I’m for human rights.” The key is not to look at our differences, but to focus on the things that make us similar. And that’s all people — I’m not just talking gay people. The LGBT, the BLT, the FBI, whatever — you know, the truth is, we’re all human beings. That’s the bottom line. But will people ever understand that? Probably not.