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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33 Comments

  • I am probably one of the few who has never seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race but I have heard of him but I never knew how influential he was on not just the LGBTQ+ community but for those who were unaware or ignorant to drag. His life and success in present day America where so much hate is experienced is truly inspirational, proving that no matter where you come from or how you choose to express yourself having a dedication and passion is enough to fuel you to reach your dreams.

  • Congratulations on your nomination, Nadia! This article really encompassed the life of RuPaul and his influence on both society and the drag community. I have watched RuPaul’s drag race but never really knew about his upbringing. The research that you did to piece his life together and properly tell his story was well done. Although he faced various lows in his career, the success and respect that he has attained is admirable.

  • Surprisingly I actually knew about the topic of this article but that is only because I know the name of the tv show and after that, I know nothing. I always enjoy a good story of overcoming a huge roadblock and fighting through it because that is what he wanted. Because of this, we are now moving even more towards equality of life because of people like RuPaul wanting to change the way people look at certain things.

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