LBGTQ icon and arguably the world's most famous drag queen RuPaul Charles is no stranger to controversy – he's made a career out of shocking the everyday person. Last year's quarantine was an interesting time for the iconic drag queen – he did an interview with Terry Gross which caused outrage over fracking on his husband's land, he made a comment that put him at odds with the trans community and then deleted his entire personal online social media presence with zero explanation.
The 2020 quarantine content has shown us the true faces of celebrities, and RuPaul is no exception. In the Drag Race season 12 reunion and finale episodes, he showed up on camera sporting bizarre Pussy Riot-esque facekinis. The reunion's sleepover theme was cute as his mask looked like a clay beauty face mask, but he had zero makeup (not even lashes), no hair, and nothing else really to sell the look. It's not been a secret that he can't do his own drag makeup and relies on a team to make him look good…which he obviously doesn't have in quarantine (hence the luchador masks).
Now, people saw these looks and the initial reaction was, "if you can't do your own makeup, how in the hell can you judge someone else's makeup". In the March interview with Terry Gross, Ru talked about how his iconic "glamazon" look came about, as the drag he had done previously was a more experimental and androgynous punk look. "I had also met with Mathu and Zaldy, two visual designers [on] costume, makeup, everything, and we'd come up with my look, which was then elevated from my Soul Train dancer look … to the glamazon that you know today. It's very studied and precise … and that's how it came about."
In an All Stars 5 episode, he showed a picture of him at prom back in the day, and it was so Sid Vicious… but very unlike Ru as we know him now, in or out of drag. So yes, RuPaul's current look is very engineered, but everything in media is designed specifically to be marketable and successful. Can you really blame an 80s punk queer queen for jumping at the chance of success? That said, a heavily studied and engineered look like that does take some help to achieve, and why would you do things all by yourself if you can have people do it for you? Privileged, yes; does it change his career as an artist? Nah.
But that's not the only thing he talked about in that interview. When the conversation turned to his and his husband's 60,000 acres of land in Wyoming and South Dakota, he had this to say about what happens on LeBar ranch: "A modern ranch, 21st-century ranch, is really land management. It uh…you lease the mineral rights to oil companies, and you sell water to oil companies. And then you lease the grazing rights to different ranchers. So it's land management."
Now, I'm here to clear up a few things and set the record straight (metaphorically speaking): in a December 2018 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, he was also asked about ranch life and had nearly the exact same answer. So why was there a huge "fracking controversy" nearly a year and a half later?
Arguably, what brought the most heat to the issue in the alleged fracking accusations wasn't the fracking (or as he calls it, "land management") itself; it's the hypocrisy. In the ball episode of Drag Race season 10, the theme centered around climate change with the emphasis being on conservation and environmental preservation. This was seen as especially hypocritical coming from RuPaul, in light of all the fracking claims. My personal note on this is that early seasons of Drag Race were sponsored by Absolut Vodka with it being pushed heavily by the contestants and RuPaul himself; RuPaul has been sober since 1999. Hypocritical to hawk alcohol you abstain from? Maybe, but at the end of the day, he is a television host and businessman and willing to do whatever it takes to make his brand successful. That's a recurring theme here.
The queens of Drag Race have a lot to say about RuPaul, and the most salacious of these statements do not paint the host in a positive light. Several contestants have gone on record after their time on the show and said that Ru is not the mentor-figure he appears to be on the show, he doesn't even greet the contestants, mingle, or exchange pleasantries. In the Fresh Air interview, RuPaul had this to say when asked about his responsibility in hosting Drag Race and if the way people present themselves on the show is going to have a profound effect on their future: "Is it a big responsibility? No. I host a TV show, it's just a TV show. A profound effect? If it's profound that's your business, that ain't none of my business. A profound effect on your life? Great! Sure. … I just host a television show. It's fun, we have a lot of fun, but it's not that big a deal. It's not that big a deal to me – but if it's a big deal to you, right on, lady. Go for it, do your thing, but I'm just living my life."
I wonder if "living his life" was his reasoning behind deleting his Twitter and removing all his Instagram posts. He did mention earlier in the Fresh Air interview that he prefers not to be on his phone and instead be present in the world. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, he had this to say: "The truth of the matter is that there aren't many people that I like. I'm usually bored by people, you know. I'd rather be alone reading a book or something."
Speaking of that same interview, he talks about the transgender community – another interview where his remarks sparked controversy. Now, a little bit of context and history: the drag and trans communities have always had an interesting relationship, mostly owing to the fact that modern drag is built on the foundation of not taking gender seriously whereas the transgender community takes their pronouns and gender expression very seriously. There are a number of very visible trans queens, with many appearing on Drag Race; while drag can serve as space for some to explore their gender identity, not all queens get into the art form for that reason.
RuPaul is known for not caring about his pronouns while still being a man. He has made several remarks over the years that the trans community has taken issue with, displaying the friction between the drag and trans communities with the language and terms he used. To him, misgendering someone or using outdated and now offensive terms isn't a big deal, because he doesn't take offense when it's directed at him. That doesn't make it right, but it does lend context, which is everything. "There are certain words that the kids would use, that I'd be like, 'Wait a minute, hold up now.' But I've had to accept it because I understand where it comes from."
Language and attitude are constantly evolving, as he does recognize (albeit in a different context), and we have to keep learning and changing with it. RuPaul has gotten better in his language and actions, though he did make statements (and subsequent tweets) about casting Drag Race that was taken as trans-exclusionary. "You can identify as a woman and say you're transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we're doing. We've had some girls who've had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven't transitioned."
Drag Race shows a very specific type of drag and was designed for ratings as a way to bring "appealing drag to the masses"; it was never meant to be an all-encompassing view of the art form or community. With the emphasis placed so heavily on the transformations in the show, trans-women who have started transitioning with breast implants, hormones, or other feminine body modifications have not been chosen to compete on Drag Race.
In a tweet addressing these exclusions, RuPaul likened this to athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, and how they cannot compete in the Olympics as it gives them an unfair advantage. After backlash for both comments, he issued an apology: "Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement."
A number of queens have come out as trans, non-binary, or gender fluid after their time in the competition, but Season 13 cast GottMik, the first transman on the Drag Race. GottMik is the first openly trans queen since Peppermint competed on Season 9.
Despite a rocky relationship with the trans community and his fan base, RuPaul has said he is dedicated to learning and listening, which is paramount in creating meaningful change. Drag Race has made changes to become more inclusive, though it has been a slow process. In life, everything is about how well we adapt to our surroundings, culture, and society, and RuPaul is trying to evolve (albeit slowly) so he doesn't get left behind.