Berlin Sylvestre, Staff Writer
When you’re lucky enough to score an interview with one of the most famous public figures in our community, you’d best check yourself for a pulse if you don’t get a little jittery. (“What if I stumble over these questions? What if I can’t articulate what I’m trying to ask? What if I sound like a complete nerd?”) Thing is, RuPaul constantly reminds us that we should be comfortable in our own skin and, lucky for me, the audible smile in the “Hello?” coming from the other end of the line put me in good company. “Ru” is quick to laugh – and it’s a loud, infectious, genuine laugh that millions of people worldwide know well.
So let’s talk Atlanta! How has living and working here help shape the RuPaul we know today?
Well, Atlanta is Mecca for drag – at least when I was living there. Let me tell you: I was poor as dirt living in Midtown, back when there was affordable housing. It was great. We could go to [the now-closed nightclub] Illusions on Monday night and for $2 see the world’s greatest drag queens, and we studied them, got to understand the vernacular and what it means to be a part of that society. It created a basis for us. I think they looked at us as mocking them, though. We were punk rock, genderfuck, antiestablishment types.
When you say greats, who are you referring to?
Erica Adams, Lisa King, Dina Jacobs, Tiffany Middlesex, Charlie Brown, Lily White, Apple Love, and Tina Devore.
How do you think Atlanta is representing on the show?
We’ve had many contestants from Atlanta, but we choose the best of the auditioners from wherever they come. It’s a process, but we choose the best of the best from all over. This season coming up, we have our first girl from San Francisco. People have been going, “WHY don’t you have San Fran girls on?” and I’m like, “Send me some and we’ll see!” I mean, Nicole Paige Brooks is from Atlanta … Phoenix … and season two’s winner [Tyra Sanchez] lives in Atlanta now, so Atlanta’s well-represented.
You were born and raised in San Diego, but you consider Atlanta your true birth place. What happened here that makes you claim that?
Honey, I had my bar mitzvah there. It’s where I became an adult. It was my coming out – not of the closet, but out of my shell. In San Diego, I was involved with my parents’ melodrama. I was, at best, a background actor in their drama. In Atlanta, I was able to be the star of my own movie. It was such a conducive place to develop my personality.
Your mantra “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?” has a real self-discovery feel to it. Are you ever hard on yourself?
I wouldn’t say I’m hard on myself, but I’m always having a conversation with myself. There’s this … internal dialogue I keep: “What’s going on with you? How do you feel?” I’m always present, always in the moment, and focusing on the now – and am diligent about it.
We can tell! So pretend you’re coming to Atlanta this weekend: What places would you want to hit up first?
I’d wanna walk around Piedmont Park. It was a hub, our Central Park. I’m telling you, 1976 to 1987 was the boom time for Atlanta. It started in ‘74 when Maynard Jackson took [mayoral] office. The city, like a phoenix, reinvented itself. From ‘76 to ‘87, we had an amazing time!
And then what?
Well, big business took over Midtown and tore down all the clubs, got rid of affordable housing, and really just … changed the texture of the city. Piedmont Park is still there, though.
But can you do that, as famous as you are? Can you just walk around?
I can, sure – especially if it’s a little chilly. I put on a hat and no one knows it’s me. People are usually texting or doing their taxes or something. And it’s weird to me, that people aren’t there, even when they’re present.
You’ve talked about, how after your parents’ divorce, you and your sister took on the reverse role of parenting your mother, who more or less turned her back to the world. Do you think that maternal instinct and experience kicks in with the contestants on “Drag Race?”
Absolutely! But even if it wasn’t my story, it’s intrinsically part of me to be empathetic and compassionate. I place kindness at the top of my human virtues – I always have. I always try to be understanding of [the contestants’] doubts and feelings. Helping them self-realize is the role I play on the show. Even in my personal life, I ask people questions they should be asking themselves.
And what about you? Is there anything you’re insecure about?
That’s a good question. In my constant dialogue, I sometimes have to check myself and say: “Ru! Honey! There’s nothing to be afraid of!” Well, actually, there is one thing … and it’s the ignorance and fear in other people that can scare me sometimes. But am I insecure about the way I look? No. There comes a point where you just say “f*#k it.”
I’m at that point too. You should see what I’m wearing, it’s awful. Usually is.
So let’s take some fan questions: Since you had contestants play it on “Untucked,” choose one drag queen from “Drag Race” you would marry, one you would screw, and one you would kill.
*laughs* Well, you know … they’re all my kids so, as the Mommy, I can’t play favorites. I want all of them to know I love and respect them, so I really can’t answer that!
How did you feel about giving Team Latrila the chop?
I hate it everytime I have to give the chop, but I also understand that it’s life. We’re on a competition show – someone’s gotta go, someone’s gotta win. It’s like life: You have to acknowledge night and day. But the thing is … I’ve chosen each girl to be there. I’m in love with them, sure, but someone’s gotta go. I understand and live with it. But just because the competition is over doesn’t mean they’re not being watched or sought after.
No way! It’s career launching just to be on.
Absolutely! Even the first girl to leave is sought after immediately.
OK, now what happened to Willam?
Well … *nervous laugh* … several things happened but the big thing was that she broke the rules. We take away cell phones, computers, all outside contact and … well, Willam had a computer and outside contact. You just can’t do that.
Another fan question: “Do drag queens, as a result of facing so much prejudice historically, have more ‘license’ to say whatever they want?”
Its not just queens – it’s all of us. As people, we’re ego-driven. The ego has to separate itself from other people, because in reality, we’re all one. Ego will tell you you’re better or worse and it’s true for all people unless they actively work on overriding the ego. So yeah, there’s prejudice and nastiness wherever you go, but I think drag queens actually have less of that because they understand you can’t take life too seriously. You can’t take identity too seriously. And that’s what drag is all about.
What did the young Ru want to be as an adult?
I just wanted to be famous. I wasn’t sure in what capacity, but I wanted to be famous. My mother prophesized I would be, so …
So she hit the nail on the head with that one!
She certainly did!
Well, I do appreciate you taking the interview.
It was an honor. Thank you, Berlin.
Season 5 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” premieres January 28 at 9pm on Logo.