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RuPaul reflects on growing up Black and queer — and forging his own path

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. In 1992, a new anthem hit the dance club scene, propelling a young man dressed in drag into the consciousness of the mainstream. The song was "Supermodel (You Better Work)," and the name of the singer was RuPaul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERMODEL (YOU BETTER WORK)")

RUPAUL: (Singing) You better work, cover girl. Work it, girl. Give a twirl. Do your thing on the runway. Work, supermodel. You better work it, girl of the world. Wet your lips, and make love to the camera. Work. Turn to the left. Work. Now turn to the right. Work. Sashay, shantay.

MOSLEY: The song "Supermodel" became an MTV staple and RuPaul's most successful commercial song to date. And as we learned from his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings," the success of the song presented the fulfillment of a prophecy he was told growing up. Decades earlier, RuPaul's mother, when she was pregnant with him, was told by a psychic that she'd give birth to a son who would be famous.

RuPaul's new book takes us through the years leading up to fame, growing up in San Diego and coming of age in the punk and drag scenes in Atlanta and New York. He would go on to appear in film and television, hosting several iterations of "The RuPaul Show" and "RuPaul's Drag Race." That series, now in its 16th season, is a reality competition show where drag queens compete for the title of America's next drag superstar. RuPaul has earned several awards, including 14 Emmy Awards. In 2022, he won a Tony Award for producing the musical "A Strange Loop." And in addition to his latest memoir, RuPaul has also written several other books, including "Lettin' It All Hang Out," a guide to life, "Workin' It," and a book of philosophies in 2018 called "GuRu."

RuPaul, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

RUPAUL: Thank you.

MOSLEY: Well, this book - it takes us through the first 40 or so years of your life. And one thing that seemed very clear to you at a very young age is that life is theater, that everyone around is playing a role. And the people that you learned this from the most were your mother and father. You talk about them constantly being in conflict with each other.

RUPAUL: Yeah. You know, I grew up in a house with my mother and father, who were at war the whole time I was growing up, and I learned how to be a diplomat. I learned how to read the room, figure out what people wanted from me and be able to do that because, ultimately, I needed to get through the situation, or I needed to get something from the situation. So, you know, for years growing up, people - they didn't know what box to put me in. They didn't know what to do with me. And I was very clear on what I am, but other people weren't. So I could morph. I could be a shape-shifter into whatever needed to be done to get myself from point A to point B. So drag happened to be that for me, and people were able to go, oh, oh, I see you.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: Oh, I get it now. You're this. And I went, yes, OK. That's what I am.

MOSLEY: Well, see - that's just really interesting because people could see you as this drag queen, but they still had all of these questions because they couldn't understand what you were articulating about feeling both feminine energy and masculine energy. Can I have you read an excerpt from the book that I think so clearly explains this?

RUPAUL: (Reading) Life is full of dualities - night and day, black and white, yin and yang, good and evil, birth and death, love and fear. You can't have one without the other. It takes two to create the magnetic pull to generate energy in the first place. This is the natural order - that everything, in contrast, hangs in perfect balance. I always felt both male and female. Counterintuitively, I felt more masculine in drag than I did out of drag because I knew that I could command more power that way - power being a currency that was typically conferred to men. As a feminine Black man in violation of society's norms by virtue of just existing, drag was a way to reclaim the power I'd always been denied.

MOSLEY: What a powerful revelation. Were you aware of that in the moment when you were dressing in drag, when you were at the height of this fame as this persona?

RUPAUL: I've been aware of that from the very beginning of my - the first thoughts I could remember. I could remember the kids in the neighborhood saying, oh, you're a sissy. And I'm like, oh, OK, you know - people having these ideas or needing to put a label on something to allow them to understand it. And I went, OK. If that helps you, sure.

MOSLEY: You grew up in San Diego. You were born in San Diego. Your parents migrated from the South there. Your two older sisters and a younger sister - and you were smack dab in the middle. Fans of yours know this, but many probably don't - RuPaul is your real name. Yeah. And your mom came up with it.

RUPAUL: Yeah. Yeah. My mother was looking - it was a July 1960 issue of Ebony magazine with Fats Domino on the cover. And I used to have this copy of the magazine. She'd kept it. But at Fats Domino's house, in the den or the bar, they listed several names of people who were at his house, and one of the people there - his name was Ripoll Roberts. It was R-I-P-O-L-L. And she circled it and drew a line down to the bottom of the page and wrote boy. And so, of course, it changed later to just - to RuPaul. But she said, I'm going to name this child RuPaul 'cause ain't another M-F with a name like that.

MOSLEY: Like that. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: This prediction from this psychic to your mother - when did you first learn that? Did you grow up hearing that story and knowing it?

RUPAUL: I grew up knowing that story, hearing it, knowing it from the very beginning. And she did predict that my mother was having a boy. I guess there was a 50/50 chance for getting it right.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: But yeah, I grew up with that. And - but I always felt - you know, I'm an introvert masquerading as an extrovert. And I always knew that my destiny was to be someone that people would point at and go, look, oh, there. There's a star right there. It always felt natural.

MOSLEY: Introvert masquerading as an extrovert.

RUPAUL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Explain that 'cause...

RUPAUL: Well...

MOSLEY: ...I'm surprised to hear that RuPaul is an introvert.

RUPAUL: I prefer to be to myself, but it's my destiny to do what I do. And so I've learned the ways humans act socially and on television. I studied it, and I figured, OK, oh, I can do that, and so I did. And I actually talk about it in the book where - my father was this extrovert. And I have that ability to be - to, you know, just get into a situation and start being the life. But my mother's also - my mother was very introverted, and she was very world-weary and cynical, and I have that in me, also.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is reality show host, actor and author RuPaul. We're talking about his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to RuPaul about his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings," which takes us through the first 40 years of his life. RuPaul is a singer, actor, author, and television host, earning 14 Emmys for his work on the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race," which is now in its 16th season. In 2022, RuPaul won a Tony Award for producing the musical "A Strange Loop."

Let's talk a little bit about your parents because you write in great detail about them with such clarity.

RUPAUL: My parents, they live in me, their trials and tribulations. I carry them with me. They were interesting people. My mother, who I was just so in love with, such a tortured soul. But I could feel her. I could feel her. And I still feel her, you know.

MOSLEY: She loved you - of course, you're her son - but she also accepted you in ways that allowed you to flourish as an entertainer. You would actually be in the living room doing what for her?

RUPAUL: I would be performing for her. You know, she was so world-weary, I knew that part of my job was to lift her up, and so I would. And I would perform for her. In fact, just recently I've been watching Flip Wilson, "The Flip Wilson Show" on Amazon Prime.

MOSLEY: Oh.

RUPAUL: And it's been - it's on there, all four seasons. And I remember when that show came on in 1970. My mother loved Flip Wilson, and we would go around the block - we didn't have a TV at that time. We'd go to the neighbor's house to watch "The Flip Wilson Show," mainly because of his character Geraldine - Flip Wilson in drag. And it was the funniest thing. And I just watched it. I've been watching it the past week, and it's still just as funny...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: ...As it ever was. And we would go around the block to our neighbor's house to watch "Sanford And Son," and my mother just loved that. And it made me happy to make her happy.

MOSLEY: What types of things would you do in front of her or perform?

RUPAUL: Well, I would do my Tina Turner impersonation. I would put a towel on my head and get a broom and sing "Proud Mary." Or I would do my Cher impersonation, or James Brown. Or I would impersonate the neighbors across the street, the Wafers (ph). They were from a small town in Louisiana, and they had very thick southern accents. So I would impersonate them, anything to lighten my mother up, because she was very heavy. And I understand that energy, too, because she was too sensitive.

She would tell me - at 5 years old, she said, Ru, you're too GD sensitive and you reminisce too much. And I would - I'm 5 years old at the time, and I never forgot that. I never forgot her saying that. And years later, as an adult, I understood that it was sort of her telling me something about herself, that that had been her downfall, that she was too sensitive and that she reminisced too much. And it took me many years of therapy, many years of living my life as an adult to understand that, that warning was one of the few insights I had into her.

MOSLEY: Into her.

RUPAUL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Because while you all were closed, you'd perform for her. Of course, you loved her dearly. She loved you. You never really got past that coldness. The neighborhoods would call her, like, Ms. Mean Charles or something?

RUPAUL: Mean Ms. Charles, Mean Ms. Charles.

MOSLEY: Mean Ms. Charles. Would you overhear them call her that?

RUPAUL: No, they would say that about her.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: It was almost saying it as a joke because that's - and she didn't - it wasn't a read because it was true.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: She didn't put on airs at all. Whatever she was feeling, that's what she would project.

MOSLEY: You wrote in the book that you felt like the West Coast broke her.

RUPAUL: You know, I feel like just the world broke her. You know, when she was a kid, she grew up Catholic, and she wanted to be a nun. And back then she was referred to as a mulatto. She - culturally, people would point at her and her family because they were very, very light-skinned.

MOSLEY: Almost passing?

RUPAUL: Well, culturally, they didn't - you know, you knew that they were Black.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: But they were very, very, very, very fair. So that always made her feel like an outsider. And so, you know, she grew up with that. And I talk about in the book, I have a sense that some horrible thing had happened to her in her childhood that just - that I think broke her. I do not know because she never talked about her past, very little about her past. But what I sense from her energy was that something horrible had happened to her.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Your father you described as being ruled by fear, so ruled by the constraints of who he needed to be that he couldn't really see you. Can I have you read an excerpt from your book that really speaks to this?

RUPAUL: (Reading) As charismatic as he could be, he was ultimately shallow, afraid, unable to transcend the strictures of what he saw as his reality. He was too ruled by his fears of being truly himself to allow me to be myself. Maybe I illuminated the pieces of him that were feminine, that pushed the boundaries. I could see myself in him and his side of the family, in the way that they laughed and danced and had a good time. But it wasn't reciprocal. They could not give themselves permission to see their reflections in me.

MOSLEY: That's such an enlightened way to understand your father.

RUPAUL: Yeah, it is. I mean, as a kid, I would see my father - and, I mean, a really young kid, like, 4 and 5. And I'd go, wow - to myself - I look just like him. And I did, I looked just like him, but he could never see me in him. And years and years of therapy...

MOSLEY: How did you know that?

RUPAUL: Because of the way he acted around my sisters. He was very open with them. He was very free and jokey. And he would say, my little princess. And he would be all this stuff. But he was sort of stilted with me. He was a little cold with me, and I never got it. And of course, I spent a lifetime trying to get his approval in my career and all that kind of stuff. Years and years of therapy, I finally realized - poor thing - he couldn't allow himself to do that because he would have to then acknowledge himself and he'd have to deconstruct his belief system about himself.

MOSLEY: Your father did live long enough to see your fame, though, and how did he react to it?

RUPAUL: Well, he reacted - you know, first of all, the fact that I was making money was the part that he could understand.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: Right.

MOSLEY: Right. Yeah (laughter).

RUPAUL: I remember the last conversation I had with him. We - after Obama won, we got on the phone and said, can you believe this? Can you believe this? In our lifetimes, you know, we could experience this. That was the last conversation I had with him. But we were not very close. We - not the way I was close with my mother, who - because she didn't put on airs. She allowed me to just be myself.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: You know, I'd just say, girl, girl, what is up?

MOSLEY: Is that how you all would talk to each other?

RUPAUL: Yes.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: Yeah. She didn't - she wasn't precious or anything, and she allowed us to cuss in the house. We were able to do really whatever we wanted but not be unkind. You know, I don't know where that part came from because she could cuss someone out. And she could act a fool in the grocery store and cuss people out and stuff like that, but I was never like that.

MOSLEY: You left school in 10th grade.

RUPAUL: I did. School was - I was never a school-type person - never school. I read books from the time I was - you know, I could read, and I watched television. I learned everything I know from watching television and reading books. That's it.

MOSLEY: Do you ever have any regrets or wanting...

RUPAUL: Not one.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: Not one. I'm not a school person. I was never - I did have a political science teacher in one of the schools I went to who was brilliant. And some of the things she taught us I still think about today. And then, of course, I had my drama teacher, Mr. Pannell, who I'm still friends with, in the 10th grade. And he was the one who told me, RuPaul, do not take life too F-ing seriously, and I've carried that with me. That was, I think, the most important lesson I've ever learned in school.

MOSLEY: You really came of age when you moved to Atlanta to live with your sister Renetta. You were 15 years old, moving from San Diego. Talk about a different culture - from San Diego to Atlanta. Was it culture shock?

RUPAUL: It was culture shock. It was - back then, Atlanta was a boomtown for Black folks. In 1974, Maynard Jackson had become the mayor of Atlanta, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. And the city was transformed into where it was happening for Black folks in the world. So my brother-in-law, Laurence, who was always ambitious, decided to move there and asked me if I wanted to move with them to Atlanta. And it was fantastic. It was great. And it was a mecca. I'd never seen Black folks flourish as much as that. You know, and San Diego is very Republican, very white, conservative in San Diego.

MOSLEY: You found, for a time, your tribe in the punk drag scene. You call it a rebellion against the status quo. What did that rebellion look like for you in the day to day?

RUPAUL: Well, when I was 21, I moved away from my brother-in-law's business. He had a car business that - he would flip European cars and buy low, sell high.

MOSLEY: And you loved it.

RUPAUL: I love it.

MOSLEY: You were, like, really into cars.

RUPAUL: I am still into cars. I love cars. They represent freedom. I love cars. I love flashlights. I have, like, a thousand flashlights.

MOSLEY: Wait. What's with the flashlights?

RUPAUL: I think, if I were my therapist, I would - I love the fact that, first of all, you - being prepared for the darkness. And also, they represent illumination.

MOSLEY: Do you collect them?

RUPAUL: I probably have five with me now, probably.

MOSLEY: In your bag over there, you've got, like, five flashlights.

RUPAUL: I just love them. And I think they represent clarity and a beacon, a path. So - and cars the same way. I started driving when I was 11 years old. I've always been tall. And with my - we would go up to my father's house in Cerritos, Calif. He would go to work, and he had another car in the garage that I knew where the keys were. So - and we - Rozy and I, my younger sister, would spend two weeks of the summer with him. He'd go to work. He never found this out, by the way - never found this out. I would take those keys, open the garage door...

MOSLEY: At 11.

RUPAUL: ...At 11 years old and drive around Cerritos, Calif., only making right turns 'cause I was afraid to make left turns - and my sister Rozy, who was 10, in the passenger seat (laughter).

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is reality show host, actor and author RuPaul. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER QUEEN - RUNWAY REMIX")

RUPAUL: (Singing) She's a super queen, duper queen. She popping. She dipping. She spinning. She dropping. She flipping. She winning. She popping. She dipping. She spinning. She dropping. She flipping. She winning. She's a super queen. She's a super queen. She, she, she, she's a super queen. She's a super queen. She's a super queen. She's a super queen. She's a super queen. She, she, she, she's a super queen. She's a super queen. She's a...

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking to RuPaul about his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings," which takes us through the first 40 years of his life. RuPaul is a singer, actor, author and television host. His show "RuPaul's Drag Race" is now in its 16th season. In addition to his latest memoir, RuPaul has also written several other books, including "Lettin' It All Hang Out: A Guide To Life" (ph), "Workin' It!" and a book of philosophies in 2018 called "GuRu."

So by the time you got to Atlanta and your brother-in-law had this business, you were deep in the business, by day helping to flip cars and then finding your place in this scene.

RUPAUL: Yeah. Back in the day with the cable companies, they had to allot a certain amount of channels for public access because they were digging up the streets, laying down cable so that they could have, you know, HBO and all those kinds of things. So part of the city charter was that they had to allot certain channels for public access. So there was a public access television show in Atlanta called "The American Music Show." I happened to see it one night and realize that is my tribe right there, and these are the people I'd been looking for. So...

MOSLEY: What were they doing on the show?

RUPAUL: They were irreverent. They were doing a traditional talk show, but it was sloppy and ragtag and irreverent and funny. And it was really, really punk rock. And I knew what my tribe would look like because at about 11 or 12, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" would come on PBS. And I thought, these are my people. So when I saw "The American Music Show" several years later, I went, they're doing the same kind of thing where nothing was taken seriously. The status quo was to be poked at and made fun of, and that's where I knew I belonged.

MOSLEY: You wrote them a letter. You said, hey. I got talent, and I can be on the show.

RUPAUL: Exactly. I wrote them, and they said, yes. Come on. Let's do it. So I went on the show, and that was really the real beginning of my show business career. I had done children's theater, and I'd done stuff in high school, but that letter and going on that show was the very beginning of my show business career. That was in January of 1982.

MOSLEY: Can you describe that first show you were on on "The American Music Show," what you guys did, what you did?

RUPAUL: Well, I got a couple of my friends to do a dance routine with me. My sister Rozy and I used to come up with these dance routines, and that's what I did with these friends of mine. And, you know, in ninth grade, I won best dancer, and I won best Afro. So I've always loved to dance. I love to dance. I love to laugh. And I don't have the Afro anymore. I've got several of them at the house, but it doesn't grow out in my head. So we - my friends and I worked out a dance routine to Junior Walker and The All Stars' song "Shotgun." And you know the song when you hear it. And we made these outfits to wear on the show, and we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: So.

MOSLEY: Clever.

RUPAUL: Yeah. So, you know, listen. Show business is just - it's in my blood. I knew what to do, and I was practicing for years before it happened, before I got the call from "The American Music Show." You know, I knew what to do, and it still works to this day.

MOSLEY: One of the things I thought was super-fascinating and takes us to today is that public access - if you really think about it, it's - like, today's version of that is the YouTube channel.

RUPAUL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: Absolutely.

MOSLEY: And you were not only doing this show for several years. Like, you took over this show essentially. You also were, like, really great promoter of yourself. You'd be putting posters up and things like that throughout Atlanta saying - what? - like, RuPaul is hot.

RUPAUL: RuPaul is red-hot.

MOSLEY: Yeah, red-hot. Right.

RUPAUL: Well, first of all, I've always loved advertising. I love a great campaign, a great slogan. And then I grew up, you know, watching talk shows like "The Mike Douglas Show," "The Johnny Carson Show," "Dinah," "The Merv Griffin Show." And so stars - I knew how stars behaved, and I knew what they did. They would go on these shows. They would promote what they were doing. They would have campaigns for fragrances or makeup or a car or whatever. So until the world caught up with what I thought was my stardom, I would behave like a star until the world caught up. So I would create these - I would write these fanzine books about myself and then sell them at the club. I would make records. I would make clothes and design a fashion line for myself. I would act in movies that we would film on a VHS. We'd do everything until the world caught up with me. And in fact, looking back, those were my 10,000 hours, my years of experimenting and trying things and, you know, formulating what I was planning to do. And all of those things I did back then are (inaudible) today.

MOSLEY: How did your drag image progress? How did you come up with it?

RUPAUL: I've always - first of all, I've always loved show business. I love the folklore of show business, of, you know, the MGM musicals, how they turn someone into something. You create an image. Andy Warhol with all of his superstars - they would move - these kids would move to New York, change their names, dye their hair and become this persona, this sort of superhero of their imagination. So I knew that that was available to me. Also, I grew up loving David Bowie. So that's what he did. So when I started out, I was - you know, I was - you know, punk rock and drag sort of fell on me. And I went, oh, OK, sure. I can do that.

MOSLEY: What do you mean by fell on you?

RUPAUL: Well, you know, I was part of a band, and we decided to actually - OK. RuPaul and the U-Hauls were guest stars of a band called "The Now Explosion" in Atlanta. And they were dressing up in drag for this performance at this club, 688 Club in Atlanta. And they said, well, come on board, and we're all dressing in drag. So I said, OK, we'll do it. I dressed in drag. I had this - some type of party dress and smeared makeup and combat boots. And the reaction I got from people was, oh, my gosh. And I wasn't prepared for that because we were just doing this gag. And I made a note of, wow, OK. That's one way to make an impact. So fast-forward. I added drag to my repertoire of things that I did. So it was always the gender F-word style, which is grungy and kind of comical - smeared lipstick, kind of punk rock, you know, didn't shave anything, just sort of, you know, raw, you know?

MOSLEY: You're doing this grunge, this punk. And then when you realized you're in New York City and you have this opportunity with Tommy Boy to record this song, "Supermodel," that you wanted an image to go along with that. How did you come up with it?

RUPAUL: When I moved to New York, and dancing on go-go boxes and that kind of thing, I turned it - I sort of dressed, like, sort of more sexy, like a "Soul Train" dancer, you know, how they dressed in the '70s and '80s and sort of that kind of look. And then when I made the transition above 14th Street into the mainstream, I got this record deal through Tommy Boy, Warner Brothers. And I thought, well, I need to turn the volume up to 11 on this image. And I went into what I call my glamazon look, which is couture, it's refined, which is what I still do today. So that's how that all came about.

MOSLEY: I want to go back to your Atlanta years because the last time you were on the show, you talked about when you dress in drag, straight men would see you sexually. And we give - you give more context on that in the book because when you first moved to Atlanta as a teenager, you experienced this subculture of southern church preacher kids who seemed very much into this. Can you share more?

RUPAUL: Well, the first time I'd ever felt the gaze, the sexual gaze from other people, was when I got into drag. I was always thought of as sort of, you know, this sort of eunuch character because people didn't know what box to put me in, you know? I wasn't a twink. I wasn't somebody's daddy. I wasn't, you know, any of the things that people use to identify what they want, right? So when I got into drag on a fluke - it was just, you know, us being irreverent and being Monty Python and all that kind of stuff - the energy I got back was, whoa. But I could sense that people, men, straight men, were looking at me in that thing that they do, which is scary. It's like, whoa, OK, you know? I wasn't prepared for that.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is reality show host, actor and author RuPaul. We're talking about his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN LATIFAH SONG, "FLY GIRL")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to RuPaul about his new memoir, "The House Of Hidden Meanings," which takes us through the first 40 years of his life. RuPaul is a singer, actor, author and television host, earning 14 Emmys for his work on the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race," which is now in its 16th season. In 2022, RuPaul won a Tony Award for producing the musical "A Strange Loop."

As the ultimate influencer back in the '80s, before that was actually even a term, how you would navigate today's world?

RUPAUL: I wouldn't (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: I wouldn't. I wouldn't want to. I would probably go underground and hide.

MOSLEY: Really, a young RuPaul?

RUPAUL: If I had to do that today, I wouldn't. You know, we had music and joy and irreverence and fun, and we didn't take things - life too seriously. I don't take life too seriously. But people are so self-righteous today with the moral superiority that it makes it not fun. Here's the thing, it's a very restrictive time we're in. And I've watched it. I've been an observer of culture for my whole life. This is a very restrictive time. And there was a time, you know, right when I got sober where I stepped back from public life. I still did it if a job came my way, but I wasn't ambitious the way I've always been.

MOSLEY: And you got sober in '99?

RUPAUL: In 1999, yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RUPAUL: And I've been sober ever since. And I stepped back. And it seemed like the right thing to do, especially at that time, not only for my sobriety, but because there was a certain hostility in the air that I didn't want to be a part of.

MOSLEY: How would you describe the hostility in '99?

RUPAUL: Well, we had just come out of the Bill Clinton era, which is when I found my success, and we had entered back into a very restrictive Bush presidency. I don't want to talk about politics, but that's what had happened. So fast-forward to today. I think we are also in a very restrictive time, so I probably - I wouldn't participate.

MOSLEY: Participate, yeah.

RUPAUL: I would step back. And there's a time when an artist or when a sweet, sensitive soul has to step away from the canvas, has to protect oneself. The sort of mob mentality is so dangerous that you have to take yourself out of harm's way in that way. There's a mob sensibility that you can't win with. It's a lose-lose situation. So the best you could do is extract yourself from all of that.

MOSLEY: As you mentioned, you've been sober since '99. Weed and alcohol were your vices. Was there a particular moment when you realized it wasn't working?

RUPAUL: Well, when my partner got into trouble with that, and having lived so much of my successes vicariously through him, when I realized that he was in deep trouble, I realized that I was in deep trouble. And I had to shift from living my life through him to putting the focus back into me. And I realized, too, that - I tell this story in the book - I had disassociated from my feelings early on, because the feelings I was having with my family and the trauma of my family were too much and too traumatic. And this is what humans do - children especially - you disassociate, and you separate from yourself. And through sobriety, I was able to come back inside and learn how to process feelings I couldn't process when I was a kid. You know, you - I brushed all of this stuff under the rug. Ultimately, through sobriety and a 12-step program, I was able to look under that rug and sift through these issues and come up to speed with what was happening.

MOSLEY: Well, you mentioned your partner, Georges. The book actually ends with - you guys are not together...

RUPAUL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...At the end of this book. We know the other part of the story - if - those who have been following your career knows that, at some point, you get back together 'cause you're now married.

RUPAUL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah. But why did you want to end with the breakup, with you all not being together? And I just want to preface, to lay out for folks, that you all were together. You were - he was with you during the height of your career, and you all were having this fabulous life. And then he started to struggle with drug addiction. And you broke up.

RUPAUL: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the book does end when the both of us get sober. It's just a natural place to - it was a natural place for the book to end there because it was such a huge change that happened, a huge change that I really didn't anticipate. But when it did happen, it made so much sense. We split up so that we could focus on our sobriety. And ultimately, after the book, we realize we love each other so much. We couldn't - I couldn't shake him loose. I couldn't. He couldn't shake me loose. We just, you know - so ultimately, we did eventually get married. But he's my favorite person. I've met so many people on this planet. I like him the most. I like him the most of anybody I've ever met.

MOSLEY: One of the tenets of 12-step programs, of course, is one day at a time. And '99 to 2024 is a very long time to be sober. Congratulations.

RUPAUL: Thank you.

MOSLEY: Were there - are any moments when you struggle with that?

RUPAUL: No, there haven't been. It's so funny. It's - you know, listen. It's still early in the day. I could still go out this afternoon, you know? But, no, I did it. I did it. I did all of that stuff. And what happens, you learn that even if you get the impulse - the only time I've ever thought, like, that would be interesting is when I'm listening to jazz, when I think, a glass of wine and a joint for jazz. But then I take it - the next step, and I go, oh, I know where that leads. So, you know, it's like - it's what I call my Google Earth button moment, where you press that Google Earth button, and you see the whole layout, and you go, oh, oh, I see how this works out, you know? But, no, I never have.

MOSLEY: RuPaul, thank you so much for this conversation.

RUPAUL: Thank you.

MOSLEY: Reality show host, actor and author RuPaul. His new memoir is "The House Of Hidden Meanings." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Freaks Came Out To Write," a 50-year history of The Village Voice. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN LATIFAH SONG, "LADIES FIRST (FEAT. MONIE LOVE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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