RuPaul’s autobiography and memoir

I bought Lettin It All Hang Out: An Autobiography by RuPaul at Glad Day Bookshop in 1995 when this book first came out. I have had it on my bookshelves, unread for close to thirty years. I was a fan of RuPaul as soon as I heard “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1993 yet it had to take the publication of his new memoir, The House of Hidden Meanings, for me to finally get down and read it. I realized that if I wanted to read his memoir, it would be better to read the autobiography, finally, first.

In spite of the 29 years between the two books, RuPaul kept them at similar lengths. The autobiography was 228 pages while the memoir, which he could have fleshed out to three times the length, was only 239 pages. The books were similar in their presentation and revelations, but thankfully not identical. He covered the same episodes in both–up to 1995, naturally–but added some new details from his early life in the memoir that he did not write about in the autobiography. The memoir nevertheless almost ends at the same time in RuPaul’s life, and does not even progress into the 21st century.

RuPaul has grown more philosophical and spent more time on self-analysis in the latter book while the former had more pages devoted to superficial details. The autobiography was filled with photos and inset lists (such as his favourite TV shows and the best records to lip-synch to). One constant in both books was RuPaul’s commitment to living a positive life, sharing love and self-acceptance, and being a beacon of joy. That is the reason I was so attracted to him in the first place: he was not a bitchy, catty drag queen, but one who radiated such a positive attitude that certainly helped me when I came out of the closet.

When he was first breaking out with his supermodel drag persona, RuPaul vowed:

“The drag scene I’d come of age in was always raunchy, sexually charged, blue. What if I took all that and made it mainstream? What if I made it so fun, so likable, so family-friendly that you could show it to your grandmother? What if I brought the same glamour that had enraptured me in that Versace show to every appearance I made–but I did it with a wink, a winning smile, and the spirit of sweetness I tried to embody, that I’d always found irresistible in others?”

I was surprised to read about the drugs that were part of young RuPaul’s life. He tried everything yet thankfully never overdosed. Before I read The House of Hidden Meanings, I wondered if he would whitewash this part of his past. In the intervening 29 years RuPaul had become an enormous star and might have decided to do some editing of his life story. Thankfully, he hid nothing and continued the story of his descent into drug addiction that was still to come and thus not a part of Lettin. In addition to his drug tales, he also wrote about his crushes and sexual hookups. I admire him for practising what he preaches by being true to his life experiences. Realness, outside of the drag context, also applies to telling your life story.

RuPaul wrote about racism and homophobia but I did not get the idea that he was bullied growing up. He was often called a sissy yet shrugged it off and never let it bother him. What I did find interesting was how he perceived himself in drag:

“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 had always been denied.”

Yet that was not how everyone else perceived him. Black people reacted to his homosexuality and his drag persona in different ways. He wrote:

“To be a gay kid, especially around Black folks, was to be in a continual state of secret-keeping, of pretending. Trying not to feed that coiled snake of yearning within me, even though it was breaking my heart, was an exercise in stoicism.”

He had a bone to pick with Bill Cosby, who accused other black stars of “enslaving themselves by getting themselves up as minstrels for the white man.” His response was:

“If I want to dress up in drag in a watermelon outfit, I will be the judge of whether I am playing the fool for the white man. And I can assure you that is not what I am doing.”

As a black drag queen, RuPaul often performs in blonde wigs. He has taken heat for his choice of drag hair colour:

“When I put on a blond wig, I am not selling out my blackness. Wearing a blond wig is not going to make me white. I’m not going to pass as white, and I am not trying to. The truth about the blond wig is so simple: It really pops. I want to create an outrageous sensation, and blond hair against brown skin is a gorgeous, outrageous combination.”

White gay men did not always treat him favorably, seeing their sad reflections in RuPaul’s positive glow:

“Later, when my career had blossomed, I would cross paths with masculine white gay men who looked at me with a kind of seething hatred, a self-loathing turned outward, their internalized homophobia like a sneer of contempt. To them I would always be a flamenco dancer, interrupting the well-rehearsed choreography of their line dance.”

Passages such as the quotation above show that the memoir was more philosophical and reflective, while the autobiography was more of a for-the-moment read, full of funny lines and observations. I found some reminiscences so funny that I had to include them here. In the passage below RuPaul wrote about exploring his feminine side while a young boy:

“I’m an old pro; I was doing Revlon commercials in my mother’s bedroom at the age of eight. I got my first Barbie doll when I was five years old. The fact that I sawed her breasts off had more to do with that boyhood destructive thing than misogyny. Other than that slight hiccup, exploring my feminine side came very easily to me, because I grew up in a house full of women.”

RuPaul had three sisters and a mother who could put drunken sailors to shame. He quoted what must certainly have been her regular turns of phrase. That she regularly referred to her only son by the most despicable racial epithet was shocking. RuPaul did not edit his two works to hide this by using the euphemism. He kept the realness by telling it like it was while living with his mother. In spite of her using such a term of hate, she had no problem with her young son playing with dolls and dressing up in her clothes. To her, it was so obvious that this was RuPaul’s nature, so why try to change it?

I found a couple other passages to be hilarious. As RuPaul grew taller he needed some pretty big women’s shoes, and he found it very odd that he could not buy his size at Frederick’s of Hollywood:

“I was there just after the L.A. riots and all the size thirteens had been looted. There must be a lot of gangsta queens prancing around the City of Angels.”

RuPaul did some freelance reporting for a British TV station when he lived in New York. He would later cover local topics such as interviewing the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, but his first assignment was to interview transvestite hookers. I can picture him now delivering the line below, with a pregnant pause before finishing the rest of the sentence:

“To do my assignment I decided it would be a good idea for me to go “undercover,” and disguise myself as one of them–what a stretch of the imagination.”

In 1993 the most negative press that RuPaul received was after he delivered a snappy one-liner to Milton Berle when they presented an award together at the MTV Video Music Awards. It was obvious to me that RuPaul was still hurt by the incident when he wrote about it two years later. He went on at length about why he said it. It was a pent-up reaction to Berle’s bad behaviour as they rehearsed their lines shortly before going onstage. Berle, who was 85 at the time, was ungracious and too touchy with RuPaul’s drag getup, poking her and feeling her fake breasts. RuPaul provided the backstory about what they were supposed to say. You can see the tension between them by clicking on the link above. The press afterward railed into RuPaul for being cruel to the octogenarian pioneer of television.

As I progressed through my reading of The House of Hidden Meanings I realized that by the time I was halfway through, RuPaul still hadn’t recorded “Supermodel”, and I probably wasn’t going to read anything about him that happened after he turned forty. RuPaul certainly has a full life story to tell and I hoped that this book would be the one to tell it. The memoir was the more interesting book, based upon his perspective that now offers wisdom and reflection.

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