Back when supermodels really did rule the world, RuPaul sashayed down his own rarefied runway: He went from New York nightlife celebrity to something beyond a drag queen lip-syncing other people’s songs for his life when he released his debut album, Supermodel of the World, 25 years ago on June 8, 1993.
This was not an androgynous, sexually ambiguous artist like David Bowie, Boy George or Prince. This was an out gay man who looked like a glamazon but sounded like a baritone. Sixteen years before he shifted the culture with his reality-show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru was taking himself seriously as a dance-pop artist.
But while the idea of a drag queen taking on the music world may have been novel, Supermodel was no novelty. In fact, the album held its own with other LPs of the era — from Black Box’s Dreamland and C&C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat to CeCe Peniston’s Finally and Crystal Waters’ Surprise — that were finding house music a home outside of the clubs.
Like the kindred club kids of Deee-Lite had done before him on 1990’s World Clique, RuPaul demonstrated that he had learned how to rock a good party from all his time working the downtown New York scene. “Supermodel (You Better Work),” the first single and opening track, is one of the defining pop-house anthems of the ’90s. Not only did it popularize the enduring catchphrase “You better work,” but it inspired the “Now, sashay away” sendoff that exiting contestants get on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And even if you still don’t know exactly what it means to “shantay,” this strutter is an anthem for the Naomi/Christy/Linda in all of us.
“Miss Lady DJ,” with its thumping bass line, brings the funk to the fierceness, capturing the kiki energy of a night out in clubland. Meanwhile, the giddy “Free Your Mind” — no relation to the 1992 “En Vogue” hit — liberates your head and your booty from your troubles.
Supermodel continues the infectious uplift with another piano house workout, “House of Love,” whose title nods to both the genre of music at play and the family nomenclature in the underground ballroom scene. The track also references the 1979 Diana Ross gem “It’s My House” both with its lyrics (“See that chair, I put it there”) and its welcoming, inclusive spirit.
RuPaul also pays homage to the divas who came before him on “Thinkin ’Bout You,” which borrows its “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do” line from the Billie Holiday standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” But here, that lyric becomes a defiant declaration about loving who you want. Empowering messages like this take Supermodel beyond the superficial. Indeed, “Back to My Roots” may be kitschy fun, but along that irresistible wiggle, it also displays black pride as RuPaul celebrates African-American hairstyles and hair rituals.
The album loses some disco-ball steam on the two midtempo tracks — “Supernatural” and “Prisoner of Love” — but RuPaul hardly embarrasses himself stretching into R&B. (Except maybe with that “Baby, you make my nature rise” line in “Supernatural.”) “Stinky Dinky” — that title says it all — is probably the only time you really fail to take him seriously. And for that, Supermodel of the World remains a twirling triumph.