“Gone tomorrow, but you’re here for today / catwalking like the world is your runway,” RuPaul declares on the opening verse of “Kitty Girl” — a fan favorite off her latest album, American. The 6’4” drag icon is certainly making people pay attention: between a hit TV show, two new albums (with a third on its way!) and a biographical TV dramedy with Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams in the works, Mama Ru is serving working girl realness. Hot on the (size-twelve) heels of RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine premiere, the straightforward shapeshifter talked to Billboard about her B-52’s breakthrough, her collection of unreleased Lady Gaga tracks, and — given the patriotic theme of her latest album — politics: “This election is a reaction to having an African-American president in the White House for the past eight years.”
First off, a condragulations is in order: nearly a million viewers tuned in to the season 9 premiere of Drag Race, making it the most watched episode in the history of the series and doubling last season’s debut. Were you shocked?
No, I wasn’t shocked because we’ve moved over to VH1 which has 93 million homes. It’s a lot more eyeballs that can watch our show. I’ve been out promoting our show for years and years to get people to tune in on Logo, but not a lot of people have Logo. And if they have it, it’s usually one of the most expensive cable packages around, so it was quite a feat. We had great success at Logo, but I knew it was more accessible to people on VH1.
Lady Gaga stopped by for the premiere. She was brilliant. What’s your favorite Gaga song?
You know, I believe it’s the one I did with her called “Fashion.” I love that song. Also, there’s this other one that’s part of this unreleased package that floated around the internet called “Nothing On But The Radio.” I don’t know the story behind it. I have a whole album of b-sides and unreleased Lady Gaga stuff. I don’t know how I got it.
You know, I’m a music freak. I’m sort of like the Underground Railroad of music people. They send me things and I’ll send them things because we love music so much.
Lady Gaga seemed genuinely touched seeing the queens recreating her iconic looks. Now that the episode has aired, were there any off-camera moments you wish the audience had seen?
I think the camera pretty much captured the vibe of the room. She was right in her element: she loves dressing up, she loves playing with identities and characters. She relates to that little nerdy kid outcast who finds freedom in performance and taking on different identities. I think the episode really captured how genuinely moved she was.
Last season, you had a similar runway challenge: all the queens wore Madonna-inspired looks. When can we expect The Queen of Pop to be a guest on the show?
Well you know, Madge doesn’t really do that much television. Unless she’s promoting something, and then she does the big shows, like Carpool Karaoke. We always ask. We always ask Cher. We always ask everyone.
Who would be your dream guest?
Well I would certainly love to have Madonna, Cher, Judge Judy and Diana Ross; all of those people have really shaped my view of life, ya know?
You know what’s a funny story about this season? Iman called me and said she was in town, and that her daughter Lexi is a big fan of the show and wanted to stop by the set. She’s 16 now. They came by the set and she brought a friend. They were huge fans. They visited, we took pictures and all that good stuff. After they visited I broke down and cried because when I was that age, I was beyond — beyond — obsessed with David Bowie. From the time I was about 14 throughout the rest of my life. To think that David Bowie’s kid was on our set… I didn’t let on to her, but the fact that I’ve lived long enough in my life to have this turnaround to where David Bowie’s kid was obsessed with something I was doing was really crazy. I’ve never told anyone that story actually.
What did you think of Bowie’s Blackstar?
It’s beautiful. It just made me miss the fact that he couldn’t do more. In hearing that album and its jazz undertones, I thought, ‘Oh my god.’ I would have loved to hear him do a standards album or a proper jazz vocals album. Even singing some of the jazz standards. I just loved him so much. I still love him so much.
This week’s episode features the B-52’s. In 1989, you appeared in their “Love Shack” music video, which was their first Billboard Hot 100 top 40 hit, ultimately peaking at No. 3. How did you land the gig?
Well they had always been aware of us Atlanta kids. Because they had made it out of Athens, Georgia and R.E.M. had made it, we all flocked to the inner city to meet other ‘tribe’ members to emulate that same success. We were in bands and we played the 40 Watt Club in Athens and all that kind of stuff.
They were always aware of us. When we hit New York, they were even more aware of us because we were the talk of the town. We were the Atlanta kids who had come up. Anyways, word got out and a mutual friend came to the club and said that they wanted us — Lahoma, myself, Lady Bunny and Larry Tee — they wanted us in their music video.
I believe it was just Lahoma and myself that ended up going up there. We had been, of course, at the club all night. Didn’t go to sleep. We’re in our clothes from the club the night before. We jumped on a bus they had chartered from the city up to near Poughkeepsie where we filmed that. I remember being so exhausted, but we did it!
That was nearly thirty years ago. Any stories from the set?
The big story — and the Bs always remind me this — is that they wanted to do a Soul Train line. They couldn’t. It wasn’t going right. So I had to step in and say, ‘Okay, listen. This is how you do a Soul Train line.’ It’s like two wheels that are sort of smashing pasta out; it’s like a pasta machine. The two wheels have to be rotating. So when the two people are going down the middle, the line is actually in rotation, so it replenishes the two new people that come down the middle. They were very impressed by the fact that I was able to do that.
There have been several times in my life where I pretend to be, not necessarily a wallflower, but someone who is a conscious observer. I’ll step in and go ‘Okay, this is what needs to happen.’ I guess it’s part of my Scorpio nature. A lot of times, I will sort of downplay that. But sometimes I have to take the reins and say, ‘Okay, here we go. This is what we need to do.’ And that’s what happened and they were very impressed.
Over the years, you’ve had plenty of Hot 100 hitmakers as guests on your show. This season, you have Meghan Trainor and Kesha, and both Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato appeared in the past few years. Do you have any juicy stories you can share?
I had met Ariana Grande several years before because her brother, Frankie, was a big fan of the show. It was right before she had really taken off; she had just released the single “The Way.” She was so young when I met her.
When she finally got on the show, her whole family came; Frankie, her grandmother, her mother. Everybody was there because they were such big fans of the show and she couldn’t have been more lovely.
With Meghan Trainor — I love songwriters. I’ve always idolized people who can write songs. I just grilled her on her songwriting process. It was the same with Ester Dean when she was on. I’m very fascinated by people who can do that. They were both very forthcoming with their information, which I loved.
Speaking of songwriting, you spoke with hit songwriter Justin Tranter on your podcast, RuPaul: What’s The Tee. You first met him at Diane Warren’s birthday party — talk about songwriters. Who is your favorite songwriter?
I’d have to say Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I can’t really say because I love them all. I love Ashford & Simpson and I love the Brothers Gibb. They are amazing. In fact, they do tricks in their songs that are so beyond.
There’s a song that they wrote called “Carried Away” that was recorded by Olivia Newton-John. I believe it was a single from her huge album, Physical. The song was written for Barbra Streisand‘s Guilty album, which is a masterpiece. Barbra passed on the song and it went to Olivia Newton-John. In the song, they do this time-signature change that is mind-blowing. When you hear the song, it just speaks to what masters they are.
Barry released the demos for all of the albums he did for the superstars. You know, they did Barbra, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and of course Andy Gibb. All of the demos for the albums were released on iTunes and it’s beautiful to hear him singing these songs — especially the ones where it’s clearly for a woman. But “Carried Away” is part of the package for the Guilty album of the demos.
One of the many things that are great about Drag Race is how it introduces a new, young audience to pieces of pop culture that they may never have learned about. Who is a musician that you want your younger fans to discover?
Well I would love for them to discover all of the Motown stuff: Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie Wonder and all of those great writers from back then. Those songwriters really are the architects of modern pop. They’re the architects of what ABBA did and Stock Aitken Waterman, Babyface — all the hitmakers that came after them. Even Max Martin and Dr. Luke attribute their sound and their success to what happened at Motown.
Let’s talk about your new album, American. There’s no pussyfooting: it’s a call to arms in this political climate. Your music is generally playful, so what made you decide to make this bold statement?
It was really from my heart. In years of doing it, you learn to use this instrument — this heart, mind, body, spirit — as a way to channel feelings to come through you. And that’s exactly what happened.
I was so disappointed and despondent after the election. The American dream — the American drive that we stand for — had been so deluded and tainted by this divisive entity. And that’s exactly what came out of me: this album. I was angry I chronicled my process of being lost and wanting to get away from it all. And then coming back and saying, ‘You know what? I’m back. I’m ready to fight the hard fight.’
The cover art features you in front of a black and white flag. While the visual is striking, I’m assuming there’s a deeper meaning to it.
I saw footage from a rally in Tennessee where they were hyping up the Manchurian Pumpkin. They were interviewing people who pretended that this was really about certain issues when they clearly knew nothing about the issues. You could see right through them. The real issue was: they felt left behind. These people have felt like history is moving beyond them. And it is, by the way: we’re in the 21st century. We have to include all people. This election had really just boiled down to black and white. The message is how the flag — our red, white and blue — has turned into something that’s black and white. This election is a reaction to having an African-American president in the White House for the past eight years.
Aside from the title track, it seems that “Call Me Mother” and “Kitty Girl” are favorites among the fandom. What’s your favorite track?
I love them all. My favorite track would have to be “American.” It’s so simple and it’s so heartfelt. I always get this visual of what the video would look like; all these different, beautiful, diverse people marching to Washington to reclaim American values.
Are we going to see that music video?
I’m trying to make it happen. I’m so busy with so many other things, but I’m trying to make it happen. We’ll see!
You have such an expansive discography. Have you considered touring?
I have! I was actually talking to Todrick Hall yesterday about the way he mounts these tours. It’s something I was to do. The thing is: because we’ve had so much success on television, I have to stay close to L.A. and work on that. I do want to do it.
I’m coming out with Essential, Vol. 2 in a couple months. I did Remember Me: Essential, Vol. 1 where I rerecorded stuff I had on Warner Brothers. Vol. 2 will be music I released from the last nine years, so a tour would be perfect with that.
Queer musicians are becoming more and more mainstream. Who do you have your eye on?
Well there’s that kid—what’s his name? He has it spelled weird. Troye Sivan! That’s an interesting storyline. And of course there’s Justin Tranter who’s unapologetically queer and really in the business in a way that wields so much power. It’s amazing to me. I love that. And then they’re all the people that are just open; who don’t have to decide one way or the other what they are. I think that’s the most optimistic ray of light in this whole thing.
If young RuPaul was a contestant on Drag Race, who would have she played in Snatch Game?
The only person I could do is La Toya Jackson. I’m surprised people haven’t done her before because she’s a perfect fit. She has her own vernacular, her own aesthetic — it would be so good!
If you could give any pop star a drag makeover, who would it be?
Oh, I don’t know! I don’t really give makeovers. One of the things that came out this week in the press is how I get young people tweeting me saying, ‘I wish you could do my makeup for prom’ or ‘I wish you could do my makeup for my wedding.’ And I understand that it’s coming from a loving place and it’s a compliment. But it’s really telling of our culture — of people who haven’t expanded their perspective on human life on this planet. Usually people who don’t have a broad perspective see gay people as servants — as people who are there to make them look good. It’s akin to asking a black person to dinner, but only if they’ll serve the food — and do the dishes! It’s because their experience through television or media or whatever is that of gay people doing make-up, or making them over.
You recently announced that you married your boyfriend of 22 years, Georges LeBar. It was also announced that you’re producing a fictional series with J.J. Abrams based on your come up — your rise from club kid to superstar. Will we see Georges portrayed on the show?
I don’t know! Probably not because the show really focuses on the ’80s and what New York was like then. I met Georges in the ’90s, after I had already become famous.
Do you have any dream casting choices?
I don’t! I think that may be the hardest part of this whole thing — casting me! I don’t know who’s going to do that, honestly.
RuPaul’s Drag Race airs 8 p.m. Fridays on VH1.