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“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 certainly is 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-12) heels of the 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 into the season nine 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 re-creating 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 30 years ago. Any stories from the set?
The big story — and the B’s 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, “OK, 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 “OK, 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, “OK, here we go. This is what we need to do.” And that’s what happened and they were very impressed.
overtly racist,” says Bob the Drag Queen, as she, Kim Chi and Naomi Smalls stop by THR ahead of Monday’s grand finale.”]
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.
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.”
Read the full Q&A on Billboard here.
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