He might be the world’s most famous drag queen, but RuPaul knows he’s not the queen of drag. “That’s Cher,” he says. “She’s the queen of all drag of all time!” Here, the 51-year-old TV host—whose makeover show, Drag U, airs Mondays on Logo—serves TIME interview realness.
Just to be clear: the goal of Drag U is not to make women look like drag queens, right?
No, the goal is to have fun with drag! And to help women get in touch with their superhero spirit animals.
Superhero spirit animals?
Yeah, everybody’s got one. Women in our culture — a lot of times, if they have a family or children, they put themselves second or third or fourth. They become like Clark Kent. And we help them find their inner Superman. They get to go, Oh my god, I have all this attention. I have all this power. I have carte blanche to really behave in this omnipotent way.
So the Drag U queens are making women superheroes.
Well, there’s a hero in all of us! That’s why we love the Superman story—it’s a story of Christ, Krishna, Buddhists. It’s everyone’s story.
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Your main TV show, Drag Race, is built around finding new drag talent. But it’s a niche industry. Do you ever worry you’ll exhaust America’s supply of queens?
Good question. A lot of people audition for our show. But we’re looking for showgirls who understand the art of drag, not some Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to have a pussycat wig and a pair of cha-cha heels!
Of course not.
But hopefully we are inspiring a new crop of queens. The truth is, there are so many drag queens. We’re all in drag. We’re all playing dress-up. Even if you work on Wall Street or at McDonald’s, you’re putting on a persona.
In January, you staged an impromptu press conference to announce that you are not Ron Paul and you are not running for President. Do people often confuse you two?
Well, you know — [laughs.] Even in ’08, people were doctoring his campaign signs to make them say RuPaul. People would get it confused because they wanted to get it confused. But not so much anymore!
In many ways, Drag Race is the most gay-friendly show on television. Was that always what you set out to create?
No, we set out to create an entertainment show that is fun, fun to watch, and that celebrates the art of drag — something that has been near and dear to my heart forever. I grew up loving Cher and David Bowie and Diana Ross, and all of those poeple have the same presto, change-o character motif. That always rang true to me.
I always felt like an alien coming to this planet plopped into this body. What do you want to do first? Let’s laugh, let’s dance, let’s play with all the toys!
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But you do occasionally tackle more serious subjects. On a recent episode of Drag Race, for example, Dan Savage helped the queens create political platforms for a mock debate.
Well, that’s inherent in drag. When you’re putting on a persona, you have to deal with where does the persona end and where does the person start. It forces you to go deep.
Speaking of which, an all-important question: what makes a great drag queen?
A great sense of humor, a knowledge of pop culture, a knowledge of proportion, and a real understanding that life is not to be taken seriously.
And the name?
Everyone has a certain rhythym, a certain energy force, and the name has to match that. It’s not always some kitchy something. It could be, you know, Elektra 125, or—
Or RuPaul. Which is, by the way, my real name!
One of your signature catchphrases — and you have many — is your elimination line on Drag Race: “It’s time for you to lipsync…for your life!” If you had to lipsync for your life, which song would you pick?
“Save Up All Your Tears” by Cher. It’s a single from an album she did 20 years ago — not a big hit, but it’s just my favorite. It modulates like crazy. Oh, I wanna pick another one, too.
You can pick as many as you want.
“Naked Without You” by Taylor Dayne. But it’s the remix by Thunderpuss.
No vote for your own songs [like early ’90s hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)”]?
Oh, I’d sing those. But I’d lipsync someone else.