At roughly seven feet tall—when you count the stilettos and altitudinous wig—RuPaul is a dazzling, ebullient tornado of fierceness. But what's more impressive is his multi-decade career, during which he's brought drag to the mainstream. His Emmy-winning, eminently quotable show, RuPaul's Drag Race, is scheduled to begin its tenth season this spring; he has released 11 dance-pop albums; and he was the first drag queen to land a cosmetics campaign (with MAC). He's also preached a gospel of self-love and tolerance that has permeated American culture: Even your mother is probably using the phrase "You better work" by now. Fascinated by his ability to defy categorization and spark vital conversation about identity, Oprah sat down with the 57-year-old for a much-needed kiki—a laugh-filled chat between friends.

Oprah: I knew you were my kind of human when I first heard you say, "We're all born naked, and the rest is just drag." We're in these "body" suits, and we come up with ideas about who we really are. There's a quote I love: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

RuPaul: That's exactly right. As a kid, I thought: Is everybody getting that this is all kind of an illusion?

Oprah: Do you remember the first time you thought that?

RuPaul: It occurred to me when my parents were in the living room going crazy, beating each other up. I knew that couldn't be right. Then, at about 11 years old, I found my tribe in Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS. I thought, Okay, they get it—they're having fun. In tenth grade, my teacher told me, "RuPaul, don't take life too effing seriously." I didn't get it then, but I got it later.

Oprah: This month we're asking the question "What defines you?" How would you answer that?

RuPaul: At this moment? I'm everything and nothing at all. I'm black, I'm white, I'm male, female. To me, seeing all the facets of yourself is the next level of our evolution—understanding who we really are.

Oprah: I love that. So you don't put yourself in any kind of box.

RuPaul: None of them felt like the right fit.

Oprah: Because why do you have to define yourself?

RuPaul: You don't have to!

Oprah: When did you first understand that doing drag was a meaningful way of expressing yourself?

RuPaul: You know, I'm an opportunist and a show-off, so I knew show business would be my path. I didn't know how it would work, but I kept an open mind. Then I was in bands in Atlanta, and drag sort of happened to us. It was very different from the kind I do now—it was punk rock, with combat boots and smeared lipstick. But I knew I had power in drag because of the reaction I got from people.

Photo: Albert Sanchez Courtesy of World of Wonder

Oprah: As far as you're concerned, though, drag really applies to all of us. It's whatever we put on after we get out of the shower, right?

RuPaul: Absolutely. And why not make it work for you? If you have the power to control how people see and interpret you, why not use it?

Oprah: Your single "Supermodel" came out in 1992 and was a huge hit; you had that whole era of fame. Then, over the last several years, something happened in the zeitgeist that made your way of being—and branding and identifying—a cultural phenomenon again. You've become a symbol that inspires not just young people, but so many in the midst of their own questioning, their own pain, their own struggles. You must hear from plenty of them.

RuPaul: I hear from everyone. Not only people who dance to the beat of a different drummer, but people who are sometimes too sensitive for this world, because their hearts are so open, and they've been beaten down so much.

Oprah: Is there one particular story or person that stands out?

RuPaul: The interesting thing is, the stories are all the same: These people aren't recognized by the world, and they're not recognizing themselves.

Oprah: I've read that when you started out, your goal was to make people say, "RuPaul, I love you."

RuPaul: That was the goal of a very young person who didn't know exactly what they really needed.

Oprah: Because eventually you learned that all the "I love yous" in the world don't fill whatever void is inside.

RuPaul: Exactly.

Oprah: How did you figure that out?

RuPaul: Well, after hitting my head against the proverbial wall really hard, I realized I was the only person who could fill that void, which came from wanting to find connection.

Oprah: You seem so positive—are you always in the joy space?

RuPaul: Noooo. I work at it every day. I meditate, I go to the gym, and all those inspirational things I say to contestants on the show, those pep talks, I'm actually saying them to myself. I also try to laugh as much as possible. There's a scene in The Witches of Eastwick where all three women start levitating because of laughter. That's the most powerful spell you can cast.

Oprah: Why do you think drag is resonating so deeply with people at this moment?

RuPaul: There's a new breed of young people out there. We do a convention called DragCon, and the kids who come are smart. They've almost got a new belief system that's completely of the 21st century. Our show speaks to that forward-thinking voice. They see the kids on our show overcoming adversities and realize, I can do that.

Photo: Frank Terry

Oprah: What allowed you to move past anybody's expectations and carve out a new path?

RuPaul: I think that's who I am naturally. But also my mother was very, very rebellious. She used to say, "Unless they payin' your bills, pay them no mind." I was a sweet kid, so people would hurt my feelings. But you live long enough, you realize that, baby, that has nothing to do with you.

Oprah: That's what Maya Angelou used to say to me: Baby, you're not even in it. When they wrote the story, when they started the rumor, it wasn't even about you. It takes time to learn, though. What has drag taught you about how we define ourselves?

RuPaul: It shows people that everything's temporary. It's just clothes, paint, powder. Drag is like fame: It doesn't hide you. It reveals who you are.

Oprah: Yes! If you're a jerk before you get famous, you're just a more intensified jerk afterward.

RuPaul: Drag can help you understand what you are, how amazing it is to have a human body, and what you can do with it.

Oprah: I still marvel at how amazing it is. You talk about being an optimist: Has it been an uphill battle to stay optimistic lately?

RuPaul: It is. I'm doing my part, but it's exhausting, because I'll assume that we're further along as humans on this planet and then be proved wrong. You think, "Did I just imagine that we were moving forward?"

Oprah: You and I both assumed that civilization evolves in a straight line. It does not. You move forward, then take a couple steps back to the dark ages. You've mentioned mobilizing young people to make social change. What does that look like?

RuPaul: We show them through example. I don't have children, but I do know that they learn from their elders in ways parents might not realize, from watching what they do with their garbage to how they react to nudity. It's an inside job, and we all have to pitch in on how we behave.

Oprah: What lesson took you the longest to learn?

RuPaul: I grew up with a father who was completely shut down. And I thought, Okay, you want joy? I got you. For years, I felt my job was to give people like that what they needed, to remind them who they are. But my father couldn't see me because it would have forced him to get in touch with some very painful feelings. That was the hardest lesson to learn: Those people who are shut down, let them be. Let them figure things out on their own.

Oprah: What has been the most difficult choice you had to make to fulfill your destiny?

RuPaul: Well, I don't think my destiny has really happened yet. But the most difficult choice I make every day is to be engaged, choose love, and not succumb to darkness. Because it's always in my peripheral vision.

Photo: Frank Terry

Oprah: What do you think your true purpose on earth is?

RuPaul: I was gonna say something unselfish, but actually I think it starts with me. The first thing is for me to experience this life and enjoy it. And if I enjoy it, I could possibly share that with other people.

Oprah: That's one of the best answers I've heard. So many people wonder, What's my higher purpose? Your purpose is to be, and to experience life on this planet in its fullness. And if you choose to do something else, that's okay. What we're all actually seeking is the truest expression of ourselves. So when you look in the mirror, what do you see?

RuPaul: Freckles! You know, I've spent so much time putting on makeup and using my body for a living. So initially, I see it as part of my work. But when I look with my heart, I see that little boy who loved to dance and laugh—my two favorite things to do on this planet. I like the lighter things in life. I tend to go toward the light.

Oprah: Have you reached the best place for yourself?

RuPaul: I think so. Right now, I'm paying attention to everything, but I am focusing on the joy. I'm focusing on the joy.

This conversation was featured on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. You can listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts.


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