RuPaul would have you believe that his recent talk with Paul Holdengräber, part of the LIVE from the NYPL series, was an infomercial, an opportunity to plug a nearly endless stream of projects to an already rapt audience. While his new album, podcast, and wildly successful LOGO reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its seventh season, were certainly featured throughout the night, RuPaul’s insistence on product placement is sleight of hand, a way to misdirect the spotlight from his sparkling intellect and Machiavellian talent for manipulating a narrative. This was never more evident than how off-balance interviewer Holdengräber seemed throughout, unable to take RuPaul by surprise, or to even gather a straight (pun intended, I suppose) answer from the seasoned performer.
Holdengräber said that RuPaul’s writing about the creation of his drag persona reminded him of the following quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.” RuPaul sighed, “I loved that—did I write that?” Holdengräber, powerless, as all we are in the face of such glamour, had no choice but to dance to RuPaul’s beat.
This shouldn’t come as news to anyone lucky enough to have attended the talk, or even those familiar with RuPaul’s oeuvre. Throughout the evening, RuPaul referred back to a dualistic epistemology, where the self exists simultaneously on-stage and in an audience, where drag offers the self an opportunity to realize and manifest, and to reorient, its double.
“Most people live on this side of the stage,” RuPaul gestured to Holdengräber and the NYPL platform, “and think they are their characters.” Drag itself, however, is disruptive, a glitch in the system, a loophole. RuPaul said, “Most people help maintain the fourth wall, but drag breaks it.” Drag transgresses the tradition of the unitary self, allowing for multiple performances of identity, gender and aesthetic—and for this reason, RuPaul thinks, “drag will never be mainstream.”
The double certainly haunts RuPaul’s projects, where every fishy queen is also a boy with stars in his eyes and every phrase is a double entendre. When Holdengräber asked RuPaul to provide some promo language for the NYPL, he delightfully supplied, “Reading is fundamental!” As fans know, the library is always open, and reading is, indeed, fundamental. But an onlooker uninitiated into the world of drag and its artifacts, like Paris is Burning, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” and Drag Race, might not know that reading is code for a kind of insult play, and that saying the library is open has nothing to do with hours or days of the week. It is this kind of doublespeak that structures the language of drag, and helps to manifest its particular kind of magic.
I am not a historian of drag, nor am I particularly qualified to speak to its rich tradition, but I know enough about RuPaul to have frantically taken notes during his talk at NYPL—we can all learn a lot from RuPaul. The double, the sheer power of metatext, and even of things like lace front wigs and a well-painted face, was front and center. RuPaul kept calling us witches, conjurers, makers of magic, saying that we are “creating this dream,” and that the enchanted crowd was truly capable of constructing “ideas and imagery to propel [ourselves] forward.” Then drag is certainly a kind of power, a fearful kind of sorcery as able to drench the world in glitter, as it is to pull back the curtain on its mechanisms of banality and humdrum ordinariness. Citing The Truman Show and The Matrix, RuPaul said, “Most people are afraid to find out that this is all a fantasy.” But it is the drag performers, the RuPauls, the Lady Bunnies and the Divines, who shape shift, who bring fantasy into reality and then back again.
Photos: Sarah Stacke/The New York Public Library