I first met RuPaul after seeing Paris Is Burning in a theatre downtown in 1991. I was standing with the photographer David LaChappelle and up rolls this stunning person on skates who towered over me -- and I am 6'4. After that, I saw RuPaul around the downtown scene, lounging on the hood of a car, and, of course, performing at Wig Stock.
The climax of the day was when RuPaul led the crowd in a call in response: "Let me hear you say LOVE!" he demanded. "LOVE!" roared back the crowd. "Let me hear you say "REVOLUTON!" "REVOLUTION!" The crowd responded. "We are here today to declare a Love Revolution," RuPaul proclaimed. And it all felt like Church to me, and I have tried to take part in that love revolution ever since.
Of course, RuPaul hit the spotlight again eight years ago with his Emmy-nominated TV show Rupaul's Drag Race, which has brought drag more into the mainstream, without mainstreaming drag. I had a chance to talk to RuPaul about his understanding of the subversive spiritual nature of Drag a few years ago and he told me:
As drag queens, we have taken the position of being shamans and witch doctors and people who remind the culture not to take itself so seriously. What it says on your driver's license isn't really who you are -- you are something much greater than that.
A lot of the queens coming on the show are just beginning to realize that. They know it on an unconscious level, that they wanted to transcend the labels and boxes that society would have them be in, so they turn to drag because it is a natural thing. It is what we are all doing -- God masquerading in drag.
This past season, one of the contestants declared himself to be "a queen for the people," combining the art of drag with the commitment to activism. Bob the Drag Queen eventually went on to win Season Eight by showcasing his extraordinary talent that included a now iconic moment when he created a purse out of leftover material and went out onto the runway "purse first." I had a chance to talk to BtDQ over the phone about his inspirations, his activism and, of course, the famous "Purse First" moment that is part of his legacy.
PBR: Congratulations on your win. It was so much fun to watch you this season, as you seemed to radiate an inner joy on the show and you weren't going to let other people bring you down.
BtDQ: Honestly, we all have an inner joy, but some people can be distracted by different things. I was having the time of my life and I was on a mission to win and wasn't going to let any petty sh#t bring me down.
You came on the show as a Drag Queen for the People. How did your activism around drag and justice start with you?
Some friends of mine who were drag queens were sitting around talking about how upset we were about injustice in the queer community and then we decided to do something about it so we formed this group to do drag queen demonstrations in times square and vowed to do them every Saturday until we had marriage equality in New York State and we did.
Do you feel there is a connection with your activism in the queer community with the racial injustices and #blacklivesmatter?
The way I am political for queer lives I am political for black lives as well. A lot of my comedy is about black lives using my own life experience as my inspiration.
In the long history of drag are there activists who have inspired you?
Well, the number one is always Sister Roma - she is a force to be reckoned with. She is with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who use activism through humor and screaming and marching the streets. She was one of the people when Facebook was taking away the names of drag queens and trans people; she led the charge of people getting their identities back on Facebook. She is amazing.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming queens who are inspired by the kind of drag and activism you are about and would like to do something similar?
Drag and activism go hand in hand for me. If you want to do drag and do activism then go do it. You know what to do. You are looking for permission to do it, well this is your permission - now go do it. I wasn't an expert on drag or activism when I started to go out there I just decided that I had had enough and I wanted to do something about it.
Where do you feel like you want to go? Are you just doing it and seeing where it leads or do you have a master plan for where you want to go?
For my activism?
And drag, Both, together.
Um, essentially global domination. But until that day occurs.... I always have a lot of projects I want to work on but my ultimate goal is to leave behind a legacy of work that I can be proud of and people are inspired by. Give back to the community, make people laugh and turn the party.
I understand that you may be tired of it but I have to ask about "purse first."
I'm not tired of "purse first", I want to say that. "Purse first" changed over time from this silly thing to something actually poignant. It's not me holding up a five million dollar purse and walking down the street. It's me holding up a purse that I made on RuPaul's Drag Race that cost less than a dollar and it made this huge statement.
It's not always about who can spend the most money or who has this or who has that; its about doing what you love and have fun with that, and using the resources you have to do what you want - and turn the party with that.
I love that. I have one last favor to ask. One of my colleagues here is an incredible woman who calls herself a queer nerdy black girl and who does this work with women of color and trans women of color to make them value themselves and recognize that they are the most important part of the social change movement; and that for us to have social change that they have to take care of themselves not just take care of everyone around them. So, I was wondering if you could give her a Purse First Shout out. Her name is Lisa Anderson.
Lisa Anderson, girl, take your activism, take your nerdy queer black girl self and walk into the world purse first. (Tongue Pop)
Amen and thank you!
(You can buy Purse First on iTunes)