It’s 5.30pm on a Thursday evening in the UK when RuPaul Charles and Jade Thirlwall jump on a video call. RuPaul rocks up first. It’s morning where he is, in California, and they’re experiencing terrible wildfires.
Minutes later, Jade appears. Underneath her profile picture, it says Norma – she’s accidentally logged in using her mum’s account.
“Here you are!” shouts RuPaul.
“Sorry, I’ve got no idea why I’m signed in as my mam,” says Jade. RuPaul laughs hysterically.
Their conversation takes place as he’s preparing to launch the second season of Drag Race UK on the BBC. As fans will know, Jade was a guest judge on the first series and is a huge supporter of the show.
The UK version may be a relatively new phenomenon, but the franchise was born in 2009. It’s now clocked up 12 seasons in the US, and in 2018 The New York Times suggested it was “the most radical show on TV”. There are multiple international versions (it launched in Canada this year) and even yearly RuPaul’s DragCon events.
For the uninitiated, it’s a fabulous hybrid of reality TV and talent contest, where drag queens compete in various challenges. RuPaul, his friend Michelle Visage and guest judges (including Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga) adjudicate the catwalk finale, before a lip-sync battle commences between the bottom two contestants. In September, Ru won his fifth consecutive Emmy award for Outstanding Host For A Reality Or Competition Program.
Jade and RuPaul first met at DragCon in LA in 2017. She later posted on Instagram that he had inspired her as a performer, “whilst giving me the confidence in myself I never knew I had”. And the rest is history.
So we put Jade in the hot seat, getting her to ask every nosy question we’ve always wanted answering...
Jade: I’m so glad to be talking to you.
RuPaul: I loved our time together on Drag Race UK.
Jade: It was one of the best days of my life. Getting to see you in drag was incredible. I got told off a few times [during filming] as I kept turning to talk to you. I just wanted to have a little chinwag.
RuPaul: You were wonderful and your kindness and sweetness really shone through. Because you started your major career on a competition show, you know what constructive criticism is and how to give it to [the contestants] in a way that’s sweet and kind.
Jade: I’ve always got time in the diary, Ru... whenever you want me on there, I will make space! So, tell me, what have you been doing during lockdown?
RuPaul: I like to stay busy. I work on music, my television show... But I’ve never had a problem with being alone. Even as a kid, I always felt like I was the little boy who fell to earth. I always felt like an observer.
Jade: It says a lot when you’re capable of finding happiness within yourself and not feeling like you need that constant validation of being around people.
RuPaul: If you get too wrapped up in how others see you... if you break through that, you have such a rich life.
Jade: It’s been quite nice for myself and the girls to take a step back because we are always on the go. As a pop artist, you can become very wrapped up in how you’re meant to look. Being at home for a few months gave me time to hone in on what makes me happy.
RuPaul: You’re very smart to do that. The world of pop music is different from when the curtain goes down and who you are behind the scenes. Even if you’re not a performer, if you’re in an office job, that’s like a stage, and having a life on your own is just as important. I feel like lockdown was the universe’s way of saying,“Everybody needs to spend some time in quiet. Go to your damn room. And don’t come out until you do your homework!”
Jade: You seem to strike a really good balance of keeping your relationships and career quite separate?
RuPaul: In school, my teacher told me, “Ru, don’t take life too seriously.” As I got older, I really understood what he was saying. That’s why drag is so important, because it says, “I can change my identity at a whim.” Everybody is wearing a mask. Everybody was born naked and the rest is drag.
Jade: So many drag queens I’ve met are shy and then they get on stage... I relate to that because it’s taken me a lot of time to gain the courage to completely be myself in everyday life. It wasn’t until I got on stage that I would put this persona on and channel drag queens. You really helped me to do that.
RuPaul: I think drag is like Clark Kent to Superman. Superman is about someone who has powers they haven’t quite discovered yet. And that is every human being on this planet. Everybody should do a version of their super-exaggerated drag, just to see what superpowers emerge once you put the costume on!
Jade: It’s really important for me that whoever I find relationship-wise loves drag culture. When I first started talking to my boyfriend [actor and musician Jordan Stephens], I discovered he did a movie where he played a drag queen and I was like, right, that’s it. He’s perfect. Sign me up! A straight man who’s willing to dress in drag and loves being queer and feminine.
RuPaul: I love Drag Race for that reason – watching these men give themselves permission to behave in ways that society would not let them and then watching the emotions come up. I feel so bad for men in our culture, because the rule book says that men after 13 are not supposed to show emotion. We live in a culture where men are really suffering.
Jade: Did you realise the impact that the show would have on the LGBTQ+ community?
RuPaul: I knew people would like it. Drag is a hoot. But I didn’t know it would have such a social impact! There’s so many places in the world where you’re not allowed to be gay and women aren’t allowed to have a voice. The Drag Race phenomenon is a celebration of people who have taken the opportunity, wherever they live, to express themselves. That is what the show really is about – the tenacity of the human spirit.
Jade: Who did you look up to in the drag world?
RuPaul: As a kid, I knew I would be famous. Cher, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton – I mixed all of those together and came up with who I would be. Early on, when I started my career in Atlanta, in 1982, it was a mecca for drag queens. Me and my friends were all punk rock – combat boots, smeared lipstick, ratty wigs and hairy chests. Then I moved to New York to make money, so I decided to glam it up. Then, when I started to get really serious and got a record deal, I did my Glamazon drag, which is what we do today. I started collaborating with the designer Zaldy in 1992 and boom! That was the beginning.
Jade: That was the year I was born, Ru.
RuPaul: [Laughs] I’ve learned so much over the years [from him]. It’s all about proportions and that’s true for everyone. You have to focus on how the human eye will interpret the silhouette.
Jade: 100%. When I first started watching Drag Race, I was telling my stylist, “I want hip pads. And I want this to be cinched. And I won’t be told otherwise!” I’ve never looked back because I’m quite rectangular and I’ve got little boobies. But I’ve learned to embrace that, and that’s what drag culture is about. A bit of padding goes a long way on stage.
RuPaul: I don’t have breasts, but when I do my push-up bra, I have the biggest boobies in the world!
Jade: Me too. Well, I like to tell myself I do.
RuPaul: And you know, I have a big old fat ass. Thanks to the scientific developments of foam rubber.
Jade: We’ve both had successful music careers. Tell me about your influences...
RuPaul: I love country music, jazz and, of course, pop music. And Motown and disco.
Jade: Motown is the reason I got into music. Diana Ross is, for me, the original pop icon.
RuPaul: Being a little brown kid in the ghetto, when those three girls [Diana Ross’s band, The Supremes] came onto the television, it was a major occurrence. I was smitten from the very first time I saw her.
Jade: I went to see her last year in Las Vegas with my mam. Talking of superfans, the first time I met you, I was overwhelmed. It was at DragCon. I was about to buy a $1,000 doll to get the chance to meet you and then I bumped into Michelle Visage and she was like, “Oh girl, come here.” One thing I judge people on is if they make everyone in the room feel just as important. I really appreciate how nice you were and your suit was lovely.
RuPaul: I place kindness and sweetness at the top of my list of human virtues and, second, a big fat ass.
Jade: How did your friendship start with Michelle?
RuPaul: She’s a good egg. She’s super smart. I met her in 1988. Over the years she popped up in different situations and I thought, “My goodness, this is someone who I really need to get to know.” I like her a lot. She makes me laugh. I feel bad sometimes on the [Drag Race] panel because we cut up like girlfriends and I don’t want the others to feel left out but we have a natural chemistry together.
Jade: When you both start cracking up, it’s TV gold. She’s one of a kind.
RuPaul: She is. From dance group [The Soul System] to radio DJ, to a rapper on The Bodyguard soundtrack, she’s done everything.
Jade: Maybe you’ve got a thing for members of bands and that’s why you warmed to me a little bit?
RuPaul: Ever since The Supremes, I’ve always loved a girl band. There’s something in our collective DNA that when we see a group of women together, [we think] there’s something important happening. We respond.
Jade: A producer that we worked with at the start said to us,“When one woman walks into a room, a few heads turn. But when a group of women walk into the room, every head turns.” That’s something we’ve always thought when we’ve lacked confidence.
RuPaul: That is great advice.
Jade: This whole idea of solidarity and empowerment... I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been together 10 years next year. That’s quite rare, for a girl band to survive without killing each other.
RuPaul: Why do you think so many other girl bands dismember after a few years?
Jade: We always said, no matter what happened, we would remain equal. The minute somebody thinks they are more important, that’s where it starts to go wrong.
RuPaul: There’s a chemistry to what you are. That combination is dynamite.
Jade: I think it was meant to be with us.
RuPaul: It’s funny, with Michelle, after seeing her so many different places, I realised, “Wait a minute, we were supposed to be together.” It’s like the universe saying, “Hey, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Jade: It’s true! I loved your collaboration with Miley Cyrus [Cattitude]. When will you be featuring on the Little Mix album?
RuPaul: As soon as possible. I’d love that. I’m yet to meet the other girls so I’m very excited.
Jade: And what does the future hold for you?
RuPaul: We continue to grow Drag Race. It’s my first professional love. I’m so proud of how it’s brought so much joy to so many people. I’m writing songs, a book, developing TV shows and movies... But at the same time, keeping the balance of who I am professionally and who I am on a personal level. And [I’d like to] try to eke out some time in Wyoming [where he owns a 60,000 acre ranch] for the quietness.
Jade: Creativity is good for the soul. I just want to say a massive thank you for talking to me, and for myself as a woman of colour in the pop industry. You’ve really helped me to become the performer I am today. I’ll always be grateful for that. I hope you’re well, hope you’re happy and I hope to see you soon.
RuPaul: That’s a lovely compliment. It was a thrill to speak with you. Give my love to your mom!
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK series 2 (BBC Three) and RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 (in the US) are expected to air in early 2021. AJ And The Queen is available on Netflix. Little Mix’s new album, Confetti, is out on 6th November.
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