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RuPaul Reveals His Traumatic Origin Story in New Memoir

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Within the landscape of American pop culture, RuPaul is many things—a reality competition show host, a drag queen, a pop star and a participant in fracking. But with his new memoir, The House of Hidden Meanings, the groundbreaking multi-hyphenate endeavors to tell us how he got there.

RuPaul’s origin story is often heartbreakingly relatable. His descriptions of his “stoic” mother and “shallow” father ring with the insight that comes with decades of reflection. And the icon’s failed romantic relationships clearly left scars.

But RuPaul’s greatest strength is that he is a one-of-one public figure. He cut his teeth on the Atlanta performing arts scene, bouncing back and forth between his home town and downtown haunts in New York City before eventually hitting the big time with “Supermodel,” the pop song that synthesized years of grinding, act-building, writing and image-crafting.

How did RuPaul crack the code? “I’d mastered the art of naughty-lite,” he writes. “Two spoonfuls of Diana Ross, a pinch of Cher, a shake of Dolly Parton, all sealed with Walt Disney’s family-friendliness. Finally, I had snapped into focus, just in time for the whole world to see.”

An incendiary core memory scarred young RuPaul forever

Before his parents’ eventual divorce, their relationship became toxic, the star writes: “My father was self-centered and a cheater, but my mother would be the one to escalate things.”

After catching RuPaul’s father cheating yet again, his mother poured gasoline on his car and threatened to light it on fire as the family and the entire neighborhood watched. “She had a captive audience, and she was willing to set the whole house on fire in her rage,” he writes. Although eventually his mother backed down and no damage was done, this became a core trauma that, much later in life, RuPaul discovered was at the root of his addictive behaviors.

“Years later, I would understand that I had fully dissociated” while his mother screamed next to the gasoline-soaked car, RuPaul adds. “I was too young to absorb what was really happening; it would have been shattering to me. So I simply left my body.”

A memorably icy run-in with Madonna

Long before the Drag Race host made the Billboard charts with “Supermodel” in 1992, he was living and performing at the iconic Pyramid Club in Manhattan’s East Village, where he had a brief but unforgettable run-in with Madonna in 1984. That year, Madge was soaring off the success of her debut album, and she retreated to the Pyramid after speaking at an event at which RuPaul volunteered.

“I went down into the break room of the Pyramid and she was there, holding court with a small group of people assembled around her,” RuPaul recalls. “She looked at me with an expression I’ll never forget—a snarl of contempt at the sight of me, cold fury that I would deign to enter while she was in the room.”

“Her look said: What are you doing in here? Why are you here right now? How dare you take up oxygen in my world? She made no attempt to veil her derision for me. The fact that I saw it so nakedly was the whole point,” he continues. “I felt intuitively that, in an instant, she had seized me up and seen that I had nothing of value to provide her. The world ran on a system where sex conferred power; she had become such a big star by seizing control of her sexuality. But that also meant she sized up everyone she encountered, determining whether they’d add anything to that equation. In clocking me as a eunuch, I became worthless to her.”

RuPaul’s brush with Aretha Franklin was much sweeter than his stare-down with Madonna

In a sweet, later chapter describing the early days of his relationship with now-husband Georges LeBar, RuPaul recounts the mind-blowing first blushes of stardom.

“I got to introduce [Georges] to Diana Ross, who kissed him right on the mouth,” RuPaul writes. “And he came with me to Detroit, where I performed for Aretha Franklin and she wrote me a check that was addressed to ‘Ruth Paul.’”

Infamous ‘Club Kid Killer’ Michael Alig made RuPaul uneasy from the jump

RuPaul was introduced to Michael Alig—who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1996 over the grisly death of his close friend Angel Melendez—in the ’80s as well. Alig was “a promoter who had a night at the Tunnel, a club at Twenty-Eighth Street and the West Side Highway,” RuPaul writes. “I immediately disliked him—there was something about his energy I didn’t trust.”

RuPaul describes an incident in which he, another friend and Alig split a cab to a club. Upon arrival, Alig jumped from the car and made a run for it without paying the driver, forcing the others to follow his lead, RuPaul writes.

On another occasion, Alig hired RuPaul to go-go dance for the evening at one of his clubs. “I didn’t want to be associated with him, but I would do it for the money,” RuPaul writes. When he approached Alig to collect his payment, the promoter replied, “Only if you kiss me.” RuPaul initially refused, but when Alig persisted, he gave in.

“As I leaned in to kiss him, he stuck his tongue in my mouth,” RuPaul writes. “Then he spat directly into it. It was shocking and disgusting. I recoiled. He just laughed. That was the last time I worked for him.”

The moment it clicked for RuPaul that a ‘high-femme’ persona would suit him best

On New Year’s Eve 1988, he writes, “I was watching Dick Clark’s special on ABC, featuring as performers the B-52s and Sheena Easton performed her hit ‘The Lover In Me.’ [Easton] looked hot. She looked like a star. And I thought: You know what? If that was me, I would turn that shit out. And then, just then, a seed of an idea began to form. Why couldn’t that be me? All dolled up, looking like a superstar...[in the] true high-femme sexy glamazon look like Sheena Easton served every time she stepped out on stage.”

The origin of La Palace de Beauté parties

At a pivotal time in the ’80s, RuPaul worked with Larry Tee, a DJ, club promoter, and producer who, in addition to co-writing “Supermodel,” also helped launch the careers of the Scissor Sisters and Peaches.

In the same building, on 17th and Broadway, where Andy Warhol used to throw his legendary Factory parties, RuPaul and Tee threw themselves into making weekly parties that Tee dubbed La Palace de Beauté, the next big thing. It worked: The dance parties became a big hit, drawing stars as iconic as Liza Minelli, RuPaul writes.

The story behind Ru’s most iconic quote

RuPaul uttered his most enduring quote on a 1993 MTV News segment: “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” In Hidden Meanings, he clarifies that he was quoting someone an ex-lover, Mark, had told him about; it was a drag queen from Atlanta who had originally uttered the phrase.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Returns With Gag-Worthy Twists, Fake Boobs, and Beyoncé

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