The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul review: This drag queen does not care if you hate him — it’s how he succeeded

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul is out now (HarperCollins)
The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul is out now (HarperCollins)

It’s not hard to dislike RuPaul. The world’s most famous drag queen, and mastermind behind the RuPaul’s Drag Race multi-million pound empire, is garish and rich, a bit detached and personally tied to a fracking farm fortune. Everyone has an opinion — and in the back of drag clubs, queens still swap rumours about his on-set behaviour over Marlboro Touches.

It is more difficult to work out where the malice stems from — in terms of the queens, I suspect it is resentment at being tarnished with the same, cleansed, family-friendly image as his. “I’m a drag queen.” “Oh, like RuPaul.” Some probably think he invented it.

It is interesting, then, to learn how one person could take a scene as varied and rich as drag and bottle it up into a television show they could flip into personal prosperity. His new memoir tracks his life from Atlanta in 1960 to fame in the Nineties in New York.

There did not seem to be any other option for Ru. His mother saw a psychic while she was pregnant who told her the child was destined to be famous, he says with pride. “With that in mind, she gave me the name RuPaul because, as she put it, ‘Ain’t another motherf***er alive with a name like that.’ Fame, for me, was less a dream than a predestination.”

Of course, the Queen of Drag is also the King of Commerce — more books taking us to the present are to come.  RuPaul’s narration is dramatic, but always warm. He learns magic “must be created” during an early picnic, and that “life comes in seasons”.

Save for an absent father — “How could he be so cruel as to leave me waiting there on that stoop?” — his childhood is not fearful. Despite jeers of  “sissy” and “f****t”, which never seemed to bother him, he was only punched once, and felt protected at home. Because this book focuses on the early years, plenty of space is devoted to fuzzy firsts — the first love, the first star tab of acid (“a re-birth”) and the first time he went to an apartment full of trans women (“that language didn’t exist at the time, so they probably would have called themselves drag queens”) with a group of church boys for oral sex.

Gossipy, raunchy moments like these punctuate an otherwise predictable rags to riches tale — but there are riveting encounters throughoutt, including car sex and plenty of men: “hot, Greek, with ombre hair” to the “absolute Adonis — tall, chiselled, and charming”. He considers his relationship with female beauty: first culled from cigarette ads, then Diana Ross, Cher and Dolly Parton. He finds “my true calling was getting high and going to clubs”. Drag and table dancing is a means to an end.

Far from deeming drag an art form, it seems the sexual power from dressing up as a woman is his driving force. “To be purely objectified in the sexual hierarchy, perceived as genuinely sexy, as opposed to set apart — it felt new, after being shut out of that for so long.” It makes you “something that can be fetishised”.

Once he uses all his cash on a one-way ticket to London only to be strip-searched, humiliated and sent home

Ru’s story is one of steely determination: “You’re nobody until somebody hates you”. He bats off those smacking him down, and even when the cards fall (once, he uses all his cash on a one-way ticket to London only to be strip-searched at the airport, “humiliated” and sent home) he tries again. Moving between Atlanta and homeless stints in his “genderfuck anarchist drag” in New York, he returns with a change of style: “I would do it as a high-femme sexy glamazon.” Spoiler: it worked.

“I shaved my legs. I shaved my chest. And I adopted a drag aesthetic that was striking and seductive.” He was built for it — at six foot two, with slender legs and a tiny waist — and it was at the famous Versace catshow in 1990 Milan, where the supermodels strutted out to George Michael’s Freedom, that his plan clicked. He modelled his look on them and the following year “Versace had flown me there to perform… I took a photo with the models, in a blonde wig and a skintight dress. Naomi Campbell is at my feet. Christy Turlington is gazing up at me. And I’m grinning, like I always knew this moment would come.”

Perhaps that’s the thing about RuPaul — he is garish and rich and a bit detached, but isn’t that just like a supermodel? RuPaul, like Campbell, doesn’t care if you hate him — and the formula continues to work.

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul (4th Estate, £22) is out now

Joe Bromley is the Evening Standard’s Junior Fashion Editor