There must have been some magic or serendipity in the air in Atlanta during the early 1980s, when some of the most compelling cultural trends emerged to define the era. Long before gentrification began to alter the face of the city's urban core, Midtown and the surrounding areas thrived with countercultural energy. It was a chance situation that bred significant change in Atlanta's artistic landscape, and shaped international fame for one person who was right smack-dab in the middle of it all -- actor/singer/showboat RuPaul.
The queen of drag finally comes full circle – once a hopeful young gay man looking for acceptance, now a returning heroine – on his trip back to Atlanta for the Out on Film premiere of his first self-written and self-produced feature film, Starrbooty.
From his early days as a singer on Atlanta Public Access TV's "American Music Show" to his transition into the most popular drag queen in the world, RuPaul Charles has always had his sights set on superstardom. Originally from San Diego, he relocated to Atlanta in 1976 and entered Northside School for the Performing Arts. It was an environment that catered to creative misfits and provided both a meeting place and a training ground for the youthful artist. A chance discovery of the "American Music Show," with its campy drag and irreverent humor, enticed RuPaul to venture into Midtown and explore the burgeoning art and music scene.
In a recent phone interview, RuPaul recalls his early encounters with Dick Richards and James Bond, who produced the show. "That's where I really got my start. [The show was] like my grandpa and grandma's house, and it always felt safe there. It was college for me." The "American Music Show" introduced RuPaul to a fascinating group of like-minded people, and opened a new world to him.
Befriending members of the local band the Now Explosion, RuPaul and a couple of his high school friends, Robert Warren and the late Todd Butler, formed a band called Wee Wee Pole, and began to perform in the then-vast Atlanta club scene. With so many venues having open booking policies, such as the 688 Club, the Bistro, Rumors, Margaritaville, Club Rio and the notorious Celebrity Club, there were plenty of places for RuPaul, the Now Explosion and other campy but talented bands that pushed the boundaries of music and theater to perform. It was also an era of late-night follies. "That was a great time. I loved staying up all night, roaming around Midtown. Back then I really enjoyed hallucinogenics. We had the run of the city," he laughs.
Reflecting on the optimism of those times, RuPaul says, "We all witnessed the explosion of the B-52's and R.E.M., and we knew it was possible to make an impact. Midtown was in a position to house kids without a lot of money, and the South tends to nurture eccentric behavior. We had a good run in the mid-'80s, before things started getting torn down."
But it wasn't just based on opportunity; the music and the performances had to be good. Wee Wee Pole was a bass-driven, funky dance band, featuring two plus-sized female backup vocalists called "the U-Hauls." The quirky Now Explosion brought musical theatrics to a higher (or lower) art, and gets a lot of credit from RuPaul for being innovators among Atlanta's rich scene. "The Now Explosion was a portal. They taught me not to take life so seriously, to laugh at myself and everything going around us. They were originators, and when we would go to New York, they were amazed at the freshness."
So amazed that a lot of the fresh ideas and performance concepts were integrated into the growing NYC club-kid scene. And as the Atlanta scene slowly diminished due to gentrification and other factors, RuPaul and members of the Now Explosion relocated to the Big Apple.
Working the NYC dance clubs as a solo performer, RuPaul eventually constructed an image that took the world by storm, and he found the international fame he had been seeking for most of his life. By bringing drag into the mainstream, he had hit records, a TV show, a cosmetics deal and eventually movie roles. It seemed RuPaul had everything he ever wanted. But something was missing, and it was time to figure out what it was.
"I wanted to become famous to fill a void, and ultimately I became famous, but the void was still there," he says. "I had to fill that void with my own sense of wholeness. And now I do things that I enjoy doing."
After some much-needed time off for soul-searching and rest, RuPaul is revitalizing his career by doing some things over, albeit a little differently. A recently remixed CD of his most popular songs is out, but his biggest project is the independent film Starrbooty, written by and starring RuPaul and directed by Mike Ruiz. The original Starbooty was a series of no-budget short films starring RuPaul, which were produced in Atlanta in 1986 with Jon Witherspoon of the Now Explosion. "We were taking our cues from John Waters and Russ Meyer," RuPaul recalls. "But the new one is the exact same; but it's a better-made movie and has a more cohesive script.
"This is bad, but it's funny. I wanted to be irreverent, and not politically correct. This is the RuPaul from the Atlanta years – pushing boundaries."
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Oi! Thanks for the fact-check, Skinhead! It's fixed now.