In June 1993, RuPaul sashayed onto pop charts with his debut album “Supermodel of the World” which included one of the defining house anthems of the 90s.
The album’s hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work)” was a brilliant send up of the fashion industry at a time when supermodels did rule the world. But it wasn’t just a novelty song. “Supermodel” reached the #2 spot on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, holding its own against other songs from the era, like C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” and CeCe Peniston’s “Finally.”
Before going mainstream, RuPaul had been a famous larger-than-life drag queen in the New York club scene. With a killer body towering over everyone at almost seven-feet in heels, it seemed appropriate when RuPaul started to refer to himself as the “Supermodel of the World”.
In 1989, RuPaul appeared in the B52’s campy video for the iconic song Loveshack. If you look closely you will see a young RuPaul dancing through the background. Actually, you don’t have to look that closely, RuPaul is not hard to miss in the crowd of dancers.
RuPaul’s own video for “Supermodel” got heavy rotation on MTV and cemented his position as the Queen of drag. It’s set in New York and features RuPaul as a supermodel who is being photographed playing basketball in heels and frolicking in outdoor fountains. Shante Shante Shante.
Reviewers at the time had praise for “Supermodel” calling it an irresistible, bouncy disco ditty but at the same time treated RuPaul himself as a curiosity. There seemed to be very little understanding of the differences between someone who dresses in drag and someone who identifies as transgender.
After the release of RuPaul’s debut album he skyrocketed to international superstardom, gracing magazine covers, producing 10 more albums and signing numerous modeling contracts.
In 1994, RuPaul collaborated with M.A.C. Cosmetics on the inaugural Viva Glam Lipstick campaign which raised money for the brand’s AIDS charity. The contract made him the first drag queen to secure a major beauty contract.
Someone who was a RuPaul fan right from the start might surprise you. Kurt Cobain told RuPaul backstage at the 1993 MTV music awards that he was disappointed to miss RuPaul’s performance earlier in the year in Seattle. The meeting lead to this infamous picture of RuPaul, Cobain and daughter Frances Bean.
In an interview with The A.V. Club RuPaul said he was “tickled” but not surprised that Cobain related to his act.
“These are kids who come from the same irreverent, hippie, bohemian mentality that I came from. So of course they’re going to gravitate toward what I’m doing. A lot of people are offended by it and that’s the end of it. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love and the other kids in that band loved it, and you could see it in their faces when they’re taking the pictures. They’re not going boo, or it’s not like a joke. It’s like, “This is fucking cool.” And they were so cool about it that they came and appeared on my Christmas special that year.”
16 years after Supermodel of World was released, Rupaul shifted the culture again when he launched the Emmy Award winning reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race. The cultural impact of the show is undeniable. Even if you don’t watch it chances are you have used some of the phrases and words that have become part the 21st century lexicon thanks to drag culture. Think; Throwing Shade, YAS and Sickening
Today, RuPaul and drag are inextricably linked but in 2018 it became clear that he doesn’t speak for the entire drag movement. In an interview with The Guardian about the show’s first openly Transgender contestant he said, he would “probably not” let a trans woman on the program, adding:
“You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body.”
RuPaul’s comments led to a Drag Race revolt followed by a Twitter apology from the host. RuPaul said he regretted the statement and called the transcommunity heros of the LGBTQ movement.
For more stories from the 1990s make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca