RuPaul, the darling of drag, the erstwhile Queen of Manhattan, is craning his swan-like neck to see who's lurking about West Hollywood's Argyle Hotel bar. The funny thing is, nobody's looking back, even though RuPaul is in drag.
Male drag, that is. Instead of his signature Ivana-esque wig, RuPaul's shiny pate is shielded by a baseball cap, his lanky frame covered in denim and khaki. His eyes are obliterated behind sunglasses despite the failing light.
"You're born naked and the rest is drag," RuPaul likes to say.
Actually, RuPaul, who sees his life as a succession of eras, has vaulted from "terror drag" (hairy-legged, flat-chested and be-wigged) to "superdrag" (girl glamour parody) and is now entering his "inner space" phase.
"It's the final frontier really," he says. "It's going inside yourself and saying, 'Who am I? What am I?' "
A man, as it turns out, despite RuPaul's recent elevation from faux "Supermodel of the World"--the title of his 1993 chart-topping club music album--to actual supermodel, as the spokesblonde for M.A.C. cosmetics because "no one uses as much makeup as I do."
Not that he's abandoning the Glamazon persona that earned him the singular stripes of being the first openly gay drag queen to surf the mainstream and inspire mannequins for Bloomingdale's windows. RuPaul, ne RuPaul Andre Charles, struts in seven feet of lime-colored chiffon and blondeness on the cover of his new autobiography, "Lettin It All Hang Out" (Hyperion), in which he dispenses tips on makeup and philosophy.
And he shovels on the Studio Makeup N3 in "Wigstock: The Movie," a documentary about New York's annual music festival touted as "the Super Bowl of drag." The Samuel Goldwyn Co. release, directed by Barry Shils, opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
The 11-year-old festival of drag queens isn't really what it seems, according to the femme fatale who isn't what she seems either.
"It was started as an extension of Woodstock, and people would wear wigs, and it didn't have to be men," says RuPaul, 34. "It was women and children, and people put wigs on dogs. It was a statement of the time, because really, that's where rock 'n' roll is, not rock 'n' roll music, but the rock 'n' roll movement in terms of being right at the front line of where we are uncomfortable. And it's at the sexual boundaries."
But RuPaul manages to gouge that line in such a cuddly way that he has earned the Main Street imprimatur of Hollywood. He appears as Rachel Tensions, the reigning Queen of New York, in Universal's September release of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar." The road film about lovable drag queens stars high-profile heterosexuals Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes. And RuPaul says his Disney-esque persona is also unthreatening even though some people incorrectly associate the performance form of drag with the sex fetish of cross-dressing.
"I pass by a lot of it because my personality is very asexual. I'm so accessible. I'm the first drag queen you can take home to meet your mom and pop. I'm more threatening to our society as [an African American man] than I am as a drag queen, which is an interesting perspective for me to see our culture in. [Out of drag], I've got a better chance of winning the Heisman Trophy than going out and getting a cab."
But it can be tricky to turn yourself out as a Disney character; Pee-wee Herman, another actor with a persona so snuggly it was merchandised as a doll, never really managed to break out of it even before his public-relations woes. RuPaul is trying to avoid that snare: He appeared bearded rather than blond on last August's cover of the gay magazine the Advocate, and his self-revelatory book was lauded by Village Voice writer Michael Musto as an attempt to "humanize the cartoon."
What's more, RuPaul wears street clothes for his first lead role in a feature film, "Red Ribbon Blues," about three members of an HIV support group who rob a pharmaceutical company. The independent film, scheduled for release in January, co-stars Debi Mazar and Paul Mercurio and is directed by Charles Winkler, Irwin Winkler's son.
RuPaul also plays a transparently male AIDS counselor in the TV film "A Mother's Prayer," which stars Linda Hamilton and will be shown on the USA Network on Aug. 2.
"Ru is smart enough to understand that he could get trapped in the one-dimensionality of his persona," says his manager, Randy Barbato. "And he's smart enough to understand that he had to create that one-dimensionality to begin with, to get people's attention."
The San Diego-born RuPaul happened on to glamour drag when he donned a bridesmaid dress for a mock wedding on a cable variety show in Atlanta in 1981.
"The impact it had on people was amazing," he wrote. "But the impact it had on me was even more amazing. I honestly didn't know I had a great pair of legs until I got into drag and slipped on those pumps."
But it took a spate of performance incarnations in Atlanta and New York before he discovered there was no place like home. Over the decade, he had bands like RuPaul and the U-Hauls, and he spoofed blaxploitation films in his art-film incarnation as a Starrbooty, a fashion model cum secret agent.
But it was the glamour Ru who began to make his mark in the late '80s as a fixture in the East Village's punk-inspired drag scene. After Monica Lynch, the president of Tommy Boy Records, heard his demo tape in 1991, RuPaul's career took off. His No. 1 club hit "Supermodel (You Better Work!)" debuted at the end of 1992 designer Todd Oldham's show, and dueled briefly on the charts with Whitney Houston's cover of "I'm Every Woman." (Apparently not.)
RuPaul, who co-wrote the song with Jimmy Harry, is particularly proud of rhyming "savoir-faire" with "million-dollar derriere." He went on from that achievement to sniping at original cross-dresser Milton Berle at the MTV Awards after a tiff backstage, and cooing at his heroine Diana Ross when he ran into her in the Concorde bathroom line.
Which was only fitting, because RuPaul's club act, which he took to Las Vegas last winter, borrows heavily from his dreamgirl.
"Ru's like a sampling machine," says manager Barbato. "He's a pop culture freak. Everything about him is an amalgamation of every pop icon we know, everyone from Cher to Diana. That's the future of pop culture anyway. Everything is borrowed, but what a lovely package Ru has put it in."