As a master drag queen and host of the popular drag competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul makes his living working on a stage. So it was striking to see Mother Ru begin her interview last Friday at the New York Public Library—part of the institution’s excellent LIVE from the NYPL series—on a note of awkwardness. Dressed in a fetching boy drag ensemble, Ru took the stage after being introduced by Paul Holdengräber, series host and interviewer for the evening, to wild applause from a significantly gay audience who had been primed for her arrival by tracks from Britney Spears and Ru herself. The library, as the great drag saying referring to the art of playful insult called reading goes, was very much open.
As the clapping faded, however, it quickly became apparent that Ru was not only a little unsure of how to handle this particular spotlight, but was also a fascinatingly weird match for Holdengräber, a man of a rather more staid and highly literary caste. Indeed, the host began by posing an Oscar Wilde quote about self-styling and mimicry to Ru, as if to somehow get a handle on her gayness by invoking one of the relatively few queer writers taken seriously outside “the family.” Ru expressed appreciation for the gesture but seemed somewhat confused by the formality of it all. And to be fair to Holdengräber—who was clearly doing his best, having apparently never met a queen before—Ru himself seemed unable to take the “luminary interview” format seriously, immediately launching into a meta-discussion on the constructedness of the scenario. “It’s hard to get intimate with an audience,” Ru confessed, adding later, “I’ll make it seem like I’m being very candid and very open.”
Save for a smart interviewing gambit involving a discussion of each of Ru’s self-stated influences that went into her drag persona, the rest of the interview took on the rather unexpected and delightfully strange hue of a philosophical disquisition on the nature of performance and reality. Ru spent most of the two hours waxing New Agey on how life is about figuring out how to play within false constructs (like, say, an NYPL interview) and how “if there are people who are judging you, go to another play.” Holdengräber tried to keep up by offering quotations and references like a grad student at a dinner party. There were moments when it seemed like the delicate and vaguely surrealist balance the two had managed to strike might dissolve into legitimate misunderstanding, but all in all, the audience ate it up, not least because Ru was prone to summarizing her musings on choosing your own adventure with ejaculations like: “You’re a witch! Stevie Nicks!”
The evening was a rare opportunity to see Ru, a self-described control freak who doesn’t care for interviews, out of her element, and the conversation, though peppered with occasional product placement and news that Season 8 of Drag Race had been ordered that very day, was decidedly fresh and surprising. Fans who’d like to get underneath Ru’s wig are heartily encouraged to take a look at the Livestream of the event, which the NYPL has posted online for free.