For Rupaul, Disguise's the Limit

updated 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

POOLSIDE AT LOS ANGELES'S artsy Mondrian Hotel, she seems every inch a starlet—a sultry blond knockout in a formfitting black minidress—a little bit of Frederick's of Hollywood plus a dash of Elly May Clampett. Following a saucy interview for the E! channel, the lashy, leggy bombshell stands and draws herself to full height: 7-feet-plus in heels. It's clear that RuPaul's towering stature is overshadowed only by her gleeful ambition. "I'll take that one," she says, pointing to a house in the Hollywood Hills above. "Or maybe that one."

What's clear only on closer inspection is that she is a he—which, with the success of Ru's new album, Supermodel of the World, makes this 28-year-old singer the first drag queen ever to land on the pop charts. On the strength of two hit singles on the Tommy Boy label—the smash "Supermodel (You Better Work)" and the exuberant new "Back to My Roots"—Ru is the summer's big dance beat sensation. He caused a flashbulb riot at the Cannes film festival last May, where he sang at an AIDS benefit and posed for pictures with Elizabeth Taylor, who insisted he sit while she stood. "She said, 'I'd be dwarfed by you,' " he laughs. "I tried to ease the Krupp diamond off her finger."

A longtime fixture in New York City's drag demimonde, Ru finds hidden depths in his outrageous stage persona. "Drag queens are like the shamans of our society. reminding people of what's funny and what's a stereotype," he says. "I feel very powerful when I'm in drag, and when I'm out of drag I observe our culture." Unfortunately, he doesn't always like what he sees. "When I'm dressed up as this goddess, people trip over themselves to give me things," he says. "But as an African-American male, I can walk into an elevator and have people clutch their handbags." People, he says, "need to see beyond images."

When he was growing up in San Diego, what people most tended to see in RuPaul Andre Charles was a sissy. "I was effeminate, and people used to say, 'You should be a girl,' " says Ru, whose late mother, Ernestine, then a college clerk, and father, living, an electrician at the time, divorced when Ru was 7. Inspired by his two "accessories-crazy" older sisters and dazzled by images of Diana Ross, Cher and Jane Fonda as Barbarella, the undaunted Ru fixated on becoming fabulous. "He was always the center of attention," says his sister Roz, 27, a commercial insurance broker. At 15, struggling in school and frustrated at home because he was "ready to bust out," he moved in with his older married sister, Renetta. When she headed to Atlanta for work, Ru went along to high school, enrolling in the Northside School of Performing Arts. Soon he was immersed in the art club scene and performing in wigs and high heels. When he came to New York in 1987 with a bunch of southern drag pals, the city, he says, "felt like home."

Home is an important concept to Ru, whose family, he says, has always stood behind him. "Before I took on the world," he remembers, "they said, 'Go, girl!' " He returned to San Diego last year to perform, gratis, at a huge Charles family reunion. His relatives "were on the floor!" he says. "And they saw that what I do isn't threatening." Sadly, just minutes after performing on the Mall during Washington's Gay and Lesbian March last April—his biggest gig ever—Ru learned that his mother had died after a long struggle with breast cancer. "It's ironic how life puts these things," marvels Ru, who, though sad, cherished "my mother's freedom from pain."

Home now for Ru is a one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment where he lives alone. "I see people," he says, "but my main focus has always been on my career. I don't have time to be half-stepping." Movie offers and the chance to write a real-life autobiography, My Life as a Supermodel, are "dreams come true," Ru admits. Not that he hasn't earned them. "I've worked real hard," he says, perfectly balanced on his sky-high platforms. "Life is tough whether you choose to do nothing—or you climb Mount Everest. So why not climb Mount Everest?"

In those heels? Ru the day.

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