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RuPaul’s rise from small-time musician to Hollywood icon

Don't be fooled by his glamorous persona and prolific entertainment career. It took work, inside and out, for RuPaul to rise from a musician playing at small New York clubs to a drag icon and Hollywood celebrity.

RuPaul Andre Charles, the person, minus makeup, wigs and elaborate wardrobe, has actually taken his time opening up to the public, and it hasn't always been easy.

"You know, I started out in this business in rock and roll bands and stumbled into drag. Drag just happened to be my vehicle for my creativity. So you know, it's afforded me the opportunity to create new shows, to make music," said the 55-year-old entertainer in an interview with CNBC.

"For my tribe, the people I found years ago, we've found sanctuary in the irreverent, in the off-center, in the quirky ... And that's how we stay entertained and that's how we stay engaged in what would otherwise seem to be a really cruel world. A really harsh world," said RuPaul, who goes by both "he" and "she."

Cosmetics company founder François Nars, German model and actress Veruschka von Lehndorff, American actor, model, and recording artist RuPaul, American fashion photographer Steven Meisel, and Canadian model Linda Evangelista, circa 1996.
Rose Hartman | Archive Photos | Getty Images
Cosmetics company founder François Nars, German model and actress Veruschka von Lehndorff, American actor, model, and recording artist RuPaul, American fashion photographer Steven Meisel, and Canadian model Linda Evangelista, circa 1996.

"It's very easy to look at the world and think, this is all so cruel and so mean. It's important to not become bitter from it," RuPaul said. "I think about all those kids like myself — and so many kids out there — who have this show [RuPaul's Drag Race] to tell them they're not alone and that their dreams are not silly."

The first significant time when RuPaul dressed in drag as an adult, it was around 1982, he recalled. And it wasn't the glam diva style of drag he's known for now.

"It's sort of punk rock social, it's smeared lipstick and it's you know, 'F-you.' It's that kind of drag. But the reaction I got from people wasn't 'Oh you're punk rock.' The reaction I got was 'wow, you're kind of hot.' I never experienced people reacting to me that way," RuPaul said.

A few years later, he met Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the co-founders of production company World of Wonder, which produces reality TV shows, including "RuPaul's Drag Race," which airs on Viacom's Logo cable channel focused on gay and lesbian programming.

"The thing about RuPaul is he has always been a star," Barbato told CNBC. When Barbato and Bailey first met RuPaul, he was putting up posters in Times Square with a picture of himself that read: "RuPaul is everything," Barbato recalled. "We thought, 'Oh my god, every minute he is not on television, it is a crime against humanity.'"

From the very beginning, RuPaul's brand was complete, according to Barbato. The first time he met RuPaul, Barbato said, "He was kind of edgy and dangerous, but completely laser-focused."

"I've always been ambitious. I've always been able to roll up my sleeves and get to work," RuPaul said. "I like to stay busy. I love working and I love being creative."

Over time, as his look became more manicured, he became more of an inspiration to others.

Tammie Brown, then known as Keith Glen Schubert, first saw RuPaul on TV when she was a teenager in the 1990s, when she lived in the small town of Rockport-Fulton, Texas, Brown said in a phone interview.

Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey
Maarten de Boer | Getty Images
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey

In 2009, Brown appeared in the first season of "RuPaul's Drag Race," a reality show on which drag queens compete to become the next big drag superstar.

"It really helped me. There's a frenzy of hiring these girls because they've been seen on TV," Brown said. "I walk down the boulevard in Paris and I get recognized."

But while her career took off thanks to "Drag Race," Brown said she's disappointed that RuPaul doesn't make appearances in drag as much as he did in the early years, and says other drag queens don't look up to RuPaul the way they did in the past.

"He's a business more so than an entertainer," Brown said.

But Barbato said RuPaul's more frequent appearances out of drag are just a statement that he's more comfortable in his skin. In his interview with CNBC, RuPaul wasn't dolled up and dressed in what what would traditionally be seen as ornate women's clothing.

"He's very private for a public figure," Barbato said. "Drag was a great way to have a relationship with celebrities in an anonymous way. I think as he moved on ... it became important for him to become fully realized, not just a celebrity, but recognized and respected as an entertainer. People needed to experience RuPaul in a 360 way."

Now, on TV, Logo runs "RuPaul's Drag Race," "RuPaul's All Stars Drag Race," and a game show called "Gay For Play," hosted by RuPaul. Plus, RuPaul's body painting reality shows "Skin Wars" and its spinoff "Fresh Paint" air on the Game Show Network.

And in real life, RuPaul and World of Wonder produce DragCon, a convention where celebrity drag queens meet their fans, and attendees can shop for shoes and apparel and take part in makeup workshops, lip-sync contests and other events. This year's DragCon will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 7 and 8.

"We wanted everyone to have a chance to meet. Meet their tribe. You know, my career really took off and really started to blossom when I got to meet my tribe," RuPaul said.

"I've been lucky enough through the years to have many mentors. When I was a kid, my mentor was my brother-in-law, who taught me about business and taught me how to deliver what I say I'm going to deliver, and to follow through," RuPaul said. "Then I am motivated by beauty and music and dancing and colors. I love that."

As of this year, "RuPaul's Drag Race" has launched the careers of 100 other drag queens, he said.

"I've got to tell you that's the thing I'm most proud of. You know, our objective in starting this was to elevate and put focus on the artistry of drag and even its political and social implications. And we've done that. But I'm most proud of launching these careers."