Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
A dense cloud of despair hovered over the music business in 1993. The landscape was dominated by flannel-clad rockers with unshakable frowns and gun-toting gangsta rappers. Generation X had railed against the rampant commercialism of the ‘80s and embraced alternative music like never before. Grunge is the most celebrated result of this movement, but it also opened the door for iconoclasts like Bjork, PJ Harvey and a towering drag queen called RuPaul.
While gender-bending pop stars had scored the odd novelty hit in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ru ruthlessly kicked down barriers previously considered insurmountable with his size 13 stilettos. It all began with “Supermodel (You Better Work)”, which was positively revelatory at the time — and not just because it was performed by a man in a dress. Here was a snappy, upbeat dance record that radiated joy and celebrated gay culture being played on the radio between the latest ode to misery by Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
“Supermodel (You Better Work)” reached number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and swiftly became a staple on MTV. RuPaul had arrived in grand style and proved he wasn’t going anywhere with the release of his excellent debut album, Supermodel Of The World. Twenty years have passed since it hit shelves on June 8, 1993, and while time has taken its toll on some of the record’s R&B cuts, the sparkle and wit of tracks like “House Of Love,” “Back To My Roots” and “A Shade Shady (Now Prance)” have aged as gracefully as the man himself.
Below, RuPaul himself joins us as we look back on his debut album. What are you waiting for — now prance, I say!
Already in his early 30s when “Supermodel (You Better Work)” exploded, the drag deity had been working towards a viable music career since his mid-teens. RuPaul tells Idolator: “I had always wanted to be famous. I tried to be a singer in high school, then when I was 21 or 22 I joined a band in Atlanta and continued to do that kind of thing.”
RuPaul — ”Supermodel (You Better Work)”
After reaching the pinnacle of the drag world, Elton John’s one-time duet partner gave music another shot. “I had been a downtown star, you know, in the underground world and after reaching a peak with that,” Ru says, looking back on his days of living in New York City. “I’d been crowned Queen of Manhattan. I decided it was time for me to really go for it.”
The unexpected commercial success of fellow counter-culture comrades and New Yorkers Deee-Lite fuelled his ambition to succeed, “We had all come from the same neighborhood,” RuPaul explains. “They hit the big time and I thought, Oh, no, I’m going to fucking go for it too!”
But before Ru could bask in the spotlight he always sensed was inevitable, the drag icon took his own advice and got to work.
“What happened was I decided to get really serious about it,” he remembers. “I worked on a demo with maybe four or five songs on it and sent it to every record company. Tommy Boy responded and said they wanted to sign me to a contract.”
That demo tape contained two tracks that ultimately made the Supermodel Of The World tracklist. RuPaul channels Luther Vandross surprisingly well on the soulful mid-tempo ballad “Prisoner Of Love,” showcasing his oft-forgotten vocal prowess. There is a camp sensibility to the song, but it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any contemporary R&B record released that year.
RuPaul performs “House Of Love,” from 1995 documentary Wigstock: The Movie
The other notable track on the demo was eventual album highlight, “House Of Love,” a beautifully crafted disco throwback that perfectly sums up RuPaul’s personal philosophy and explains his enduring popularity. The “Supermodel (You Better Work)” B-Side is a celebration of individuality, acceptance and kindness. There’s an almost spiritual aspect to it, making “House Of Love” quite possibly the only gospel song ever recorded that’s set to ‘90s house beats and disco strings.
After the deal with Tommy Boy was inked, Supermodel Of The World was recorded over a three month period at producer Eric Kupper’s house. It’s a time that Ru looks back on with great fondness, despite the fact that he was essentially broke.
“At the time [Kupper] lived right by where the World Trade towers were. I was living in the East Village and they gave me money to produce the album and to live off,” the glamazon recalls. “I don’t remember how much it was but it wasn’t a lot. So I was still scrounging for money and catching the bus over to his house. Every time I think of that album I think of being on the bus and listening to Paula Abdul’s Spellbound.”
RuPaul — ”A Shade Shady (Now Prance)”
Come to think of it, there are parallels between “A Shade Shady (Now Prance)” and Abdul’s 1992 hit “Vibeology,” with their kooky spoken interludes, rave-ready beats and sassy attitude. RuPaul’s number one dance hit is noteworthy, not only because it’s a genuinely great club anthem, but also because it introduced language the gays of Twitter now take for granted — at least to those who hadn’t seen Jennie Livingston‘s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Twenty years before they became common place, RuPaul was singing about “throwing shade” and being “fierce”. The world was clearly not ready.
Equally memorable is the album’s other club chart topper, “Back To My Roots.” The hugely endearing ode to black hairstyles is dedicated to the singer’s mother, who styled hair in the family kitchen. Equal parts Sly & The Family Stone and disco-era Diana Ross, the multi-layered anthem celebrates family, black culture and the frivolity of the late ‘70s. It is high camp and sweet-natured – making it an absolute fan favorite.
RuPaul — “Back To My Roots”
But what tracks hold a special place for the grand dame of drag?
“I loved ‘Supernatural’,” muses RuPaul. “It was really fun and I loved that I got to do a cover of a Chic song even though it’s not the greatest cover in the world. But I love Chic, so I’m happy I got to do that.”
He’s being a little tough on his Chic interpretation. “Everybody Dance” has been revived several times over the years (most recently by dance diva Deborah Cox) but Ru’s version holds its own. His affection for “Supernatural” is understandable. Here the drag legend channels Barry White, delivering an unusually deep vocal that suits the sexy lyrics. This is the closest thing in the singer’s discography to a babymakin’ slow jam.
It would also be one of the last times he would dabble in this particular genre because, as Mr. Charles explains, he soon realized that this subject matter isn’t what fans expected of him. “I’ve been in the business long enough to understand what the consumer wants from a 6 foot 7 drag queen. You have to know what the customer is willing to accept. On the album there are some love themes but that’s not really why people would want to come to a RuPaul album!”
I have to disagree with Ru when it comes to “Supernatural,” but a track like “All Of A Sudden” does sound a little out of place. More in line with the tried and tested RuPaul brand are slick, dance cuts “Free Your Mind” (sadly not an En Vogue cover) and “Thinkin’ About You”. The production shows its age but the intention behind these songs still guides the diva’s current output — he wants his fans to let go, have some fun and be themselves.
When asked if he thought Supermodel Of The World would make as big as splash as it did — reaching #109 on the Billboard 200 is not an easy feat for a new artist, let alone a gender illusionist making house music — RuPaul is refreshingly honest.
“I thought it would be a bigger album!” he giggles. “The single didn’t go to the top 40, it peaked at like number 43 in the pop charts and then on the American album charts, didn’t it debut at number 106 or something? I was like what?”
RuPaul continues: “The success of the record was that it launched me into doing television and other mediums. So in the bigger picture it’s enabled me to be a success all these years later because of that record.”
In addition to propelling RuPaul to an unheard of appointment as the face of MAC cosmetics, a successful movie career, his own short-lived VH1 talk show and the Drag Race franchise, Supermodel Of The World is important because it gave a face — and a great big voice — to a community that was entirely unrepresented in the media.
This impact is not lost on the singer. Ru recounts how a gay teen from rural Alabama told him the album saved his life by showing him there was something out there for him.
After a pause, Ru says, “I always knew my legacy would be about self-love and expressing yourself.”