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The click of his shoes on the tile floor announces RuPaul Charles before he can introduce himself. Towering over the publicist who accompanies him – RuPaul is six feet, four inches – the drag queen turned entertainment mogul glides through the otherwise empty third floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. He appears for a flash, just long enough to wave hello, then disappears behind a wall covered in decorative mirrors. All that’s left is an empty reflection and the sound of his big, booming laugh.

Some time later, press is invited into his private room at the Four Seasons, where he presides from a crisp white couch. RuPaul is, in conversation, prone to fits of laughter. He will laugh at a question he likes and even more at one he doesn’t. His laugh, large and generous, is familiar to anyone who has seen even one episode of his television show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is about to wrap its 16th season. In the years since it made its debut, Drag Race has become a global phenomenon with adaptations everywhere from Canada to Thailand. It has also solidified RuPaul’s status as one of the pre-eminent queer celebrities of the 21st century.

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But RuPaul doesn’t want to talk about Drag Race. For years now, fans have debated who might take over the show, should RuPaul, 63, ever pass along hosting duties. Until this year, there were few signs that might actually happen. Then in March, it was announced that Michelle Visage, a long-time judge, will be taking over hosting duties for Drag Race Down Under, prompting a new round of speculation that RuPaul may be taking a slow, tentative step back from the sprawling world he’s created in his image.

Asked if there is any truth to the rumours, RuPaul laughs. “I’m not here to talk about Drag Race,” he says firmly. Then he laughs again.

RuPaul is here to discuss The House of Hidden Meanings, his new memoir, released last month and distributed in Canada by HarperCollins. The book, framed as a stripped-back look at his early life and pre-Drag Race rise to fame, is far from RuPaul’s first foray in publishing. Back in the eighties, he used to sell self-published booklets of stories with titles such as New York Is a Big Fat Greasy Ho at nightclubs for two dollars apiece. His first official memoir, Lettin’ It All Hang Out, was released in 1995, just three years after he shot to fame with the 1992 single Supermodel (You Better Work). Then there was 2010′s advice-filled Workin’ It!: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (“Life requires that you reinvent yourself every seven years”) and 2018′s GuRu, another life guide mixed with autobiography.

Now, with Hidden Meanings, RuPaul tells a slightly updated version of the origin story he’s previously laid out: a boy – who grew up doing impressions of Tina Turner and Carol Burnett for his mother in the living room – struggles for many years, then makes it big in New York nightlife, embraces glamour, and a star is born. Except this time he’s telling his story with the clarity of sober reflection. RuPaul smoked his first joint at 10, started popping pills at 14, then moved on to everything from cocaine to heroin (a “yucky drug,” he writes in Lettin’ It All Hang Out). In Hidden Meanings, RuPaul for the first time tells the story, in detail, of how he got sober. His husband, Georges LeBar, then his boyfriend, had become addicted to methamphetamine and RuPaul went to a 12-step meeting as a supportive partner. Once there, he realized he had his own demons to fight.

Getting sober changed his life. He explains, “When that first book came out I hadn’t gotten sober yet. So much of The House of Hidden Meanings is about this reflection with clear eyes and looking back with 20/20 vision. I feel like I have a clear vision of what happened, why it happened and what I learned from it happening.”

The memoir lets go of the camp framing of his earlier books in favour of straightforward autobiography. Gone are the details of his makeup routine, instructions for tucking (the process of taping one’s penis between one’s legs to hide it in drag) and the glossy glamour shots that fill previous books. This is, in fact, his first book wrapped in a cover photo of RuPaul out of drag.

There are still some dishy details, including an anecdote about meeting Madonna in the break room of a New York club, the Pyramid, in 1984. “She looked at me with an expression I’ll never forget,” RuPaul writes. “A snarl of contempt at the sight of me … she had sized me up and seen that I had nothing of value to provide to her.” RuPaul cuts off a question at the mere mention of Madonna. “Let me just say this. Madonna is an amazing, iconic, brilliant artist. Period.” Asked next whether he’s seen her since 1984, he replies: “Period.”

He’s more eager to talk about the New York nightlife of the late eighties and early nineties that he chronicles at length in the book. “Oh my god, it was so much fun. We were so lucky,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important to live in the moment, because I think back then we actually knew how lucky we were in the eighties in New York. Because you do not have that any more.”

One of the first people from that scene to see RuPaul’s potential was producer and nightlife legend Susanne Bartsch, who spotted him go-go dancing. “His endless legs!” Bartsch says, recalling the moment four decades later. “I just felt very drawn to him and saw a superstar.”

She offered him a job on the spot. “He had this charisma,” she says. “You can’t buy it. You have it or you don’t.” RuPaul served as the MC at her parties at the Copacabana, then became one of the go-to entertainers she’d call on when throwing parties for her high-end clients in the fashion world. This May, Bartsch will release her own memoir, Bartschland, with a foreword from RuPaul. He remains, Bartsch says, generous and loyal – the type of friend who texts back within an hour. “He’s a great, great friend and a massive gift to this world.”

With Hidden Meanings, RuPaul dug deep into his history. Not only the New York nightlife world that springboarded him to fame, but also his oft-turbulent childhood in San Diego and his years immersed in the bohemian culture of Atlanta in the early eighties, then a new cultural hub for Black Americans. After spending so much time excavating the past, he says he is trying to lock into the here-and-now to “feel the gratitude for what this moment is.”

RuPaul says he’s got an eye to the future, but he’s not dropping any clues about his plans. From music to television and publishing, RuPaul has conquered pop culture across eras, but his next phase, as one of very few A-list queer elders, is largely uncharted. Bartsch, for one, doubts he’ll slow down. “Him and I are going to go until we croak,” she says with a laugh.

In Hidden Meanings, RuPaul writes that life comes in seasons. It’s true that he’s had many: First he was an upstart playing in bands and appearing on access television in Atlanta, then an androgynous club kid and low-budget movie star, then a glamorous drag queen turned pop star. The book ends on his years in Los Angeles after his rush of nineties fame. In that season, he got sober, healed and plotted his return with Drag Race. If its debut in 2009 marked a new moment for RuPaul, its explosion into mainstream culture in the mid-2010s likely marked another, when he began being showered with Emmy awards and parodied on Saturday Night Live. By his own rule to reinvent every seven years, he’s probably early in another renewal, a new season of life.

As a heavy April rain pelts the window, it seems nature has synced up with RuPaul. “I’m in a spring right now because things are opening up in ways that are exciting,” he says. “And that makes me feel very happy.”

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