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How RuPaul Embraced His Role as a ‘Cultural Curator’ With New Album ‘Essential Christmas’

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It’s safe to say that RuPaul Charles is one of the busiest celebrities currently working in the business. Alongside hosting and executive producing his Emmy-winning reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag icon has spent 2023 overseeing the show’s growing number of international spinoffs, hosting his own game show and writing a book.

Now, RuPaul is revealing yet another project that’s been on his growing checklist. On Friday (Oct. 20), the star unveiled Essential Christmas, his brand new holiday album compiling personal favorites off of his past three Christmas projects, while also giving fans a taste of something new on “Baby Doll,” a doo-wop jam that’s perfectly tailored for the holiday season.

When speaking to Billboard about his new project, even RuPaul is surprised at his prolific career in releasing Christmas songs. “I never set out to put out any Christmas records, yet somehow it’s happened that way,” he says. “And I really do love it.”

Below, RuPaul chats with Billboard about the making of his latest album, his favorite Christmas memories, the evolution of his writing his revealing new memoir The House of Hidden Meanings, and the continuing legacy of Drag Race.

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Essential Christmas is your fourth Christmas album and your second album to be put out this year, along with every other career that you are currently juggling. How are you finding time to put these projects together?

Well, all I really do is work at this point. [Laughs.] And I really enjoy working. So I work a lot — I usually don’t enjoy sitting around, just hanging out. 

Let’s start by talking about the new single off of this album, “Baby Doll.” I love this ‘50s doo-wop style that you were tapping into here. How did you and Freddie go about conceiving this track?

Well, Freddie and I both love 50s doo-wop. And when I think of Christmas music, I think of that era as really being the sound of Christmas, especially of dance-y, fun Christmas. So we started there, and then looked at some current songs — well, at least in the past 15 years — that have that same ’50s beat. That’s when we landed on the Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” So the drum pattern is similar to “Single Ladies,” but it has all of the elements of that 50s doo-wop style.

Much of the rest of the album serves as a greatest hits-style compilation of reworked past Christmas songs — how did you go about picking out which songs were going to make the cut and which ones weren’t?

Well, in the streaming era, it’s really all about curating — and not just with music, but with everything in life. People have so many choices that my job, in part, becomes that of a cultural curator. So because of streaming, I figured I would to put all of the most significant songs that I’ve done in one place so it makes it easier for people. But also, I love a happy, fun, dance-y Christmas party. “Baby Doll,” when we first started working on it, was initially kind of dark and melancholy. And as beautiful as that was, after we made a demo of it, I said, “You know what, let’s change this, let’s make it more happy.” So we ended up scrapping the first rendition of it, and the only thing we kept of the original song was the title. 

Anyways, my point with all of this is I like Happy Christmas; I enjoy a melancholy Christmas song every now and then, I just didn’t want to have that for this collection.

RuPaul

That’s an interesting larger point you made — the streaming era has fundamentally changed the way we consume music, and you have been very conscious of keeping up with new developments in music. How has the sort of shifting focus of the industry at large changed your approach to your music career?

Well yes, there are a lot of changes that have been made, and I’ve adjusted to those changes. There’s a challenge involved there, and I love a challenge. It’s like a puzzle where you think about what the consumer wants, and then you adjust to that without compromising what your artistic vision is. I love the fact that everything is so available to everyone. 

The issue then becomes — and this is true with movies, fashion and every form of art — you need a cruise director who’s going to say, “This here is important, go here.” In my case, I’ve been on the planet for a little while, and I have witnessed the history of pop music, the history of movies, and all these things. So it’s my job to pass that on, to mentor and to curate for people who weren’t here decades ago to say, “Hey, that right there, that’s really important.”

That’s part of why I actually appreciate how sampling has become such a staple in modern pop music, because it is allowing newer generations to understand older references that they might not have been there for.

Yes, exactly, as long as they understand the context, as long as they get the full story. When I was a kid, there were four television channels, and I would watch talk shows like Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In watching those shows, I was filled in about what happened before I was born. I got to understand who Ella Fitzgerald was, and Sarah Vaughan, and Joe Williams. Those talk shows ended up curating for me what I had missed by not being here. 

The concept of the Christmas album itself has become its own staple that many artists put into their repertoire over the last few decades — what do you think it is about holiday music that resonates so much with audiences?

I think people want to conjure up nostalgia and memories of their childhood or memories of joy. There’s so much darkness in the world, and we get this little window of joy and happiness and color and lights and love and gift-giving and happiness. And I think everybody wants a piece of that — I know I do. I never set out to put out any Christmas records. But somehow it’s happened that way. And I really do love it.

Do you have any strong Christmas memories that come up with that nostalgia when hearing Christmas songs?

Well, I have Christmas memories from the past 30 years — in my childhood, we had none because we didn’t have any money and it was pretty sad. But you know, when I met Georges [LeBar, RuPaul’s husband], things changed because he loved Christmas. The fact that we were together made us want to celebrate it. When you have love in your life, and you have something to celebrate, it becomes a joyous thing. So these past 30 years, I have loved Christmas. And we look forward to it, because we get to either have a great Christmas celebration at home, or we get to travel to some fabulous place. Now, Christmas is lovely for me, so I like to pass that joy along through my Christmas music. 

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I also wanted to chat just a little bit about your upcoming memoir, The House of Hidden Meanings. In your announcement, you made it very clear that this book will see you at your most vulnerable — as someone who has built up a popular persona to protect your private life, what was the experience like deconstructing that persona in writing this book?

It was not easy, because when living a life in public, you have to be very, very careful. But, to do the kind of memoir I wanted to do, I had to be completely open and free to express myself. Now of course, after it’s put on paper, I can pull back and temper some of the more harsh elements of what I said. But it was very cathartic, because I got to go back to the scene of the crime and also celebrate how fortunate I’ve been in my life, and not just in my career. 

Part of how I’m able to do all this work is by just steamrolling ahead, and not getting slowed down by past indiscretions. I keep going and juggle a lot of projects going at once; the process of writing this book allowed me to slow down and look through the grocery basket of of my life and excavate these old memories.

That has to be a very healing process, as well, to get to be able to go back through your life like that.

It is! Most of us try to push down some of those memories, but in those memories lies so much hope and strength and courage. When you can walk through the fire, when you can do an inventory like that, you can move yourself forward, you can alleviate some of the baggage. For example, as a kid, a lot of times we think our parents are fighting because of something we did as a child — but as an adult, you can look back and go, ‘Oh, actually that had nothing to do with me.’ 

It has been wild to see how everything with Drag Race has grown — 27 Emmy wins, multiple spin offs, a dozen or so international versions, hundreds of careers of drag queens launched. Do you often find yourself kind of thinking about your legacy and the legacy of this show?

I certainly was thinking about that while I was writing the book, because the book allowed me to reflect. But usually, I try to be in the moment and deal with what I have to do in order to get through today. It’d be too distracting to always be thinking about that, and you really couldn’t move forward. 

As a huge fan of the show and a pop music nerd, I’ve always wanted to ask you about how you kind of go about selecting songs for lip syncs, because the show does a fantastic job of including a good mix of genres, eras, and vibes.

I mean, I worked in nightclubs on stage for over 30 years, so I just kind of know a good lip sync song when I hear one. Not all songs are lip sync songs. But the criteria for the TV show is to find songs that a queen can perform. And really, that’s the only criteria. 

With so much evolution over the last 15 years of the show, it often feels like Drag Race has exponential room to grow. Is there anything that you haven’t necessarily been able to accomplish on the show that you’re hoping to achieve in the next couple of years?

Well, it really doesn’t rest in my hands. What makes the show fresh is that each season, we get these fabulous, courageous artists who come on and share their stories with us and the world. As producers, we do what we can to create the infrastructure, but the new blood and energy coming from our contestants is what makes the show what it is.

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