RuPaul now and then: Happenings 40 years time ago

The drag superstar had to start somewhere — and Atlanta was the place

Photo credit: CLARE BUTLER
THE TABERNACLE GREEN ROOM: From left: Mike Mattingly, Jack Pelham, RuPaul, Laurie Stevens, Clare Butler, and Rosser Shymanski, March 10, 2024.

The Atlanta City Council and Mayor’s Office officially proclaimed March 10, 2024, as RuPaul Day in the City of Atlanta. In a commending resolution presented to him on stage at the Tabernacle as he talked to promote his latest book, The House of Hidden Meanings, the city recognized RuPaul Andre Charles for “profound impact on the city’s cultural landscape and his global influence in the LGBTQ+ community.” RuPaul said in his talk that afternoon that his return to Atlanta was a memory lane trip for him. He explained the impact his time in Atlanta had on his life all those years ago — and on the future he created for himself.

Today RuPaul is best known as the host, mentor, and a judge of RuPaul’s Drag Race, created and produced by World of Wonder Productions. The show is now entering its 16th season as it searches each year for America’s next drag superstar. Drag Race has inspired several spinoffs in the U.S. and numerous international franchises.It’s no wonder that Fortune magazine calls RuPaul “easily the world’s most famous drag queen.” In addition, the former Atlanta has received many accolades, including 14 Prime Time Emmy Awards, three GLAAD Media Awards, a Critics’ Choice Television Award, two Billboard Music Awards, and a Tony Award.

Back in the early 1980s, when I first met RuPaul and we ran with the same crowd, no one would have guessed that the City of Atlanta would later look on any of us positively no matter how much time had passed. Ask any of us if we thought his future would include him being superstar, and everyone who called him a friend would loudly shout, “YES!” Ru was always a relentless self-promoter, and, as such, driven to succeed. We all recognized it and marveled at his determination.

Laurie Stevens, Rosser Shymanski, Andy Rhodes, newlyweds Rodger Marks and Jack Pelham, and I went to hear RuPaul’s talk at the Tabernacle on March 10. RuPaul invited those of us who had known him in the days of Now Explosion and RuPaul and the U-Hauls long ago — Laurie Stevens, Rosser Shymanski, Jack Pelham, Mike Mattingly, and me — to visit with him in the green room between his meet and greet and show time. It was delightful to see him in such good spirits with that 100-watt smile and dangerously fun laugh, looking dashing in a formal wear style moto jacket and slim pants. He checked in with each of us and played host with snacks and beverages. We’re all so much older now, each of us having traveled different paths since those early days of running wild and free throughout the city, but the memories are still vivid, and the laughs continue to roll on.

Clare Butler: I became a part of the Atlanta scene in the summer of 1978, moving into the Pershing Point Hotel apartments to attend college. I spent time with friends I knew from high school soaking in local music, comedy, and drag shows, looking for my tribe and a future. Atlanta was a playground for the crowd of artsy, college-aged, in-town dwellers who flocked here. The city offered cheap rental property, 24-hour diners, bars, nightclubs, and the infrastructure left behind by white flight to the suburbs. It was an idyll bursting with promise for young artists and musicians in the decade before speculators and wrecking balls would lay claim to Midtown, Virginia-Highland, and the Ponce de Leon corridor.

Fast forward a few years and my life as a singer began when a few friends and I met Larry Tee who had played in several local bands. I quickly became Lady Clare, in a band called Now Explosion with Larry Tee, Elouise “Champagne” Montague, Russ Trent, and Jon Witherspoon. Tom Zarrilli was our manager, and we played all over town, drawing good, mixed crowds at places like TV Dinner, 688, and the Bistro. Later, Larry Tee and Tom Zarrilli managed and booked the Nitery Club and later the Celebrity Club, both on Ponce, where our crowd, other local and national bands, and The American Music Show (TAMS) regulars were allowed free reign. A Now Explosion show was all about laughing, moving, inclusion, and the excitement of how it all felt. Our crowd and the band were an LGBTQ-friendly bunch with drag a major part of our shows. We’d played in every major city up and down the east coast and had been extremely lucky to get frequent bookings at the Pyramid Club, a Lower East Side hotspot in New York City. Our concept for the band was a trashy party extravaganza that appealed to so many oddballs. For every show I was a different character, always in a crazily styled wig and an upcycled trashy thrift-store outfit. Elouise painted her vintage dresses with band catchphrases, Larry was a dapper DJ in polyester bell-bottoms, chunky shoes, and silky wild print shirts. Jon and Russ were in outlandishly trashy drag. Every show had a new and crazy theme: New Wave Pep Rally, Free Meat Show, Salute to Safe Sex, Mister Macho Contest, Miss 688 Pageant, Wedding Show — the list goes on and on.

I had also been involved with TAMS, a weekly, local public access TV show, that featured a bevy of stage-ready alternative local celebrities. The show was produced by Dick Richards, Potsy Duncan and James Bond, brother of civil rights leader Julian Bond. RuPaul had been watching the show from his home when he saw the show’s notice that anyone who wanted to be featured should mail a letter to the TAMS post office box. RuPaul sent in the only letter the show ever received and was immediately booked. He arrived in a homemade, intentionally tattered jungle new wave look and performed to great fanfare. The TAMS and Now Explosion crowds instantly recognized a like-minded person in RuPaul. He quickly became a part of all we did. Now Explosion was already in the habit of scouring the city for highly entertaining people to invite on as featured entertainers at our shows. RuPaul became a regular along with other luminaries such as Benjamin as Opal Foxx, Lady Bunny, and Blondie from the Clermont Lounge.

RuPaul recounts now that his experiences in Atlanta with TAMS and Now Explosion were the first time he truly felt like he belonged and that he was being seen for who he was. It makes me happy to know he found his tribe with all of us. As one of our featured performers, we encouraged him to find musicians and create a band. Our intention was to get an opening act that was as exciting as we thought we were. He connected with friends, Todd Butler and Robert Warren, from his Northside High School days, and added percussionist Klimchak to the band they dubbed Wee Wee Pole. Their shows were electric!

Ru was already dressing in punk new wave gender bending styles but had not attempted drag before. At the Tabernacle talk, Ru told the story that I gave him his first wig and styled it for him. I also remember that day, offering him clothes to choose from to be a part of the Now Explosion wedding show as my bridesmaid. He looked fantastic and clearly felt at home with his new style. I have many fond memories from the close connections we all created with each other back then.

Laurie Stevens: In 1981, I was in tenth grade at a suburban Marietta high school with my good friend Kathy Gernatt. We had met in art class, and I was drawn to how different and full of rebellion she was. She was already going downtown to clubs with live music like 688 and The Bistro in Atlanta. One day at school she mentioned that she had met this gorgeous person at 688 and showed me two post cards. These were the earliest promo cards RuPaul had made of himself. One card showed a skinny guy laughing to the side in a sleeveless t-shirt with a drawn-on M-O-M tattoo on his arm, and on the other card he wore a sailor hat and gave a smoldering look. Kathy later dropped out of high school and got an apartment on Charles Allen Drive in Midtown with RuPaul and another roommate. Kathy’s apartment gave me the perfect opportunity to get involved with the intown Atlanta crowd she knew. I dropped out of GSU and became fast friends with RuPaul, Brain Chambers (Flloyd), Kathleen Lynch, Lady Bunny, Cheryl Culp, and Cherry Snow. These times together formed very strong bonds that stand even today.

Ru always wanted his friends to be in the show-biz stable with him, he wanted to mold you and help you understand that you had something special that no-one else had. Ru and I came up with my stage name “Laurie Nevada.” He made my posters and informed me that I would perform in his revues. In one show, I did the song Dark Lady by Cher with my real hair teased into a perfect cube by Fred Rogers (Trade). It felt special when Slim Chance, newly in town, told me afterward that I was his favorite from the show. Ru liked that and I did too, but I couldn’t fathom being told something like that. I didn’t have that eccentric confidence Ru had. He would say, “You’ve GOT IT! SHARE it with THE WORLD!!” Other opportunities for crazy performances followed. Ru wrote, directed, and produced several films, one starred me called, “Laurie Nevada IS Disco Isis.” It was such silly fun. I played a super-hero in a boa saving two hot young men from an evil drag queen. In the end, the evil drag queen is vanquished after the corniest of fights, and then we all dance to Diana Ross’ “Swept Away” as we face the camera. Look up that title on YouTube if you dare.

In 1984, Flloyd, Bunny, and I signed the lease on my first apartment at 998 Juniper Street. RuPaul had moved from his apartment and hosted a live eviction party on WREK. He was staying in the van on Bonaventure where Now Explosion lived, and various other places around town before he was able to move into the building on Juniper. We became much closer friends then, and that feeling has lasted through the years for both of us. We all sat around one day, and he went around in a circle, pointing at each of us as he said, “I love you no matter what.” He always stopped by to see me at various jobs I had, visiting me many times after his go-go gig at Weekends wearing one of his classic looks: shoulder pads with shredded white garbage bag streamers, homemade red and white striped stretchy leggings, and his long extensions. He’s stayed in touch with me through the years, calling when he would be in town and meeting up for dinner or a quick visit. He texted in the fall of 2022 that he was going to be in town and wanted to meet up with Rosser and me to talk about the old days with his book collaborator, Sam Lansky. He’s touring with that book now, and I was delighted to hear him say he wanted to “holler” at Clare, Rosser, Jack, and me before the show. He treated us with such graciousness. I’ve always felt very close to Ru, and I know that he feels the same.

Shortly after our visit together in Atlanta, I received a text, “I absolutely loved seeing you and my Atlanta family Thank you for your sweetness and kindness. I love you always, no matter what. XORU.” —CL—

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