RuPaul Recalls the Terrifying Day His Mom Almost Burned Down Their Home: ‘It Was a Pivotal Moment’ (Exclusive)

The Emmy-winning host of 'RuPaul's Drag Race' and author of a new memoir, 'The House of Hidden Meanings' opens up about his childhood, sobriety and road to icon status

<p>Michael Buckner/Variety/Getty</p>

Michael Buckner/Variety/Getty

RuPaul Charles — known as just RuPaul to his legions of fans thanks to his hit reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race and legendary mission of kindness — remembers having a single goal as a young boy in San Diego. He was seven years old, his father had left and he was living with his mother and three sisters.

“I had to pierce the dark cloud of my mother's unhappiness for long enough to help her forget that anything was wrong," he says. That dark cloud was always there, he remembers of his mom, Ernestine, who died in 1993. “She was very world-weary. She didn't talk about her childhood or her background.”

One day, his mother shared a prophecy with him. A psychic had told her he was going to be a star. He says he felt “anointed" by the news and has been working toward fulfilling it ever since.

Related: How RuPaul Became a ‘Supermodel’ — and How His Mom ‘Mean Miss Charles’ Reacted (Exclusive)

RuPaul, now 63, says that while Ernestine set him on the path to stardom with the prophecy, she had so many mysteries — he never even knew she had one glass eye.

“I had the sense something horrible had happened to her when she was a little girl," he says. "I felt it was my duty to share my joy with her, and to make her laugh, and to act goofy.” He pauses, remembering the warring household, his “skeptical” mother who “believed in the cruelty of the world” and his “charismatic, superficial” father.

“My sisters and me, we used laughter as the cure for everything. I still do.”

<p>Courtesy of RuPaul</p> RuPaul as an infant with his mother and father, 1960

Courtesy of RuPaul

RuPaul as an infant with his mother and father, 1960

All of this was a lot of responsibility for a young boy to shoulder, RuPaul acknowledges. “But it came natural to me. Somehow, I had the ability," he says. "I'm an alchemist. I could create joy.” Even at a young age, he was already acquiring skills that would later prove useful for the future actor, singer and drag queen. "I learned how to be a diplomat” he says. “I became very calculating and reading the room. I learned how to shape-shift into what the situation called for.”

RuPaul says it felt like being on the 60s TV show Mission: Impossible, which he loved watching with his family. “These people would get together, and they would study a mark, a human and figure out what they really wanted. What they needed. Where their weakness was, how you could appeal to their ego. Which is the way to get to most people.”

His childhood molded him into who he is today (and sobriety has helped him see that clearly) but it was not without trauma. Trauma that he is still working through.

'The House of Hidden Meanings' by RuPaul
'The House of Hidden Meanings' by RuPaul

When RuPaul was a young boy, his mother found out his father was having an affair. As the entire family stood outside the house, his mom threatened to set his father's car ablaze.

"She poured gasoline all over his car, and stood there with matches," he remembers. "It was a pivotal moment for me. And I didn't know why until I became sober. I realized in sobriety that I had separated. I'd disassociated from myself at that moment. And didn't really rejoin my consciousness until I got sober."

Reflecting on that moment, RuPaul feels like he's watching the scene from a distance. "When I remember the gasoline and garage moment," he says, "I'm like a camera on a jib that is moving around the scene. I'm looking at myself, and my family, and the situation from outside of my body, which is, of course, what the human consciousness does in traumatic situations. Because in reality had she struck that match, our house would've burned down. Both parents would've died. We would have been homeless, and we would have been watching this."

<p>John Shearer/Getty</p> Georges LeBar and RuPaul attend the 71st Emmy Awards on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

John Shearer/Getty

Georges LeBar and RuPaul attend the 71st Emmy Awards on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Today, RuPaul says he has "learned to comfort the child inside. Which is something I'm still doing today." To wit, he sleeps with a one-eyed donkey stuffed toy he found on the street in the 80s. "His name is Jimmy and I found him on Christmas night in 1986," he says.

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"Like Bugs Bunny," RuPaul says, "you have to remind yourself to not take all of this, this illusion too seriously. There are things that you should take seriously: kindness, sweetness and love. But everything else, it's just passing. Everything turns to dust. So don't hitch your wagon to an ideology that could just be today's trend."

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