Courtesy of Ingrid Bostrom / Santa Barbara Independent

RuPaul Charles was born to be famous. In his new memoir, “The House of Hidden Meanings,” released March 5, 2024, Charles describes the time a psychic told his mom that her baby would grow up to be a boy and a superstar. She named him RuPaul Andre Charles because, in her words, “Ain’t another motherfucker alive with a name like that.” With his name, he was born with a legacy to follow and has undoubtedly fulfilled his destiny. 

On April 18, Charles made his way to the Arlington Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara to talk about his book and offer wisdom to the audience, in an event hosted by UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures.

63-year-old Charles is not just a universally beloved drag queen, but has become a pop culture icon. He has hosted the hit MTV reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for 16 years and has produced countless off-shoots of the series around the globe. “Drag Race” has received critical acclaim throughout its run, jump-starting several careers for aspiring drag artists and cementing itself in reality television history. The show has earned Charles 14 Primetime Emmy Awards, making him the the most-awarded person of color in Emmy’s history. 

Charles already achieved wide-recognition as a drag queen with the release of his single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” from the album “Supermodel of the World” (1993), receiving two Billboard Music Awards and an MTV Video Music Awards nomination. Now, Charles can add “New York Times Best Seller” to his list of accolades. His memoir debuted at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. The book, which was distributed to every audience member, features RuPaul stripped bare, not just on the cover, but also on the page as he gets vulnerable with stories of his fight to belong in the world. This is not the story of “Mama Ru,” supermodel and drag queen of the world. It’s the story of RuPaul Charles, a queer kid from San Diego struggling with his identity. 

From the second he strutted onstage, Charles had the audience captivated. The crowd was lively and responsive, screaming phrases like “You better work!” from Charles’ own vocabulary. The first thing he said was: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” a common RuPaul-ism said at the end of every episode of “Drag Race” and the thesis of his speech to the audience. His charisma was never-ending as he posed in a perfectly-tailored suit and waved to the audience. 

The smile never left his face, even as Charles recounted traumatic events from his childhood. This was apparent as Charles started describing the fraught relationship he had with his parents, stating, “I never once saw them happy together, it was always just fighting and craziness.” He told a story where his mom held a match to his dad’s gasoline-soaked car after she realized he was cheating, something he witnessed at 5 years old.  

“When I remember this, I’m a camera outside of my body … I don’t remember coming back into my body until I was 39,” Charles said. “I had dissociated from the trauma because can you imagine what could have happened had she struck that match?” 

He got vulnerable with the crowd, admitting that he started smoking weed at the age of 10 as a tool of his dissociation.“It was necessary for me as I needed something to suppress whatever feelings I had, because the feelings were too much.” 

A common theme in Charles’ memoir is his struggle with substance abuse. It is initially described as a relatively-harmless habit of smoking weed and doing acid in clubs. The book ends with the revelation that Charles has spent 35 years using drugs as a means of escaping his reality. He decides to go down the path of sobriety which he has been on for about 20 years with his partner, Georges LeBar, who he met in 1994. 

Charles credited LeBar as the reason why he started a 12-step program. “When Georges got into some real serious trouble with drugs … I had to put him into rehab,” he explained. “As a supportive partner, I went to a 12-step program with him and I had no intention of getting into this program. I heard someone sharing my exact story and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Is this somebody’s idea of a joke? Is there a hidden camera?’”

Much of the night’s speech was centered around the changes Charles has made in order to come back into his body and remain on his path of sobriety. Charles held up his phone and showed the audience his home screen, which was a picture of himself at 5 years old. 

“I did this five years ago, I did this to remind myself of the little sweet, sensitive soul I’m actually taking care of. A little life hack that reminds me of how to take care of that little child inside,” Charles said. He urged the audience to take care of their inner child, and got candid when explaining the amount of effort it takes. “This happens to work for me, but it’s not easy. I’ve had to face all of the hurt that I put on that kid. I learned from the best how to mistreat my inner child through my parents, but today I can turn all that around. Today, I can have that conversation and I can have that relationship. I’m sweet to that kid.” 

Despite the heavy subject matter, Charles always managed to keep the atmosphere of Arlington Theatre light and funny, with stories about opening his own male strip club in Santa Barbara and getting high on acid at Six Flags. Charles talked about his time in the United Kingdom filming “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK,” boasting about his “Black Nando’s card” receiving a huge roar from half the audience and a confused look from the other half who’ve never been to the UK. 

Charles ended the evening by answering questions submitted online before the event. When answering the question “What are you most proud of?,” he responded, “Georges is so loving and I’m still learning how to relax 30 years later … I’m most proud of allowing him to love me.” 

Charles’ ability to connect deeply with everyone in the audience rang clear, and was expressed by the audible wows and deep breaths heard throughout the room as the night came to a close. The crowd was left with a new sense of motivation and excitement with “The House of Hidden Meanings” in hand and new lock screens soon to come.