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You better read: RuPaul gets candid in memoir ‘House of Hidden Meanings’

Book explores family, identity, fame
You better read: RuPaul gets candid in memoir House of Hidden Meanings
Emma Kozina

American drag queen, television star, actor, singer, producer, pop culture icon and writer RuPaul recently published his first memoir, “The House of Hidden Meanings.” In a detailed and raw recollection of his life, RuPaul reveals himself to the world as a detective of the illusion of reality. 

“The House of Hidden Meanings” opens with a present-age RuPaul looking back on his roots and transformation to fame. Now in his 60s, summer in Atlanta still feels the same to him as it did when he was just a young boy. 

“Atlanta tastes like butter. Salty, with a hint of sweetness, the kind that’s gone a little soft sitting out. It’s deliberate, meant to be savored,” RuPaul writes. 


He invites readers in by showing them that this memoir is real, not a performance act. His first memories are in San Diego. Sitting on a blanket with his sister Renetta, RuPaul traces his fingers over homemade peanut butter cookies she brought for them. Suddenly, Renetta decides to add meaning to the event by calling it ‘a picnic’. RuPaul wrote this is when he realized magic is something that someone can create. Eating cookies on the floor is a normal occurrence, but picnic assigned a new, special meaning to the event. 

RuPaul’s childhood is cinematic. He’s waiting for his dad on the porch steps, hoping that he will finally come. His mother’s laughter comes in fleeting moments, only when RuPaul would perform for her by impersonating the neighbors, or characters like Tina Turner. 

RuPaul uses the television as a metaphor in numerous ways, but the seeds are planted when he’s a child in San Diego. The TV represented family harmony at a time, when he, his three sisters and his parents would lay in bed together to watch the latest shows. But it was also a portal to other worlds, even then, it was what RuPaul describes as “a platonic ideal of reality.” 

The sense of otherness RuPaul feels starting in his childhood is felt in almost every word. It’s not that he isn’t similar to the other kids in the neighborhood who accuse him of being a “sissy”, or his charming dad’s side of the family, it’s that no one was able to step out of their ego and see themselves in him. It feels like he felt utterly alone in his realizations about the world, the falsehoods of social structures like gender, sexuality and the presence of self. But readers also get the sense that RuPaul understands the factor that race and his family’s history of generational trauma plays into this. 

“Systemic oppression creates walls that can feel impossible to scale, but so too does the inherited belief that you are a victim…my father had it too…I could see myself in him and his side of the family, in the way they laughed and danced and had a good time. But, it wasn’t reciprocal. They could not give themselves permission to see their reflections in me,” RuPaul wrote. 

RuPaul has come under criticism for his opinions on his family’s mentality, with claims that he dismissed survivors of the Jim Crow-era by referring to their beliefs as victim mentality, according to Saeed Jones in an article for The New York Times. He was also criticized for having shallow wisdom that can be boiled down to buzzwords worthy for Instagram captions.

In RuPaul’s defense, children that grow up othered by their surroundings sometimes need to  believe that they are special to survive. The constant reassurance Rupaul gives readers throughout the memoir that he will be destined for something beautiful sounds more like the reassurance that he would give himself growing up. I don’t find this shallow, but rather as something more real that might not be able to penetrate the minds of others who have not gone through similar experiences. He said that he always had his own magic, and no one could see it. This is an affirmation that’s necessary for a kid who, in RuPaul’s words, couldn’t blend in even if he tried. 

RuPaul’s cinematic childhood comes to a climax when he witnesses his mother trying to set his dad’s car on fire in their garage after he cheated. 

“When I play this scene back in my memory, I see it as if I’m a camera, and I’m looking at me. Then, I cut to my sister’s shocked faces…it’s spectacularly cinematic. Years later, I would understand that I’d fully dissociated… I simply left my body,” RuPaul wrote. 

The open rectangle shape of the garage mirrors the image of a TV box. Another hidden meaning in the life of RuPaul is revealed, as his draw to the TV and a fake reality seem deeply intertwined. 

Although he was dissociated from reality, RuPaul in the coming years of late childhood and adolescence was already beginning to make waves. He began to venture out on his own, finding more portals that were like TVs, like the bus stop he took to the beach. Even though he was coping with trauma, readers can appreciate how he views his life in a fairytale-like lens, creating magic, like he did with his sister Renetta on that picnic, in his daily life. This was also around the same time RuPaul describes starting to smoke weed and drink, making songs and finding his inner “secret girl.”

His secret girl awoke after watching Cleopatra Jones. He became so obsessed with her that he wrote a letter to Warner Brothers asking about when her next movie would be released. The alter ego is something that a lot of people can relate to, even if the alter ego is not always feminine. RuPaul makes his memoir relatable to wide ranges of audiences, without compromising nitty gritty details of sex, drugs, violence and explicit language. This comes full circle when RuPaul finally describes his moments of true fame, because similarly, he carefully crafted his choreography to be family friendly in drag. 

Before his big break, RuPaul moved to Atlanta, where he found social belonging, but still chased men that represented the ghosts of his absent father. I imagine this section of the memoir playing with the song “Ladyfingers” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass in the background. In a haze of acid, weed, and other substances, he found a circle of friends in The American Music Show. 

RuPaul begins to dive into duality and binaries with a more matured vocabulary than he had when he was younger, understanding love and fear, masculinity and femininity. In a bad breakup with his former lover Mark, who battled the duality of his softer mother and restrictive dad, RuPaul demonstrates a profound understanding of how these binaries are a lie, and if you’re clever enough, you can understand how they exist together. 

“I kept the first photograph I had taken of him. In the picture, he is 18 and beautiful. A boy, and a girl, and the makeup I drew him in is fierce as warpaint,” RuPaul wrote. 

‘Fierce as warpaint’ strikes a chord. It’s lovely how RuPaul can see the masculine and the feminine together yet so different by society’s standards. 

Eventually, RuPaul said he finally allowed himself to be desired, and went out in full glam drag. The way he writes about being desired for the first time, the way men look at him with an aggression, but also granting him power, is an interesting line for someone that’s been feminine presenting their whole life to read. It’s a privilege to have the choice whether or not you’re going to be perceived as an object of desire, but it’s also a starkly realistic depiction of traditional femininity.  

At this point, it feels like RuPaul is a close friend, sharing his story. So once he has his moment of original fame, it’s satisfying. It’s just like the reasons why he liked TV as a child, the platonic ideal reality was playing out in RuPaul’s actual life. He knew he was meant for something great, and now he saw it finally coming to fruition. 

Arguably even more satisfying is RuPaul’s realization that he needed to go to rehab. His partying was out of control and he had never processed that initial moment of dissociation in his childhood until the end of the memoir. 

Overall, “The House of Hidden Meanings” was hilarious and heartfelt. Riddled with metaphors, the experience of reading the memoir feels like exploring the inner workings of RuPaul’s mind. It’s like walking into a house of mirrors and illusions at a festival, each corner a suppressed memory, finally reaching the path of self acceptance. At certain points, there was a sense of superiority RuPaul alluded to feeling over his family and others from his hometown, but there was also a deep feeling of love and connectedness with the world around him. I recommend this read to all of the dreamers, the outsiders and anyone with a passion to make their mark on the world. 

As RuPaul says, “you’re born naked and the rest is drag.” 

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