On RuPaul’s book tour (Photos courtesy of the author)
My first job out of college was as an assistant to a publicist at Hyperion, a “boutique” publishing house owned by a quaint corporation called The Walt Disney Company. We had ID cards with a Mickey Mouse hologram on them. Seriously.
My boss, Jennifer, was a tall, brassy, 27-year-old woman who somehow seemed as old to me as one of the Golden Girls. She was fierce, whip smart, and a little bit scary.
Jen liked a large iced coffee and a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with butter, which I ordered for her every morning. This was back when people ate bagels. She taught me to take a thorough phone message. To grill the “freelance book reviewers” trying to get free review copies. To massage the egos of the needier authors and only get her out of “a meeting” if it was someone specific. She taught me to pitch reporters, the most awkward and agonizing part of publicity work.
While at Hyperion, Disney was bought by ABC, and because it was the 1990’s, there was a lot of talk of “synergy,” and books by “authors” who happened to be on television. I guess that’s how we ended up publishing RuPaul’s book, Lettin It All Hang Out: An Autobiography.
RuPaul Charles, after many years as a drag performer in clubs, had become a household name. He had an album of hit songs, was the spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, and was about to have a show on VH-1, so naturally it was time for him to write a memoir.
In the spring of 1995, we planned the publicity for the book, fielded media requests and finalized bookstore events for a June tour. I was 23 years old, and had been at the job for less than a year.
Days before the tour, RuPaul’s assistant quit. Without his assistant, RuPaul would need someone to tie his corset and accompany him to the massive book signing events and interviews. I remember distinctly my intake of breath when Jennifer called me into her office and asked me if I wanted to go. I’d be heading to Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and shooting The Today Show at the MAC store in NYC.
I can’t remember a lot of our travel details, like did RuPaul sit in first class and me in coach? How did that work? But I do remember a lot of stretch limos. Limos were kind of crucial with regards to RuPaul. He is really tall, and he liked to relax in a car, spread out, and play his music.
In Atlanta, I watched RuPaul do his makeup for the first time. His toolkit took up the entirety of the Ritz Carlton bathroom, with so many palettes and brushes, and a beautiful blonde “Hollywood Ho Wig” perched atop a mannequin head. We had the first event at a bookstore, and it was bananas. Since Atlanta was where he came up, RuPaul had tons of friends and family at the event, many also in drag. The next day, we took the stretch to a bunch of used CD stores he loved, and he bought me a Dolly Parton CD called White Limozeen, which I kept.
In Miami, we had some daytime off hours, so we went to the mall to see the movie A Little Princess. RuPaul went to the 7-11 across the highway from the multiplex to buy a giant selection of candy. “Better selection AND value, honey,” he said, with an over-the-top voice-over voice, after sneaking it into the theater all in his giant purse. Watching that beautiful movie and munching on candy together is something I’ll never forget.
I was so young, and inexperienced, but I can remember the pride I felt accompanying him. He treated me with such respect and professionalism. And we had fun. We listened to that Dolly CD. We listened to Whitney. We listened to Tammy Wynette. During the day, he was understated in his overalls and clogs, which he called his “Male Drag.” When we were working the events and signing books, he made everyone laugh — the gay boys, transgender kids and suburban moms, he made them feel cool and seen.
Returning to my desk after the high of the tour, my assistant job became more tedious, and my relationship with Jen strained. I wanted a promotion, and more of the independence I felt out on the road with Ru, and so in many ways my heart was not in the job. Jen was intense, totally devoted to book publicity and to her management style, and expected me to be the same. I eventually left Hyperion, and not on good terms with Jennifer.
Looking back, I made our “relationship” more dramatic than it was. I remember seeing her at a Mexican restaurant a few years later, after leaving publishing entirely. I panicked, froze up and ultimately pretended not to see her. She did the same. How silly and strange, after that time spent together. We did not see each other again after that, but once I had my kids in the aughts we became friends on Facebook, as ex co-workers do, and regularly commented on each other’s posts with love and affection, just like that. I got to tell her how much it meant that she allowed me to go on that trip with RuPaul.
In May of 2014, I received the shocking news that Jennifer had died at 45, after being diagnosed with cancer only 3 months prior. I had no idea she was sick. I hadn’t seen her in a very long time, but she had just said something funny on a post I wrote that winter and I had been thinking about giving her a call.
Jen died at the same age I am now. When it happened, I reflected deeply on our time together 20 years prior, and how that experience shaped me into the woman I am now.
In truth, I was a bit of an ass in that first job. I didn’t really want to answer anyone’s phone or file anyone’s clips, particularly after that early taste of travel, nice hotels, and being in charge of moving an author through a book tour. In a word, I was entitled, something a lot of us now have put on another certain generation. Publicity, while a good skill to have, was not my future. Jennifer and RuPaul helped me to see that relatively quickly in my young working life.
Because of the poignancy of Jen’s death, and the sisterly, bitchy, and familiar way we interacted at such a formative moment, I will never forget what it felt like to sit in my cubicle outside of her office, and the snapshot moments of that book tour in the summer of 1995. Sashay, away.