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RuPaul schools Stephen Colbert on camp, and which Met Gala celebs get it

RuPaul, Stephen Colbert
Screenshot: The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

In her stellar piece on the recent Met Gala and the true essence of “camp” (this year’s theme of the celebrity-sprinkled evening of couture and gawking), new A.V. Club contributor Samantha Powell explored the concept, and showed how tricky it is to truly pull off. Even with all the money and designer swank in the world, camp is a gossamer notion too easily capsized by the heaping helpings of glitter and gold lamé that sunk more than a few hungry scenesters whose would-be campy cruises down the red carpet of the New York institution came off more gilded cruise ship that Cleopatra’s glittering barge. Powell quotes liberally from Susan Sontag, who famously described camp, partly, as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Or, to quote an an even more revered authority, “The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.”

Well, Stephen Colbert brought another, equally qualified expert on camp to Wednesday’s Late Show—RuPaul Charles, whose entire life appears dedicated to the embodiment of camp as a concept, and a mission statement. Having turned camp (in the form of the drag queen) into one of the most popular and beloved reality series of all time, RuPaul—dressed, in illustration, in a sparkling silver mandala-dotted suit, black button-down, and loafers with no socks—took on Colbert’s arduous task of assessing how well this year’s attendees nailed the theme. Although, not there to rain on anyone’s red carpet parade, RuPaul only mildly criticized the “borderline camp” of Celine Dion’s “Cher meets Bob Mackie” ensemble, while, naturally, giving Ru’s own sequin-bedecked, unicorn-bedazzled, pink-black-and-blue, zebra-striped man’s suit an A-plus. Camp—you know it when you see it.


As for the essence of camp itself, RuPaul waxed philosophical, explaining to the attentive Colbert that there’s an element of existential absurdity whose very necessity in some people’s lives often escapes those who simply slap on too much eye makeup and call it a day. (Speaking of Waters, RuPaul did express disappointment that none of the men at the Gala went full-on Divine.) “You have to be able to the see façade of life, the absurdity of life from outside of yourself,” explained Ru, boiling that down further to, “Don’t take life too seriously.” For a person whose status as what Colbert called “pop icon” stems from exploding propriety and ideas of identity in a glorious piece of full-time performance art (and ratings gold), RuPaul touched on the cultural value—even essentialness—of camp for people traditionally marginalized. Hinting at the rising tide of ugliness in American society (as embodied by you know who) RuPaul applauded current Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand for appearing at a drag club in Iowa, saying “Gay people pay taxes, drag queens pay taxes—I want a politician who’s gonna come to my drag club if I’m paying their salary.”

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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.