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Padma Lakshmi, Model, Actor And TV Host, Says Above All, She's A Writer

The former model/actress is nominated for an Emmy Award for hosting Top Chef. Her new show, Taste the Nation, explores immigrant cooking. Originally broadcast July 6, 2020.

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Fresh Air with Terry Gross

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're devoting this show to revisiting interviews with some of this year's Emmy nominees. Today's guests are competing against each other at the Emmys. Both are nominated for outstanding host for a reality or competition program, and both are executive producers of their shows, which are nominated for outstanding competition program. Our guests are Padma Lakshmi for "Top Chef," the cooking competition show from Bravo, and RuPaul from "RuPaul's Drag Race" from VH1.

We'll start with Padma Lakshmi. She's hosted "Top Chef" for all of its 17 seasons, along with co-host and fellow nominee Tom Colicchio. Lakshmi began her career as a model and actress. She's also a cookbook author and wrote a memoir called "Love, Loss And What We Ate." Recently, she's created and hosted a new series on Hulu called "Taste The Nation," in which she traveled across the U.S., learning how foods from different countries brought here by immigrants contribute to what we think of as American food. Terry spoke to her when that series premiered in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Padma Lakshmi, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new series.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Thank you.

GROSS: How did you go from being a model and then an actress to food, to writing about food and hosting TV shows about food?

LAKSHMI: I never intended to have a career in food. I didn't know anybody who did, so it never crossed my mind. I always loved to cook. You know, I was a theater major and an American lit major. And afterwards, I modeled because I started doing it for the money, and it allowed me to pay off all my college loans, which were quite significant. And then I started auditioning.

And I - when I did my first movie - it was a costume drama, and I played an Indigenous woman. I was friendly with some actors who had been to my home and had eaten my food and then had a meeting at Miramax, actually. And, you know, then I went to this premiere, and they said, oh, I think I've heard of you. Are you a model? Did you cook? Do you have a scar on your arm? I said, yes. They said, oh, they said you were a really good cook. I just happened to be with these people. And I said, yeah, it's always been a fantasy of mine to write a cookbook. Because I would always carry a spiral notebook when I went to relatives' houses, and I would always jot down recipes.

So - and I always collected. If I had any disposable income, I would use it to buy cookbooks in my teens and 20s. And so I said, OK. And I was terrified 'cause I'd never written anything, you know, beyond an article for my school paper. And so I wrote three recipes. I remember I typed three recipes out. I didn't even have a computer then; I did this on an electric typewriter. I made one of the recipes with my mother, put it in a Tupperware dish, and then I wrote an essay, like, literally a school paper, about why I love cooking.

And I took that, and I flew to New York, and I went straight to the publisher's office, and I presented the publisher with the recipe. I said, you know, just eat this tonight, warm it up in the microwave, and I handed it to her. And that is how I got my publishing contract. You know, I don't think that they thought I was going to make some big splash in publishing or the food world; I think it was a marketing ploy. I think, you know, they wanted to capitalize on the fact that everyone does want to know what a model eats.

And the truth is, models are freaks of nature. We are not normal people, and we're just born this way because of a genetic cocktail that our parents gave to us. You know, most of us have a really high metabolism.

GROSS: So one of the episodes in your new series is devoted to Indian food and to your mother's cooking. What are some of the foods that you grew up with?

LAKSHMI: I grew up eating dosas, which is featured in that episode, which is a rice and lentil crepe with fermented batter. You know, the south of India doesn't really use wheat. That is usually something that's in the north. And so I grew up with Southern Indian foods. But my mother did remarry a North Indian, so we do have North Indian food, too. We ate a lot of beans. We ate a lot of lentils. We ate a lot of vegetables. And then, you know, my mother for a time was a single parent here, and there were things that we couldn't get readily in those days, and so she would make do.

And she would buy cream of wheat, for example, use a box of Cream of Wheat to make a dish called upma, which sort of has the consistency of stuffing, say, but it's made on the stove. And, you know, I love upma. It's an easy thing to make quickly with some sauteed vegetables. But my mother couldn't find the right type of flour, which is called sooji in Hindi or rava in Tamil. And so she would use Cream of Wheat. When I started making upma, you know, when I was in college, I used couscous. And nowadays, I make upma with quinoa.

And I think immigrant foods are really interesting because they're this third thing. You know, they're not traditionally, like, the food in the countries of origin, but they're not totally Westernized. And a lot of that, of course, happens because of necessity. When immigrants come here, typically, for the most part, both parents have to work, and, you know, so they streamline the cooking. I remember my mother used to make spaghetti upma, which was just this weird Frankenstein of a dish, but that I loved.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LAKSHMI: So we grew up eating a lot of that. I grew up as a vegetarian. You know, we're Hindu Brahmins, and I didn't really eat meat until, I would say, I was a teenager.

GROSS: Let's talk about the beginning of your professional life. You started modeling in Europe. When you were an exchange student in Madrid, you were spotted by somebody who thought you'd make a great model, and that's how your career started. When you started modeling, I don't think there were many or maybe even any people of Indian descent modeling in European or American magazines. Were you considered, like, an outsider because of that?

LAKSHMI: I mean, I think that was part of my appeal. You know, I really didn't start to feel attractive until I went to Europe. I knew, you know, I had a pretty face or whatever all growing up, but I didn't feel like I was beautiful or that kind of beautiful until I went to Spain and until this person sort of discovered me and told me that I could model. And that happened a couple of times in my career. You know, it also happened with Helmut Newton.

Because I have a big scar on my arm, which is 7 inches long, from a car accident I had at 14. And so, you know, these - I started modeling before the days of retouching. So I got really good at covering it with makeup, but still, it didn't dawn on me that I could actually make a living from my looks. So the fact that it happened at all was a shock to me.

But I do think that, you know, there weren't any Indian models at all. Maybe there was one here or there. But, you know, I was always the only Indian girl in any casting I went to. Since then, there are many Indian models, and they've, you know, done way more work than I ever did as a model. But I think just being the first gave me a little bit of a cachet.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned Helmut Newton, and, you know, he was famous for his - what can I say? - very, like, sexualized poses, often very S&M. He wanted you to show your scar, I think, as opposed to covering it up. What's one of the more unusual poses that he wanted you to take or unusual clothing or lack of clothing (laughter) that he wanted to shoot you in?

LAKSHMI: It's really interesting because when I got the job with Helmut, you know, everyone in the agency in Italy was so happy. It was like, oh, my God. You got booked with Helmut. And as the days wore on and the shoot was going to happen, I started getting nervous because it was supposed to be a nude shoot, and I just didn't feel comfortable. And so I canceled on Helmut Newton three days before the shoot. And I was - I went from being the most popular girl in the agency to the least likable person (laughter) in the agency because of that.

But I just didn't feel good about it. And then he called back, you know, thankfully. And he said, well, OK, she doesn't have to be totally nude. What if she's just partially nude? And, you know, just - she can keep her knickers on. And I was like, OK. And so he had me leaning back on this beautiful vanity at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. I was stockinged, and I had a tea cup - or a coffee cup, I suppose - on my knee, and you just saw my - the bottom half of my face and my cleavage.

And then I started feeling comfortable with him. We talked a lot about his wife June, who's also a photographer, who I also shot with. And he just - he has the air of a very kindly grandfather or uncle. It's funny. The atmosphere in the studio was not sexual at all, but he really did like you to arch your body and elongate it. And the pose that he really wanted was me sticking my arm out so that the keloid in my scar - you know, it's a keloid scar, so the texture of the skin is a little more shiny. And he wanted that to catch the light. And you couldn't even see my face in it, which, frankly, was a relief in some ways because, you know, I also have these very conservative relatives all in India. And thank God this was before the Internet because, you know, you could do things and get away with them in Europe, and your family would be none the wiser.

GROSS: Did you think it was odd that he actually wanted your scar to be accentuated in the photograph?

LAKSHMI: At first I found it curious. It was also the moment of grunge, where there were a lot of tattoos and things like that. So, you know, I was happy that he loved my scar. This scar that I always tried to hide, this scar that always made me feel self-conscious all through my adolescence was what this famous fashion photographer thought was really cool and beautiful. And it really changed my opinion of my own body. It was a real lesson in self-esteem, and it was sort of the start of a journey of self-acceptance for me.

You know, it's really funny because when you're a round person and you live in a white world and you see nothing but white images on billboards, on the covers and inside magazines, on TV, you know, you kind of internalize a subconscious self-loathing about your skin color. And, of course, in Indian culture, there's a ton of colorism. You know, I remember my grandmother always admonishing me to take an umbrella outside so that I wouldn't get too much sun. We kids were, especially the girls, were discouraged from going out into the sun to play from the hours of 11:30 to 4:30.

And to this day I still have a problem sitting in the sun, you know, or swimming in the sun because I just feel like it doesn't seem right. I mean, and on the one hand, I think it saved me because they don't have a lot of sun damage, you know, for my age. But on the other hand, you know, those things that get told to you as you're a young girl and a teenager, they stick with you all your life. And now, you know, at almost 50 years of age, I feel so much better about my body, and I feel better about my physical self than I ever have.

BIANCULLI: Padma Lakshmi - Terry Gross spoke to her in July. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE'S "KEEP ON SHINING")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from July with Padma Lakshmi, the host and an executive producer of the Bravo cooking competition show, "Top Chef." The show is nominated for four Emmys, and she and co-host Tom Colicchio are nominated for outstanding host for a reality or competition program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So let's talk more about your early background. Your mother came to the U.S. to escape a difficult marriage. You were 2. She left you behind with your grandparents until she could really get settled here and be confident that she could take care of you and support you. By the time she brought you over, you were 4. Do you remember being 2 years old when she went to America? Because I'm not sure I remember anything when I was 2.

LAKSHMI: I don't remember the day she left, but I remember sitting at the gate of the compound where my grandparent's house was. You know, they lived in a building - in an apartment building, and it had a sort of, you know, big gate. And I remember sitting there, and I remember my grandmother having to keep coming and bring me inside and saying, it's getting late. What are you doing just sitting here by yourself?

And I remember waiting for my mom to come home from the office in Amrica (ph), you know, that she was going to this place to work in Amrica - that's how I pronounced America - and that she would be home like everybody else eventually from work. I don't think I understood that America was a different country that was far away. And so I do remember just that gate. I remember the way that the cement step felt and sitting there because there was this bush with berries, and I remember picking those berries a lot.

GROSS: So when you joined your mother in New York, was she living alone? Had she remarried or anything? What was your family life like?

LAKSHMI: She was living alone. She had a small apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. And she showed me around the apartment. She showed me how to use bathroom tissue because in India, we use water. So that was a change. The doorbell kept ringing because I arrived on Halloween night. And I saw this big platter of candy that I assumed was in celebration of me coming home. And she explained, you know, the concept of Halloween. And I thought, gosh, what a wonderful country. You know, you just dress up and they give you candy, anybody, even strangers.

GROSS: So when you were 7, at this point, you had a stepfather. And his brother, which was like your step uncle, touched you between your legs. And you told your mother. And then she sent you back to India. What was her reason for sending you away? And what was your interpretation as a child of why you were being sent away?

LAKSHMI: I think my mom just wanted to get me out of this situation quickly. You know, she was also studying for her master's degree at night. And she was a nurse in the daytime. I mean, that was her day job. And, you know, I think now, if you talk to her, she would tell you, I should have kicked him out of our house. But I don't think that my stepfather ever believed me. I remember talking to him about it and being very nervous. But I think that they got divorced because he, you know, didn't believe that this was the case. So I was on a plane very quickly to India, where I stayed for a year and a half. I, you know, did all of third grade and part of fourth grade in India.

And my impression was that I spoke up about what happened to me, and I was sent away. You know, as a 7-year-old, that is what it felt like. That is the evidence I had. You know, if my mother said, I'm sending you away just to keep you safe, it certainly didn't go in in any deep way. And so I think, you know, that went very deep. That experience really left its mark for a whole host of reasons. I think, you know, now my mother carries so much guilt about not only that episode but of having to leave me in India from the ages of 2 and 4, where I didn't see either of my parents. I have no connection to my biological father. They separated when I was 1. And they legally divorced when I was 2.

So, you know, to me, my grandparents functioned and my grandmother still functions as parents more than grandparents. And I'm very close to all my family in India. And I still go back very often. I think my mother, like most parents, did the best she could, but it was hard.

GROSS: Was one of the lessons that you took away from this that if something happens to you, you should keep it a secret?

LAKSHMI: I think one of the lessons that I learned and internalized was that you shouldn't make waves. You know, you'll just make it worse. And I think a lot of women feel like that about this topic. I also think a lot of immigrants don't want to give any excuse or give no quarter for being dismissed or, you know, not having an opportunity or not being able to stay in the country. I think both those things were at work.

GROSS: So did you return to your home in America after your mother divorced?

LAKSHMI: Yes, I did. In fact, when I returned, my mother had moved from Queens into Manhattan. She worked at Sloan Kettering, and at that time they had subsidized housing. So that's where we were.

GROSS: Your memoir from a few years ago ends with you thanking your grandparents for instilling in you the love of books and cooking. Tell us a little bit about that.

LAKSHMI: My grandmother is a very practical woman. She's not very affectionate. She's not, you know, very cuddly like most grandmas are. She grew up in a family with 17 siblings. And so she taught me how to be practical and efficient in the kitchen and how to do things properly. And she had a great, great palate and sense of cooking. And so I hung around her. And at the hem of her sari, I learned about all of these spices and how to use them and what they did.

My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I have ever met in my life to this day. He was somebody who quoted Wadsworth, you know, verbatim by heart. He loved books. He loved Shakespeare. He loved Americana. He had traveled through America in the '50s and '60s for work. And so he had a real affinity for American culture. And so, you know, through her, I have my skill as a cook and love of food. And through him, I have my love of books and of being a writer. You know, if you asked me, you know, of all the things I do, if I could say what am I in one word, I would say I hope I'm a writer.

GROSS: Well, I've enjoyed reading your writing. Padma Lakshmi, thank you very much for talking with us.

LAKSHMI: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Padma Lakshmi speaking to Terry Gross in July. Padma Lakshmi is nominated for Emmys this year as host and an executive producer for Bravo's "Top Chef." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our salute to some of this year's Emmy Award nominees by featuring group RuPaul, who is up for two Emmys as host and executive producer of "RuPaul's Drag Race" on VH1. He won in both categories last year. RuPaul became the most famous drag queen in the world after bringing drag into the mainstream with his reality competition series. It premiered in 2009 and completed its 12th season on VH1 this May. The series is now televised and popular in countries around the world.

Although the show is a competition, it's also a celebration of drag queens and drag culture. As we'll hear, for RuPaul, drag is a way to defy conformity and challenge preconceptions about gender, and that dates back to the 1980s, when he was performing in bands in Atlanta, dressing in a punk style of drag. Terry spoke to him in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: RuPaul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. Your show is very entertaining, but it's also had a big impact on many people's lives. It's launched the career of dozens of drag queens, but it's also had a big impact on many viewers who feel affirmed by the show. Each episode ends with you saying - would you say it?

RUPAUL: If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?

GROSS: Thank you.

RUPAUL: It's a mantra. You need touchstones and totems. And, actually, it's a tradition my mother passed on to me, which is having sayings that can help realign you in this life, a life with advertising that says, you're not really clean unless you're Zestfully (ph) clean.

GROSS: (Laughter) I remember that one.

RUPAUL: It's absolutely ridiculous. But it plays...

GROSS: Zest was a soap, in case - for people who don't know.

RUPAUL: Yes.

GROSS: Yes.

RUPAUL: But it plays on the insecurities that every human has, which is - are they going to like me? Do I smell? Do they not like me because I smell? So these mantras are set to align you with the truth of who you are, which is - you are love, and you cannot give something that you do not have.

GROSS: I'd love to hear some more of the sayings that your mother passed on to you.

RUPAUL: Well, Mama had a lot of them. And one of hers was, I don't lend, I don't borrow, and I don't visit.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did she live by that saying?

RUPAUL: She absolutely did. She was not a social person. She was - she stayed to herself. You know, when her sisters would come to visit, she'd say, listen - y'all can come, but bring your own milk and sugar; I'll supply the coffee.

GROSS: So I want to talk to you a little bit about being a businessman. Like, you've been very successful as a businessperson in addition to being successful as a performer. And in your early days performing, you had to promote yourself. How did you do it?

RUPAUL: By any means necessary. I would make posters, and we'd post them around Atlanta. And then I would go out and promote myself in clubs and on public access television in Atlanta.

GROSS: Oh, really?

RUPAUL: Yeah. I got my start in television 38 years ago on a show in Atlanta called "The American Music Show." I saw it once, wrote into them and said, I love your show. I want to be on it. It was so irreverent and fun. They wrote back - they actually called me and said, come on down. And that's how I really started my career in television 38 years ago. So...

GROSS: What did you do your first time on that show?

RUPAUL: On that show, I had these friends of mine, these two girls - we called ourselves RuPaul and the U-Hauls.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUPAUL: And we came up with a dance routine to Junior Walker & the All Stars' song, hit song, "Shotgun." And that was the first appearance.

GROSS: Shoot them before they run.

RUPAUL: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) What were you wearing?

RUPAUL: Some outfits that I had made (laughter). My mother taught me how to sew, and I, you know, sewed up some outfits for us. It's probably, this - that appearance is probably on YouTube right now. You know, I won't watch it because it's still too soon to watch it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what were those posters, those handmade posters, like that you pasted all over town?

RUPAUL: You know, I've always loved advertising, and I love a good advertising campaign. So I would put together these campaigns. And one campaign was RuPaul is red hot. Ru Paul is everything. One campaign was, if you love me, give it to me, you know? And I collected slogans and sayings and imagery.

GROSS: What did you think your future was going to be?

RUPAUL: I - my - I thought my future would be - I'd be a star. I'd be a famous star. I didn't know how I would do that. In my mind, I thought, well, we'll start with - I'll be the next David Bowie, and that's where it started. But then as life unfolded, other things came up, and I said, oh, OK. You know, part of being a human on this planet is learning how to read the landscape, and I learned how to read the landscape. And drag presented itself to me, and I thought, well, OK, that's what I'll do.

GROSS: So you said, drag presented itself to me. How did drag present itself?

RUPAUL: Well, I was in rock 'n' roll bands and punk rock bands and all that stuff. And we, as a ruse, just did drag for a performance, and the reaction I got from people was like none other. And I thought, oh, note to self - there's something here. And so that was the first time it presented itself to me. And, really, I understood that I had some real power there.

GROSS: So when you started performing in Atlanta, were you in, like, music clubs or drag clubs?

RUPAUL: No, we - it was always punk rock clubs and music clubs. Drag clubs - you know, I never really worked in drag clubs because we were punk rock. We were anti-establishment. Atlanta - back then and it may still be this way - was, like, mecca for drag. It had the traditional drag queens who were female impersonators. But, you know, I had come from the punk rock side of the tracks, and we did drag as a social comment, Terry. It was a reaction to the Reagan '80s. And it wasn't trying to look real or pass; it was a rebellion against the status quo. So we never really worked in the drag clubs. We did drag, but we did drag as a punk rock statement. So that's what that was.

GROSS: So what was the transition from, you know, a kind of punk rock version of drag to the more glam version?

RUPAUL: Well, rent had to be paid.

(LAUGHTER)

RUPAUL: Yes. That was the transition. And so went from that - moved to New York. And the way to make money was go-go dancing to host different club nights. So I decided, you know what? I'm going to shave my legs. I'm going to shave my chest, and I'm going to put some - roll some socks tightly into a bra, and I'm going to go out there and look like a "Soul Train" dancer. And it worked. And I start making money. And that was - that's where it went.

GROSS: Is that how you got into the "Love Shack" video?

RUPAUL: Well, the "Love Shack" video - I knew The B-52's from Atlanta. You know, a lot of the kids in my group had sort of congregated on Atlanta because The B-52's had become very famous with their song "Rock Lobster" in 1980. And there's a huge group of young people in early 20s who I include in this group doing clubs and making art films and just being artistic, right?

So when we all moved to New York, they became aware of us because we had become a sensation down in the Village in New York. And they then asked me to be in their music video. And in that music - in the "Love Shack" music video, I had been up all night up in the club, and what I'm wearing in the video is what I had had on in the club (laughter) the night before. And of course, the video, it took all day to film that video. And so by the end of the day, I'd been up for, of course, 24 hours, which was not unusual for me.

GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your mother worked for Planned Parenthood,

RUPAUL: Yes, she did. And after the divorce in '67, she sort of sat out in her room for about two years. And then - and my two older sisters sort of took over running the house. And then in 1970, she got a job, and she got a job at Planned Parenthood. And that was a huge breakthrough for her.

GROSS: Was she a counselor?

RUPAUL: I think she started answering the phones, and then she did move on to counselling. And she was very proud of that job.

GROSS: Was she, like, very enlightened about sexuality and gender?

RUPAUL: She was, but my mother was very world-weary. She was someone who I suspect - and she wasn't very open about anything in her childhood or her background, but I suspect that there was something - some horrible thing had happened to her. I could feel that. She never talked about it, but she was someone who, because of her world-weariness, she instilled in me the ability to not pay attention to what other people had to say about what I was doing. She loved me so much, and she was so proud of the fact that I was going to do my own thing.

So it was a very punk-rock approach to life, and I got that from her, which is - and she famously says, you know, if they ain't paying your bills, pay them no mind. And I live my life that way. And yes, I mean, people have said lots of nasty things about me, to me, and still do. But am I going to let that stop me? Nuh-uh (ph) (laughter). I will laugh at it and say, you know, the joke is on you, mama or child - not my mother. But the joke is on you, person, because I am going to get as much out of this life as I possibly can. And I have. I'm 59 years old. I have done a lot of stuff.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUPAUL: And I'm still going to do a lot of stuff.

BIANCULLI: Ru Paul - nominated for two Emmys this year. Terry Gross spoke to him in March. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from March with RuPaul. He's been nominated for two Emmy Awards this year - one for host and one as executive producer for his VH1 series "RuPaul's Drag Race." Terry spoke to RuPaul about the 1990s, after his move to New York when he went from his punk-rock style of drag to creating what he's now famous for, what he calls his Glamazon image.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to get back to when you went to New York and you started, like, changing your drag to more of a glam thing. What was the scene you were part of then?

RUPAUL: I was part of the Village people.

(LAUGHTER)

RUPAUL: Not that Village People.

GROSS: Right.

RUPAUL: But, you know, the kids down below 14th Street. There was a huge scene down there. It was different than it is today. But it was - we were the children of Warhol. We were the children of David Bowie. And all things were possible. And back then, there were so many clubs. You could go to six different nightclubs per night. And we're talking Monday through Sunday. You could go every night to a different nightclub. And back then, the clubs were filled with everyone - straight, gay, Black, white, Puerto Rican, uptown, downtown, men, women, everybody. And that was the scene. That tapestry of what New York is or was, was so evident in the nightclub scene. And it was fabulous. It was gorgeous. I'm so proud that I - and so happy I got to experience that.

GROSS: So when you started to do a more kind of glam drag, how did you find your look?

RUPAUL: I knew that commercially, if I wanted to make it mainstream, I would have to be nonthreatening to Betty and Joe Beercan (ph). And what I did was I came up with a recipe, which was one part Cher, two parts David Bowie, one part...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUPAUL: ...You know, Diana Ross and two heaping spoonfuls of Dolly Parton. And I took the - what would be perceived by Betty and Joe Beercan as subversive sexuality, I took that out of the equation, and people responded.

GROSS: So what was the part that you think Joe and Betty Beercan would have found threatening?

RUPAUL: Well, the - they think of drag as a subversive sexuality. And we all know that Americans especially are afraid of sex. We Americans are afraid of sex and sexuality. So that was the part. And that was the part that every famous drag queen who had come before me had not taken out of the equation - you know, Divine or - you know, I grew up watching Flip Wilson do drag as Geraldine on television so - and Harvey Korman in drag on "The Carol Burnett Show." But that was sort of straight men's version of women. And that was actually more misogynistic than...

GROSS: Yeah, I was going to say it's almost like mocking women.

RUPAUL: Yes, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Milton Berle, also, in earlier days.

RUPAUL: Right. So that's how the look came about.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned your recipe for creating your glam drag image. And you mentioned Dolly Parton, and you mentioned Cher. I mean, there's certain kind of, like, classics for people who do drag. And that includes, you know, Cher and Liza and Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, of course. Like, what do you think it is about them that have made them some of, like, the classics that people in drag have modeled themselves over?

RUPAUL: It is that they embody both strength and vulnerability. By the way, dear listener, vulnerability is strength. And that balance is what life is all about. It's not one or the other. And all of these women that you talked about - Cher and Diana and, you know, all of - Barbra - they all exemplify - Joan, the queen of Hollywood...

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, yes.

RUPAUL: ...Exemplify that vulnerability and strength, that duality.

GROSS: So let's talk about your life today. You and your husband have - what? - 60 acres in Wyoming and South Dakota and...

RUPAUL: Oh, no, no, no.

GROSS: No?

RUPAUL: No, no, no - 60,000 acres.

GROSS: Oh, 60,000 acres.

RUPAUL: Sixty thousand acres.

GROSS: That's like a national park.

RUPAUL: Yeah. Yeah, it's a lot.

GROSS: What are you doing with them? I mean - (laughter) came out a little weird. But I mean, do you have, like, horses or cattle or a farm or...

RUPAUL: Well, the - a modern ranch - a 21st-century ranch is really land management. It is - you lease the mineral rights to oil companies, and you sell water to oil companies. And then you lease the grazing rights to different ranchers. So it's land management, you know?

GROSS: So what's it like for you to live on a ranch? I mean you're so, like, New York, Atlanta...

RUPAUL: I'm - I am...

GROSS: ...And LA.

RUPAUL: I'm adaptable. This is the secret of my success is that I can adapt to whatever. And that is the strongest power that each of us holds is our ability to adapt. And you know - and being youthful is about being flexible, both literally and figuratively. In this life, if you can stay flexible, you have a really good chance of navigating a really rich experience for yourself on this planet.

GROSS: What's it like for you to be on 60,000 acres and away from an urban center?

RUPAUL: I have no problem with that. I am very - like, I'm not a phone person. Like, I don't sit and look at my phone or drive and look at my phone or walk down the street and look at my phone. I like to be aware of what's happening. I like to be present for what the universe has for me. So I meditate, and I pray. And I have a lovely time paying attention to the stillness. And there's a lot of stillness on the ranch.

GROSS: When you pray, are you praying to a god?

RUPAUL: I'm praying to a higher power. But you know, if you think of our brains as an operating system like, say, OS - I don't know what we're on now. Let's say OS 25. Even that operating system can't understand the concept of what God is. So God is the word we use for that which cannot be described. So I don't need to know what it is. I just need to know that it is. Can I get an amen up in here?

GROSS: (Laughter) OK (laughter).

RuPaul, it has just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show. It's been just such a pleasure.

RUPAUL: It was a joy. Thank you so much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: RuPaul speaking to Terry Gross in March. He's nominated for two Emmys this year as host and executive producer for "RuPaul's Drag Race" on VH1. The Emmys are scheduled to be televised September 20 on ABC. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Mulan" streaming for an extra fee on Disney+. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang first saw the new Disney live-action drama "Mulan" at its Hollywood premiere back in March, a few weeks before it was originally scheduled to open in theaters around the world. But then the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to close. And after delaying the movie for months, the studio ultimately decided to release it as a premium streaming title for Disney+ subscribers. Here is Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I'm glad to have seen "Mulan" in a theater months ago. Having re-watched it recently at home from a digital screener, I can say that it isn't remotely the same experience. "Mulan," while far from a great movie, was clearly made for the big screen. The director, Niki Caro, doesn't skimp on spectacle. She handles the large-scale action sequences with flair. And she fills the frame with beautiful costumes and majestic landscapes, many of them from New Zealand, which stands in nicely for China. But I wish the movie's engagement with Chinese culture went deeper than that gorgeous surface, that it succeeded in breathing fresh dramatic life into this oft-told tale.

Many novelists, playwrights and filmmakers have already tackled the ancient folk legend of Hua Mulan, a warrior who famously disguised herself as a man and fought valiantly in the Chinese army. In addition to drawing inspiration from the epic poem "The Ballad Of Mulan," the movie is a live-action remake of Disney's charming 1998 animated film, "Mulan." But Caro strikes a more serious tone. There are no fast-talking dragons sidekicks here and no upbeat musical numbers. That's a bit of a shame, frankly. The stiffly earnest script could have used a little more showbiz pizzazz.

Still, I appreciate that unlike last year's "Lion King" remake, "Mulan" aspires to be more than an exact replica of the animated original. One crucial difference is that in this version of "Mulan," the protagonist is a naturally gifted warrior. When we meet her, she's already swinging a sword and leaping over the rooftops to the chagrin of her parents, who wish she would be a more traditionally subservient daughter and focus on finding a husband.

But Mulan, played by the Chinese American actress Liu Yifei, discovers her true purpose when China comes under attack by nomadic Rouran forces. Every family is ordered to send one man to fight in the Imperial Army. To spare her aging father, Mulan steals his sword and armor and takes his place, passing herself off as a man named Hua Jun. There she gets in a fight with a fellow soldier, and it falls to their commander to straighten them out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULAN")

DONNIE YEN: (As Commander Tung) I'm your commanding officer. Fighting will not be tolerated. Am I clear?

LIU YIFEI: (As Mulan) Yes, Commander.

YEN: (As Commander Tung) Where is your voice, soldier?

LIU: (As Mulan) Yes, Commander.

YEN: (As Commander Tung) Is this your family's sword?

LIU: (As Mulan) It belongs to my father, Fa Zhou.

CHANG: The commander is nicely played by Donnie Yen, one of a few veteran actors cast in key supporting roles. Jet Li exudes beard-stroking gravitas as the Chinese emperor, while Jason Scott Lee gets some compelling layers to play as Bori Khan, the villainous leader of the Rouran army. Bori Khan is aided in battle by a powerful sorceress - that's the great Gong Li - who becomes the movie's most intriguing character. She could be Mulan's evil twin or perhaps a stealth ally, another woman fighting for her place in a man's army.

Caro has made previous movies about defying the patriarchy like "Whale Rider," and especially "North Country," her 2005 drama about a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit. "Mulan" continues in the same vein. Despite being the most gifted soldier in her regiment, Mulan must keep her identity a secret. Some gentle comedy ensues. Her inability to bathe with the other soldiers makes for an amusing running gag. But the movie is also serious about the consequences of her deception. Hiding the truth about who you are, it suggests, will ultimately limit your potential. That's a valuable lesson. The trouble is that the movie sometimes seems to be nothing but lessons, and once Mulan absorbs each one, circumstances tend to shift too swiftly in her favor.

Despite its PG-13 rating - a rarity for a Disney release - "Mulan" feels like a watered-down version of a potentially captivating story. It's not surprising to hear Chinese characters speaking stilted, accented English, which is standard practice for a Hollywood blockbuster set in an Asian country. I was more disappointed by how the script treats fairly intuitive cultural ideas about a person's chi and the importance of family honor as if they were difficult foreign concepts that needed to be repeatedly explained to the viewer.

Spinning a Chinese legend into family friendly entertainment with worldwide appeal is admittedly a tricky business these days, especially when a story about the distant past collides with present-day politics. "Mulan" already generated controversy after the lead actress, Liu Yifei, expressed support for the recent police crackdown in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the movie is being sold as a triumph of Asian representation, which does make its absence from theaters all the more disappointing. I wish you could see this movie on the big screen. I also wish it were better.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for The LA Times.

On Monday's show, we pay tribute to saxophonist Sonny Rollins on the occasion of his 90th birthday. We feature our interview with him. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead highlights Rollins' his career. And we hear from actress Octavia Spencer, who's been nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the Netflix series "Self-Made" about the first African American female self-made millionaire. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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