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Rufus Wainwright on Pride, parenthood and being ignored by Madonna: ‘She was quite mean to me’

Exclusive: The pop legend on 90s gay orgies, Jinkx Monsoon's take on Judy Garland and his run-ins with the Queen of Pop ("it was very rude")

By Jamie Tabberer

Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Tony Hauser 

Rufus Wainwright looks so gorgeously whimsical when he Zooms with Attitude from his home library, we almost gasp.

He’s sporting a huge grey beard and is surrounded by dusty, ancient-looked books; a lamp in the corner bursts with golden light. The scene is reminiscent of an enchanted castle, deep in a forest: you half expect Lumiere and Cogsworth to wander into shot. 

If not Bavaria, one imagines Rufus settled in Paris, Berlin, or perhaps Montreal, where he grew up. In fact, the star – and writer of the perfect song, ‘The Art Teacher’, and more besides – lives in LA. Although, for much of the year, he’s a world citizen. “I’m usually on the road away from major cities in June; Pittsburgh, or something,” he says when we ask if he’s performed at many Prides. “You know, I haven’t. At certain points my Judy shows have been Pride-related. I did perform at Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia. It was fun as my friend Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters was in town, and Pam Ann was there!”

In an interview to mark the release of his latest album Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios, released on 10 June, the 49-year-old discusses his teen years spent researching queer greats like “Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein” in gay bookstores (can’t you just picture it?) – as well as his messiest Pride memory (“some crazy orgy thing”), and life today in the City of Angels with husband Jörn Weisbrodt and daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen.

What was your first Pride experience?
My first bona fide Pride was in New York City in the mid-90s. In the West Village with some friends. We went to the parade. I pierced my ear with a safety pin. I pierced my ear at a pier! As the fireworks were going off. And that was when the piers were pretty rough. Think Paris Is Burning period.

What’s the most random place you’ve performed?

Speaking of gay rights, and in terms of what’s going on today with the war [on Ukraine], I’d have to saw Moscow was the weirdest gig. This was a while ago. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law had been enacted [the Russian federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.”] I did speak up about it and tried to engage in some sort of discourse with the populace. Even friends of mine who were up there. It was quite shocking how political people were at that point. They didn’t want any discussion regarding human rights and what was going on with Putin. There was a palpable sense of denial. So, I’m not surprised by what’s going on there today.

Did you get any pushback when you spoke out?

Nothing major, but people did leave the hall. But the next day, when I left, someone had written an article about it, about how great it was I’d stood up. I’m happy that happened.

What’s your messiest Pride memory?

Certainly, when I was in my full-throttle gay sex and crystal meth period, I think at one point at around Pride I ended up at some crazy orgy thing. It was very intense and leathery, quite masochistic, and violent. I realised it wasn’t my thing; that I was a bit in over my head. I decided to leave, and very publicly announced my departure. ‘I’m going!’ I was high off my tits, making it this grand exit. Everyone was like, ‘fine’ – with the slings, the dildos, and the paddles! They didn’t pay much attention. I left, got to the corner of the street and realised: ‘Shit, I left my wallet.’ So, I had to return to the horrific sex party and be like: ‘Sorry, can I look under that sling?’

Tell us about your journey to Pride and self-acceptance.

I’m 48: my age group have had a very interesting trajectory. Especially if you came out young, like I did. I was 13. I didn’t announce it, but was sexually active at that time, a bit of a Lolita character. That was smack at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. It was a dark period. I was eternally marked by that, and it very much informed my sensibilities. Things shifted. I never could have imagined being married and having a kid. It was so far from what my concept of being gay was.

I was initially very anti-gay marriage. I wanted to uphold the traditional, decadent side of homosexuality, which I still believe in! That holds a place in my heart and is something we don’t want to lose. But I felt marriage was too straight. I was in a relationship for a long time, we decided to have a child and it suddenly seemed the right thing to do. And it was when [marriage] was becoming legal in New York, at first, and then federally.

What’s your advice to people who want what you have, but for whom your lament to singledom ‘Out of the Game’ plays like a theme tune in their heads?

For me, the world’s a fickle place. The universe likes to play tricks on you. I pined for years to have a boyfriend. I didn’t until I was in my mid-to-late 30s. I mean, I had a lot of affairs and stuff, but wanted something more serious. It was only when I’d categorically surrendered and given up that it occurred. But it took a full ‘I don’t want anything to do with love!’ and suddenly, it happened. I think surrender is something important, in general. ‘I’m not going to look for this anymore, I’m going to try not to need this as much, and focus on the now, and what I have, and what makes me happy that I can have.’ Then the universe will present you with something at that moment. So lay off the gas a bit.

What’s your message to young LGBTQs attending their first Pride, especially in light of anti-trans bills sweeping the US?
All I can say is, like everything, it seems to be a pendulum. Unfortunately, now, we’re swinging the other way. So gird your loins. We’ve been here before and know what to do. In some sense of positive encouragement, I remember during the onset of AIDS back in the 80s, early 90s, those were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life: fighting for human rights and having meaningful conversations about existence with fellow gay people. And it not being about… fashion. Not that I mind fashion! But about core issues. It can also be very poetic and beautiful to be out there fighting for what’s right.

What would you say to younger LGBTQs who don’t understand the importance of Judy Garland to queer history?

When I was 13 and knew I was gay, and my parents threatened to throw me out of the house, it was a dark time, and what I did was very much focus on the history of LGBTQ+ people over the millennia, whether Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Hollywood, whoever. The wealth of experience and beauty and drama, it’s so much bigger than this world. So, when in peril, go back to the forefathers and foremothers, and fore-thems and theys. You will find solace.

Have you seen Jinkx Monsoon’s Judy impression on Drag Race?

Yes, that caused quite the stir. It was spot on. It was nice to see the Judy schtick back in the gay atmosphere.

Are there any other cis-het public figures you think belong in that box with Judy, in terms of gay icon status?

I mean, there’s lots. Tallulah Bankhead, Cher. You mean people from our present era? I’m not bringing in the Kardashians, sorry. They’re not allowed. Especially after what they did to Marilyn [Monroe]….

Have you met many of your Pride heroes?

Shirley Bassey, who I wrote a song for; we got to hang out. Amazing. I met Carol Channing once. And Barbra Streisand, which was exciting.

Have you met Madonna?

[Groans] Um… Look, I’m fascinated by Madonna, as is the universe. I’ve had evenings with her. Nothing extensive, but little run-ins with her over the years, and she’s never been particularly… I’m on a weird part of her radar! I’m not quite a target, but I’m not a refuge either. Whatever. We’ve never had a great thing. But I admire her tenacity, and some of her songs are great. But she’s been quite mean to me a couple of times. But it’s like, join the list.

What happened?!
With her, as with certain other celebrities of that magnitude, they have a real tunnel vision. At intimate things she just doesn’t acknowledge me, doesn’t really see me. There was one little incident where she may have held something against me slightly, because I worked with someone who used to work for her, and they ended up leaving her: some political thing. But [people like her] have these blinders on, so they don’t see context. I was ignored by her at a very small event where there were only a few people. It was just bizarre, and very rude in general. I’m not like that. You acknowledge everybody in the room, a little bit.

Which city are you looking forward to visiting on your UK tour?

Glastonbury, which will be its own city!
Rufus’s Unfollow the Rules 2022 tour visits the UK in late June.

The Attitude July/August issue is out now.