“I’m not trying to say anything specific with the heels and makeup,” says Rufus Wainwright, dressed on a dreary spring afternoon in a silk robe and ruby red pumps, a nod to his muse, the late Judy Garland. Scanning the streets of Manhattan from the balcony of his former home at Chelsea Hotel, he adds, “I’m just naturally a bit of a chameleon.”
And sure enough, a few hours later, the 36-year-old performer’s flamboyance has faded away when he sits down at a booth inside the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar, dressed in black. Wainwright is in mourning. In January of this year, his mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, died of cancer. She and Wainwright shared a special bond—“The kind of romance that is typical of gay boys and their moms,” he says—and his loss is on display in his dark clothes, puffy face, tired eyes and the lingering hug from his publicist.
Mother and son had a long goodbye, jetting to Venice, Paris and Rio de Janeiro—even performing together at London’s Royal Albert Hall—during the three manic years after her diagnosis. Their adventures culminated last July when McGarrigle attended the premiere of Prima Donna, Wainwright’s first opera, at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, England. Wainwright appeared in full-on dandy mode, attired on opening night in a foppish top hat that he paired with a sleek, black overcoat. The costume, along with his bushy beard, was an ode to his musical idol, Giuseppe Verdi. (Style matters to Wainwright. Of an $11,000 brooch he recently purchased, he says, “When you’re in mourning you really understand the importance of luxury items. Silk and diamonds and caviar definitely become profound ways to connect.”)
Wainwright’s sixth studio album, All Days Are Night: Songs for Lulu, a stormy, sometimes conversational pastiche of theatrical reflections, touches on this period, containing lyrics like, “My mother’s in the hospital/ My sister’s at the opera/ I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it.” Singing these words brings him back to a time before his mother’s death. “They pertain more to a kind of parallel existence where her death was always looming and I was always sort of grappling with it,” he says. But now that his mother is gone, so is any lingering confusion. “Death is final. It’s clear-cut. I know what’s up and what’s down again.”
All Days Are Night isn’t exclusively about the loss of his mother—it’s also about the loss of the younger Rufus, the one who indulged in so much crystal meth that he temporarily lost his vision, the one whose earlier sexual appetites involved strangers and dangers he no longer entertains. While his days of drug use and promiscuity are gone, they’re not forgotten. “In all of these years of good, clean living, I’ve found it necessary to personify my dark side in order to identify it,” he says. “Decadence is my favorite thing.”
That’s where Lulu comes in. Wainwright has recast the erotic and adventurous vaudevillian, portrayed by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s subversive 1929 melodrama Pandora’s Box, as his muse and surrogate. She is a conduit through which to explore the depravity of his past dalliances without having to relive them. “I fully enjoyed that life for a long time,” he says. “That cross-dressing joy-seeker is still alive and well in me, and so I chose to identify her as Lulu. Whenever I see her, through my mind’s eye, walk into the room and witness a situation that I would enjoy, I put her in her place and leave. She is a dark force that I adore and worship, and this album is, in many ways, a sacrifice to that idol.” Also empowering Wainwright to walk away from activities Lulu might enjoy is Jorn Weisbrodt, his partner of five years.
“Before I entered into this relationship, I was a card-carrying hedonist of the highest homosexual order,” says Wainwright, who has recently gone public with his desire to marry the German arts administrator. When he speaks of Weisbrodt, it’s with glowing intensity. He describes him as a “gorgeous creation,” and while he recalls with fondness trips they’ve taken to Venice, nights out at the opera and sex on a deserted beach, it’s the banal things that tie them together. “We can go to the passport office together and we won’t kill each other,” he says. “It’s these little things we do that we don’t have to freak out about, which is, I think, what it’s all about.”
Though he says he still “follows the teachings of Oscar Wilde”—advocating a type of sexual freedom that, Wainwright insists, homosexuality allows—he no longer lives those teachings. (Read: he’s monogamous.) Chalk it up to sobriety, his serious relationship or the simple fact that Wainwright is getting older. “I’m now more prone to admire someone for his youth without needing to devour him,” he says, with a theatrical burst of laughter. “Besides, after a while, it’s a pain in the ass taking off your boots.”
Photography by Martin Schoeller. Styling by Christopher Campbell.