Michelle Visage talks 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' the mainstreaming of drag, LGTBQ infighting and allyship
On the second verse of RuPaul's track "Read U Wrote U," RuPaul's Drag Race season five and All-Stars season two contestant Detox declares, "If Ru's number one, I'm number two." Detox, though, was wrong: If Ru's number one, then his longtime friend and business partner Michelle Visage is assuredly the second-in-command.
A judge on the long-running series since season three, Visage has sat loyally to RuPaul's right throughout nine of the show's 11 seasons. The pair first met in New York City in 1992. "I had seen him at a music conference and I went up to him in the green room and I said, 'I don't know if you remember me...' and he looked at me and was like 'Bitch, I have been following you since 1989," Visage, who first rose to fame as one third of R&B trio Seduction, said in an interview.
"And I was looking over my shoulder thinking 'Who are you talking to?' And he was like, 'You bitch, you are a star,'" she said. "My husband and I have been married for almost 20 years, and I love him more than anything, but he's a different kind of soulmate than RuPaul is. Ru and I have been connected in different lives and I think that's why we work so well together. I will be loyal to him until the day I die."
Outside of appearing on Drag Race, Visage has been an ardent ally and defender of the LGBTQ community — like when she helped a gay teen seek out a shelter after his parents kicked him out of their home following his coming out, or with her upcoming plan to officiate Tinder's $100K LGBTQ dream wedding.
Ahead of this week's season nine finale of Drag Race, we sat down with Visage to talk to the mainstreaming of drag, LGBTQ infighting and the ever-divisive term allyship.
Mic: There's been a lot of back and forth about the mainstreaming of drag and whether or not this is good or bad. Where do you come down on this?
Michelle Visage: People are using the term "mainstreaming of drag" as a negative thing but I want them to realize that Drag Race will always be a queer show. That's what it is. That's what it started as. That's what it always will be.
Mainstreaming is never going to fully happen, but it has happened a lot more than when the show first started. It used to be contained to gay bars and now when I go to DragCon and other events there's 13-year-old kids with their parents. I do see an evolution, and it's a beautiful thing.
I was that kid at 13 years old who nobody understood, who got beat up and made fun of because I was obsessed with punk rock music and would wear a padlock around my neck but then would go home and sing musical theater music. If I had a show like RuPaul's Drag Race maybe I wouldn't have had those self-harm thoughts. Maybe I wouldn't have had an eating disorder. Maybe I wouldn't have spent so many nights alone, crying.
So now these kids that show up that are queer are weird are completely socially anxious and they come up to me and say "Drag Race is saving my life." That makes me know that mainstreaming this show is an incredible thing. It's saving lives now because those kids know there's a place where they fit in whereas I did not. I clicked my heels three times and I ended up on Christopher Street. These kids can click their heels three times and end up on RuPaul's Drag Race, that's the difference.
A lot was made of a now-deleted tweet from Abercrombie & Fitch of all places saying that pride is for everybody. When, if ever, is allyship problematic?
MV: When I was questioned by Perez Hilton [for being too gay friendly] while living in the Big Brother house [in 2015], for me — and by the way, one of my daughters is queer — I felt like I was never before then questioned about my involvement in the community. I was never told that I couldn't walk for autism because I'm not autistic or I can't fight for the rights of animals because I'm not an animal. It never made sense to me that someone would question my validity fighting for the rights of LGBTQ people.
I'm willing to do it, I want to do it, I love to do it. It's what I'm here to do. God put me here to do this work so if someone wants to question me, that's their issue.
It's increasingly clear that there is splintering within the LGBTQ community — just look at this Pride flag controversy. What do you think is at the root of this recent spout of divisiveness?
MV: It's something we face in the female gender as well; women can be misogynistic toward other women and not support other women. It's so disheartening. Here we are as a community, how many years later, and we're still fighting for equality. And now the world is going to look at us and think "They can't even love themselves, why the fuck should we give them the respect that they think they deserve?"
It's sad because this is the most loving, genuine, kind, amazing community, the community that I identify with and live my life walking hand in hand with. And there's a reason I choose to be in this space. Because I feel better in this space. I feel loved and welcomed and accepted; never questioned. There's children out there who are angry and get mad at me because I vote their favorite queen off and will tell me to die, but at the end of the day I still feel more loved here than I do out in that crazy world.
I want to touch on the angry fans you mention telling you to "go die." Drag Race has an unusually invested and incredibly vocal fanbase on sites like Tumblr, rife with theories, conspiracies, spoilers (see: Maskgate) and plenty of drama. Are you ever shocked by the depth of the discourse?
MV: I think it's because our show is a movement versus just a TV show. I understand their passion. It's not going to change the way I judge. I take my job very seriously. I honor my job. At the end of the day, somebody has to go home and there's only going to be one winner standing.
And by the way, I don't say who goes home. It's not my job. My job is to tell them what went wrong and what can be improved. They send the death threats my way because I'm the easiest — I'm always on social media.
I'm sure you're aware of some recent and quickly escalated drama amongst a handful of season two queens including Tyra Sanchez, Raven and Morgan McMichaels. Entertaining? Sure. Petty? Extremely. But in situations like this, does anyone really win?
MV: Nobody benefits. There is no winner. I don't get involved in any of it because it's such a waste of time and energy. Being shady is fun, you're amongst friends, throwing shade, but publicly doing stuff is unnecessary.
A lot of the queens nowadays come on the show already having established followings — Peal, Kim Chi, Nina Bonina. Does that factor at all in the elimination process?
MV: Not at all. Competition is competition and has nothing to do with their social media following. I don't care if they have five followers or 5 million, if they suck at the challenge, they're going home.
Many fans will recall Adore Delano's controversial exit from All Stars season two after what she perceived as a too-harsh runway critique. You're in a unique position in that you are a judge on the show and then go on to tour with many of the queens. Does the duality of those roles ever compromise your objectivity?
MV: That's like saying to me "How do I love my children but also be tough on them?" That's my job; my job is to judge them. If they don't perform the challenge the way I feel that they can or the way I feel it should be performed then I'm going to give my honest critique. That doesn't mean I love them any less. It means that they didn't step up to the challenge that was presented.
I love someone that listens to critique because it shows that they are present and living consciously. Most of the time it's not easy to give critiques to these queens, especially on All Stars because they know who they are, they know what they do. It's when I do find something little to change and they do alter it, that real breakthroughs can happen. "I know you may have done drag for 14 years and I know your drag is phenomenal that's why you're on the show. But, how about you try X, Y and Z," and nine times out of 10 they're like "Oh my God, I never thought I could look this good or different." It's always an awakening. The queens that come into this with their minds shut aren't going to get very far.
Let's talk season nine. Peppermint is the second out trans woman to appear on the show after Monica Beverly Hillz in season five (subsequent queens have come out after taping: Sonique, Carmen Carrera, Stacy Layne Matthews, Jiggly Caliente, Kenya Michaels, Gia Gunn). What's your thoughts on the relationship between gender identity and drag?
MV: First of all, trans women have always done drag. I grew up in New York City going to Escuelita and all these clubs and trans women were always involved in the drag community. They were never not there. And just because they are trans does not mean they need to stop doing drag, I think that's ridiculous. Are you going to tell Candis Cayne or Carmen Carrera to stop doing drag? No, because they are great at what they do.
It's a misconception of the public who want to put drag into a certain box. I've been doing drag since I was born. Just because I don't have a penis to tuck doesn't make it less drag than the guy standing next to me.
You give good GIF. Do you have a favorite GIF of yourself?
MV: I mean, there's really a lot. There's the finger wagging no, there's the waving, there's "I don't like a messy bottom." They all make me laugh. The queens are always texting me GIFs of myself which is hilarious.
Who would you like to see on All Stars season three?
MV: Oh, my God, you know I can't answer that. I'd love to see ones that went too soon — and there's a load of them. The favorites will always be chosen.
For more on Michelle Visage, check out her podcast, RuPaul: What's the Tee? With Michelle Visage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.