RuPaul’s Drag Race wraps up its tenth season this Thursday night on VH1, and reality star / singer / judge / Ru’s longtime bestie Michelle Visage recently got on the phone to share some thoughts with Sling about “the most beautiful thing ever put out into the landscape of television.” (Amen.) Check out Michelle’s answers to the questions below, and don’t forget to watch when Aquaria, Asia O’Hara, Eureka, or Kameron Michaels becomes America’s Next Drag Superstar!
Season ten’s Grand Finale airs June 28 at 8pm ET only on VH1.
What do you make of the Miss Vanjie moment that has become the soundbite of the season and the meme that keeps on giving?
[Visage:] It was amazing! It’s hilarious, and it’s so fun to be a part of it – listen, I knew it would make Ru laugh, [but] I didn’t know if they’d use it. I didn’t know what would happen, you know? I just do stuff because I’m there, obviously, to help the girls. And I’m there to make Ru laugh and be what a best friend is; I saw that as an opportunity to make Ru laugh. I didn’t realize it would cause that much of a brouha, but it’s been really f–king hilarious and enjoyable.
Your “Whatcha Packin’” videos function as exit interviews for the eliminated queens, but also seem like early auditions for All Stars or careers beyond Drag Race. When you sit down for those conversations, is it important for you to help the queens put one last bit of polish on their image?
That’s really flattering for you to say. When “Whatcha Packin’” started, I would just go to their hotel rooms, and we’d look at literally what else they were packing. And I think it became this moment of their other mother or their aunt, whatever, to give them some sound and sage advice for what’s going to happen in the next year. [For] what their hopes and aspirations are. Luckily, VH1 saw something in it and turned it into an actual series that has legs.
It’s been wonderful to sit down and talk to these girls; the more time I get and the further the production goes, I think the deeper it gets and the more helpful it is for the girls. I don’t ever go into it with any kind of agenda: it’s the first time I meet the majority of them. If I didn’t ever do a gig with them or meet them at a Battle of the Seasons show, or Werq the World… The majority of them I’ve never met – maybe seen on Facebook or something, or Instagram – but it’s my time to get to know them.
I get to see what they do on the mainstage of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I don’t get to see what they do in the Werk Room. I don’t know what they’re all about. So I’m really uncovering a little bit about them for my own self, and in turn, for everybody else. For me, it’s never been about an audition for All Stars, but it’s been definitely to prep them for what’s to come, and for me to kind of peel back the layers and get the people to maybe see something they didn’t get to see on the run of their season. I love doing it.
As a New Yorker, do you have different expectations of the New York queens who compete?
Oh my God… I think so… I think I do. It may not be fair, but it’s the reality. Because New Yorkers are New Yorkers: we are in your face, we are honest, especially real New Yorkers, though I’m a transplant of sorts. I spent half the time of my life in New Jersey and half the time of my life in New York, but my mother’s from Brooklyn, so I was raised with a New York mentality about 45 minutes outside New York City. And I’ve always been in your face. Everybody knows that [who] watches it, but I’m in your face with love.
I grew up on the piers, on the Christopher Street Pier, with New York City drag queens, so I do expect the most from New York City queens. They have the grit; they have that work ethic that around the country isn’t really there, because New York City is the city that never sleeps. No fault to [other cities] – it’s just not that kind of city lifestyle. Even LA is not the way New York City is. So yeah, I do expect a certain level of integrity and grit. Maybe not [in terms of] drag aesthetic because things change. It’s definitely different: I started in this community in 1987, and [the aesthetic] is definitely different now than it was then, so we go with the ebb and flow of the times. But I do expect a certain level of tenacity, grit, and integrity from New York queens, for sure.
Other than flats and green, what other runway fail is most likely to incur ‘The Eyebrow of Death’?
[Laughing] ‘The Eyebrow of Death…’ I’m like the new Dwayne Johnson. He has the ‘The People’s Eyebrow’ – I have ‘The Eyebrow of Death.’ I love it. Well, green is ok if it’s the right green on the right skin tone. I actually am a fan of green; it just can’t be that yellow-based puke green that only looks good on super dark skin tones. Flats are a definite no… Taking your wig off for the sake of taking it off without a wig underneath is a definite no, because it takes us from queen to boy. That’s great in real life, but on RuPaul’s Drag Race, no. I think the biggest, biggest ‘Eyebrow of Death’ -getter in the world is not knowing the words to your song.
With the stakes getting higher and higher each season, is there risk of a competitive disadvantage between queens with fashion connections and DIY queens?
I’m so glad you asked this question, because I think it’s an unfair thing that people are putting on these girls. Not us on the show: I’m talking about the fandom, et cetera. I can sit there and judge a queen that comes from nothing, and has nothing, and has worked for every penny she’s got – let’s use Chi Chi DeVayne for an example – versus somebody who comes from money and has bought incredible fashion and incredible things for the stage (I’m not going to use any names there because we know the ones). It’s not fair, [but] I can judge… I think Chi Chi is an amazing queen, and that’s why I was fighting for her to not give up on herself and [to not] say ‘I’m poor, I can’t compete against this person who has money.’ On paper, that is right, but I as a judge can absolutely see through the money part of it.
I can see the fight, I can see the talent, and I can see the grit. On the outside it might seem an unfair advantage, because the more that we grow the more these girls are not playing around. They come – I don’t know how they do it, but they come fully prepared. You can see the difference, though, and this is where it all comes through: you can see the difference when they have to make their own garments versus what they’ve brought with them that was made for them. The scrappy queens who’ve had to make their own shit from day one, they’re the ones that usually shine through on those challenges.
It may seem like a disadvantage, but [for] me, as a judge, absolutely not. I see the beauty in both. I will never give someone who bought their outfit that looks 50x better more credit than somebody who just worked their ass off to make that happen in the same challenge.
All of the queens work so hard throughout the competition, but not all of that hard work makes it to the final edit. Is there a part of the process you wish the show’s fans understood better, particularly before they start rage tweeting?
Well, there’s so much bullshit that goes into that stuff that you see on the outside. It’s a little ridiculous. There is so much to show on this show that we’ve upped it to an hour and a half! I don’t know what else could be said. We film for hours on end, and our edit team just won an Emmy, so I think that if [contestants are] getting angry, rageful tweeters, [then] that’s a personal issue. Because they’re not happy with the way they represented themselves. What you do and what you say is on you, not us, not the story people, not the edit people, not the production company… That’s on you, girl!
Like I’ve said, we’ve upped the show to an hour and a half to show more. I think it comes down to, [for] a lot of these people, if not most of them, it’s their first time on TV. They try to overproduce themselves, which always – I’m not saying ‘sometimes’ – always backfires. When you try to produce yourself to be something you think you should be for the people, never gonna work. Never.
If you just be your true self, warts and all, that’s the way you make yourself and get yourself into the hearts of the world.
That leads directly to the next question: is there a Drag Race lesson that you wish more future queens understood before they audition?
There’s a lot of lessons, and RuPaul and I talk about them ad nauseum on What’s the Tee?, our podcast. Self-producing is one of them. Another one is learning how to be true to who you are and allowing yourself that, whether you’re looked at as the villain or the sweetheart or Miss Congeniality. I think that we all have something to say, and we all have something to share; I think that a lot of these queens, if not all of them, leave Drag Race learning lessons about themselves and about others and about, maybe, how they interact with others.
We used to get those report cards in elementary school and there would always be a note: ‘Works well with others’ or ‘Needs help in working with others.’ There’s truth to that, and I think in a group setting we learn a lot more about ourselves than we do about other people. There are lessons to be learned, but sometimes RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best university in the world.
Unlike virtually every other show, Drag Race continues to get more popular each season. Do you interpret this as proof of progress in the ongoing fight for LGBT equality?
I think it definitely is partly that. But it’s also… I guess it’s all lumped into equality, because it’s about acceptance, but acceptance all across not just the rainbow, but across the world. Especially in the political climate right now, people need to know that they have a place [where] they belong, that they deserve a voice.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is the little engine that could. We started out as this tiny little queer television show, which we still are – we’re just a bigger queer television show. We started on a queer platform, on Logo TV, which was bold enough to put a show like us on. The fact that we’ve only gone up in ratings is an anomaly and a gift, the most beautiful thing ever put out into the landscape of television, in my opinion. (I may be a bit biased.)
The more we continue to spread our message of inclusivity and love and acceptance, [the more] I think it’s ringing true with everybody. That’s why you see heteronormative cisgender people out there, not just myself as an ally, but people out there that aren’t connected to the rainbow wanting to be a part of, understanding, and loving our television show. So yeah, I think it does have to do with the increase of LGBTQIA+ equality, but also a message to the world where everybody [who] marches to the beat of their own drummer feels accepted, not just because they’re queer.
Drag Race has always been a beacon of love and acceptance, but lately there’s an element of civic responsibility, too (things like reminding fans to register to vote). How does it feel to be a part of a show so powerful at engaging the gay community and its allies?
Well, Ru has always been involved in that, and I’ve always been involved in that. It’s always been important but more now than ever. Our voices matter, and November is right around the corner. We need to get out there and make a difference, because this country has never been in a worse place. Maybe back in the Nixon days? I don’t know – obviously I wasn’t around, but we’ve never been at a disadvantage globally the way we are right now, and it’s really scary for the youth. For us, too.
For me? How does it feel to me? I actually wrote a little post today talking about “For Your Consideration” for the Emmys, and I got a little choked up writing it. I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life that I’ve been proud of: I was proud of my girl group, proud of Bodyguard, proud of my radio days, a lot. I’m a proud mother, a proud wife, a proud ally. But being part of a show that has affected so many people on so many different levels… There are young transgender children; there are people [for whom] this show has saved a life, quite literally. There are parents who have now been able to understand (and I’m proud of this one) how to talk to their queer children, accept them for who they are, and love them instead of throwing them out. [To] allow them a place to grow and nurture them. This show has changed the outlook on many people’s lives and the way they think of and view queer people. So for me, having been an ally for 30+ years, it is one of the things if not the thing I am most proud of in my professional life.
Obviously you can’t reveal anything about the finale, but do you have any parting words you’d like to share with fans who’ll be watching when a new queen is crowned?
I’ve been kind of upset with some the hate I’ve seen thrown around this season. The bigger we get the more people we reach, and I want the youth, the younger kids, to really consider these awful hashtags and things that they’re tweeting. They hurt people that have worked really hard and have had to struggle with their own acceptance [of] who they are. And I’m not naming names; I’m just saying, in general, the bigger we get the more hate that seems to be thrown at some of these girls, and it’s not fair.
If you really love our show for what it is, and if you really truly love our community and you’re part of us, then hate has no place. Our brothers and sister fought that night at Stonewall to overcome that shit: we don’t want to go back. The younger generation has to know that hate is not the way we’re going to win. That’s what’s running our country right now, and if you throw hate, you’re part of the problem. So I want to say, whoever wins, this top four is deserving. They worked their butts off to get to where they are. Whoever wins fully deserves this crown, and I support the decision all the way. I want kids to look at what they’re doing and stop the hate.
[Interview lightly edited for clarity.]
Watch the final episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race season ten on Thursday at 8pm ET on VH1.