From rising through NYC’s ball scene to giving good face on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Michelle Visage opens up about being a fearless queen
Over the past few years, drag has experienced a pop cultural explosion of shade-throwing, lip-synching and famous, fearless queens. With ballroom slang creeping into mainstream vernacular (“yaaassss honey”), fiercely outspoken figures like Dazed cover star Pearl Liaison in the limelight, and a shower of drag queen GIFs taking over our timelines, the new wave of drag popularity can be attributed, in no small part, to the success of reality spectacular RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that catapulted ice-faced (but warm-hearted) panel judge Michelle Visage from niche pop and radio star, to everybody’s favourite drag mother.
Unlike the young queens that cut their teeth on RuPaul’s neon-sheened runway, Visage emerged from the underground club scene and vogue balls of Harlem in the 80s (she picked up the name “Visage” from her ability to give “good face” on the runway). Surrounded by the now-iconic pier kids immortalised in the hugely influential 1990 doc Paris is Burning, Visage learned from the best (“I could out-vogue any female who came for me, and most of the boys too”) and has become the poster girl for charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Here, we speak to Visage about her new book The Diva Rules, and what she really thought about Sharon Needles’ infamous “Snatch Game” impression.
I really enjoyed The Diva Rules. Why did you decide to write it?
Michelle Visage: I wanted to help the kids that need help. I get a lot of messages each day on Facebook and Twitter all in the same vein of, “I don’t feel loved or I don’t love myself” and that inspired me. I wanted everybody to know that they’re not alone, and I go through the same things that they do, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
You started your career in the New York clubs. How did you get into the club scene?
Michelle Visage: My mother bought me a fake ID and she made me go out and meet people because we didn’t have cell phones back then or social media – there was no way to network in New York City and the only way to meet the celebrities and the producers was to go out. That’s how it all started for me. I owe my life to nightclubs.
You and Rupaul met around that time too, right? What did you think of him when you first met?
Michelle Visage: When I first saw Ru, I couldn’t take my eyes off him and I didn’t know why. He was just another club kid and I didn’t think anything was particularly different because there were so many club kids around back then. There was some kind of magic that kept making me stare at him. And when we first started talking to each other a few years later, it was like we’d been friends for a lifetime.
Ru’s a bit older than me so he had been doing his time way before me. He had been settled on the scene but I was new to New York City from New Jersey, and I was learning from the older queens what life was about. They were schooling me, now I do the schooling.
Drag is having a big moment in pop culture right now, which is perhaps down to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. What’s it like seeing drag culture go from the balls and nightclubs of NYC to the mainstream?
Michelle Visage: For me, it doesn’t surprise me. I feel like it’s finally getting what it deserves. I’ve been involved in drag for so long, and I always knew that it was worth this. Sometimes the mainstream is a little slow, but that’s okay – as long as it gets its just dues. I feel like it’s getting it now.
You’re a big fan of Madonna obviously. How did you feel when she released “Vogue”?
Michelle Visage: Part of me was jealous. I’d been voguing for the past couple of years and then she released that song and of course she’s going to get the attention for it. She’s going to make it known worldwide when we had been working our arses off in the community and the dance had been around for years. But I also felt excited because the community was getting recognition. It was a double-edged sword. We’d been doing it in the nightclubs and then it was on television and on the music awards and things like that. But on the other hand it was like ‘showcase us!’ Showcase all of the voguers from New York City.
“I have no time for political correctness. Drag queens are irreverent, crazy and break all the rules. That’s what I love about drag” – Michelle Visage
What did it feel like being the only white hetero girl at the ball?
Michelle Visage: It never really occurred to me. My mother brought it up to me once and was like, “How are you going to meet straight guys when you’re always at the gay clubs?” She wasn’t being negative about it, but I was somebody who was a serial dater and then I was dating nobody because I was always with the gay boys. She asked me this legit question and I was like “You know what, mum? I don’t miss it because it will be there whenever I need it.”
What did you think of Sharon Needles’ impression of you during the Snatch Game?
Michelle Visage: Oh my God, it was hilarious! I thought she should have won, but it’s hard when you’re up against Chad Michael’s Cher. It was brave and ballsy because it could have gone really wrong and she went about it the right way..She didn’t look anything like me, but again – and I’ve said this one million times when it comes to snatch game – what you look like is only a small part of it. It’s about embodying a character. Sharon’s was a caricature but it worked.
Are you still in touch with a lot of the queens from previous seasons of Drag Race? Would you go for lunch with Latrice for instance?
Michelle Visage: Yeah, we do a tour together and we basically live together and work together so we become a family. We’re working but we have a nice relationship. I get to spent time with some more than others.
Some people have accused drag of being misogynistic by mocking femininity in an arena where women often feel uninvited. What are your thoughts on that?
Michelle Visage: I think that’s ridiculous. It’s a homage to femininity because they love it – it’s the very opposite of misogyny. Drag queens are celebrating everything that is hyper-feminine and what is perceived to be womanly. When they have fun with it, and are campy about it, they’re just having a laugh. I have no time for political correctness. Drag queens are irreverent, crazy and break all the rules. That’s what I love about drag. And trust me, I’m a strong woman – If I found anything offensive, I would be the first person to say so.
How would you compare UK drag to US drag?
Michelle Visage: Well, UK drag is changing a lot right now because of RuPaul’s Drag Race. People are learning different styles and trying different techniques. But what I loved about British drag is that it’s really raw and the queens are not as polished as some American queens are, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s the same in New York and San Francisco. That’s what I was raised by and that’s why I love the drag scene in the UK. Being polished is beautiful to look at but I get bored of it quickly.
Will there ever be a UK version of Drag Race?
Michelle Visage: I mean that’s the big question. If it happens, I’ll be involved and so will RuPaul because it’s his show and he would never do it without me. We need a commissioner to pick it up. Prospective commissioners loved the ideas initially but they think it’s a niche show because they haven’t seen it. Our show is so much more than boys dressing up in women’s clothing. It’s got so much heart and is about family and unity. It’s one of the most touching and amazing shows on television. It just takes one commissioner to pull the trigger and then it’ll happen – I just don’t know when.
The Diva Rules by Michelle Visage (Chronicle Books) can be ordered here