She might sit at the right hand of RuPaul, but Michelle Visage is a myth, a legend, a queen in her own right. Sam Brooks talked to her about her time in Auckland, her position as a scholar of drag, and why she’s obsessed with New Zealand’s most-loved soft drink.
One of the most popular gifs of RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Michelle Visage is her simply saying “No” with one finger outstretched, Maleficent by way of New Jersey. Her hair is teased so high it almost fills the frame, her pink acrylic nail extends a few inches beyond that finger and she’s wearing so much sparkle she’s causing a lens flare. It’s classic Michelle Visage: no nonsense, all glamour.
Drag Race existed before Michelle Visage, but the Drag Race we know and love features her behind the desk. She’s appeared on 11 seasons of the flagship US show, and both the UK versions, and is currently on Drag Race Down Under, in her usual spot to the right of RuPaul herself. She also has a flourishing career beyond the show: she’s been an actress on the West End, a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, and has dipped her stiletto heel into the world of 21st century pop, via a collaboration with Steps. Yes, those Steps.
However, if you haven’t heard of Michelle Visage before Drag Race, you need to check yourself and do some reading. Visage didn’t just exist before Drag Race, she absolutely thrived. She was part of pop group Seduction in the 80s – check out ‘Two to Make it Right’ – and The S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M in the 90s, whose cover of ‘It’s Gonna be a Lovely Day’ appeared on the bazillion-selling Bodyguard soundtrack. She’s also had a successful radio career, proving herself an engaged, formidable interviewer, and is now the cohost of RuPaul’s What’s the Tee? With Michelle Visage podcast, currently on hiatus.
Visage has settled nicely into her familiar Drag Race role for the Down Under season. She’s the Patty to RuPaul’s Selma, the Patsy to his Eddy, and ultimately, the one who will deliver the harsher critiques to contestants’ faces. On the other hand, when a queen does well she praises them effusively. Her approval clearly means the world.
Another thing Visage settled into well? New Zealand. She made many media appearances during filming of the season here, and if you were on a certain (queer) part of social media, it seemed she was popping up on every corner of Auckland, taking in the sights and soaking up the culture. Her te reo pronunciation was flawless, and she said that if she could afford it, she’d buy a house in South Auckland.
On the last day of filming The Spinoff caught up with her to discuss the show, the history of drag, and her time as a temporary resident of Auckland .
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Spinoff: So the first thing I have to ask is: How on earth did you find out about L&P?
I was visiting a friend at the lounge in some fancy hotel in town. They had free drinks and stuff, but I don’t drink alcohol. So I was going through the bottles and I saw one that didn’t have alcohol! I saw it was made in New Zealand so I tasted it and I fell in love instantly. The lovely girl there said, “Oh, it’s made of this and this” but really to me it just tastes like American ginger ale mixed with lemon. I like trying local things, and I wondered if they had a sugar free version.
And listen, I love sugar, but it’s not my friend. So I went to New World and oh my god, they do have a sugar free version Literally, if you saw my dressing room right now, it’s wall-to-wall L&P Sugar Free and it’s so good. I’m trying to figure out how to get it home without weighing down my case. L&P!
So here’s a hot tip: you can make it home by mixing Sprite and a shot of Coke.
Sprite and Coke? Coke doesn’t have lemon in it!
I promise you! It’s strange but it tastes exactly the same.
[suspicious] Alright, Sam. I’m gonna give it a go.
You’ve been enjoying a LOT of Auckland, it seems.
I’ve done everything! I get my nails done in Papatoetoe, I get my acupuncture in Windsor Park, I get my dance classes in Albany, I went to Dress Smart the other day, I went to Sylvia Park, I went to Kohe beach, I went to Waiheke. Literally, I am like Auckland 2021.
Moving onto Drag Race – it’s become this seminal queer text in the years since it launched, and has really shifted into a place where it has huge educational value even though it’s definitely entertainment. Is that a shift that you’ve seen?
I think it’s always been that way. If you think back to even the first season, with Ongina talking about being HIV positive and then the second season, with Sonique talking about being trans. This show has always been socially conscious about these conversations. In the workroom, queens are sharing more of their stories.The more they share those stories, the more we get to enlighten the world about the reality of some of these kid’s struggles.
I’ve known Drag Race for literally a third of my life – do you think there’s a whole generation of people who have learned about the art form of drag through this show?
While there’s a tonne of people who have learned about the artform since RuPaul’s Drag Race has aired, the construct of it is actually old – 50s, 60s, even before! There are a bunch of kids learning about drag and thinking it started with RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s about teaching. That’s why the education we have on the show is important, so kids can do the research and learn what our brothers and sisters who paved the way have gone through to get to today.
I find myself sometimes frustrated with what people don’t know, but I’ve had to step away and realise that it’s kind of my job to understand that people don’t know some things, and be part of the solution.
That’s our job as human beings – you being a journalist and me being an elder of sorts in the community. It’s about education and good for you researching and learning; I think we should encourage our children to do that about anything. Not just drag and gay culture, that’s super important, but the world! You can’t be out there talking about something when you don’t know what you’re talking about.
I think that Drag Race has such an important role, as the show says, in bringing families together. I’ve used it as a way to introduce the concept that drag is much more than man in a wig. I think of you as some sort of a scholar of this artform, and I’m not alone there. Do you ever feel the pressure of being, as you say, an elder in the community?
Well, it is what it is, Sam, I am an elder. I don’t feel the pressure because I am still learning. For me, and you’re correct, drag is more than a wig. It’s a social commentary, it’s always been more than that. It knows no social custom, it’s the beauty of drag.
Do I ever get tired or feel the pressure in having to explain or having to be a scholar for kids? No! I think it’s so important to learn these things, and for my daughter, who is gay, it’s wonderful to be able to be in this position and help educate along with this incredible television show that I’m a part of. It’s an amazing legacy, I’ll tell you that much right now.
I’d like to move on and talk about allyship. I think of you as the platonic ideal of what an ally should look like. Do you think the role of allyship, and being an ally to the queer community has shifted?
I don’t know if the role of an ally has shifted. I think the role of an ally has always been to stand by somebody who’s attacked for who they are, and standing by their side and walking with them. I think that’s always been the definition. With social media, I’m able to be more vocal. I’ve always been on the frontlines in any way that I could, but now with a platform, I’m able to speak louder and be amplified with it.
Does that platform, and that visibility, come with any downsides or risks?
There’s always a risk in being on TV, there’s a risk in being in the movies, there’s a risk in every single thing we do in life. If you don’t take risks, nothing will be achieved. I remember at one point, there was a job being presented to me that I would’ve had to make a big change for, and a friend of mine said, “You can take this route or you can play it safe and keep doing what you’re doing and not move mountains, or you can take the other job, risk everything, and make some huge change.”
Everything you do has some small risk attached to it. Everything. Even the small things, like is it salt or is it pepper, you know?
It’s interesting that you bring up risk, because something that I’ve really noticed about you is how consistent you are with where you stand on things. That’s such an admirable thing – has it taken you time to learn how to elegantly express where you stand on such massive issues in a consistent way?
You learn! You learn in time. I have to answer from my gut: what I think and what I feel from everything I’ve learned from the people who came before me. Life is about education, and living, and learning through mistakes. That’s why I believe everybody’s always entitled to a second chance. I don’t like condemning, I don’t like shaming, I like teaching. If I say the right thing that resonates with you, then that makes me happy. But what resonates with you might not resonate with somebody else. But that’s again a risk we take, isn’t it?
True! I’m such a firm believer in the fact that I am wrong all the fucking time, and that’s fine. So long as I acknowledge I’m wrong, learn from it, and move on. It’s such a human thing. We’re wrong every day.
You get it! We are wrong every day. It’s not about beating yourself up or anybody else up. It’s just life.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under airs Saturdays at 8:30pm on TVNZ2 and drops on TVNZ OnDemand that night.