When Michelle Visage was 16, she won a Madonna look-a-like contest (“in New Jersey somewhere”) with a lip sync to “Lucky Star.” “I wore the whole ‘Lucky Star’ garb: skirt with the lace tights, the boy-toy belt, the hair, all of it,” Visage said. “A hundred, possibly thousands of girls showed up in this local competition. You won 500 bucks and bragging rights; the bragging rights were more important to me.”
The rest, as they say, is herstory. Michelle Visage, 49, went on to compete in the ballroom scene in New York City, hanging out downtown at Susanne Bartsch’s parties, which is where she first met RuPaul. She became a part of the girl group Seduction before paving her way as a radio host, where she reconnected with RuPaul. Eventually, she joined him on The RuPaul Show on VH1 in 1996, which lasted for two seasons, and then again for the last seven years on RuPaul’s Drag Race, as one of the main judges and RuPaul’s right-hand woman.
In two interviews, one in Los Angeles over lunch before the premiere of All Stars 3, and a phone call after BenDeLaCreme’s shocking self-elimination, Visage was her maternal, no-nonsense self. We talked about her career, what it means for her to be an ally to the queer community, political correctness, and the one time her friendship with RuPaul hit a rough patch.
We have to talk about last week’s episode when BenDeLaCreme eliminated himself. What happened?
I wish I could fucking tell you, Alex. The producers did not tell Ru. It was a shock. She said to me, “I hope you understand why I did what I did.” I said, “I 100 percent do not understand it. You were winning. Nor do I have to understand it because this is your life, but I love you no matter what your decision is.” I kind of left it at that. I never would’ve done that, but that’s me. I respect her decision.
Do you think it was more manipulative than it seemed?
I don’t know if it’s manipulation or martyrdom. But whatever it is, I only know what she said — she came there to prove to herself that she could win it. That the crown didn’t mean anything to her the way it meant something to the other girls. It was a martyr move of her to say, “I sacrifice myself to bring somebody, like Morgan, back,” who she had just gotten into a huge fight with earlier in the day. I really don’t know why, so I have to default to her saying that she didn’t care so much about the crown. She definitely left a mark.
Some people think this season is more about drama and less about talent.
Well, I don’t agree with that, but I do know that drag queens always bring drama. That’s just a fact. The drama is a huge part of the entertainment. When everybody’s getting along harmoniously, the fans have a problem with it. They say it’s boring. Personally, I think this season has been amazing. These girls are not holding back. Whether you like them or not, you get to see a lot of the way their brains are working.
How did you get involved in the drag scene?
I got involved in the queer community, the gay community. It wasn’t called queer back then. Queer is a new kind of term.
Do you feel like it was more queer then?
It was definitely more queer, but we didn’t call it queer. We called it gay.
But now we call it queer and it’s more gay.
It’s more gay, and it’s more politically correct than we’ve ever been, which is killing the community in a sense. Helping in some aspects, killing it in some others. We’ll get into that later.
When I first met and got involved in the gay community, I was 18 years old and I was basically discovered by this beautiful brown-skinned Puerto Rican boy named David, who’s no longer with us. The AIDS epidemic took him from us in ’87. My mother told me if I was going to get discovered or recognized, I had to go to nightlife. And I said, “I can’t get in, I’m 17 years old.” She sent me a fake ID with a note that said, “You have no excuses. Now go.” She knew I didn’t drink. She wasn’t worried about that.
I was at a club called the Underground in New York City. I walked down the steps, and that’s when this boy David said, “Oh my god, who are you?” Staring right at me. And I was looking around like, Who’s he talking to? “Michelle, why?” “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.” I was like, “Are you talking to me?” Because I never felt pretty. I was never ever told I was pretty in school. My parents of course did, but you don’t listen to your parents. I was the most beautiful thing in that moment.
What was school like for you growing up?
I was bullied and not liked. Being an adopted kid, I never felt like I fit in anywhere, let alone in a peer circle. When David took me to this back room, and I walked into this group of like 20 or 30 people, the weirdest, craziest, queerest misfit group I’ve ever seen, the hair stood up on my arms like I knew I was home. I had found my tribe, which had never existed before. They were voguing; they were doing things I had never seen. All I knew was that I wanted to be a part of it. They accepted me into their house, into their family, the House of Magnifique. We had a house mother. This was all new to me, having a chosen mother and father. I became one of them, and they said I should walk in the face category. They were always like, “That’s the girl with the face.”
I did the whole circuit. And I was the sole white girl in a Puerto Rican, Dominican house. They used to call me “Cara,” which means face in Spanish. But I realized I’m not a Cara, so I thought Michelle Visage — visage means face in French. It’s an homage to the gay scene and to the ballroom scene, where I learned about drag. That’s where I learned about trans people, queer people, gay people, bi people. All of the gay boys I knew came out as bi first because it was a safer place. They didn’t come out as gay. They would get their ass kicked. So bi to me was always a gateway drug and didn’t really exist. It was just a way to say you were gay and you were not ready to say you were gay. Probably over the past three to four years is when I’ve come to really stand by bisexuality. Back then, I probably would’ve been bi, because I’d been with both genders. It just didn’t seem real to me. It felt like you’re either gay or you’re not gay. But now I firmly and strongly stand by and believe in bisexuality. My daughter identifies as bisexual, so I get it. It’s purely generational.
And the way we use words and labels has changed.
Correct. Nobody had a problem with being labeled in the ’80s. We were proud to wear a gay label. They called each other faggot; they called each other tranny. It was not offensive. It came from a place of love. That’s why it’s confusing for an old bitch like myself now to understand. The N-word has always been a slur. Calling a Jewish person a kike has always been a slur. But these new words weren’t slurs, they were affection. It’s kind of mind-boggling. And I get it and respect it and treat it as such, but it never was that way. So that’s what I’m talking about, the over–political correctness, not with those two words in particular, but even with appropriation. Growing up in the ballroom scene, if you came out dressed like a Native American or in full Korean garb, it was an homage. It was done with love and respect. It was never done with hatred.
Is that the difference?
Yes. And whether you do the homework and know your shit or if you’re just doing it for comedy.
Or for, Look how cool I look.
I think that’s where things get really complicated, especially with questions around appropriation.
And blurred, yes. I understand it, don’t get me wrong. It’s just different. My point in all of it is, that didn’t exist. Drag was irreverent. Drag took the piss out of everything. Now, if some kids do it, it’s not okay and they get beheaded it for it. So it’s a very different day and age. I’m not used to it. I understand it and respect it and appreciate it.
So what do you think about when college frat bros do a dumb, slutty cheerleader thing? I feel like that’s a common trope.
Whereas that might be considered misogynistic.
And it is.
Correct. Okay, it does make it wrong when it’s misogynistic. I’m a feminist.
What do you think about that?
But drag has also been called misogynistic.
Yes it has.
And I don’t agree with that.
It can be.
Anything can be. But the majority of true drag performers is nothing but respect and reverence even, a step further than homage, reverence for the female gender, because this is the connection that a gay boy knows. The love of his aunt, the love of his grandmother, the love of his mother, his best friend. The person that showed him love growing up when nobody else would, that’s his hat tip, that’s his reverence of this woman. It’s the opposite of misogyny in my eyes. Could there be misogynistic performers? Yes. Of course. I don’t like the frat-boy mentality of them dressing up as girls and being like, “Oh, it’s my Halloween costume.” I hate that because it does dumb down trans people, cross-dressers, drag queens. It’s not right. But it’s always happened, and it’s always going to happen. We’re not going to stop it. Doesn’t mean we have to tolerate it. Just like we’ll never stop idiocy and complacency.
What do you think it means to be an ally?
Well, it means different things to different people. My position as an ally is to speak up for people that don’t have a voice or are afraid to or cannot. What I do is be with the community, behind closed doors, tour with the queens, and speak up when I see something that’s wrong. I’m not gay, so a lot of people might not listen to me. I’ve been told on Twitter that I don’t get to say “we” because I’m not part of the community. I’ve been involved in this community since I was 17. I’ve been around people who haven’t been able to and lost their lives. The biggest gift for me is that you’re able to live your life truthfully and honestly. I don’t care if I’m ever recognized for what I do behind the scenes. I don’t give a shit.
What I care about is equality. What I care about is self-love of these kids and that they feel good in their own skin and that somebody cares about them. And as an ally, I’m here to walk with them. I truly believe my calling is to be here for a community that’s always been there for me. Because when nobody else was there for me, when I had no friends that would get my back, the queer community has never once said to me, until recently, “You’re not gay. You’re not one of us. You’re not welcome.” Alex, never have I heard that until recently by young children, which tells me the job isn’t done. We’ve got a lot more work to do.
I want to go back to this question about gay and queer. Now, we use the word queer more, but it feels more segmented, especially with gay men.
Oh, it’s very segmented, which scares me because the kids — and I say this because it’s the younger generation I find that do it more — they want to be inclusive, yet they’re so exclusive. The “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” is a perfect example. It works against what we’re trying to do. I have seen so many gay men poo-poo gay shows (“It’s too gay”), not help another queer performer because they’re saving that golden bullet for themselves. It breaks my heart.
It’s the same way I’ve been fighting for that as a feminist with women keeping each other down. Women are so awful to each other. “She’s too fat,” “she’s too skinny.” It’s the same thing within the gay community, I think, of gay people keeping each other down. I love that there’s pride in segments, like bears and twinks, but it should also be inclusive. When the AIDS epidemic hit, we were a team because nobody else was on our side. People have to understand that we’re so much stronger together.
I remember when Detox talked about how Wendy Williams was transphobic on Instagram, you responded with, “Yep.” Could you elaborate on that?
I don’t know Wendy personally. Just know this: Wendy has always been a radio idol of mine. When I was dubbed the white Wendy Williams, it was a really big deal for me. I grew up listening to her. I was in radio for 17 years. She was my mentor. She doesn’t even know it. Then the comments she made about Caitlyn Jenner were really when the transphobia started. I was mortified when I saw that. What it did make me was sad. But there’s a thing with straight women that use gay men as accessories, and I find that offensive. I don’t ever want to be looked at that way, so when people make a comment about me on the coattails of Ru, it’s upsetting because I don’t feel like I am that or have ever been. We’re just best friends who happen to work really well together. He’ll always look out for me, and I’ll always look out for him. I’m his ride-or-die.
I know Ru thinks of drag and trans identity as very separate, but that his opinion is evolving. What are your views?
I knew what drag queens were at 17 and 18 years old. They were boys that dressed up in girls’ clothing and had fun. They weren’t trying to be women. They were just illusionist, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, genderfucking and just having fun. Then, one night, I was out with some of the House of Magnifique kids. They took me to a bar called La Escuelita in New York City. I remember seeing these beautiful “drag queens,” and I’m putting air quotes around that, with breast implants; their asses were pumped, their faces were pumped. The majority of them were Brazilian. I remember saying, “I’m so confused because that’s a woman.” Now, mind you, trans was not a word in 1987, ’88.
Basically, they identified, in those clubs, as drag queens and female illusionists. They didn’t identify as women, so to speak. My point in telling you this is, I never saw an issue with trans women doing drag because I knew that to be part of the spectrum. It’s weird that we’ve come to this place where a lot of trans women, Peppermint included, Carmen Carerra, a bunch of them get a lot of shit for being a drag performer as trans women. It’s time we stop persecuting. Why can’t this person do whatever they want to do? You’ll hear the opposite end of the argument saying it’s taking away from what we’re trying to do. I don’t agree because I feel like everybody should have the ability to live life the way they want to live it and identify the way they want to identify and work the way that they want to work.
And it’s all drag anyway.
It is all drag. As far as the show goes, we have had a lot of trans women on over the years. The more we progress, I’m proud of that. I stand very loudly and proudly with the trans community.
Drag allowed trans women a space to figure their identity out before we had the words.
One-hundred percent. Especially in ballroom culture, the house mother a lot of times was trans, or transitioning, or identified as a woman. But back then, there was not a place to easily transition. You couldn’t get hormones. You couldn’t get that stuff if it wasn’t black market. So, yes, absolutely, trans women were always part of the community. They just didn’t have a title. For us, the title was mother.
What was your relationship like to the other people in the house? I know you said that you didn’t drink.
Never, no. I’ve gotten drunk maybe six, seven times in my life. The last time I was 21. When I say I have zero boundaries, I say zero boundaries. I will have sex with anybody. Many nights I ended up having sex with gay men, and they’d wake up in the morning and go, “I’m definitely gay.” I was like, “I was really good.” Because I still have a lot of gay men proposition me who say, “I would love for you to be the woman.” I think there’s a safety net with me, knowing I’d never judge.
I realized that, being a Virgo, the control thing is really important to me, and me getting drunk and having zero boundaries and zero control was dangerous. The only drug I’ve ever tried is pot, and having an eating disorder, all it did was make me eat, so that didn’t work for me early on. What interested me was making money and becoming a star, whatever that meant, when I was young.
What was your audition for Seduction like?
It was ballsy. I worked as a secretary, and Idalis, the Puerto Rican girl who was in the group, she was my best friend. She called me when I was working and said, “I just auditioned for this girl group and I got in. It’s an interracial girl group.” And I go, “What? Do they need a white girl?” She’s like, “They have one.” I said, “Oh, it’s not me. They need me.” She didn’t want to give me the number. She’d just got in, to her defense. She didn’t want to mess it up for her. I begged her. I was like, “Idalis, we’ve always talked about this. This is our dream.” So I convinced her. She gave me the number, I called up. “You need a white girl for this girl group.” They were like, “What? Well, we have a white girl.” I go, “But you don’t have me. Can I come sing for you?” I think they were so taken aback at this ballsy bitch, so they were like, “Okay.” I went. I dolled myself up. I looked real cute.
That’s some moxie.
Right? I went in. David Cole was still alive. He said, “What are you going to sing?” I said, “Teena Marie, ‘Déjà Vu.’” Teena Marie was my idol vocally. I sang it, and they were like, “Oh my god. What else are you going to sing?” And I was like, “Else? Okay. I’m going to sing Jennifer Holliday, ‘I Am Love.’” David’s face was like, Okay skinny white girl. I sang it, and then I stopped right before the high part, and David’s like, “Why’d you stop?” And I said, “I just sang enough.” He was like, “You didn’t stop because it got high there?” And I said, “No, I can sing it.” He was like, “All right, then sing it.” I said, “If I sing it, can I be in the group?” And he said, “Yeah.” I sang it, and he goes, “All right. Pack your panties. You’re going to Virginia Beach.”
When did you meet RuPaul?
1987, ’88. We can’t really pin it down. I was voguing with my kids. I was the first biological female to vogue in the ballroom scene and compete.
Can we mark that in the history books?
Yeah, mark it in the history books. After that, a lot of biological women started competing. There’s always been a femme-queen category, and that’s who I would vogue against. And then some of the houses started picking girls to start voguing, which is great. I loved it.
Susanne Bartsch found me with the queens that I vogued with at the club. She came over and said, “Darling, I want you to vogue at my parties.” Ru would work the Susanne Bartsch parties, and I would always see him and it was kind of like a “Hey, girl,” “Hey, girl” type of thing. Nothing really. We were always Craigslist missing persons.
Vogues passing in the night.
That’s it. Then post Seduction, we’re doing a new music seminar in New York City together, and I see Ru in the greenroom. I walk over and I go, “I don’t know if you remember me.” And he was like, “Bitch, I have been watching you for years,” like dead in the eyes. He’s like, “You are a fucking superstar, of course I know who you are.”
Why were you not on the first season of Drag Race? I read that there was something about a contract.
I was signed to a five-year deal with CBS Radio in West Palm Beach. When you sign a contract, as you probably know, I’m liable if I break the contract. It was year one, my husband is a stay-at-home dad, I’m the sole provider for a family of four. [Drag Race’s production company] World of Wonder called me. They told me, “It’s not going to be a lot of money, but we think it’s going to be a game changer.” And I said, “I’ll do anything that Ru does. You know that, anything.” I go to my boss the next day — this was a new boss — and he says no immediately. I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Honestly, I don’t think it’s the right look for our radio station.” And I went, “Where’s the camera? Am I being Punk’d? Right look? What are you, homophobic?” And he’s like, “No, I just don’t think it’s our listenership.” And I went, “Oh my god, you don’t like gay people.”
I was so offended that I had to call Ru and tell him. And there was disdain. He was upset, and I was upset. He wasn’t mad at me. He understood. But this show was conceptualized with me next to him, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. So then I sat there and watched the first two episodes, and I was like, “I can’t watch.” It was painful. Later, I started this event to raise money for breast-cancer awareness called Pretty in the City. It was a really fun night for girls and gays. It made a shit ton of money. My boss then said, “Do you think RuPaul would perform at the next one?” And I went, “Absolutely not.” So then season two came and I emailed Ru and I was like, “I’ll do whatever it takes. I want to do this.” He was like, “Baby, the formula works. We can’t change it.” I was devastated, but I understood.
How did you come on for season three?
I get a call from World of Wonder and they said, “Ru really wants you for season three.” And I was like, “Okay. I’m going to do whatever I can do to get on the show.” I asked my boss. He said no. I called Leah Remini, this is no joke, lamenting to her. She goes, “Give me the number of the president of CBS Radio.” And I said, “No, mom, you’re not calling CBS Radio for me.” She was on King of Queens at the time, which is CBS. She goes, “Michelle, you are a star.” I said, “Leah, I’m in market 47. They have no idea who I am.” She goes, “If you don’t do it, I’m going to fucking call Les Moonves. They do not drop TV shows in people’s laps. I don’t care if it’s on Logo. You need to do this.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I picked up the phone and I called the vice-president because I knew him, and he said, “I absolutely have no problem with you doing it.” And I said, “By the way, this guy doesn’t want me to do it because it’s a gay TV show.” A week later, the boss was fired. Now, I don’t know if me saying that did it or if it was the nail in the coffin because our cluster had dropped a lot financially.
Then when I was able to do season three, I sat next to Ru, he looked at me, and he goes, “Now we can start.” And it was a moment of, Oh my god, this is it, this is where I was meant to be.
Do you have a favorite season?
It’s season three. And the reason it’s my favorite season is because it’s where the magic started for me, for Ru, and for the journey. Season four changed the game. Season three is when it started to turn.
I love every season.
So did I, but you’re asking me to pick a favorite. I cannot pick a favorite queen. I have two daughters. That’s like saying, pick a favorite daughter. They’re all my favorite.
Do you want to pick two of your favorite queens then?
I can’t. RuPaul’s my favorite queen. Honestly, it’s like the gay Sophie’s choice.
But Sophie still made a choice.
I know, but Sophie’s a bitch. There are some out there from the show that hate me, will not speak kindly about me for whatever reason. I still love them. I’ve heard through the grapevine that they don’t love me. I know Alexis Mateo isn’t my biggest fan. I still love her and think she’s amazing.
What about a favorite lip sync?
There are so many brilliant ones. It’s hard to do just one. Roxxxy Andrews, “Whip My Hair” with the wig reveal was definitely one of my favorites. Latrice, “Natural Woman.” Manila and Delta, “MacArthur Park.” Dida Ritz, Natalie Cole. Jinkx with that “Malambo.”
Do you think you’re too tough?
I am tough, but I’m tough for a reason. I’m not Paula Abdul, and I love Paula Abdul. I don’t even know if there’s one of those on our panel. I think everybody’s really honest. Me pushing them to be the best they can be is not going to benefit me. I don’t get a cut of their money when they leave the show. I’m doing it to benefit them, so they can make the most money they can make in the next year, because the year that you leave the show is your money year. I want them to get the most money. What if they’re actors? Let’s use Jinkx for an example. If Jinkx stayed the way that she was, maybe casting directors wouldn’t have put her on Blue Bloods. I knew that there was more in her, and I wasn’t buying what she was selling, so I pushed, pushed, pushed, and she delivered. And she’s to this day one of my favorites.
This might be editing, but it feels like glamour has more weight for you than other kinds of looks.
I’ve heard people say that before.
Do you think that’s true?
No, I don’t agree, because if you are giving me glamour, then I want it to be the glamour. And if you’re giving me camp, then I want it to be campy. But if you’re just going to be sloppy, then it’s sloppy.
So it is important to you that they can do glamour.
Correct. They don’t have to do it. Let’s say you’re on there and you’re a glamorous girl and I go, “I want to see something other than pretty.” It’s not that I want to change you. RuPaul can do everything and has done everything. I want to see other sides to your personality. I know that you’re going to show me what you do best most of the time. But what else can you do? Let’s use Christina Aguilera for example. How many times have your eyes rolled when she does that [vocal run sound] again and again and again? And then when she sings the song straight, you go, Oh my god, that’s why I fell in love with you. Even when she changed her hair to red, I was like, Oh my god, this is amazing. I was so sick of seeing the white hair with the red lip. It’s about switching it up.
What happened with Adore Delano on All Stars 2 that led her to quit the show? From what I understand, it was actually something Raven-Symoné had said on the runway.
Drag Race is always kind to their guest judges, and they will never show them in a bad light. And I love Raven-Symoné, and she’s in the community. Put it this way, without saying what words were said, she came on as strongly as I did. And I think Adore was ready for it from me, but maybe not ready for it from a guest judge.
Do you want to do a talk show with RuPaul?
That’s the ultimate goal — the daily talk show.
Do you think that there will be a winners’ season?
No, I don’t. I’ve seen that before, and the idea is titillating. I just think there are too many people who have too many things going on and wouldn’t want to do it again. There are hard-core egos at play here. But you never know.
It’d be fun.
It would be exhausting, but it would be great television. I also like the idea of villains versus congeniality. Body queens versus big girls. Pageant queens versus camp queens. Of course, a U.K. season. I like the idea of a season made up of the first queens sent home [during their seasons].
How do you think the show is changing drag culture?
Listen, it has changed drag culture. There’s no doubt. And there’s a lot of bitter, older people who think it’s ruining drag. Let me just say that I do get both sides. Let’s say you’re in Key West and some tourists go in because they see there’s a drag show, and none of the people look like the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. They’ll just say it’s shitty, sloppy drag when that’s not true. What that is is true local drag. And I encourage people to not just like Drag Race when it comes to your local bar — go get to know your local queens who are working their asses off every night of the week and they’re amazing. And maybe they don’t even want to be on Drag Race. Maybe they’re happy just the way they are.
With that said, I think what Drag Race is doing for drag culture is a positive thing. Mainstreaming is happening, but we’ll never be mainstream. We are a queer-centered show. At its core, we’ll always super serve the queer community. The fact that there’s more cisgender, heteronormative young girls relating to it, I understand, because I was that girl who self-harmed, who didn’t believe in myself, who didn’t fit in, and maybe if I had had a show like Drag Race, I wouldn’t have had an eating disorder and I would’ve loved myself more, and I would’ve known that I wasn’t alone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.