The anticipation has truly been knee-deep ever since the announcement that RuPaul’s Drag Race fan favorite Alyssa Edwards was getting a reality series of her very own. That series, Netflix’s Dancing Queen, which follows Alyssa’s work as owner and artistic director at Beyond Belief Dance Company, premiered earlier this month amid yet another golden moment for drag culture, fresh off multiple Emmy wins for RuPaul’s Drag Race and the appearance of Race alums Willam and Shangela in the massive Oscar-hopeful A Star Is Born.
Vulture caught up with Alyssa to discuss the anticipation and reaction to Dancing Queen, the pressures that come up with depicting children and their parents in a reality program, perceptions about her professionalism and divadom in the drag community, and her emotional response to watching her drag daughter Shangela in one of the year’s biggest films.
I’m so into the show. How are you feeling about how Dancing Queen has been received?
We’re a little over a week in at this point, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive in a way that I don’t think I expected or anticipated. I knew that fans of mine from Drag Race would be curious or interested, but then there’s this whole other realm of people, different backgrounds, walks of life, who have sent me messages and emails and it’s —
It’s very overwhelming! Because it’s like, wow. The impact that this show has had is everything I hoped and, really, prayed about. I mean, 190 countries. It’s kind of like the reintroduction of my character because now they’re meeting Justin, Beyond Belief Dance Company, my family. This is the man behind the curtain. The man underneath the makeup.
The show was highly anticipated by Drag Race fans since it was announced. Is it exactly what you thought it would be? Creatively, do you think you got it right?
Well, when the show came about, I kinda tiptoed around the idea because I knew that I didn’t want a scripted, produced, standard reality series. That’s just not my thing. When Netflix was entertaining this idea, they were totally onboard with the idea of this being a docuseries. I was like, “Perfect fit! You guys can stand in the corner, press record, and don’t talk!” Because Beyond Belief is my lifeline. It’s my sacred space. It’s more than just my business. It’s my passion. It’s my love. And the voice that dance gave me as a child? It might not have been through words, but it was through the art of movement. That’s the greatest form of communication, in my opinion. I really hold this very dear to my heart. Believe it or not, I was kind of a private person.
Yeah. Before the [Drag Race] season-five promos dropped, I was very scared of being judged. I didn’t know what my hometown Mesquite, Texas, would think of me. Would I be misjudged as an artist? Would I be misjudged as an artist, a choreographer, a business owner, a mentor, all of these things? And watching the series, I’m very proud. I’m elated.
That’s interesting you say you were nervous about what Mesquite, specifically, would think about you — because the whole world can see this. But it was Mesquite’s opinion that you cared about most.
Most definitely. I always wanted to teach dance. I didn’t know I’d have a TV career. If you’d have asked me that ten years ago, I would have told you I didn’t see that in my future. And when my dance company went on America’s Got Talent, I actually was like, “No, film the kids!” I just want to be the man behind the scenes that’s making all the magic happen. I care because those people in Mesquite were the clients. They were trusting me with their children.
That’s another thing: When these children are represented onscreen, you do have a responsibility to make sure they’re represented truthfully and in a way that’s not going to —
Exploit! Or potentially damage or hurt. There are a lot of things that run through your head.
And you are part of another reality show in which many contestants have felt exploited or produced beyond what was necessary. Did Drag Race make you ultra-aware of this possibility?
I think everyone has their own opinion and their own experience and their own journey. My journey on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I didn’t feel any of those things. I knew what I had signed up for. That’s a competition series that contestants sign up for to be judged. It wasn’t the case when the moms asked me what this series would be. I was very open with the parents and with World of Wonder that this needed to be done accurately. I’m okay with capturing the good, the bad, the right, the wrong, the indifferent, but let’s remember that these are people. There are a lot of moving parts in this that need to be handled with care. And I think they did a beautiful job.
How have the parents reacted? The mothers we meet in the show whose kids are represented?
Honestly? They’re all like, “Justin, we’ve learned so much more about you. You’re very guarded about some things in your life. We didn’t know that your family life was so tough.” Oh, all the moms just moved me. They were like, “We’ve been on this journey with you, and we’ve been in your dance family, but we learned so much.” And then they see me on an awkward date! They’re like, “For us, you’re our hero.” It’s so, so interesting, this thing called life. How it works out. I remember watching The Neverending Story, one of my favorite movies, and he’s reading that book? And the storm’s coming, and he’s flipping the pages, and he’s trying to hold the page, and it’s going fast? That’s how I feel! I feel like my book of life has already been written. It’s just now being read out loud, and I’m having the distinct pleasure of listening to the story unfold. There were many chapters that were hard, and there were many chapters that — the sun started to come out, and then the rain fell. And here I am, chapter 38, and I’m alive. Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, “Don’t dream it. Be it. You’re really living the dream. You are everything you’ve ever desired or set out to be. You’re doing it.”
Do you ever feel an added pressure, as a drag queen who has produced so many viral moments, to be “on” all the time? That expectation to deliver Alyssa Edwards?
Look, I’m just authentically, unapologetically myself. In and out of drag, in and out of the gig, in and out of the studio. My friends know. Miss Thing Over There wakes up 8 a.m. and she’s on. The sun, the rain, the snow, whatever’s going on outside, I’m ready. I seize the moment. You can see in the show that I’m just a high-energy person. If I’m alive, I’m “on.” Do I have quiet time? Absolutely. I write in my journal. I create dances. But I feel no pressure. Don’t be anything you’re not. Be yourself. And people will either celebrate that or say, “It’s not for me.”
Speaking to that image, a lot of the other Ru girls are critical of you in public. They talk about how you are often late to events, that you have that diva reputation, and when we watch the show, it’s not exactly hard to believe that that’s true. Why do you think the other girls feel comfortable talking about you this way? And what do you say to your peers who call you unprofessional?
First, let me start off by saying, oh, I’m 100 percent a diva. Beyoncé does define it and wrote a song about it — “a female version of a hustler.” If that intimidates anybody, that is something that is none of my concern. I don’t think I’m a dark-sided diva. I think I’m fun, a good-time person. I’m a kiki. But I know my gig, and I know it well, and I show up and deliver that at all times. And anyone who’s ever worked with me, they can’t say I’m a dark-sided diva. Now, I do have this Joan Collins air about me.
Which we love.
You know, my shoulders are back and my chin is up. And y’all saw on Drag Race that I’m a diva. I am my biggest fan! From a little introverted gay boy, I created this character from scratch. When I put that wig on, every insecurity, every doubt? Diminished. That’s the magical power that Alyssa gave me. Diva? Yes. Not a dark-sided diva. I don’t have a rider. I don’t have these demands or these needs, honey. I’ve done drag shows at pools. Garages. In my bedroom. I don’t need a million backup dancers or grapes or fruits in my dressing room. As far as “unprofessional”? I’m human. There is not one drag queen in this world who can say they haven’t had a flub or two, or a few! I’m very gracious and generous and giving, and I’d rather be judged on that. What I’ve learned is, when you get on this ladder of success, you keep climbing. You focus on you and what could be ahead. And to any of my peers out there: It’s more important to celebrate each other. And in life, it’s harder to be the bigger person. But I’ve chosen that.
I’m curious if you’ve seen Shangela in A Star Is Born. What’s your Alyssa Edwards review?
I can tell you, I was sitting in the theater with my partner of one year!
There you go!
Finally found my missing piece! When Shangela comes out … I just smiled so big. My heart smiled. What an inspiration. This is hard work. This is perseverance. This is never giving up or giving in. It’s a prime example of that. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. Our relationship? Our bond? It is so strong. We are family. Before we were any of this, we were homeys and best friends who supported each other. We lifted each other up. And I left that movie so happy. It’s amazing. The soundtrack? Unreal. As a matter of fact, I’m creating a dance to “Shallow” so thank you so much to Gaga and Bradley.