In the end, it took Raja cult-leader-level persuasion to get a Legendary Legend Star from RuPaul. The season-three winner had turned in top-tier performances for weeks on Drag Race All Stars 7, to little reward. A quirky and creative double turn as puppet Madame and fashion editor Diana Vreeland in the Snatch Game, a handcrafted regal gold look for the “Realness of Fortune” Ball, and some character work as a grandma in the “Fairytale Justice” improv challenge all weren’t enough to get Raja to the top two, and she’d begun to complain about it. That made her win this week, for a commencement speech as a cult leader, even sweeter. (“I sometimes think of myself as a religious leader,” she said in a confessional. “A very small religion, but it’s a religion nonetheless.”)
And all the while, Raja couldn’t catch a break off-camera either, getting booted for one of her looks on Fashion Photo RuView, the reaction web series she’s co-hosted since 2014. Not that the queen is bothered by any of it. “I don’t care what people have to say about me,” she says, even if she is excited to have the social-media fandom on her side. Vulture caught up with Raja to talk cult documentaries, her fashion-queen reputation, and giving away a star.
Congratulations on finally getting your star! I know it was a very big moment, and it seemed kind of emotional onstage. What was that feeling like?
For the previous episodes before that, I seemed to have excelled, but no one was really giving me the goddamn star. So I was relieved to have it and to get to wear it and to be part of the star-winning group of people. And it happened to be on a challenge that I felt like was very, very much me, more than peopler realize. I think most of the audience sees me as, I’ve heard over and over again, the OG fashion queen. Fashion, fashion, fashion! But nobody ever gets to see the side of me that enjoys writing, that enjoys words. I love inspiring people, I love public speaking, I love telling stories. So it was refreshing and exciting because it was something that I knew was very much me.
Where do you keep your star now, is it on display?
They took those back!
I think they took them back because they didn’t want us to post photos of them pre-season or anything. They took those right back. I’m sure they’ll be sending it to us in the mail soon. [Laughs.]
This challenge, I laughed out loud at you more than anyone else. I was surprised that Carson and Nikki at first seemed a little skeptical of the concept. Were you second-guessing this at any point?
Not at all. I knew what I was providing, I knew what I had written, I knew what I had imagined of how I would deliver it onstage. I knew what I was going to wear. It’s hard to explain the visual and the delivery when the entire package isn’t sitting in front of them, they’re just basically seeing the notes that are written. So I can imagine it might seem a little confusing at first. But I knew what was up, I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew that I would be able to deliver it with a sense of humor, and in turn also inspire people in the process.
And you definitely did. Are you into those cult documentaries and TV shows?
Absolutely! I have been obsessed with cults for, you know, my entire life. If there’s a documentary on a religious cult, I am fascinated, I am glued to it. So I definitely took a lot of the inspiration and concepts from those, for sure.
Snatch Game was a challenge where I had figured you were in the top two. The two characters you chose were so different, but were both so you. Can you walk me through figuring out that counterpoint?
Well, I am fascinated by eccentric, fashionable older women. There’s a documentary called Advanced Style that I really love. Those types of women I definitely love and wanted to emulate. But mostly with Snatch Game, it was kind of an education moment. I knew that the easy go-to is to choose somebody that’s already familiar in popular culture, but I wanted to do something that was based on my interests and what I found hilarious and ironic, and mostly I wanted to do women who had stories.
The story of Wayland Flowers and Madame was important to me because it comes from nostalgia, from being a kid, first coming back to the U.S. in 1984, watching episodes of Solid Gold and seeing this puppet who had this raunchy, bawdy type of humor and all decked in turbans and feathers. And it was aspirational for me, I loved Madame as a kid. And Diana Vreeland, that documentary — by the way, since we’re talking about documentaries, I am a documentary fiend. Like, I don’t watch anything else but documentaries. But in my Amazon collection of movies that I like to watch over and over and over again, The Eye Has to Travel, the Diana Vreeland documentary, is one that’s in my library. I am fascinated by her, I love the big personality. I knew that I was able to showcase some of my makeup skills in all of that. So it was a very conscious decision and it was something that I knew that I could have fun with.
You’ve had so many wonderful looks, and the one I want to talk about is the golden one from the ball, which does not look like something that was made in less than 48 hours. We watched you making it a bit, but can you talk about the physics or magic behind getting everything together?
I was really ambitious at first. As in anything else that I do in my life, you start off with one concept, and then somehow, through the magic and poetry of life itself, it just becomes something else. And that’s really what it was. So they didn’t really get to show the beginning-to-end process of how it became so huge and sculptural. It had evolved into something totally different to what you see now. But I went with inspirations, again, drawing from the past. Pepper LaBeija was a big part of that sleeve moment. I was thinking about designers like Schiaparelli. The mood board that was constantly going through my brain as it moved and sculpted what it was was something that would take hours for us to talk about. I listened to the materials, and that’s what it became. And it was hard because I had to prove myself, because that is my area of expertise. They were like, Raja’s going to definitely do something great, so I was like, How to Make an Impact 101? Add lots of volume.
There’s been a lot of talk about you having hosted Fashion Photo RuView and now being a subject of it for the first time, and even getting a “boot.” How does that feel to you?
Oh, I love it! I love it. It’s a dose of my own medicine. I’ve been doing it for over eight years, and it was my turn. I was honored to get to be talked about, because I spent so many years doing it to other people, and I was like, Oh my God, this time I’m on an episode and somebody else is going to talk about it! And it didn’t really matter to me if they were toots or boots, because I don’t live my life thinking about if anybody is tooting or booting me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m “shoot”-ing myself every day.
I personally thanked Gottmik in a text the other day. I was like “Yo, whatever you and fucking Violet are doing” — ’cause I hadn’t watched any of it — I was like, “Whatever you guys are fucking doing right now, keep it going! The audience is completely on my side, I’m trending on Twitter — I don’t know what the hell that means — so you guys keep doing whatever the hell you’re doing because it’s working entirely in my favor, and people are enjoying it.” Toot and boot and Fashion Photo RuView is something that Raven and I created together to get the share the wealth with other queens and see what their opinions are. And it really doesn’t matter if I’m tooted or booted. Who cares? That’s always been my attitude as the host of that — I’m like, Our opinions don’t really mean shit. Usually and completely, I’ve smoked an entire blunt and drank a bottle of wine, so what does it matter what I have to say?
So now you have this star to give away. Monét was campaigning while you were working on the challenge. Can you walk me through your thought process around giving away your star?
All I remember from that is that I always wanted to play this game fairly. I wasn’t as savvy to the game as the other girls were. They all seemed to know what was going on with the game more than I was. I was just trying to make sure that I always looked great and that I did the best that I could. So I was not really as in the game and strategizing in the same way that they were. Any decisions that I had made, I can assure you that it all came out of a place of always being fair.