Denali entered the 13th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race as the ice-skating queen, but she left as a bona fide lip-sync assassin. Sure, she lost her first showdown to LaLa Ri — but she lip-synced in freakin’ ice skates! Denali then proceeded to win two more back-to-back lip syncs: one for the win of the “losing” team against Rosé, and one for her life against Kahmora Hall, the latter of which was a true master class in the art of a Drag Race lip sync. (She’s now one of just a few queens to lip-sync three times back-to-back, albeit with an asterisk due to the early-season format high jinks.) However, last week’s episode finally saw Denali sashay away after her makeover with Olivia Lux landed the pair in the bottom two — but not without one final show. Denali took us to church, lip-syncing to Mary Mary’s “Shackles” as best a drag queen could lip-sync to Mary Mary’s “Shackles.” After her elimination, Vulture caught up with Denali to talk lip syncs, her friendship with Rosé, and all the ice-skating tricks she got to show off this season.
Even though I was really sad to see you go, I was excited to see you lip-sync again because you bring it every single time. What do you do to get into your zone for a lip sync?
Whatever song is given to me, I always try and embody. I listen to it a few times and I basically map out in my mind, structurally, where the lip sync is going to go. You want to kind of peak your way up to that climax moment, so you save your tricks for point A, B, and C in the song. But this particular lip sync, I found it difficult to find that structure. I was unsure of the direction I wanted to take it, and I think that might have been to my detriment. At the end of the day, it was a bit of a more emotional song, so I found it inappropriate if I buck and I kick and I split and I do all these tricks to this song that’s basically worshipping God. [Laughs] I was like, that’s probably not going to go over too well. So in my head, I was like, Do you want to be the Latrice or do you want to be the Kenya Michaels? And I was like, Let me try and be Latrice. Let me try and serve something different, they’ve already seen all of that.
You really got the whole range of song choices this season.
I really did. The first three were quintessential Denali. You give me Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Crystal Waters. Oh honey, like yes. Mary Mary? Uh, yeah, definitely would never perform that one in my life. [Laughs]
Toward the end of the episode, you said something about feeling like you were put in the bottom because of things that Olivia had done. Did you guys debrief after the lip sync at all, or talk since about the elimination?
Oh, yeah. We definitely talked.
In the moment, I definitely was feeling a little sad because it was a group challenge and she got a little bit harsher critiques and we were both in the bottom. Now, looking back at it, I definitely don’t want to blame or put all of it on Olivia, because I know that my makeover was not good, either. I didn’t get as harsh critiques from the judges, but I understand that we were the weakest pair that was up there. So unfortunately, because we were being judged in teams, that’s how the cookie crumbles. I don’t want Olivia to feel like she is to blame for me going home, completely. I take responsibility in how I executed the challenge as well.
And it seems like you two had a good friendship throughout the challenge anyway.
I was really grateful to bond with her throughout that challenge, and even now, she’s one of my closest friends from the show.
Speaking of friendships, I do have to ask you about Rosé. What is it about the two of you that made that bond work?
There’s something about Rosé’s energy. When you’re in Drag Race, and when you’re in that bubble and you’re in the competition environment, it’s hard to feel like you have moments of humanity at times. There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of moving parts, the girls are focused, everybody has one set goal in mind. You’re being told what to write, you’re sleep-deprived, you’re exhausted, there’s so much going on. And Rosé, from the very beginning, she just shined as this person of humanity throughout all of that. From the moment I met her in the Pork Chop Lounge, and then the moment that really solidified it for me was when she gave me that pep talk before my lip sync against Kahmora. She took my hands, and it was a moment that she just looked in my eyes and was like, “You can do this, I believe in you.” It was nice to feel that little bit of encouragement, ’cause Drag Race can feel very, very lonely at times. It just set in this sense of, Oh, this is good peoples, to me. And it helps that she’s a handsome-looking man. Both in and out of drag, she’s very handsome.
I want to talk about your Snatch Game for a second, because it was a choice I never would’ve expected but it totally worked. What was it like to see Jonathan Van Ness respond to that online afterward?
So cool. I loved it. He’s a good friend of mine from the skating world, and so even when deciding who I should be, I chose somebody that was accessible to me, that I was friends with, that I really knew inside and out. ’Cause when you’re in the pressure-cooker environment of Drag Race, that’s good advice that other girls have given me. Pick somebody adjacent to you, that is adjacent to your personality, so it’s easy to access when you’re there. It was so nice to get that shout-out from him.
We saw some skating tricks in the documentary, with your audition, and then you brought the roller skates out to the runway. Did you have any other ice-skating tricks up your sleeve that you were saving this season?
You know, I kind of used all of those. I was like, Okay, I lip-synced in these. I roller-bladed. You know, I did an axel in front of Anne Hathaway. [Laughs] The only thing that I wished was showcased a little bit more was the back handspring. I can do a backflip in drag. I did it in the Rusical, but they decided to pan away, and I’m like a little bit in the corner, you can kind of see me doing it. But otherwise, I showcased everything that I think I needed to.
I’ll have to go back to the Rusical now and look really closely at that.
And that’s such a shame that people have to say that because they even talked about it in the judging. They were like, “You did so good, your back handspring was great,” and people were like, “She did a back handspring?”
It seems like a lot of these challenges, you were just on the cusp of a win. Maybe it’s too soon to ask, but would you be open to returning to the show for All Stars?
Oh, 100 percent. I’ll need a bit of a mental break from everything. I really want to make sure that if I were to go back to All Stars, that I had the time to truly grow and blossom, and that you saw a real evolution. Especially being in COVID and in the pandemic, it’s been hard to really have the true Drag Race experience. So I would be absolutely open to coming back, but I think I would take my time, and make sure that I went back as like, Denali 3.0.