Last week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK will go down as one of the most eventful twisty, turny, and chart-topping episodes in the franchise’s history. It begins with the queens finding out, from their total mid-reality-season-taping isolation, that there is a global pandemic raging beyond the walls of the werkroom. They’re sent home, and we smash-cut to seven months later, when they return to the show, only to find out that one of the season’s brightest and most compelling competitors, Veronica Green, has contracted COVID and will not be returning. In her place, the first-eliminated queen, cabaret star Joe Black, makes her triumphant return … only to be absolutely torn apart on the main stage by RuPaul in what has already been dubbed online as the “H&M incident.” Did we mention that during all of this, the competitors did a girl-group challenge that resulted in a No. 1 single on the U.K. pop charts? We caught up with Rats: The Rusical star Veronica Green and Brighton’s finest Joe Black to talk eliminations, reads, and drag in the age of COVID.
That was maybe one of the most dramatic and eventful episodes in Drag Race history. Veronica, what was it like to be in the werkroom when that alarm went off and you found out about the pandemic and everyone got sent home?
Veronica Green: When the alarm went off, it took me completely by surprise. Everybody was bickering and arguing over nonsense. When you think about what the world was going through, we were bickering over nothing. We didn’t know what was going on. And even after the production shut down and I got sent home along with everybody else, I still didn’t understand what was happening in the world, because I didn’t have a working TV in my hotel room. And to come home to my housemates working from home and just be like, Oh, this is new, and have to be told everything that’s happening and have to have it drilled in [that] “You can’t leave the house because we’re in lockdown,” just the severity of the situation — it took me a few days for that to compute.
It must have been surreal. Reality-TV contestants and remote monks have to have been the last people on the planet to find out.
V.G.: Oh, yeah. I got home from the show, and we were told that we were not supposed to speak to any of the contestants, because at the time it was only going to be a three-week break. But I immediately put my bag down and went out and went and visited Tia Kofi, who only lives down the road from me. And it was like 28 Days Later. There was nobody in the streets, all the shops were closed, nobody on the tube. And I got to her house, and we were talking all about how weird it was. And then I got back to my house later on that night, and my housemates were like, “What are you doing? Why did you leave the house? You’re not supposed to — we’re in lockdown!” And I just didn’t understand. I was like, “What are you talking about?” They had to tell me, “You need to stay indoors.” It was just madness. I just didn’t grasp it.
And Joe, what was the timeline like for you, between episode one and all of this and returning? Did you speak to any of the other queens?
Joe Black: I didn’t know I was possibly going back until about three weeks before they started filming, which is a lot less time than seven months. As Veronica said, we weren’t supposed to talk to anyone. But I felt like I was on the phone to Tia Kofi every other day and Lawrence Chaney as well. And also Veronica toward the end.
Veronica, what was it like watching Tia’s reaction on TV when Ru announces that you won’t be returning to the show due to COVID?
V.G.: It did break my heart a little bit, because we were kind of each other’s strength in the competition, because we were a little bit underestimated by the other contestants. And we helped each other through it. And to see just how much of a negative effect that had on her, and how it threw her off her game, it really broke my heart to see her be so upset. I wasn’t expecting it to hit her so hard.
Speaking of emotional moments, we have to talk about the H&M moment on the runway. You know it’s bad when Ru apologizes after.
J.B.: I don’t think he’s ever apologized before. Has he?
I don’t know! For Ru to say, “Oh, sorry, Mama Ru may have gotten a little heated there — I’ve been isolating in a room for two weeks,” that’s the closest I’ve ever seen Ru come to saying, “Wow, I really was maybe a little too harsh.” What did that moment feel like when it was happening?
J.B.: It was dramatic. I didn’t realize such a simple dress could stir so many raw emotions within somebody. In the moment, it felt like I was watching television. I was like, Oh, this is a very dramatic episode of Drag Race, isn’t it? And then suddenly realizing that I was the one being shouted at by Tyra Banks — you know, the “I’ve never screamed at a girl like this” moment. That was very strange. I mean, I’ve never been quite so moved by somebody’s outfit before. But I’m really glad I could stir that up in RuPaul.
I’m guessing your seaside runway look from this week is the alternate hometown look you were hinting at after episode one. That was a whole Brighton category basically.
J.B.: Yes, basically it was. When I got my “You might be on Drag Race” call, you try to get ahead with these things as much as you possibly can, and I thought, They’re gonna do hometown. So I started planning that look. And then we got told all of the categories, and I saw “Day at the Seaside,” and I was like, Well! That’s that one sorted out! If I had done that one for hometown, I would’ve had to have done another for Seaside, and I think nothing quite says seaside like being covered in seagull shit, windswept, eyelashes on my forehead, covered in ice cream. It would pay off. That was the most fun one. That was one of the ones that I was really hands on with doing. I made the ice cream and the chip cones and wired the tickets and hand-painted the bird shit. There were ice-cream sprinkles on it that were all rhinestones. The level of detail — that was the most fun one for me.
I’m happy you got to come back and show it off. I’ve never heard anyone describe bird shit so lovingly.
V.G.: You said you stoned that yourself. I thought Ellie Diamond did it for you just before the runway.
J.B.: [Laughs.] Even though I knew what I had done in the runway, I knew that I had acted a total clown. Watching it, I still genuinely gave a huge laugh because it was so funny.
Veronica, what did you have planned for this runway category?
V.G.: I lived in Blackpool for two years, so I was thinking something along sand and sand castling. I might put up some pictures. Who knows?
Do either of you have reads that you wish you could have given the other girls during the library challenge? Now’s your chance.
J.B.: Veronica, what would you have said about me?
V.G.: I would have said, “Joe Black: After that performance, never coming back.”
J.B.: Aw. I had a really good one for you, and it’s totally escaping me now.
V.G.: Forgettable! Why me!
J.B.: That’s maybe what I would have said, but now that I’ve seen the show, you are anything but forgettable, babe. When I was there, you were very quiet in the werkroom, but watching it back as a viewer, you are a force of nature.
What were your plans for Snatch Game?
V.G.: I was thinking of doing Hilary Devey from Dragons’ Den. I’ve done her before in performances, so I thought it would be a great choice to do because she’s funny, she’s iconic, and it would be great to do a comedy version of her because she’s pretty much comedy herself. But after I used the wig in the episode-four challenge for the daytime talk show and then Alan Carr clocked it on the runway, I was like, That one’s out the window now. I’m not doing that.
J.B.: Along the same lines as Veronica with husky-voiced camp women, I was going to do Tallulah Bankhead. It’s one of the ones I say to people, and they go “Who?” ’30s actress. Quite the wild child. Very husky voice.
Speaking of the theatrical and cabaret sensibility that both of you share, what is the biggest challenge about staying true to your own artistic ability and adapting it to the Drag Race format?
V.G.: The challenge is to make sure that it is very you and to your aesthetic. That when you come out on the runway, people recognize that it’s you. For example, my pig-Medusa look. I knew I wanted to go big and bold with the headpiece and the prosthetics. But because it was going to change my face shape and the silhouette of my head so much, I wanted to stick to a classic Veronica silhouette from the neck down. And I decided to keep it simple, because to go with the concept, you’re not supposed to look at Medusa’s face. But I wanted all eyes on that headpiece. So that’s another reason why I kept it simple. I love simple, classic beauty. That’s definitely a staple of Veronica.
J.B.: I think I stuck very authentically to myself — both of my brief appearances on Drag Race. The pop was always gonna be a problem for me, because it’s absolutely not my wheelhouse. For my show, I wear a sequined fish-tail dress and an ostrich-feather boa with a finger-wave wig or a turban with a spit curl. I stand still in my miserable German cabaret pose. Pop was so far removed. Again, with the H&M-dress fiasco, in my head, I was like, What do the pop people do? Ah, yes, wear a pink short dress. Lovely. That’s done! So I don’t think I did particularly adapt well to the Drag Race format. But I think by sticking to who I am, I’ve managed to make an impact, because people got to see nothing but me. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t authentically my interpretation of something, even if it was a very simple dress. All of the times I was told to very much be myself, I was very much myself.
As this season airs, it’s bittersweet because the pandemic is still ongoing. What are your plans for projects going forward, either online or when things like touring and live performance open up again?
V.G.: At the moment, live performances are dead in the water. It’s a struggle right now because Drag Race is a huge amazing platform for us, but we’re having setbacks because we’re not able to go out and utilize the platform to its fullest extent. Having said that, though, I am working on some music, and some stuff has been recorded. So that’s something that’s going to be coming out in the very near future. But it’s not what you would expect from somebody coming out of Drag Race. I’m going back to my theater roots. And I’ve got quite a theatrical-sounding track coming out. So, yeah, keep your eyes and ears peeled for that.
J.B.: I just announced my own gin, which was very exciting. Joe Black Decopunk gin. It goes with the name of the tour I’m doing in the U.K., hopefully in December. The venues are booked, the tickets are sold, and we will see, hopefully — fingers crossed — that everything opens up a little bit by then and we can actually make it happen. I’ll be releasing music at some point as well and trying to bring the dingy, filthy cabaret experience to people’s ears.