An Interview with the One and Only Michelle Visage

Outside of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on TV, the biggest chance most fans have to see their favorite queens is when a Drag Race tour comes through a city near them. The latest addition to those tours is Voss Entertainment’s Werq the World tour, which has already had a very successful run in Europe and is gearing up to sashay its way through the U.S. Like many past tours, it’s hosted by author, singer, ally, Drag Race judge and all-around badass Michelle Visage. Known for her candor, her huge Jersey hair, and her even huger… personality, Michelle has spent the past few years acting as a bit of a surrogate mom to the queens she tours with. The Werq the World tour is a spectacle, complete with opening and closing numbers and the kind of high production value you might not be used to seeing in many drag shows. “Brandon [of Voss Entertainment] did a spectacular job putting it together,” says Michelle. “It has a sense of cohesion to it that is sometimes missing from other tours, an arc that really makes it feel like a complete show.” It makes sense that the production value of the tours just keeps going up when you consider Drag Race’s recent season’s Emmy nominations, which are simultaneously a delightful surprise and something that feels like a long, long time coming. I had a chat with Michelle about life on the road, what it means to be an ally, her thoughts on Trump, and why the queer community needs to come together now more than ever.

What part of going on/hosting the tours do you find the most challenging?

For me, the most challenging part is being away from two teenage daughters who go through their issues on a daily basis, and mom isn’t there. Thank god there’s a stay-at-home dad who is there, and thank god for FaceTime! Another part that’s difficult for me is eating on the road. It sounds boring, but it’s so difficult you have no idea. I’m a gluten-free, soy-free vegan who also tries to be sugar-free as much as possible, so it can be crazy on the road trying to find things to eat. Once we were in Madison, Wisconsin and I was trying to explain what veganism was at a restaurant, and they went, “So can you eat roast beef?”

How did you come to be a part of the Drag Race family, and where do you see the show going in future seasons?

I was working in radio in Florida. I couldn’t do season 1 of Drag Race because my boss wouldn’t let me out of this radio deal I had – I was in year one of a five-year deal when they came to me with Drag Race. When I couldn’t do it, I was totally devastated, blah blah blah. When season three came around they offered it to me again, and my boss still wouldn’t let me go. So, I called Leah Remini, who is one of my closest friends and my closest friend in TV I would take advice from, and just asked her what I should do. She said, “What’s the president of your company’s name?” I was like, “Huh? I work for CBS radio.” She just happened to be on King of Queens at the time, which was on CBS. So, she goes, “I’m going to call the president of your company.” I was just like, “Leah, mother, you are not going to call the president of the company.” And she just said, “If you don’t I will, because here’s the deal – I don’t care if the show is on cable, people do not drop television shows in people’s laps anymore. You’re going to make a decision. You’re going to say fuck it and go for it because you want to be in TV like you’ve been telling me for the past 10 years, or you’re going to sit back and be comfortable doing morning radio. Why are you wasting time? Get out here!” I called up the vice president of CBS radio and told him what was going on, and he said that he had no problem at all with me going, and the rest is history.

To me there is no end in sight – there are new baby drag queens being born every day. We can theme the shows... there are so many different ways Drag Race can happen. We could do a big girl season, a trans season, villains versus miss congeniality, you name it. We ‘aint going nowhere anytime soon - I’m in it for the long haul and so is Ru, so people better get used to our 8 Emmy nomination asses!

Considering how insanely hateful US politics is right now, does it surprise you that the reach and popularity of Drag Race just keeps growing?

Not at all – I think that the show is needed now more than ever; there needs to be an escape. He [Trump] didn’t even win the popular vote, he shouldn’t even be in that position. We have to remember that. It’s so scary for these sweet sensitive souls out there who feel like we need to run and hide, when it’s really the opposite. I see a strength in our community now more than ever in banding together and fighting the system, because listen, drag in general is irreverent and rebellious. It’s sticking your middle finger up to society and the rest of the world and saying, “Stop taking everything so fucking seriously!” Drag Race is the escape that everybody needs – gay, straight, or otherwise. When we started touring five or so years ago it was in gay bars, and the audience was almost completely made up of gay men and the occasional straight girl with her gays. It’s gone from that to sold out 3,000-seat venues full of all kinds of people, including children with their parents learning to understand their queer child. It’s been a really beautiful progression.

What are some things you would encourage your fans to do to help promote acceptance and understanding of queer culture?

Stop infighting. Stop tearing each other down, stop being so mean, stop being so shady. Look, misogyny is something that’s been going on since the dawn of day. For me, it’s so disheartening when women have the shittiest things to say about other women, and it’s more than Amber Rose and her slut walk stuff, which is great, but it’s not just about that. When a woman sees another beautiful woman, her first instinct is to be mad, to hate her, to try to knock her down, instead of saying, “Yes girl! You are getting this done, you are paving the way, you better work!” I’ve seen the same thing happening more and more within the queer community; queer people not wanting to help other queer people, or being mean to each other and fighting with each other. Look, fights happen everywhere, but I feel like now more than ever we need to put that stuff aside, come together, and stop being so petty. To see queer people keeping each other down makes me so sad, because I’ve been around for a long time – I’ve seen the people who came before us fight for what we have right now, and they did not fight like that for us to go backwards. And I’m telling you, there are more of us who want to support each other than there are of them, and if we could just band together nothing could stop us.

As a mom, you have a special kind of insight into teen culture. How do you do think Drag Race has impacted how younger people think about gender and sexuality?

I talk about this at our shows – I like to do a little something that makes them think. I want the audience to walk away with some kind of nugget of truth. On the Werq the World tour I do a little speech about drag becoming mainstream. You see on social media a lot of people saying things like, “Drag is getting played out,” and I couldn’t disagree more. Growing up in the 80’s in central New Jersey as a weird kid with a blue mohawk listening to the Sex Pistols and dressing really funky, I was bullied pretty badly. It was every single day in elementary school, and kept going into middle school, too. I felt totally alone, without a single person there for me. I would cry at night, unable to tell my mother because she’d just kick my ass for crying. If I had a show like Drag Race to show me that I wasn’t alone, maybe I wouldn’t have had the fucked-up eating disorders that I had. Maybe I wouldn’t have done the softcore porn that I did. It could have been a signal to me that I’m not alone, and it’s okay not fitting in. But I didn’t have that – no one did. I’m sick of hearing the word mainstream used as a negative thing when these kid’s lives, and this sounds dramatic but I hear it every single day from both parents and kids, are being affected by RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s changing lives, and it’s saving lives, because it lets these queer kids know that they matter. I’m the parent of a queer child, and for my kid to know that they can always come to me and I’m going to love them no matter what is the biggest gift. I see parents now standing there with their queer child and saying “I’m very proud of my child,” whereas five years ago, these kids would come crying saying that they have no place to live because they’d been kicked out. While that still happens way too much, if we can affect one family at a time we’re doing something right. My eldest is non-binary, and it’s so freeing to have my younger daughter know who her sibling is and understand that her sibling is different than her and that’s okay. I’m super proud of my kids for being able to be there for their queer friends, and am so thrilled they can continue to change the world through their generation and that the change just keeps coming.

You’ve been an outspoken ally for a long time. What does being an ally mean to you?

It’s everyday life. I get uncomfortable when people thank me for the work that I do as an ally… I don’t really know how to put it into words except for this: You wouldn’t come up to me to say, “Michelle, thank you for breathing!” For me, I never looked at being an ally as work. I’ve always looked at it as you’re my brothers, you’re my sisters, and I would never have it any other way. I never do anything on behalf of the community for recognition, I do it because I fight for what’s fair. These are my family members, who when I was down and didn’t know who I was scooped me up and said, “Oh bitch, I’ll tell you who you are!” They loved me for who I was completely without question. I was weaned off the teats of drag queens and queer people, and that’s why I fight so hard for a community that I love so much – because they’ve always been there. The work of an ally is being present. Anybody can say they’re an ally, but being vocal, being present, walking the walk, talking the talk, and doing what you can do with the voice you have. When I was doing Celebrity Big Brother and Perez Hilton told me that I wasn’t the spokesperson for gay people, I said… well wait a second, I’m not a dog, does that mean I can’t fight and speak up for animal rights? I’m not autistic, does that mean I can’t walk for autism? It just doesn’t make sense. There are a lot of girls that ask me how to get started as an ally, and the truth is there is no starting – theres just being. Show up, help in shelters if you can, get involved in PFLAG, do what you can do to help in any way that you can. Consciousness is key.

What do you think the biggest misconception is about you and the queens you tour with on Werq the World?

The biggest misconception about me is that I’m a cold bitch. If you watch the show and you think I’m a bitch versus I know what the hell I’m talking about and I’m there for tough love, then you don’t understand what I’m doing. Usually it’s the younger kids, because I can seem like I’m being mean, but what I’m really saying is that I know you can do better and to stop wasting time. When people meet me, their reaction is usually both “You’re so tiny” and “You’re so nice!” The funny thing is I am the most low-maintenance one out of every one of them. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs… I don’t really care. Just put me in a place where I can sleep and I’m good. Another really low-maintenance queen is Ivy Winters, she’s super self-sufficient. Everyone else definitely has their own little quirks. As far as misconceptions about all the other girls… I don’t know, because they probably live up to what people think of them to be honest!

Who are some legendary drag performers you think that every fan of the show should be familiar with?

Lypsinka, Varla Jean Merman, Coco Peru, Lady Bunny, Heklina, Peaches Christ, Sherry Vine, Joey Arias, Jackie Beat… the list goes on and on. I grew up in New York City going to shows, so a lot of them were the performers to watch. Lypsinka to me though, that’s the one to really watch. If you’re going to do spoken word, that’s the way you need to do it. Joey Arias has an absolutely beautiful voice… they are all who I grew up watching. They’re how I met Ru, because they were all part of the same sort of contingency, so I would be at the clubs when they were at the clubs. The kids should definitely know those names, and there are probably even more, but that’s a good bunch.

What’s the most uncomfortable situation you’ve been in during a meet and greet?

Here’s the thing, I’ve been doing this since I was 19 years old. I really don’t get uncomfortable. You have to be out of your mind on drugs or alcohol to make me feel uncomfortable, because I can handle pretty much everything. So, nothing really makes me feel uncomfortable, and if I did they would be out of there so quickly… I can pretty much handle anything. I’m the queen of diffusing and diverting. Sometimes I see the girls getting uncomfortable so I’ll walk over and help them out, but really everything is monitored by security so we don’t have to worry. I’ll get the random person that asks me to sign their tit or their butt or whatever, but that’s just a part of how it is. I used to go to clubs and people would just be naked, so I mean… nothing really shocks me after being at Tunnel. Plus, I’ll be the first one to say, “Uh, you need to get the fuck away from me.”

Many of the fans’ favorite queens tour regularly, either as part of the group tours like Werq the World or on their own, while some queens seem to kind of just go home after their time on the show. What do you think determines which queens are able to extend their time in the spotlight?

It’s up to them to do what they’re going to do. I’m going to use Mimi Imfurst as an example. She got a bad rep twice, not just once. But she happens to be one of my favorite people, and one of the hardest working queens out there. She is smart, she knows how to put stuff together, and if she’s not going to be performing she’ll be running the shows and booking the shows— she’s a hustler! That’s really what it comes down to, and I connect with hustlers because I’m a hustler. I try to tell these girls, either on the Watcha Packin’ series online or when I tour with them and have my one-on-one sit-downs, that you have essentially one year from when you’re on the show to when the following season starts airing. What you do in that one year and how you make it work for you is truly up to you. I highly recommend paying your taxes, saving all your money, and starting to think about tomorrow, because when Drag Race is done your booking fee is going to go right back to what it was before. That’s the reality of what it is. There is a graveyard of reality show people out there that do not work and cannot work because they went from being on TV every night making millions of dollars and then blowing it all to suddenly the show being off the air and not knowing what to do. It’s who has the stickwithitness, tenacity, balls, and the hustler ability to make it work, because the queens only get X amount of time. You’ve got to have the balls to make something happen, because nothing is just going to drop in your lap.

Imagine you’re looking at a picture of yourself as a little girl – maybe it’s being held by a beautiful woman named RuPaul – what advice would you give to little Michelle?

You need to lighten the fuck up and start to love yourself, because at the end of the day it’s not really going to matter what size dress you wear, if your nose has a bump in it, if you have big enough tits, because all of those things are external and none of them are the things that people are going to fall in love with. You need to be kinder to yourself and know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to learn from those mistakes. It took me so long to learn those lessons – I wasted so many years on eating disorders and being self-obsessed and caring so much about what people had to say that I would get torn down by negative remarks or criticism. If I was in a club with Seduction and everyone was screaming my name and there was one person with their back turned to the stage because they didn’t like me, I would do the whole show for them instead of the people who were rooting for me. I would tell little Michelle that it really, truly does not matter what other people think about you as long as you can find your happiness.

To find out when you can catch Michelle and some of your favorite queens near you, check out the full schedule of dates here.

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