When “ RuPaul’s Drag Race ” megastar Katya went live on Instagram Monday and announced, in French, that she would be taking a hiatus from drag, fans were caught off guard.
Katya, who has been transparent about issues surrounding mental health and addiction since first appearing on Season 7 of “Drag Race” in 2015, rocketed to fame as one of the leading stars of the drag universe in recent months. As one of the stars on Viceland’s “The Trixie & Katya Show” and the headliner for a (now postponed) European tour, Katya was in high demand.
“Health is the most important thing for me ... I’m OK,” she told fans on Monday, speaking about the hiatus. “I’m not dying because I want to live. But I need to take vacations, like a normal person. The people who are listening will understand, can understand.”
For several of the contestants on the upcoming season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars,” Katya’s moment of vulnerability is an entry point into a difficult, but necessary, conversation about mental health in the LGBTQ community.
After successfully building a brand and fan following while appearing on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” artists often face unique challenges.
Between being a role model for marginalized youth and juggling intense touring schedules, fan meet-and-greets, social media and the pressures of working in environments where drugs and alcohol are readily available, this career path is one that requires extreme balance and self-care.
“I personally have dealt with major depression and anxiety my entire life. But I’m very vocal about it,” drag star Thorgy Thor, who appeared on Season 8 of “Drag Race,” told HuffPost. “I’ve come to a point in my life where when things become a little too much, it’s time to take a step back.”
“Look at what we do for a living! Every day, all day — we never sleep, we perform, people expect us in the subway to ‘turn on the fun’ when we don’t feel like it or we’re just shopping at the grocery store,” Thor added. “You have to be on all of the time! Especially within a gay spectrum as an entertainer, you go fucking crazy. But you have to know when it’s enough. I don’t — but Katya does.”
As The Guardian’s Alexander Leon put it in May 2017, “mental illness and being queer [often] go hand in hand.” LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, and nearly half of transgender people struggle with anxiety and depression. This is due to several factors, including “societal stigma, discrimination, and denial of their civil and human rights,” according to nonprofit Mental Health America.
When the realities of queerness and mental health are combined with the pressures of fame, the full picture of “Drag Race” success becomes a bit more complicated.
“This industry is about being alone and pushing your physical limits and pushing your creative limits,” Season 7 contestant Trixie Mattel told HuffPost. “And the pressures of people saying ‘I love you.‘ Every time someone says ‘I love you,’ it’s like you’re putting another dime in the piggy bank and the piggy bank gets heavier.”
Mattel said the pressure is increased for contestants grappling with mental health issues. For those contestants, she said, ”‘Drag Race’ is sort of like trying to lift weights — like, 50 pounds, when you should’ve been lifting 20.”
“But for Katya, I think she’s still finding balance,” Mattel added. “She’s taking basically the year off. I think she’ll come back to drag, but she’ll come back in sort of a substitute teacher sense, where she shows up when she wants and then she goes back to sleep when she wants. She’s going to be our new Halley’s comet of drag.”
“Every time someone says 'I love you,' it’s like you’re putting another dime in the piggy bank and the piggy bank gets heavier.”
For competitors Chi Chi Devayne and BenDeLaCreme, the emerging conversation about mental health and queer performers hits close to home ― one they both see as an issue that needs to be humanized and talked about more.
“I can totally relate, because this is something that I’ve been talking about for the past few weeks,” Chi Chi, who first appeared on Season 8, told HuffPost. “Sometimes you do feel like this is all going to drive you crazy — especially when you come from a small town like me, just a normal person everyday, and then you’re shoved into this limelight where everybody knows you.”
Season 6′s BenDeLaCreme told HuffPost she hopes that, thanks to Katya starting this conversation for her many young fans, other influential queer people will begin to be open about their own experiences surrounding mental health and LGBTQ identity ― and that the dialogue will help break down societal stigma.
“In general, I think mental health is an issue that we don’t talk openly or honestly enough about,” she said. “I think although more and more people are really speaking up on these issues and making it less taboo, so many people are afraid to talk about it in the first person or are afraid to bring it into our own lives.”
“The reality is [that] this touches, I would dare to say, most of us in some way or another,” she added.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars” premieres on Thursday, Jan. 25, at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.