Acapella renditions of “Jealous of My Boogie” and “LadyBoy.” A screechy reworking of “Halo.” Recurring interjections of “I love that drink!”; “Why you talkin’? Why are you talking?“; and “What’s Bollywood?” “Guuuuuurl…” “Hallelu!” Raven’s name (a lot). The popping of lipstick tops and the snapping of compact clasps.
These are the sounds that provided the animated background noise at a Culver City soundstage the mid-April day on which the RuPaul’s Drag Race 2 ReUnited special was filmed. Above that din at various points of time was a blogger’s dream: a cast of characters that generated content as a matter of course. Most of the time, I needed to do little more than press the button on my sound recorder or point my camera to be spoiled with sound bites, imagery and a steady stream of outrageousness. For the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 2, it seems that entertaining is like breathing, and I inhaled as much as I possibly could.
Below, I exhale.
See? That’s what I’m talking about. I guess they got used to being on a show that is a blank canvas (you’ll remember that almost every scene takes place either in the workroom or onstage) implicitly telling its competitor queens, “You’re entertainers. Entertain us.” This use of whatever resources that were available was apparent all day backstage, usually in the form of the queens’ wit (because, frankly, there wasn’t much backstage to be had). But hey, I don’t discriminate, so if you want to throw in a vacuum or some prop cookies…
…you won’t hear me complain. (Note: Mystique sang “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” from The Color Purple while she did her bit with the vacuum. It was a lovely touch.)
The shots above were taken minutes after I walked up the stairs to a series of dressing/green rooms above the sound stage. I introduced myself to the queens that had already arrived for the taping (the first five to be eliminated: Shangela, Nicole Paige Brooks, Mystique, Sonique and Morgan McMichaels) and told them I had some general questions for them. “Alright, General,” Shangela told me. At that point, I knew I was in good hands.
I wondered, for example, what the hell went on when the cameras weren’t rolling. On most reality shows, you see people living together (even something like Project Runway, in which the living situation is nowhere near the focal point, at least acknowledges it). On Drag Race, the only sense we have that these creatures are actual mortals and not 24/7 dragbots comes via a few stray shots of them waking up in their respective hotel rooms. I wondered how sequestered they were, and it turns out the answer is not very. Like any other reality show, they could not come and go as they pleased or have unsupervised contact with the outside world, but when the shooting day was over, they all retired to the same hotel where “visiting around” to each other’s rooms did occur. (And that visiting, of course, included at least hints at romance, but more on that in a second.) The sectioning-off did come in handy, as Mystique and Nicole Paige Brooks explained:
Mystique: I believe that if we all lived together…
Nicole Paige Brooks: …we would have killed each other.
Mystique: The police would have been called so many times.
Reminded of Nicole Paige Brooks’ crush on Raven (which she says was exaggerated on the show), I wondered if they ever were attracted to other men in drag, since the concept of dragsbians is exponentially gay enough to blow my mind entirely. Nicole Paige Brooks told me that she never is, but added, “I do love a sissy.” Who doesn’t after falling in love with Drag Race? Then, this exchange:
Shangela: People are attracted to people.
Nicole Paige Brooks: We’re gay men so we’re attracted to gay men.
Shangela: I don’t think you should discriminate based on someone’s character, be it their profession or a hobby or interest in expressing themselves. You meet a person, you meet a person, heart-to-heart.
Nicole Paige Brooks: Birds of a feather flock together!
Shangela: But I don’t you fall in love with someone because of a character they portray, though. If you want to fall in love with a character, go fall in love with Yogi Bear.
With all this person-to-person/heart-to-hearting, I wondered if that meant Shangela was bisexual. I have never party-fouled so hard in my life. Literally this is what followed from various sources around the room:
“How the hell?”
“Shangela is attracted to men,” she said, setting me straight. And then, setting me gay all over again, Nicole Paige Brooks chimed in with, “I’ve been with a woman.” Drag queens: so unpredictable! Just like us!
I also learned that they were told to study Paris Is Burning before coming on the show (hence everyone’s proficiency in quoting it during the reading challenge, in case any of you overgrown orangutaaaaaaaangs were curious), and that the atmosphere was friendlier than you might have imagined. “We were all shown that we hated each other, but we all helped each other in the long run. We was a dysfunctional family,” Mystique told me. She also characterized her time on the show as a “positive experience of the world,” and says that she’d do it all the same, mall-country look and all.
Soon, other queens began arriving…
Shangela yelled out my credentials to all arriving (“This is Rich from VH1.com!”). I thought that was kind and helpful. You know what they say: behind every successful man is a good Shangela. I said my hellos. When I approached Tatianna, I told her, “I enjoyed you very much on the show.” Tatianna barely could get her words out (“Yay! Thank you!”) before Sahara Davenport interrupted with, “I didn’t get that greeting!” Clearly, this was no normal reunion visit.
In my past experience on reunion sets, everyone has their own dressing rooms which minimizes interruption and maximizes smack talk. Here, I was not just talking to people about their time on the show — I was juggling egos. I immediately complimented Sahara’s Whitney Houston impression and told her I approved of her choice to go with Being Bobby Brown era Whit.
“They didn’t show enough of me,” Sahara told me. I inquired further about her displeasure, but Sahara was somewhat reluctant to elaborate on her grievances lest she seem defensive. So after a few pleasantries (“It was a wonderful experience and wonderful exposure”), she launched into realness: “There was so much that was cut out. So much of my personality, the comedienne that I am. This legacy is built on lots, Rich. Not just kicking and standing on my toes. The whole Sahara Experience was limited to just the dancing aspect of me when there is so much more.” I agree — I had no sense of her way with words. Next time someone tries oversimplify my contribution to the world, I’m going to steal a page from The Sahara Experience and tell them, “This legacy is built on lots.”
Tatianna told me about her outfit:
“I came here wanting to be classy. I wanted to redeem myself because I know everyone thinks I look like a skank hooker half the time. Which I do. I’m not gonna front. I just like showing off my body, so that’s what I did.” In the background, Nicole Paige Brooks assured her that “there’s nothing wrong with being a little trashy.” I agree, especially when you’re on reality TV. In fact, I’d argue that there’s something wrong with not being a little trashy on reality TV. Seriously, I would. Step to me if you feel like having that argument.
One thing that really stuck with me about Tatianna was when she talked about getting suspended from school for fighting kids who made fun of her for being gay. I think that’s kind of awesome, especially given Tatianna’s femininity and softness. She elaborated for me: “For a long time, I didn’t fight back because I thought I’d just be making it worse. But then you get to a tick-tick-boom type of situation where you’re getting it every week and you have to do something or it’s never gonna stop. I had an Ike and Tina moment. You’ve seen the movie, in the limo? It was one of those when it was just like no more! I think I yelled that, actually. I’m sure I was fighting like a little beyotch, but I got the point across of don’t put your hands on me. His face was bleeding. After that, people would still try to try me and I’d whip their asses. But when I moved it stopped because it was a lot more of an accepting school.”
I asked Tatianna about people on the show frequently suggesting that she’s transgender. “I am not a tranny,” she explained. “I am extremely feminine, but I am not a tranny. I like everything that I’ve got, don’t want anything I’ve don’t got, don’t want to switch it up. I think I’m blessed because I’m able to do both. Some people can’t pass in drag, and I feel like I’m blessed that I can do both and I can do both well.” Amen, let’s give it up for Tatianna and her porcelain skin:
Then: jackpot. I asked about Tatianna’s rivalry with Raven and wondered if it stemmed from Raven crushing on Tati, as suggested by John and Jon in a Drag Ya Later episode. Tatianna told me she didn’t think so. “I know someone who had a crush on her during the show,” sung Mystique just over Tatianna’s shoulder. I begged her to tell me whom and Mystique eventually gave me a clue: “Wanna cuddle?” she said in a rumbling basso. It was clear at this point that she was referring to Tyra. (She said it in the same tone as, “What’s Bollywood?”) Tatianna explained the brief flirtation with…flirtation she had with Tyra early on during the season:
“There was a moment. Tyra asked me if I wanted to cuddle with me one night. I was alone in her room and I said, ‘Where’d the other girls go?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, but do you want to cuddle?’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna go have a cigarette. I’ll be back.'”
Despite her never going back, Tyra would later corroborate this story without embarrassment. Hey, a drag queen’s got urges, too. (When confronted with this, Tyra did say, “I’m gonna kick Mystique’s ass!” So, fine. Not all urges are sexual. Whatever!)
Of course, we were not yet through talking about Raven, which became a group activity. I asked what was up with Raven giving Tati such a hard time.
Tatianna: She puts on this cold, icy demeanor to cover up what I think is insecurity.
Nicole Paige Brooks: When you have nothing to say about yourself, you have to talk about other people.
Tatianna: Exactly, and when you’re insecure about yourself, you want to put others down to make yourself feel better. I feel like that’s what she was doing. The ones she felt really were a threat, she gunned for them.
Nicole Paige Brooks: The most feminine ones she gunned for. When you aren’t something you attack it.
This wasn’t the last time Raven was discussed, either. Later, Pandora would brand her two-faced.
“Everything she’s saying in her interviews is a surprise. It’s fine. You make decisions. In the end, she decided she was going to get as much screen time as she possibly could, and do no matter what she had to do. And she stabbed people in the back to do it,” Pandora told me. (Funnily enough, Raven would essentially agree with the screen-time point — in my interview with her, she said, “It’s a TV show,” multiple times, exhibiting the same savvy Pandora was referring to.)
I wondered if Raven was the most-hated of all the girls. “She let me borrow her hairspray, so not today,” Sonique told me.
Nicole Paige Brooks offered this take on Raven: “I don’t know her well enough to hate her, but it was very disappointing to have stereotypical faggotry going on behind my back. I came on the show not to perpetuate any of that gay drama and to elevate my art form and represent how I do drag properly. Meanwhile, you sit there and watch her and it’s like, wow. Really? Common faggotry. It got her more airtime, so it worked for her. I’m sure that’s not what kept her on the show, but it sure did keep her on the show.” Common faggotry? Never that. After all, only some of us are from Chicago, bitch:
By the way, when I asked Pandora Boxx if I could take a picture of her…
…she asked me, “Do you have a $20?” Still doing the crack whore bit, I see! We talked about that very notion, in fact — she compared her poorly received fashion to a bad joke you tell over and over and over, as she said the dislike would cascade down the judges’ table, stopping on each one. “I thought they were judging me like I’m a runway model, and I’m not. I’m a drag queen, and I’m happy to be a drag queen. I don’t want to be a girl,” said Pandora. “But I felt that early on, so my mission was to last as long as I could and try to be as funny and outrageous as I could.” And if her mission wasn’t accomplished on air (and I think we can agree that it was), surely her drag-race inspired outfit for the day did the trick.
Sonique felt similar confusion regarding exactly what was being sought after: “I thought I signed up for a drag competition but after watching it, I realize it’s more like: Be a celebrity, do TV appearances, acting and this and that. They should have told us that. ”
The whole time I was talking to everyone, Jessica Wild was kind of sitting back, quietly drinking her Red Bull.
Mystique called her out on her silence. Jessica said she was so quiet, “Because I love that drink.” This brought down the house.
She is, of course, adorable. “Sometimes I don’t believe that I am part of this,” she enthused. “I’m so happy. I love the show. It’s so professional.” I love this reason for loving the show so much, although it makes me wonder how things would look if it weren’t so professional, and I might love that idea even more. I’m imagining sawdust on the floor, flour as foundation, guest judges zonked on Ludes and frequent lazily bleeped-out rants from a diva-like Ru.
I asked Jessica about the language barrier. You’ll be happy to know that she does know what a golden shower is (just for the sake of…talking, I guess, Mystique reminded her that it was “kinky and hot”). I asked her about her English-as-second-language status played for comedic effect and she told me, “That was horrible for me. Just think about you in a Spanish show. You are going to feel lost no matter what. That is why I have to find myself within the show. Not with the girls, I have my own fight.” She’s not here to make friends with them, she’s here to make friends with the Spanish-to-English dictionary, damn it! And while Jessica sounds like she’s making progress on the language front, she’s not yet one with fluency: “I have a lot of problems with the past and the present. That is why I say, ‘Oh, I love that drink.’ It’s ‘this drink!'”
Finally, the last three showed up. Tyra Sanchez, in a chestplate purchased via boobsforqueens.com (site NSFW…or something), walked in the room to a round of “Hello, Boobies.” Meanwhile, Jujubee commenced to stuffing a dress so tight she said it was like “10 lbs. of sugar in a 3 lb. bag.”
As you can imagine, boobs were a major concern of the day…
I talked to Juju for a while, but it was in such a laid-back manner that it didn’t quite translate to a standalone interview. She had plenty of funny things to say (“I feel bad for my d***! My pinga is pissed.”; “Every time I hear a song I had to lip synch for my life to, it makes me cringe. It’s like when you have an ex-boyfriend and you smell his cologne years later and it’s just like, ‘F*** you.'”; “I’ve never cried my eyelashes off ever!”), but what I saw in her from a content perspective (to get technical for a second) was much more on the visual side. More on that below.
Juju did clear up the bizarre exchange she had with Ru early on in the season, in which she attributed her sense of humor to her father’s death: “It’s not him dying that made me laugh, it’s the fact that he taught me that you need to have fun, you need to live life, because you never know when it’s going to happen.” She also told me that this show brought her closer to her sisters. When I noticed she was wearing two wigs, she told me, “I don’t think any drag queen should wear just one.” Good to know! “The bigger the hair the smaller you look. And I look like a Bratz doll,” she explained. A noble goal, achieved before our eyes.
At this point, Morgan McMichaels jumped in, by saying some Internet comment had compared her to a Bratz doll crossed with a Fraggle. A die-hard fan of all things Muppet, I believe there are worse things one could be called. In fact, that sounds downright complimentary to me. This started a round of discussion regarding people’s perception of them, and their newly acquired fame. “I get recognized at the local Wal Mart…hold up, let me be all ghetto-fish: I get recognized at the local Piggly Wiggly pickin’ up some pork shoulder. And the chitterlings,” Mystique informed me with a wink.
Juju told me about being brushed in public off by The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘s Kim Zolciak, and being fawned over by Kelly Osbourne (“I said, why the f*** you shaking, bitch? And she said, ‘I’m really nervous.'”). Tyra, meanwhile, opened for Trina and found herself starstruck. Jenna Jameson showed up at one of Morgan’s shows. Let it never again be unclear: fame chases fame. Maybe if everyone pools their 15 minutes, we can all live forever.
I finally got to speak with Raven, who introduced herself as “David.” “I don’t want people just to know Raven,” she explained.
Most of what we talked about is included in our standalone interview, posted earlier. If you couldn’t tell, our chat was extremely pleasant. I spent much of the day with Raven, and she was never less than cordial. Really, everyone was, from the talent, to the behind-the-scenes people at World of Wonder. It was like every person was nicer than the last. I have no illusion about this, regarding on-air talent: anyone with any sense knows to be nice to me, since it’s my job to write about their asses. But I’ll tell you: that little bit of sense isn’t always present in reality TV types, and it makes my job infinitely more pleasant.
Oh, one tidbit, if you’re curious about Raven’s lack of piercings: she took them out because they were making her gum line recede. “I’m like, do I want teeth or piercings?” she said, which reminded me of the part in the beauty pageant documentary Living Dolls when one of the male contestants’ mother wonders if she should get him his hormone shots or keep him in pageants. Decisions, decisions! Anyway, I think Raven went for the right one.
And speaking orally…
Behold, Tyra’s new teeth. These are veneers and they’re gigantic. “I could have gotten braces but it would have taken forever to fix my teeth and they wouldn’t have been as big as I wanted them to be,” explained Tyra. “I wanted them to be a little bit big. I wanted them to look like surgery.” Artifice realness! As paradoxical as it sounds, this sentiment is actually in line with a show about the often impossible pursuit of realness that ends up being realer than most reality shows could ever hope to be. You might even call RuPaul’s Drag Race an honest look at fakeness.
(Also, you’ll be happy to hear that Tyra can floss now as a result of her new teeth. The triumphs of the human spirit keep coming!)
You can probably tell in the picture above that at this point, we’d changed locations: we were in a giant room outside the sound stage on which the ReUnion was set to be shot (the same stage, incidentally, on which the regular season episodes were shot). Ru would later tell me that while they were filming this show, the room they were holding everyone in was his personal roller rink — he’d break out his skates and zoom around before filming, an image I’ll forever relish in my mind. You can see that it’s kind of a drab setting. The fold-out chairs, picnic tables and pervasive gray made all the glamor pop with hilarious contrast:
This also felt really real. After all, wasn’t most of Paris Is Burning set in crumbling auditoriums and would looked like VFW halls that were gauche on their best days? Making it work against society, drab backgrounds and oneself (tucking, anyone?) is what being a drag queen is all about. These are the flowers fighting through the asphalt of our culture.
Erm…most of the time, at least. I guess Jujubee’s more like the ham squeezing its way through the asphalt. Really, I appreciated how gamely she posed for whatever picture I suggested. She improvised, too:
She even gave me some camera when her lip latex started malfunctioning before fixing it:
Really, I had a hard time keeping my camera pointed away from her.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jujubee work it live. A few times, I took multiple shots of a particular setup, and she cracked me up with her pose changes:
“As long as you’re clicking, I’m gonna keep posing,” she told me. This queen is MUSE MATERIAL, I tell you.
I ran into RuPaul a few times that day — and since I’d already met him for our interview earlier this year, I had no problem going up to him as he oohed and ahhed over the “gorgeous creatures” who were getting ready to hit the stage.
The reason that I specify that I had no problem is because I find RuPaul intimidating. He is tall, smart and quick on his feet, which: duh! But also: ahhh! For the record, he’s never been anything but kind to and engaging with me (which is an honor in its own right), but I’d still hate to find myself standing in his shade. He was out of female drag that day because, as he explained, “There’s enough drag going on!” That’s living: Let your acolytes do the tucking and shellacking for you.
I love that he’s entered the sage stage of his career, though, and he was particularly pensive regarding his tendency to intimidate people. He elaborated on a point from our interview regarding his tendency to get the side-eye from celebrities while he’s dressed as a woman: “What it means for them to accept me fully would be rebuilding their identity. To accept my existence as something real and viable would mean the foundation they’ve built their house on is a hoax. It’s faulty. More than the gay thing, it’s a drag thing. People don’t accept drag queens because drag queens are saying, ‘Your identity is a hoax because it can be manufactured. It’s not really real.’ And the ego knows it, and the ego fights it. I can’t tell you how many famous people I’ve admired who are smart, evolved, but when they get around me or drag, you can see them backing up. It’s the ego saying, ‘Don’t go over there. Don’t trust that.’ Other people’s ego won’t allow my charm or my intelligence to override the fact that I am an identity buster. And by accepting me, I would be busting their identity.”
Meanwhile, I just think he’s smart with a tongue shaped like a switchblade. I shifted gears. Since becoming infatuated with the show, I’ve wondered just how much lip-synching for your life really matters. I know it’s presented as the final decision-maker, but it’s handled with such camp gravity that it plays like a joke (after all, it is drag queens…lip synching…for their lives). Without a wink, Ru told me that he takes that portion of the show seriously: “It’s the deciding factor at the very end, whether you make it or not. First of all, they’re all winners. They all get on because they’re all brilliant. If they should encounter a challenge they find themselves not good in, and they’re in the Bottom 2, that lip synch for your life really decides it.”
I told him how much fun I was having (very early on, I starting mourning the inevitable end of this day, because I knew it’d be unlikely that I’d ever experience anything quite like it again). “What you’re loving, we love it that much, too. We have so much fun doing this show.” And it shows. However, just like the one-two-punch of silly and vital that accompanies the lip-synch-for-your-life portion of the competition, there is balance to that fun. Ru persuasively argued for the social significance of his reality show (a genre that is often written off as “trash”):
“It takes courage to be these people, to break their identity and override their ego. I remember the first time I got in drag, when I started doing glamorama drag, and I shaved my legs had a push-up bra, and it was like…my ego was like, ‘Wha?’ I don’t get it! But that’s the ego dying, and then something else emerges. And that something else is powerful and unstoppable. And that’s what’s so captivating about people who can be born again. They really are superheroes. They are the Supermen to humankind’s Clark Kent. That hero is in everybody, by the way, but most people are afraid of it.”
And then a hero comes along…with rubber boobs.
When the taping began, the first five eliminated contestants took the stage with Ru, while the others huddled around a speaker to listen to what was being said on stage.
To make sure I documented this properly, I walked around the table, snapping pictures, figuring I’d go with whatever one looked best upon review. No one paid much attention, except for Jessica Wild, who followed the camera around the table:
Smart girl, right? Someone knows where the money is! (Note: No one was paid to appear in these pictures, much to Pandora Boxx’s undoubted chagrin.)
The taping began, and since we were listening to what was going on in the next room where the taping was, out came the comments. Just try to shut up a group of drag queens while their contemporaries go on about themselves. Try! You will fail.
As a result of this setup, I found myself privy to what was essentially my own private Untucked episode, and boy was it a good one. Below is a sampling of comments made in light of comments on stage:
Tyra on Nicole Paige Brooks: “I hope she never does a pageant because she can’t answer a question.”
Tyra on Mystique: “She stutters a lot.”
Tyra on Sahara: “I hate when she talks. I don’t hate her.”
Sahara on Mystique’s story about her mom being kidnapped by Mexicans (or whatever!): “F*** a spin-off, she wants a Lifetime movie!”
When all of the girls had taken the stage, I found myself alone. It was only during cigarette breaks that I reunited with what were now my beloved queens that I worshiped with my camera.
But at least when I saw them again they were alive with pleasure!
…And also, suffering from pinga-related drama.
This also gave me the opportunity for what I think is the best photograph I’ve ever taken:
At least, it’s the best since this one.
The taping went on and on and on. I’d say it began filming around noon and didn’t wrap till sometime after 9. Ru interviewed each of the girls in meticulous detail. It was fascinating and exhausting just to listen to. I can’t imagine what it was like to conduct. But by the end, everyone was in great spirits.
I told Pandora to reenact her surprise at winning Miss Congeniality and snapped this prize of a shot:
I know that Tatianna’s between expressions and probably has no ill will toward Pandora in her heart, but I like to read this picture as one queen attempting to assassinate Miss Congeniality with the daggers that are in her eyes.
I have many pictures of myself with people from reality TV, but only one of them was taken by RuPaul. Hello, prized possession! (Also, I really did like Tyra. I found her soothing.)
In the end, I was taken by how positive of an experience this was. Yes, there were petty arguments and enough smack talk to give someone of weak constitution a concussion, but what was most outstanding was the feeling of unity and almost inherent love most of these people have for each other. I’ve left reality TV reunion sets thinking, “These people really hate each other,” but such was not the case after this reunion. Like Ru said: “Win or lose, love or hate, we are family.” Maybe they are one big “dysfunctional family,” as Mystique put it, but that’s almost selling them short by making them seem typical. After all, when’s the last time you visited a family reunion with that much glitter and padding?
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