Few contestants have garnered a sweeter reputation than season 9‘s Peppermint, who, after making headlines as the first person to enter the competitive fray as an out, transgender woman, made it all the way to the top two of RuPaul’s Drag Race this year, outlasting body (ody-ody) competitor Trinity Taylor and four-time challenge winner Shea Couleé in the final episode. (Past competitors, including Carmen Carrera, Gia Gunn, and Sonique, have revealed their transgender status after their respective seasons concluded, but only Peppermint and season 5’s Monica Beverly Hillz have competed as an openly trans woman.)
Though she didn’t take the crown — Avant-garde stunner Sasha Velour emerged Friday night as the latest bearer of the America’s Drag Superstar title — Peppermint isn’t walking away from the program empty-handed. If nothing else, she’s earned the respect of an entire community of gender nonconforming people, proudly representing the LGBTQ set both on the show and beyond, all in the hopes of fostering change for marginalized groups under a presidential administration she says is doing anything but.
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“There are so many limited opportunities and roadblocks and barriers, particularly for trans women of color,” Peppermint tells EW. “Performing is often the only viable outlet for earning a living, that or survival sex work, which is something I considered when I was convinced that I would never be accepted onto Drag Race. I thought the only way that I could get the healthcare that I need, because at the time I didn’t have insurance, was to engage in survival sex work. Not to take it to a dark place, I just had limited options. When I say it’s life-changing, that’s what I mean. It could potentially be a new outlet for trans women who didn’t think they have any other option, but they’re great performers whose talents we deserve to see.”
With a new album, Black Pepper, out today, a planned college tour on gender diversity alongside Velour scheduled to hit the road in 2018, and a documentary about her life in the works (the project is being funded now on Kickstarter), Peppermint’s post-Drag Race trajectory is already shaping up to be a fresh success.
Read on for EW’s full interview with Peppermint, during which she discusses sending one of season 9’s fiercest contestants, Trinity Taylor, home during an unprecedented sudden death lip sync, the significance of being perhaps the show’s most successful transgender graduate, and how things stand with her and Valentina after that fiery exchange at the reunion.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take me back to filming the finale. What’s going on in your head during those final lip syncs?
PEPPERMINT: As a huge fan of the show, this even caught me off guard. There’s no precedent. I’d never seen it happen on the show before so… I just went with my feeling. In the past, I relied on what I’d seen in previous episodes or even advice from other girls who’d been on the show. But, for this, I only had to rely on my instinct as a performer, which hasn’t failed me. [Laughs]
No, it certainly hasn’t. You’ve been one of this year’s most interesting lip sync-ers, for sure. But how did it feel knowing those skills were sending Trinity home?
It’s been about a year [since we started filming], and we’ve remained close friends, but it felt exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time. I know how bad she wanted to win. There was a rivalry between us. I said several times that she was my biggest competition, and I think she said something similar about me… it felt like the perfect forum… me and her, woman to woman!
Did you head into the lip sync thinking you were going to win against Trinity?
No way! [Laughs] I’d be lying if I said that I could see anything other than [me leaving]… I knew it was going to be a good fight. Trinity is a stellar performer and she’s got a lot of tricks that I just don’t have…
Your placement as runner-up still has huge significance. What does it mean for you to be the first openly transgender person to make it this far on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Even hearing you say it is surreal. It would be life and career changing for a lot of people… there are trans women who are born entertainers who work in drag. I’m certainly not the only one, and I won’t be the last. But, many of the girls who work in the nightclubs just live in the nightlife, and they’re unable to step outside of that because there aren’t many opportunities for employment, across the board. There are so many limited opportunities and roadblocks and barriers, particularly for trans women of color. Performing is often the only viable outlet for earning a living, that or survival sex work, which is something I considered when I was convinced that I would never be accepted onto Drag Race, I thought the only way that I could get the healthcare that I need, because at the time I didn’t have insurance, was to engage in survival sex work. Not to take it to a dark place, I just had limited options. When I say it’s life-changing, that’s what I mean. It could potentially be a new outlet for trans women who didn’t think they have any other option, but they’re great performers whose talents we deserve to see.
It’s dark, but important. Do you think you have a new responsibility to the community now that you’ve succeeded?
That can be a part of the conversation, but when you say responsibility, it implies something is imposed upon me; it’s responsibility I’m eager to accept, one I would’ve carried whether I was on the show or not. I believe a drag queen’s responsibility is to entertain, but it’s also to be the voice of their community, and it’s something I’ve championed and wanted to do and wanted to keep close by… I don’t look at it as a burden. It’s not even a duty, it’s my desire to help my community have a better life.
I remember you told me earlier that a very prominent New York City queen told you you’d have to choose between being trans and being a drag queen and that you’d never work in the field again if you came out. What would you say to her now that you’ve made a name for yourself in this competition?
[Laughs]. Eat your words, bitch! Eat it! I’ll cook it up for you.
You’re serving already!
I’m serving it, honey! There have been plenty of naysayers and people with doubts. I don’t want to alienate them by throwing it back in their face. We all have something to learn, and hopefully this will be her opportunity to learn and change her mind when it comes to gender nonconforming people and where we fit and where we’re allowed to be, not only in our community but also in the world. Hopefully she – and other people – will learn. It’s not just people within the community; clearly, it’s also people outside of our community who have a lot of learning to do of where we belong… I want to be able to send this message to other trans people and other gender nonconforming people in their own lives, but also in the art form of drag. It’s time we change the trajectory.
Sasha and I are actually going on a college speaking tour to really connect all the dots between Drag Race fans and people who are experiencing some kind of variance in their gender identity and how they reconcile that, and the people who are going to be the future of our country.
I also want to talk about the reunion. Is there any bad blood between you and Valentina?
I can’t speak for any of the other girls, but I get along with Valentina really well, and I dare to say that it’s almost like an aunt-niece relationship, even though we’re sisters. [She has] a certain type of naiveté that we all go through… she has permission to learn, and her fans can learn with her that it’s inappropriate to make death threats and racist remarks to contestants on a show that’s trying to bridge gaps. That’s what my message to her was: If you’re against death threats, just let your fans know that, because your fans want to emulate you, and there’s a thin line between being a supporter and someone who’s taking it overboard. I wanted her to let her fans know, once and for all, that it wasn’t appropriate. That’s what my urge was. I wasn’t trying to attack her for who she is, I was just trying to ask her to do what’s right.
I think that was clear that was your intention. Why do you think this show’s fans are so particularly vicious on social media?
I didn’t know about all of the snakes and emojis that people were bombing onto people’s accounts until it happened to me… this show clearly has a wider reach and a larger audience than it ever has before. It has the drama, the glitz, the glam, the beauty, and it has stories of individual personalities that people attach to. I can understand why people get hype about it, but I think we have responsibilities as human beings to treat people the way we want to be treated… you can be shady and you can read, but eventually, you’re going to be shady to the wrong person.