By Joey Nolfi
April 01, 2017 at 10:00 AM EDT
Credit: VH1

RuPaul is cuckoo for Cynthia Lee Fontaine’s cucu — enough so that, during Friday night’s episode, he invited the previously eliminated season 8 stunner back for another shot at claiming the title of America’s Drag Superstar.

As special guest Lady Gaga watched from the judging panel, RuPaul brought the March 24 season 9 premiere to a screeching halt after announcing that a former contestant would return to the competition, cutting out on a cliffhanger as a pair of sky-high stilettos clicked down the runway. Viewers ultimately learned the shoes belonged to Fontaine, a comedy queen from Puerto Rico whom viewers elected as season 8’s Miss Congeniality in 2016.

Since then, Fontaine has gone into remission following a life-changing bout with stage 1 liver cancer, an unfortunate setback she says reframed her perspective on life and the Drag Race competition.

In EW’s exclusive interview with Fontaine below, the performer dishes on her new lease on life, the dynamism of the word “cucu,” and how those unflattering gym shorts that sent her packing last year have become a symbol of hope as she sashays into the future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Everyone is super excited to see you and your cucu return, but, girl, I have to ask you: Have you burned those shorts that got you eliminated last season yet?
No, I did not burn them! [Laughs.] A week ago it was a year since I was eliminated, and I posted a picture of me wearing the pants!

Oh yes, I did see that!
I think we learn from our mistakes, and that’s exactly what I’m going to prove on season 9. … Every time I see those pants, I don’t see a fail; I see an opportunity to motivate myself and inspire myself to be stronger! Cynthia is coming with an upgrade on makeup and hair and costumes!

So, what you’re saying is we’re not going to see the shorts on season 9?
Uh… we never know! [Laughs.]

But you’ve stepped up your wardrobe for this season, right? What can we expect?
You’re going to see more glam, more haute couture, and more complete looks. You’re going to see – from head-to-toe – a new Cynthia Lee Fontaine; more focused, healthier, and a more structured character!

… and a lot more cucu.
More cucu personality and craziness everywhere! I’m getting crazy with my new sisters in the work room! But, at the same time, you will see a more mature cucu. I’m becoming a mentor for all the girls because I’ve been through this experience before. It’s beautiful and encouraging to see me as the crazy, drunk Latina aunt character… but I click with season 9’s girls a little deeper because I’m their guidance. … You will see the girls a little more prepared because of [me].

You sound so excited about coming back, but I know there have been some queens in the past who’ve said they regretted their time on the show. What made you want to return?
I love to work with World of Wonder and RuPaul. She doesn’t give preference or special treatment. She treats all the girls equally. She tries not to involve her emotions and tries to be professional.

There were other queens to choose from, so why do you think Ru chose you over them?
She knew there was something missing! She knew I had a lot of potential and talent, but she wants to see a little bit more, especially with my looks because of the strong audition tape that I did. I knew she wanted more cucu. She wants to see the whole, entire, complete cucu!

I can’t get enough of you saying cucu. How many times can we look forward to you saying that word in season 9?
I think it’s going to be kind of annoying [laughs]. But, maybe it’s going to be as much as my hashtag on my Instagram. I hashtag “cucu” about 77,000 times, all the time, on my social media!

That’s exactly what we want to hear. I want it all the time.
Mama RuPaul actually doesn’t call me Cynthia Lee Fontaine anymore! When we were filming the show, “Cucu” was my name! [Laughs.] And Michelle [Visage], when she was directing, she was like, “Cucu, can you move to the left?” And I’d be like “Okay, perfect.” In my mind, I’d be like [comically sinister voice] “My name is not Cynthia; Call me Cucu!” [Laughs.]

What did you think of Shea Couleé calling your comeback a joke?
I think she thinks that because I’m a comedy drag queen, I’m a complete life joke, and I love it. The thing is, that’s a way to identify who I am… so it’s good in a certain way that she identified my character, and I hope she’s ready for the entire package that I’m presenting right now.

You’ve also been very open about your battle with cancer in the past, and we’re all so glad you’re okay. Do you feel that going through such a difficult thing made you a stronger competitor?
Mama RuPaul gave me the opportunity for a second chance, and I have a second chance in life. I “shantay, you stayed” on my life! I’ve been discharged from my oncologist, so that’s why I said yes to film season 9. … Any great chance, any great opportunity that I get, I need to take it — and not for granted. Whatever is coming in my career or whatever is coming in my life, I will accept it with open doors.

Unfortunately, we have heroes who’ve passed, and they don’t have the opportunity to still live it. Because of them, because of my family and because of my brother — who is not with me anymore because he passed away one year ago — that’s why I’m so happy to be alive and so happy to… be back again in the game. That’s my biggest motivational message I can give to all the fans: You can make mistakes or have obstacles and inconveniences, but there is always a new horizon of opportunity in the future if you believe.

Hashtag #KickCancerintheCucu! We did it! We fought a good fight, and now we can say life is so precious, even if you feel that you’re depressed, even if you feel emotional distress… you can stand on your feet and move on. As long as you have life, everything else is possible, and, baby, season 9… it’s going to be amazing.

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