Alyssa Edwards' Dancing Queen reframes the American Dream for queer youth: 'This is a triumphant' gay story
Within the first two episodes of his new Netflix docuseries Dancing Queen, 38-year-old Justin Johnson buys a house, muses on making the house a home alongside a lover (and, in time, a few kids), officiates a wedding, goes on a date, and breezes in and out of his thriving Beyond Belief dance business — a competitive studio for young girls, boys, and their cutthroat dance moms — with entrepreneurial pep in his step. It’s a far, traditional cry from the tongue pops, glitter guns, and mirror-mugging he brought to RuPaul’s Drag Race as Alyssa Edwards, the “good, southern Christian woman” drag persona fans fell in love with across two seasons of the Emmy-winning VH1 series. And though his drag pursuits take a backseat to the “real” Johnson’s personal and professional lives in Dancing Queen, Edwards intermittently rears her blonde, Texas-sized head as a fairy guide who joins two halves of the same man into a vital, slice-of-life portrait that aims to show its young audience a well-rounded portrait of a queer person striving for — and attaining — the same American Dream typically reserved for their straight peers on such a mainstream platform.
Ahead of Dancing Queen‘s Oct. 5 Netflix premiere, EW caught up with Johnson to dissect his new normal, from dating men with big trucks (and an even bigger penchant for mustard), becoming an ordained minister, his no-nonsense approach to dance-coaching, why you shouldn’t compare his work to Dance Moms, and re-introducing himself — and Edwards — to his fans all over again in his most daring (back) role yet. Read on for the full conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re doing it all in this series: Officiating weddings, running a dance studio, doing drag, dating. Why did you wanted to present your life in such a multi-faceted way as opposed to what people are familiar with on Drag Race?
ALYSSA EDWARDS: First and foremost, it’s important for me to be authentically, genuinely, and unapologetically myself. This is a docuseries, so this isn’t a produced reality. What you see is what was really going on. I’ve been around the world, and I think have experienced the Alyssa Edwards journey. You guys have a good idea of who and what Alyssa Edwards is and about. But there’s a man behind the magic and the mask, who has another life and world that’s just as important. The combination of the two makes this series special… This is a triumphant story, and hopefully, it inspires another little Justin somewhere in the world. Watching it, did you feel like you got to meet another side of me?
I do. I responded most to the fact that “Alyssa” is like the fairy godmother in the confessionals, guiding us along but not necessarily in the story as much.
I didn’t ask any of that; I just said, “Look, I’m going to be myself. I’m going to show up, I’m going to do what I do, and I’m going to allow you guys to stand in the corner, but you have to stay far back because it can get action-packed! Film, make this beautiful, make this count, make it mean something to today’s time and the world.” I want this to be so full of hope and motivation rather than just another dance show. We already have those. This has to be true to who I am… the kids of Beyond Belief, they’re there because they all make decisions. I’m tough as nails, and you see some of that. These kids are sharing their stories, too.
I love that you’re not afraid to really whip them into shape. When they’re rejected you’re telling them they should cry, that they need that disappointment and to experience struggle. I think kids are babied too much these days. Why is it vital for you to do the opposite?
It’s the way I was raised. My father was very strict. He saw me on stage one time, kind of by accident. My mother [only saw me] a handful of times. I had to do it a lot on my own, but I think that carved me out to be the strong man that I am today because I had to fight for what I believed in. I had to work and earn it. I want the kids to do the same. I want them to earn whatever it is they want to accomplish. I want them to push themselves harder than they ever believed they could.
Do you approach them with a parental perspective?
Maybe in the sense that I’m the guncle, the gay uncle! I’m such a huge part of these kids’ lives. We’ve spent holidays together, I’ve been to their schools for events, they’ve been to my house. They probably see me more than they see some of their other relatives! When you pull up to the studio, the sign says: “Beyond Belief Dance Company: A family of champions.” And I created that along with the Haus of Edwards. My brothers and sisters started having children at a very early age, and I was just there all alone at one point, like, what do I do? And I thought the only thing I can do is create mine, make my family, and I did that. It’s a studio and my chosen family.
Ru says that on the show all the time: the gay community gets to pick their family. It’s nice to see a representation of that outside the drag world, where you find your chosen family is outside the queer community.
That’s the 100 percent truth. It’s the reality of my life… There’s so much more than just tongue-pops, splits, and kicks. Don’t get me wrong, that’s fabulous, but I think the depth and the amount of work I’ve put into this studio as an entrepreneur — now a businessman — [speaks for itself], seeing as I built that studio in a garage.
And here you are now on Netflix. I’ve heard some Dance Moms comparisons, so I have to know: are you afraid of encroaching upon convicted criminal Abby Lee Miller’s territory? She’s got prison credibility now. I need to know if you’re prepared for that fight.
You’ve seen me on TV not once, not twice, but three times now! You know I’m fearless. I’ve already fought the good fight. I’m alive. I’m happy… there will be none of that. But, this show is so different from hers. There will be no pyramids, no charades, and in her series, dance is a very small part. It’s more about her interaction with the moms. Mine has quite a bit of that as well, but it also shows me navigating through my life. There’s so much more heart. Do you think it’s similar to Dance Moms?
There are similar elements. You do say at one point: “Three things are certain in life: Death, taxes, and crazy dance moms.” I always thought Dance Moms was an exaggeration of real behavior, but I see elements of it here, too. It’s no joke. These women are out for blood.
I don’t know what happens on Dance Moms. I did see a couple of episodes, and [I feel] it’s a “produced” reality show… with my show, here’s the real tea: this is a true Texas gig. The personalities are bigger, right along with the hair, the denim, and the lashes, and we’re all competitive. When you combine a Texas woman in a competition setting with her child, she gets very serious. But at the same time, they’re also very respectful to me. They have this respect that they hold so dear that kind of keeps me going in all of this outside of my love and passion for it. Those moms truly respect me and they give me the opportunity to mentor their children and be that tough-love coach. I’m more than just a dance teacher and choreographer. I said this on Drag Race, too, but winning isn’t everything; wanting to is. You can define your own win. What is important to you? Is it a trophy? Is it a plaque? Is it a medal? Is it a crown? Every case is different. And I’m tough with the moms, too. I don’t take no mess. I let them know straight up: pay your tuition on the first. After the fifth, you’re going to pay the late fee. And don’t ask me to waive it.
As you say on the show: “No ma’am!”
No ma’am! But I think we’re a family…. This is it. And I’m going to say it and repeat it a hundred times because that is what that is for me. Family is for good, right, bad, wrong, and indifferent.
Something else I learned about you in the first episode: Miss Alyssa, you’re ordained! You can perform weddings!
You know I’m a good, southern Christian woman. And I was like, what can I do next with my career? I know what I can do: I can officiate these weddings!
I think we should change the official wedding dialogue to your, “Let them speak now or forever shut your mouth.” I want to say that at every wedding I go to from now until I die.
I thought that was the silliest, campiest, and wildest thing I have done to date with my career. But it was very fun and rewarding!
Should drag queens officiate all weddings? Would the divorce rate be lower?
[Laughs] I don’t know if the divorce would be lower but it would definitely be a good old gay time.
Speaking of weddings: your love life is explored here, too. Drag Race often features contestants talking about the difficulties of dating in drag. Were you perhaps apprehensive about putting that part on camera?
Not at all. I’m at a point in my life where I do want to date. One feeling we all share is the feeling of love. And it’s important to have that affection. Now, it’s all very new for me to be dating. I’ve gone on dates before and I’ve had casual boyfriends, but I’ve just been so career-driven and focused. I wanted the studio to become everything I’d ever imagined or dreamed, and I knew that would take a lot of time, so I was realistic. The only thing I was apprehensive to show was how socially awkward I am on dates and how kooky I’m going to look. But in the end, if that’s authentically who I am, so be it!
Yeah, talking about mustard on a date like you do in episode 1, I don’t think it gets worse than that.
Oh God, the country boy? Was it just awful?
I thought you seemed more engaged than him. It was awful on his part.
That’s a good thing!
Another good thing: It’s so important for young people to see you buying a house and starting a family. It’s such a powerful thing for queer kids to see on TV: a gay drag queen chasing the traditional American Dream.
It’s significant and it’s important because it goes back to this show being hopeful and motivational. It’s sophisticated for adults but inspiring enough for adolescents. It’s a family-viewing series. In my panel at DragCon, a dad in a camouflage shirt raised his hand and asks me — while I’m sitting there in full drag — “Justin, can you give me advice as a dad with a son like you?” It’s like you’re waiting on the world to change, but I’m actually living it, because I wonder: If there was a DragCon when I was a child or even a search engine or RuPaul’s Drag Race, maybe my father would have been different. Maybe our relationship now wouldn’t be different. So, I’m very proud that this series is going to reach out to different audiences. We need shows like this on TV right now… especially today!