You can imagine it might be difficult to concentrate while sitting in a room filled with the echoing clack of high heels shuffling across the pavement of a New York City photo studio, a steady stream of cackling laughter rattling through the air, and the sound of makeup brushes crashing onto the floor among the general hoots and hollers of 13 excited drag queens preparing to shoot their patriotic cast photos for RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 (Friday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. on VH1). But, there’s a beauty, elegance, and grace to the chaos, a warm spirit of sisterhood that soothes the cacophony. You soon realize: This is a sweet family reunion, but one where each of the dazzling ladies — many of whom are actually men in wigs — want you to focus on her, and her alone, as she guns for $100,000 and the most coveted crown in reality television.
“The best word to describe season 12 is ‘OVANESS!’ Google it!” host and executive producer RuPaul exclusively tells EW of the upcoming installment of the Emmy-winning reality competition series, the full cast for which the network announced Thursday in a Twitter livestream event that was viewed over 2 million times before reaching No. 2 on the worldwide trending charts. According to Urban Dictionary, “OVANESS” essentially means an “effortless sharing of an entertainer’s truth” that “can only be attained by full realization of living.” In other words, expect less walking children in nature and more contestants dog-walking each other on the front lines of this year’s lip-sync stage, which, judging by EW’s first interviews with the new cast (below), is poised for a major stomping as the queens duke it out for the title.
“Our producers have come up with twisted, outrageous challenges that raise the bar for all competition of reality,” RuPaul adds. “Our celebrity guest judges are truly legendary. And this cast of queens is, dare I say, the most talented we’ve ever had. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a fresh crop of queens arrives and blows our minds all over again.”
Read on for EW’s first round of in-person interviews with the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 cast, during which they dish on themselves (throuples, lost wigs, and Adele play vital parts in their respective trajectories), the competition, and sticking together as a family as they sashay their way to superstardom.
In a room filled with drag queens in various stages of undress, squawking and hollering as a Carly Rae Jepsen song blares over nearby speakers, self-sufficient horror fan Aiden Zhane is making a loud impression by being the quietest one in the room. It’s no surprise, given her backstory: Raised in “the shadows of bumf— Georgia” without a single gay bar in town, Zhane is proof that you can build a credible drag empire on your own, in solitude, without leaving your house. In fact, this spooky sister — who paints like a cross between Marilyn Manson and Joan Crawford — filmed her entire Drag Race audition tape (lip-syncs and all) from inside her bedroom.
“It’s been a process of doing whatever the f— I want, because there’s been nobody there to tell me it isn’t right,” she says of skirting traditional rules and evading the city queen scene, which, in her case, typically involves painting herself in the vein of a classic scary movie screen queens with occasional pops of colorful cartoon inspiration. “When I perform, I’m not a dancer, I love expression, and I like to emote.”
Across her nine-year tenure as rural Georgia’s resident creep, she’s also converted another famous drag queen to the dark side: Dragula season 3’s St. Lucia, whom she dated for five years: “She got into it for me. We both shared the dream of making something of ourselves and getting on a show…. Everybody says it’s weird, like it should be flipped — she’s prettier, so she should be on Drag Race, and [I] should be on Dragula!”
New York City, N.Y.
Before most of her season 12 sisters have arrived, Brita is camera ready. As she approaches the couch for our interview, the Polynesian stunner flashes her impossibly white teeth as she tells me she’s unable to sit down for our chat (understandably so, as she’s wearing a $2,600 outfit crafted by three designers, covered in head-to-toe in hand-applied rhinestones). It could also be because the busy beauty is used to having little time to kick off her heels and relax on her own time as she’s one of New York City’s most famous queens, performing seven nights a week on top of appearing on Fusion TV’s Shade: Queens of NYC before performing on Saturday Night Live as a backup dancer for Katy Perry. And remember that time Adele and Jennifer Lawrence were filmed getting wild at a Manhattan drag bar? Yeah, they were there specifically to watch Brita.
“They said that they came to see me, and then Adele asked me to do her birthday party. She also asked me to do Jennifer’s bachelorette party, but I couldn’t because I was filming season 12!” Brita says. “Her next wedding, her next album release, I’m there, Adele!”
With that kind of celebrity endorsement, Brita headed into season 12 as one of the most seasoned queens on the runway, having also performed on theatrical stages — namely a production of Cinderella that launched her drag career: “I was so sick of doing those basic ass white musicals about f—ing Oklahoma or the South Pacific. If I had to do that one more time as an actor… they didn’t write anything for queer people of color, so what better thing to create this persona as a queer person of color? She’s an actor who became a dragtress.”
Brita warns that the warm personality she’s known for might’ve cracked (a bit) as cameras rolled for season 12, but she “caught” herself before it got ugly, and learned from her mistakes in what she hopes will register as “human moments,” much like the atmosphere she tries to create at her drag shows in the city: “When I started drag, I felt like I didn’t belong in my community and I wanted to make sure every show I did was that I made people feel welcome and everybody was allowed to be whoever they wanted to be at my show.”
Some of her season 12 sisters have (playfully, affectionately, lovingly) warned: Crystal Methyd might have a mullet. She’s unorthodox, to say the least. But, the half-ready, wide-eyed queen wearing a pair of cozy, multi-colored socks and slippers that rest comfortably underneath a fully beaten mug (with cherry-red glitter in place of lipstick and eyelashes that jutt out from her face like peacock feathers) before she finishes dressing herself for the shoot gives off a warm, maternal midwestern charm that could put anyone at ease. “With my name, it’s maybe ‘inappropriate,’ or people think I’m going to be nasty or gross. Meth is kind of an issue where I live, so I wanted to represent my hometown and bring awareness, but drag is just about taking care of each other and loving each other,” she says. “My humor isn’t sexual, I’ve never been one of those people who makes fun of the audience, and I just want everyone to feel like they’re included.”
So, she started a recurring drag night, Get Dusted, in her hometown, but here’s the gag: She loves hosting it at “grungy, rock” themed straight bars. “It makes people feel less afraid to go in there for some reason. The fact that it’s a gay club, some people don’t even want to step foot in there,” she says. “It’s an all-ages show, parents bring their young teenagers in, and it’s fun to see support for all the community.”
In essence, always expect the unexpected when stepping into the world of Crystal Methyd: “I really love color and glitter, I’m not really worried about looking like a woman. I’ve always been so feminine, so I’m going to bring that into whatever I’m wearing. I like to be a monster or cartoon character, I want people to not really understand what’s happening,” she muses with a light twang in her voice. “One look that I really liked, I just painted myself white with white tights that I put pillow stuffing in, and I was this weird blob. When I posted it online I asked, ‘What am I?’ and the comments were so funny. [People thought I was], um, j—z. You know?” No, we don’t. But we’re on board for the ride, wherever she’s taking us.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Dahlia Sin knows she’s hot. She is, after all, perhaps the first queen in Drag Race history to pose nude atop a floating donut (a since-deleted Instagram photo proved as much). “I’m more of a sex queen, or, known as a sex worker. I just call myself a sex queen. I give full-on sex when I’m on stage,” explains Sin. “I’ve always felt like a sexual person, not meaning I like to have sex, I’ve always been very sensual as a boy, so I transitioned it into my drag.”
How does one hone such skills as a self-described “sexy, banjee, c—” who’s perfect, gorgeous, and looks like Linda Evangelista? She got it from her mama, of course: “She put me in drag the first time seven years ago,” Sin says of her drag mother, All-Stars 3 alum and rising rap star Aja. “I was a club kid for two years, then I transitioned into doing more drag. Back then, it was more creepy. I think I just stuck to the creepy stuff because I didn’t know how to paint myself, so I did whatever on my face until I learned what I wanted to do.”
Now, she focuses on performing beautiful burlesque numbers, rap sets, and posting stunning editorials to her Instagram page, where she’s already followed by nearly 60,000 people. “In my head, I was thinking I [couldn’t] let my fans down, so it was a lot of pressure for that reason,” she says of the stress of heading into Drag Race with a pre-established following, but she doesn’t want to be boxed into the category of “look queen,” either. “I’m not a comedy queen, but I’m super funny. I can’t come up with jokes, but I’m funny in my own dorky way.”
Case in point? The way she describes seeing the season 12 queens for the first time: “My first impression when I walked into the Werk Room was ‘ew’ to a lot of queens,” she remembers, laughing. “I won’t say who. Remember when Ru said ‘meh’ [on season 11]? That’s what I thought.”
Los Angeles, CA
Gigi Goode gets so into her craft, even Mother Nature is trying to sabotage her. Like that time a particularly strong gust of wind (combined with an epic hair flip) once sent her wig flying over the side of a Los Angeles skyscraper during a rooftop performance. “I didn’t notice until the end of my number, but, bitch, the wig flew,” she says. And, given the way she’s dressed as we converse — tall, lanky, in a textured outfit with a cape that reads as if she leapt from the pages of a 1960s superhero comic — you’d believe her if she told you she jumped off the side of the building after it. She is a slave to fashion, hair, and makeup, after all, given her mother rearing her on her talents as a theatrical costume designer and interior designer, which inspired Goode’s transformation into a life-sized drag doll at the age of 15.
“My female idols weren’t Britney or Beyoncé…. My women icons were the illustrations on clothing patterns, those disproportionate women in these insane poses wearing the most incredible things. I stretch my ankles in a way where I can pose them like that, and it’s definitely not good for me, but it’s that unrealistic beauty I try to hard to reach,” she explains. While she’s both “horny for” and “a slut for” a runway (and has ambitions of working them from Paris to Milan), her live performances deliberately rail against the rigidity of fashion poise.
“I love getting out onstage as a pretty fashion girl and striking a pose, but as soon as the song starts, my jaw is on the floor, my eyes are as wide as they can be, I’m shaking and grooving…. like a giant spaghetti noodle in fashion,” Goode says. “I don’t care if I look a fool. A lot of queens have a tendency to be careful with what they do so they don’t mess anything up,” she finishes, pausing briefly. “F— that!”
Heidi N Closet only has one eyelash on. It makes the usually unnoticeable, natural human tic of blinking an unmissable piece of facial performance art (hello, Gia Gunn), as her monolithic, singular lash bounces up and down, brushing her cheek while she throws her head back to laugh at her own (hilarious) observations, all before she can get back to finishing her makeup. But her irresistible personality makes up for the other eye’s (momentary) lack of lash-based enhancement, and it’s immediately clear that Heidi isn’t your average pageant girl.
“Not everything has to be rhinestoned out the ass. I kind of walk the line of old-school pageant line with new school flair,” the semi-trained dancer (who was once judged on the circuit by Drag Race legend Stacy Layne Matthews) says, though she doesn’t buy into the “cutthroat” stigma that’s long followed pageants. “I help other girls, because if I’m going to win, I want you to be at your best, too, so I can say I whooped your ass when you were at your best.”
When I ask about “Blessed and highly favored,” a phrase (and hashtag) she frequently uses, she tells me it’s helped give her the confidence required to overcome her past as a closeted child raised in a Southern Baptist household. “I have a strong background of churchgoing, so it’s a way of saying if you’re feeling amazing about yourself and everything is going well, you’re feeling very blessed by the Lord and favored because he keeps giving it to you,” she says. “I grew up feeling like everything I was doing and feeling was wrong, so it took a toll on me. Like, why am I like this? Why am I being taught that everything I’m feeling is wrong and that I’m going to go to hell for being who I am? I have an older sibling, she’s a trans woman, and she was a gateway for me to understand things about myself and see the other side of what I am.”
Thus, the performer jumped out, and she hasn’t looked back since. As for the season ahead, she hints that her larger-than-life attitude reared on the pageant circuit may or may not come out to play: “I would never be troubled. I’m a good, Christian southern belle. She’s a darling, honey,” Heidi chirps with a smirk. “The group is such a lovely group of girls who are all so different. We care for each other and always want each other to be our best [so] I wouldn’t say no drama. I would never start drama,” she concludes, “but I finish drama.” *Blinks*
New York City, N.Y.
She’s in full face, clad in a super cozy ensemble that can best be described as a fun, gay onesie fit for luxuriating around the house on a Sunday afternoon. She’s clearly in the early stages of putting on a full look, but Jackie Cox’s commitment to narrative — and improvising in the moment — is apparent from the start. “I picked this out for you,” she jokes, referencing the ensemble. She has a penchant for making people laugh, even when it comes to spinning a backstory about her no-innuendos-here-at-all stage name. Or so she says.
“I don’t think I realized it had innuendo until like four years in. My mind just wasn’t there,” Cox says. “She’s a character, a Broadway girl…. I thought of her as that, not as a slut. I guess it is kind of a slutty name. I would offer hand jobs, but they’re covered in powder.”
She hopes that comedic nature — reared as a self-described “nerdy kid” obsessed with Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie (two shows she often channels in her drag) — can help heal divides both on and off the show. “Some people see [drag queens] as the clowns of the community, but I see us as spiritual guides. We’re here to help heal the divisions, and comedy is a great way to do that,” says Cox, who caught the eye of Andy Cohen after a few appearances (once as a drag version of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Rinna) on Watch What Happens Live!, which later allowed her to book a gig on the Bravo float at Pride. “I guess I have her blessing in the sense that she always reposts everything [I do as her], and she’s commented in interviews that she thinks it’s fun.”
Cox also promises the real season 12 money shot isn’t all about comic distraction. “We do talk about politics this season as well, but the focus is on us and our stories and our drag,” she remembers. “In seasons past, there’s been a lot of, I won’t say frivolous drama, but it’s less about that for us. If and when drama may or may not arise, it’s coming out of the drag, it’s not just ‘I don’t like you.'”
“If you feel like, today, you want to be the Grinch, then, baby be the Grinch. Drag is all about expression. Whatever I’m feeling, I just let it out in drag.”
Such is the drag philosophy of Jaida Essence Hall, who combines a dazzling mix of spooky character creations with classic pageant beauty to create a hybrid queen who can do it all.
“Clearly, I’m very much trade. I do live for the transformation. There’s something so sickening about the art. Drag is the embodiment of being who you want to be,” she says of balancing her masculine energy with the feminine art. “People would never expect me to be like this glamorous doll that loves beautiful things in a rich fantasy. I think I’m the one percent, even though I have no money to pay my rent at the end of this month. It’s not just [a physical] transformation of myself to Jaida, but an emotional shift when I get in drag. I stand up a little bit better, I feel more sexy. I move more snakey and slithery and slinky!”
She’s also sharpened her fangs on the pageant circuit, but doesn’t like to be known as a pageant girl, per se. “I’ve been doing drag for 10 years, and I’ve done two pageants in the last two years, but in the grand scheme I’ve maybe won about 12 beautiful titles,” she says, laughing at the implication that she’ll gladly take the titles, but not the label. “I did a lot of competitions and lost a lot of competitions, but eventually I realized that just doing pageants is not enough. You have to learn how to be a good performer and interact with a crowd, and that made me better as a performer. Being a showgirl and entertainer is more important than just competition!”
New York City, N.Y.
Born from the metaphorical loins of season 9’s Alexis Michelle, her drag mother, New York City’s Jan Sport — yes, she’s named after a backpack — has showgirl excellence in her drag DNA. Enough that she went toe-to-toe with Simon Cowell as part of her performative trio Stephanie’s Child on season 14 of America’s Got Talent, when the hot-tempered judge infamously likened the group’s vocals to “screaming.” That didn’t go over well with Sport, who refused to roll over and quickly fired back at Cowell.
“I have no idea what went on with him. When I look back at the tape I’m like, I’m not screaming… I will always get to say that Simon Cowell told me that I was screaming. That’s great, I can accept that!” she remembers. That attitude could come in handy as she steps into the notoriously contentious Drag Race Werk Room, but, for now, she’s into the idea of bonding with her sisters versus overshadowing them. “I love the Frock Destroyers,” she says of the beloved girl group formed on season 1 of Drag Race UK. “I would love to reach out to the girls for a [Stephanie’s Child] collaboration. We could be Little Mix 2.0!”
New York City, N.Y.
Fashion muse Nicky Doll (very knowingly) boasts a severe exterior: “She’s a doll lost between Shibuya in Tokyo and any Red Light district, so she’s an anime prostitute,” the France native says. “She likes to paint like very ‘90s, Linda Evangelista, Mugler, but with a little twist of villains from anime. Sometimes people think I’m a bitch, but that’s just the way I paint. I’m sweet under this, I promise!”
That juxtaposition of look and attitude is where Doll draws most of her performative power.
“She can be very pretty or very urban and have her ass out. She can dance. She’ll surprise you by being so poised, but when you see her on stage, you’re like, oh, she’s a hoe,” she jokes. “As soon as I open my mouth, people realize I’m not just a stuck-up bitch. That’s already debunking. Being a look queen [used to be] a forte, but now you’re going to be even more attacked because they’re looking for something else. I have the confidence to go outside of my comfort zone and not just be a beauty queen.”
In fact, she doesn’t even see herself as traditionally “beautiful,” describing her drag application process as a deliciously monstrous undertaking: “My favorite part of drag is to sketch, design, think about the look. I like to tell a story. To me, a look isn’t just looking pretty, it’s art on its own. Between the time I sketch it to I’m fully done, it takes two weeks to work on one look. The makeup? Two and a half hours. I play music and make a little drink, it’s a ritual. I erase my boy self and let the monster take over.”
San Francisco, Calif.
You probably just pronounced Rock M. Sakura’s name wrong. And that’s okay. In fact, the San Francisco queen prefers it.
“People say ‘suh-kurr-a,’ which sounds more like ‘suck,’ and I love self-deprecating,” she says. “I love when people mispronounce my name because I hate being alive.”
After one look at Sakura’s drag arsenal, however (which includes giant hair, anime-style paint, manga-inspired costumes, and aesthetic flair lifted from the best Japanese and Korean pop idols), it’s clear she’s here to serve your life for days.
“I always say that I was not raised by my parents, I was raised by television and video games,” she describes, citing East Asian music (Utada Hikaru, Perfume) and fashion runways as key influencers. “I used to dance at the bus stop to the Naruto opening, and I do J-Pop and K-Pop numbers [now]. More than anything, I want to be a J-Pop anime idol because of the joy they bring to people’s lives.”
One such joy of Sakura’s performance style — which she’s explored alongside Dragula season 2’s Erika Klash, a friend and frequent collaborator — is her willingness to get so “explosive” and “messy” that her live numbers sometimes require a tarp. “I will ruin my drag for a good number. I do one to Utada’s ‘Simple and Clean,’ and I reveal sponges for my boobs and I start cleaning the audience. I spray them with Gatorade in a bottle, then I do a wig reveal and there’s a mop on my head. I put it in a bucket and then I mop the floor.”
Monét X Change, scrub your little sponge heart out.
New York City, N.Y.
We’re all born naked and the rest is drag — except for Sherry Pie, whose slice of life allegedly began after she “shot out” of her “mother’s vagina wearing kitten heels and glitter” and into an upstate New York town where she molded her “heinous” early craft into a gilded career from within a (far less appealing) circle consisting of “dudes in dresses.” A course-correcting move to New York City (with a penchant for stage theatrics in tow) eventually saw her blossom into the “Julie Taymor of drag” as she concocted elaborate, unapologetically queer productions with full sets and costumes six nights per week.
“You have to be good to be able to hold that spot, and I do a lot of high-production shows. I don’t just stand up there and do a show,” she explains, claiming that her numbers also serve a vital purpose as the only Manhattan sets that consistently raise money for various LGBTQIA causes. “Drag shows have gotten away from being a community thing to raise up our community and to poke fun at our community. At a good drag show, you should laugh and cry, and [asking for donations] is our serious moment.”
She also promises “plenty” of drama on her end this season, but that’s all in the family, too: “Family fights. And this season is family. It’s amazing, because right now in our community we need to [remember] that we are family, we’re not separate.”
Kansas City, Mo.
She’s a “ratchet ass queen in high-class fashion,” she looks “like money,” but talks “like s—t,” and she’s fully prepared to set straight all who cross her. Just ask one particular ex-boyfriend of Widow Von’Du — a pageant beauty and recording artist who calls herself “the original plus-sized Barbie” as she bucks circuit traditions while snatching titles — who didn’t give her the respect she deserves.
“He wasn’t working. He was f—ing around on me, and he got real drunk and swung on me. I leaned back, and the next thing I know, the big ass dude underneath all this makeup came out!” she recalls with a laugh, adding that, after struggles with drug abuse and romantic woes, she’s the happiest she’s ever been with Drag Race stardom looming and her blossoming rap career on the rise. She’s even made room for, well, two new men in her life. “I’m married to a wonderful man. We’ve been together for three years, and I have a new boyfriend, we have a great throuple. I enjoy life. I work all the time. I get to see exciting things, and now I’m going to see the world.”
While her love life has entered a new phase of placidity, her music reflects the “ups, downs, and struggles” she’s faced throughout her life, but she makes sure to spit her game like a “ratchet ass queen in high-class fashion” so you make no mistakes about her dedication to the craft: “I don’t f— around. This is my life. Some people do this as a hobby, I do this as a career. All I’ve done the last 10 years is drag… I wouldn’t cross me. They call me widow for a reason!”
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