RuPaul's Drag Race star Denali on weaponizing her BFA with excellence
If weaponizing a BFA is an art, Denali's guns for hire are impeccable grace, eye-popping athleticism, and an overall commitment to glamorous excellence. While fans caught a glimpse of it across her all-too-brief run on RuPaul's Drag Race, they have their sights set on a fruitful career ahead for the Chicago-based skating superstar.
Heading into Friday night's makeover challenge, Denali seemed poised for success: After winning her first challenge at the start of the competition, she was able to glide through each challenge with high praise from the judges, though a follow-up victory remained out of reach. Tasked with remixing Olivia Lux's regal aesthetic for the runway (and vice versa), Denali fully transformed her partner into a cold-weather queen, though Lux's taste was lost in translation as it carried over to Denali, and the pair lip-synced for their lives in a titanic showdown.
Following her Drag Race icing, EW caught up with Denali for a discussion on her relationship with Rosé, her decision to tell the judges Kandy Muse should sashay away, and more. Read on for the full conversation, and tune in to RuPaul's Drag Race season 13 when it returns Friday at 8 p.m. on VH1.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As much as I love the opportunity to talk with you, it breaks my heart to speak with someone who's so violently weaponized their BFA. It feels unethical.
DENALI: Oh, you know, I took my extremely dangerous, sharp weapon that is my Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, slapped on a wig, and went on the Drag Race!
That poor man's tweet was insane. Did he ever apologize?
No, he didn't reach out to apologize, but he did give me and Rosé a few extra thousand dollars [for charity] in our pockets, so that was cute. People are bored and at home, and they feel like we won't see these things because we're so busy. But I'm very active on Twitter, and I definitely saw it. We saw it as an opportunity to make some money for a good cause!
If you're weaponizing your BFA for charity, I'm all for it.
Right, let me weaponize this p---y, mama. Sorry!
Let's talk about this season, because you did so well. You also apparently made a lasting physical impression on set, because Miss Lala Ri jokingly told me that you might've incurred a bill because your skates cut the floor?
At the end of the day, nobody told me! If these tear up your floors, that's ya'll's fault! [Laughs] I'm sorry if I f---ed up the floors, but I'd do it again!
This episode started on a good note when the psychic picked up immediately on Rosenali. Is the crush real?
There's a little bit of truth to the crush! Rosé was instrumental in me having an impactful feeling of humanity at Drag Race. It can sometimes feel isolating, and she helped it feel a little more normal and real. The crush comes from the sense of a friendship crush. I'm so blessed to have been able to be on with her and get close to her. I love that girl.
Got it. So, no throuple situation like Derrick Berry with you, Rosé, and Rosé's boyfriend?
I mean, I have a boyfriend as well, which a lot of people don't know! But, no, it's definitely not, I love her very much, but, sister d--k will make you sick, as they say! [Laughs]
Well, the psychic was on to something… she also mentioned Utica's cow and Tina's dad, but, other than that, did the psychic say anything else that we didn't see?
She mentioned something about my grandmother, and my grandmother is the reason I named myself Denali, actually. She mentioned that there was somebody who was by somebody's bedside when they passed away, and I was near my grandmother's when she did. She was hospitalized at a place called The Denali Center, and those were my most impactful memories as a child, seeing a strong woman for the first time in my life, fighting for her life.
That's crazy that she sensed that! The Rosé thing was a little more obvious. You guys had such a good relationship on the show — she even saved you from a footwear disaster, I believe?
On the "Phenomenon" episode, I was going to wear these really sad dance biscuits, because I was so traumatized from the first episode because I was in those skates! I was going to wear the equivalent of a slipper because I need to be able to move and show the judges what I can do when I'm not locked in ice skates. I also had this pair of higher heels that were completely stoned, they were a little more uncomfortable to dance in, but Rosé convinced me to wear them because they were prettier. I think I did fine, because I won that challenge! Thank you, Rosé!
One of your storylines focused on how bad you wanted another win, and you seemed to take it harder than the others. After all of that striving, you said you were frustrated because you were in the bottom because of the work of someone else. How much input did you have in what Olivia put on you?
The makeover challenge was so crazy, I was really focused on my adaptations for the challenge. Unfortunately, there was a lot going on that day, and I had to hone in on what I was going to present on Olivia. I went with it, I trusted her aesthetic and her style that she'd presented already, so I went with it. Looking back, the real critique came from her not having shown that pageantry side yet, so the judges were confused by the branding. If I'd said anything, I would've said to put me in the big hair to become the youthful Olivia that we'd seen.
As fate would have it, this week contained the dreaded "who should go home?" runway question. While most people said Olivia, you ruffled Kandy Muse's feathers when you said her name. In Untucked, you said you chose her because you knew she was the strongest and could take it. I'm curious about that, because we all saw how Kandy reacted to Tamisha criticizing her in Untucked, and Kandy has long been open about her struggles with confidence. Why didn't knowing those things about Kandy keep you from saying her name?
As frustrated as I was with that question, I had the difficult task of [accepting] that we were the weakest of the challenge, but I'm never going to be one of those girls who says herself. I had the task of saying my partner, who I really struggled with…. but connected with dearly, while literally standing in her product, or saying somebody who I knew could take it. We had a conversation earlier that morning in the trailer. Kandy and I were joking that, because it was the top eight, that meant they would ask that question. Kandy said, "I'd just say someone that I knew would be safe." Part of me thought I could do that, because I don't like that question…. There were two people on that stage that had yet to win a challenge, and that was Tina Burner and Kandy Muse. So, there was a little bit of motivation under that to be like, well, you guys did well up to here, but you haven't won a challenge, so I'll say Kandy. I knew she was probably going to bark back, but it was a difficult choice that I had to make. I didn't really believe in it, I just said it.
It's understandable. Especially with your explanation in Untucked. But what was going through your mind when Kandy snapped back on the runway — especially after the conversation in the trailer?
Kandy is good at TV! So, I figured. A part of me wishes I'd explained that I chose Kandy because she's yet to win a challenge, which she probably would've barked back at again and said that I only won a challenge because it was against the Pork Chop girls, and I would've said, "Well, there's still $5,000 in my bank!" [Laughs].
This moment led to a really vulnerable moment for you in Untucked, where you broke down and cried. We've mostly seen you remain strong through struggles so far this season. Why was that moment — and when Olivia expressed how much she loved you all — the moment that broke those emotional barriers?
I was really tired. I was unbelievably exhausted at that point. I could see the writing on the walls, and I was trying not to feel defeated. I went into the lip-sync pretty confident, but that exhaustion translated to that emotion and that sense of my lack of presence in the lip-sync. I don't have any regrets, but part of me wishes I would've shaken it off and turned it out. Song choice also plays into how a lip-sync turns out. It was definitely a song I would never perform to, so it was a bit tougher to embody.
It didn't feel like you weren't present. It's definitely a departure from what you did with "100% Pure Love," but it's not bad.
I tried to serve them something a little different.
Was the outfit more constricting, or were you trying to keep with the theme of the song in taking this approach?
I was able to take the skirt off, but I felt it would be inappropriate to drop down to a thong bodysuit to a song that's basically about slavery. So, I didn't think it would've been appropriate to embody that song with kicks, flips, and things I showcased before. Did I want to be Latrice or did I want to be Kenya? Because I had the ability to be Kenya and do all the splits, but I just don't feel like it would've been received well.
It was unorthodox, but you rose to the challenge in your own way. I want to end by talking about Chicago drag, because this was a big week for it. Chicago drag king Tenderoni just won Alaska's Drag Queen of the Year pageant. What does Tenderoni's victory say to you about the vitality of the changing face of mainstream drag?
It's so important! I'm so proud. Tenderoni is one of my favorite entertainers in the whole world, and I'm so proud to be one of his good friends and proud of that performance he did. Even in a pandemic, he's so resilient. It showcases the diversity in drag, and I want to see a lot more of that representation in the world and in mainstream drag.
RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.