RuPaul's Drag Race winner Jaida Essence Hall wants black kids to remember: 'Who I am is enough'
It's 9:48 p.m. on Friday night, a mere 18 minutes after Jaida Essence Hall found out she'd become the 12th crowned queen in the RuPaul's Drag Race kingdom. From her apartment in Milwaukee, the newly anointed royal fights back tears of excitement as she speaks to EW on the evening of her coronation, the emotion in her voice thick and palpable as her signature, buttery smooth confidence gives way to unbridled (and high-pitched) exclamations of pure joy.
But Hall's living room — where she's locked down in quarantine amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — isn't just the place where she found out she'd won television's most prestigious drag pageant (over 11 other fierce competitors), it's literally the battleground where she fought for her crown during an unprecedented finale filmed remotely from each queen's respective home.
"I filmed everything in this living room, which I hated [before]," Hall jokes. On the surface, it's a typical space: A crisp white couch sits in front of a heavily curtained window flanked by two lamps; a patterned carpet rests on the floor under one of those $10 Ikea tables. "But now," Hall continues, "it’s iconic."
"Iconic" is just one of the many things Hall herself has been called throughout her Drag Race run. Other descriptors have labeled the 33-year-old a national treasure, a spirited diva, and an unofficial keeper of the word “chile” (which she loves to squeal when she's confused, befuddled, bewildered, etc.), among others. While she's a multi-hyphenate everything in every sense of the word, the best part about Hall's presence throughout the competition is that Jaida has been simply Jaida; not a character, no forced or gimmicky personality embellishments hammed up for the cameras. She's simply been a genuine bolt of addictive energy from start to finish, and RuPaul rightly gave her one of the queer community's foremost platforms to share it with the world.
It's a position Hall doesn't take lightly, especially given her status as a black, queer entertainer celebrating a distinct moment of joy while Americans concurrently protest police brutality in the wake of several black citizens' recent deaths — particularly the murder of George Floyd, whose death Monday has since sparked a wave of nationwide demonstrations against racism.
"I hope I can inspire so many young black people like myself who never feel like they’re special or that what they offer the world isn’t important," Hall says of her position, choking back tears. "Hopefully, they see this and realize, 'What I am and who I am is enough, I matter, and I have something special to offer to the world.'"
Read on for EW's full interview with RuPaul's Drag Race season 12 winner to find out what Hall's special something is, how she lip-synced toward victory, and where she goes from here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Miss Jaida! I’m so proud of you! How are you feeling right now?
JAIDA ESSENCE HALL: It’s one thing when you imagine that you can make a dream happen, but it’s another when the dream actually happens. Hearing my name was like, chile, what the f—?
If I’m calculating correctly, you’re taking home the biggest prize on a main season of Drag Race. You’re the $117,000 queen, with all three challenge wins and the $2,000 from Pantene. How does it feel to be the most expensive woman from the show?
I think that means I can get $117,000 worth of shoes, but I’m trying to be responsible. To win so much money as somebody who came from a life where I used to have to fight with my brother for who would sleep on the bed or who would sleep on the floor, now I’m buying beds for everybody! We all get beds with a canopy!
Right now, are you in that same room you filmed your finale lip-syncs in? Is that your living room?
I filmed everything in this living room, which I hated [before]. But now it’s iconic.
That little $10 Ikea table next to you the whole time!
Bob’s Discount Furniture! And a few parts from Ikea.
What was the inspiration behind choosing to do “Get Up” by Ciara while laying down on your couch in the living room, and then getting up to dance around your home?
I chose the song because it’s one that I love to perform and entertain people [with]. We had to lip-sync from home, and I thought, if I’m going to be at home, I want to showcase what we’re all going through! I’m at home, in my robe, chilling like everybody else. In my mind, [the narrative] was like if quarantine was ending… I’d pull off my housecoat to have a party!
You also turned it out so hard for the “Survivor” lip-sync. How did you approach choreographing that one, and was it challenging to adapt for such a small space?
People think performances always need constant high energy with a lot of dancing. For me, sometimes it’s about connecting to the emotions. I gave a little bit of that performative energy, but at the same time I wanted it to be about overcoming stuff. The show is a crazy process, so I thought it was important to highlight that I’m surviving, I’m making it, I’ve done it, I’ve gone through this long journey, and I’m coming out on the other end as a winner. This is crazy — I won Drag Race!
Did you sustain any injuries or smack your legs on furniture while practicing in such a small space?
No, but I did scrape the front of my boobs on the carpet. It was a little difficult!
As fabulous as you were on the show, I think you were also the most meme’d queen of the season. The internet made you into cartoon characters, they rhymed your name with everything… what’s been your favorite Jaida meme?
One of the things I loved the most was when everybody was doing the thing where they rhymed my name with stuff, like Jaida Essence Darth Maul, Jaida Essence Mall, and someone did Jaida Essence Trolls, and I was like, that doesn’t even rhyme, but they took my stars and stripes look and put little pasties over the trolls with red white and blue hair, and I was gagging. One of my favorites was also the one of me going “Look over there!” over a photo of a UFO going across the sky, right after the [recent] UFO thing came out [in the news].
Also heavily meme’d: Your love for the word “chile.” How long have you been saying that as your go-to reaction when you’re confused?
I think “chile” belongs to all of us. When we all get tired of people or get stressed out or confused, we all deliver a “chile.” It’s crazy, before I left for the show, I never even realized I said it that much. When I was there, everybody was like, “You say ‘chile’ a lot,” and I was like, “Do I?” It’s probably been for my whole life. Since I was a chile!
You made all of your own outfits this season, right?
Not everything! The few looks I didn’t make were the yellow tulle look and the bridal look, but everything else was made by me. My lip-sync looks and my final eleganza were made by a designer in Chicago, Joshuan Aponte, who is amazing and helped me win!
Did you tell him what you wanted for the orange “Survivor” lip-sync look — specifically with the crown on the cape that you raised above your head?
I told him that whatever it is, I want an amazing twist. I don’t always want to do the same thing over and over. We needed to be as big as possible, as loud as possible… We went back and forth, he sent me the sketch, and I loved it!
My favorite look was your, well, I’ve just been calling it the star-spangled p—y. Can we please talk about that and where the hell the idea came from?
I sat down to sketch, and I thought about what I could do to make [the theme] more creative. I thought about what role drag queens play in America. If I’m a drag queen and the theme is stars and stripes, what do I have to offer to America? Drag queens are superheroes. You think about Stonewall, and trans women and drag queens have been fighting right on the front lines…. They’ve been like superheroes for our community, so, bitch, I’m going to come in as an American superhero!
And just put a star over the p—y, that takes the tribute over the top!
Literally. It’s almost like Striperella meets Captain America meets Captain America again!
On a serious note, you talked in the finale about growing up in a bad neighborhood, and when Ru asked you to speak to your younger self, you said: “So many times, things that you think are for you, you won’t receive, but those things are only there to make you stronger in the end.” Can you elaborate on what you were talking about?
There have been so many times in my life when I’d go to school to work my hardest, because that’s the American dream: If you work really hard, you’ll be successful. My parents didn’t have that, and they couldn’t give us the things they wanted to, even though they worked as hard as they did. It’s the idea of, even if I can’t give my kids the things that I want, I can at least give them values enough to be successful in the way we hope they can be. I’d go to school and work hard, but I still wasn’t getting it, and I’d beat myself up over those things. The older I got, I started to learn that if something didn’t happen for me, then it wasn’t meant to happen for me, because whatever else that’s waiting for me on the other side is greater.
I auditioned for season 7, and I didn’t make season 7, and when I didn’t make it, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t audition for the show again. Maybe I’m not good enough. But it’s supposed to happen when it’s supposed to happen. That doesn’t mean stop grinding and stop trying your best, because, eventually, you will get what you need if you keep pushing.
There’s so much to celebrate right now, but the world is hurting for many reasons, and I don’t want to ignore the significance of watching a black drag queen win a title on a mainstream platform, especially right now with everything happening in Minneapolis. Is it difficult for you to have a moment of joy during this time and is there anything you want to say about what’s happening as you accept the title?
Growing up and being a black person, it’s one of those things where you can’t escape it. Even if I lived in a bad neighborhood and left where I was living, I couldn’t escape [prejudiced attitudes toward] the color of my skin, no matter how hard I tried. Even when I first started my drag career, there were so many people who were like, “Maybe you should just stick to doing this kind of music,” trying to keep me in a box and keep me smaller. Right now, with what’s happening in the world, [I love] to be a black queen winning Drag Race, to be a black queen just being myself, to be a black queen who’s from where I’m from, to be a black queen who loves being a black queen while celebrating all the things about myself that make me unique in being a beautiful black person. The main thing I hope from this is that I send a message to younger, black queer people, which is so crazy, because that’s what I wanted to do the most when I first got the call [to be on the show]. I hope I can inspire so many young, black people like myself who never feel like they’re special or that what they offer the world isn’t important. Hopefully, they see this and realize, "What I am and who I am is enough, I matter, and I have something special to offer to the world."
Jaida, you’re making me tear up right now.
I’m a p—y, I’m sorry!
No, you’re a strong symbol! I’m so thrilled you can do that with your platform. Is there anything else you want to add on top of that?
I have to thank all the people who’ve believed in me since day one, even when I didn’t know I wanted to be a drag queen, the people who were like, “You would look great in a pair of pumps.” They were right.
I also have to thank all the people who’ve supported me, who’ve made crazy memes, and the people who’ve spammed all the other Drag Race queens with videos of me doing the splits and dancing. Thank you to everybody out there who’s been supportive and uplifted me. We work hard on the show, but after the show, you have to constantly think about [your work] and it can drive you crazy. The people who support us, they make us feel like, no matter what we’re doing, honey, we’re stars. And that changes my mood when I feel down about stuff. They change my mood, and I will never stop loving them for that.
RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.