Mariah Balenciaga proudly shook the system on Drag Race return: 'My message was heard'
The All-Stars 5 eliminee tells EW she made a point to highlight injustice: "When I was given a moment to say something, I said it."
The Emmy-winning series' latest episode saw OG legend Mariah Paris Balenciaga exit the All-Stars 5 competition well ahead of expectations, as the season 3 ballroom diva fell victim to both a so-so performance in a bizarre interior-decoration-slash-improv-comedy challenge and perplexing critiques of her fabulous runway fashions that cut her return to the main stage far too short.
Though she only lasted three episodes, Balenciaga's absence will be felt moving forward, as she left a memorable impression across each installment, beginning with her powerful spoken-word meditation on oppression during the talent show, her sickening looks, and parting reminder for audiences to "nourish" gay culture instead of treating it like a pop cultural trend.
Shortly after her elimination, EW caught up with Balenciaga — who also recently graced our digital Drag Race cover — for a conversation on her brief Werk Room resurgence, how she really feels about the judges' critiques, and the reason she wants younger drag fans to remember the medium's roots. Read on for the full Q&A, and tune in to the next episode of RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars 5 Friday at 8:00 p.m. on VH1.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now onto things I am so not pleased about, your elimination, I really didn’t see this one coming, and I get the sense that maybe you’re not very happy about it either. Now that you’ve had a year to process it, is it any easier to watch back or are you still trying to make sense of it?
MARIAH PARIS BALENCIAGA: I made peace with it within a day or two. I went into the competition with a completely different mindset than I did on season 3. I challenged myself and proved to myself that the old girl has still got it.
What’s different between your mindset on season 3 to now?
I learned to enjoy it and not take myself so seriously. On season 3, I was so focused on competing and I had my blinders on. I was laser-focused on making sure things were right. I didn’t get a chance to enjoy the experience. I still take my craft seriously, but I’ve allowed myself to enjoy and be in the moment.
Did you feel, heading into this week’s vote, that the queens were going to vote for you or did you think maybe Alexis’ campaign against Shea would work?
I don’t think there was a campaign, but I was surprised to be voted off.
Why did you vote for India?
I thought she pretty much displayed what she had to offer. In a competition like All-Stars, you’ve got to show more range. She’s a talented entertainer, but when it comes to the range for the different challenges, I don’t think she had too much more to offer.
So, India had three episodes’ worth of range in her! Noted. You said you wanted to find out who voted for you and why. Did you get that closure and have conversations with the queens about why they voted for you, and how do you feel about their reasoning?
I didn’t necessarily ask why, because each queen, unless they feel it necessary to explain it to me, I don’t need to know their reasoning. I don’t need an explanation for someone else for closure for myself.
But, did they tell you anyway?
And you’re not curious to know?
Not really [Laughs].
Well, one thing you did seem shocked and upset by was Michelle’s comment that removing a jacket doesn’t equal a runway reveal, which, I mean, a reveal is just taking off one piece of clothing to reveal another, it doesn’t matter which item of clothing it is!
[Laughs] Right! Which one is it?
Was that interview with her in the dressing room after your elimination tense?
Michelle is always a good time girl. I don’t ever take things personally. She has a job to do, but it’s the consistency. But, in that moment when she came to the room, we were just going to continue to disagree.
It’s not something personal against Michelle, it’s just an issue with the criticisms?
We can easily agree to disagree. I went there with my big girl pants on and I know what it entails. I have nothing but love for Michelle, but I can still express my opinion in disagreement with hers.
There’s also been some discussion over Ross calling Shea’s outfit “crafty.” How do you feel about Shea’s look?
Shea’s outfit looked amazing! There is nothing crafty about that look. Was it bright? Yes. I was standing right next to her, and the detail was amazing. Her makeup was amazing. All the way around, it was so outside-the-box…. No, sweetie! It’s something else I’m going to have to disagree on!
The runway critiques for you, though, were especially surprising across every episode, especially after how well you did on episode 1. Your poem was so powerful and important. What is that number about and why did you want to perform it on such a big platform?
I wrote that poem six years ago, but I don’t really share it with people. What better chance to share a piece of myself and share some vulnerability than on the Drag Race platform? To me, the world we’re living in and all of the shiny fineries that people like to associate America with, it’s a wall. It’s that blank slate. The paint represented the pain and struggles that minorities and disenfranchised people have endured to paint that picture of this pristine America. It’s often the blood, sweat, and tears of other people, but they’re not the ones benefitting from it. Those injustices are still happening. It’s not some distant, far past. It’s still happening.
Has making statements like this always been part of your art or is that something you got into after your original run on Drag Race?
When I perform, I don’t ever perform my own material. I don’t sing, I don’t write songs, so I’m always lip-syncing to another artists’ music. But there’s a recurring theme when I do slower stuff. It’s about love and being loved. My faster stuff is usually about a little raunchier form of love, but I’ve never used my own original material. Those thoughts come out when I’m doing roundtables and interviews and having discussions with people or mentoring people in this life of drag and the ballroom scenes.
You also made a statement when your car was driving away in Untucked. You said “Remember: Ballroom culture, gay culture, is not a trend. Appreciate it. Love it. And nourish it." That was a very specific thing to say at that point. Why did you feel the need to say that, at that moment? Do you feel that the newer-school queens aren’t as appreciative of the history?
It’s not the newer school specifically, it’s the mainstream and people who allow the mainstream to trivialize what it really is to be part of this community. With mainstreaming, it’s such a ploy to boost sales to show that you’re inclusive. Let’s put a rainbow flag on this or scream “Black Lives Matter!” that. We’ve needed that. We need companies who have monetary power to help make change, and it hasn’t been done, but now that people are getting louder and more aggressive with the message, everybody wants to be on the bandwagon. They see how much our communities spend, and now they want to be allies once they realize we will stop spending our money with you. It’s not a marketing tool. It’s not a trend. It’s a culture that needs to be loved and welcomed in. It’s one of the newest and homegrown cultures that America has to offer, and it’s just not valued as much.
Similarly, on this episode, the narrative seemed to revolve around the clash of more new-school and old-school queens, like Cracker and Alexis. Were you surprised that Alexis was getting as feisty as she was? Because I don’t remember her pushing back against people this much back on season 3.
Not at all! I’ve known Alexis for over 10 years. When she senses foolishness, she sits back and watches it happen only to make sure that she has all the information, that she wasn’t mistaken, and when she addresses it, she addresses it head-on. It didn’t surprise me at all!
And we’re seeing so much backlash in the fandom right now over what Alexis said, what do you think is important for fans to remember before they spout off and critique someone like Alexis the way that they’re doing now?
Check that racism s— at the door before you even pull up to the keyboard! It’s one thing to critique someone’s craft, but to pick the lowest-hanging fruit that’s already rotten, it’s a testament to your character and not hers. It’s ridiculous. Any girls of color that tend to have a disagreement or differing opinion with one of the white queens, the queen of color is always attacked. When you disagree with one of the white queens, there’s a certain ugliness that comes out in the fandom…. It’s very aggressive and it’s very ugly.
I want to focus on the lip-sync between Jujubee and Monét, that was potentially deciding your fate. Knowing what Jujubee has done in lip-syncs in the past, did that lip-sync seem peculiar to you?
Not peculiar... it was completely off!
Oh, wow, we’re just going right for it!
Yes! I was sitting in my seat, and to know that that was the performance that would potentially keep me there or send me home, I was not impressed! I was like, can y’all tag me in? I want to lip-sync for my life. Tag me in! Either way, she still had my lipstick.
Can you tell me about the moment in your confessional, later, where you grabbed your fanny pack in a huff?
That was one of my moments from season 3 where I was over it! I was like, “Give me my pocketbook, I’m over it, I’m leaving!”
Ok, that’s what I thought, I just wanted to hear you say it!
Now it’s the fanny pack. Give me my fanny pack, I’m going home! It was a little wink-wink, nod-nod to season 3.
Before we part, what are you most proud of on All-Stars 5?
I’m most proud that, when I was given a moment to say something, I said it. When queens have an opportunity to say something, nothing comes out of their mouth but noise. How I represented myself and when I did speak, people listened and they heard it. I’m proud. My message was heard.