Visage spills on COVID-19 protocols, lip-sync gags, and hits back at toxic criticism: 'How could it ever be too much? Our stories are being told to the world.'

By Joey Nolfi
December 31, 2020 at 03:45 PM EST
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With two seasons of RuPaul's Drag Race slated to ring in the new year, Emmy-winning judge and LGBTQIA+ ally Michelle Visage's commitment to her community is proof that even a worldwide pandemic can keep a mama bear from mothering her dolls.

"To film in this time was scary for everybody. [The queens] had been quarantined, they only got to talk to each other when they see each other, they don’t get to hang out," Visage exclusively tells EW of Drag Race season 13, which filmed earlier this year with strict COVID-19 safety protocols in order. But, at the heart of it all, she says the queens' persistence and heart is what keeps the show going, even amid global turmoil: "You could see they wanted to pour their heart and soul into what they’re doing," she explains. "This was a difficult time and they were risking their lives to come out and do this show, so it was under crazy strict circumstances that they were all so hungry and ready to be there, so present and excited."

Watch EW's full season 13 preview with Visage above, and read on for a full breakdown of the conversation — including specifics on COVID safety measures, tea on the lip-sync twist, and her response to toxic criticism about "too much" Drag Race — before RuPaul's Drag Race premieres Friday at 8:00 p.m. simultaneously on VH1, MTV, MTV2, Pop TV, The CW, and Logo.

Credit: Sanchez Zalba

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re on two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race at the top of 2021: Season 13 and UK season 2, both of which filmed during the pandemic. What did you have to do before and during filming to make sure everybody was safe?

MICHELLE VISAGE: I don’t think I’ve ever been on a safer set than I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race. World of Wonder handled it beautifully. [I was] tested three times a week. You’re not allowed to enter the set without a shield or a mask. Even when my makeup was done, I had the shield up to get to set and wasn’t allowed to take it off until I sat down in my isolation pod. Even if somebody had to touch up my hair and makeup, normally they’d come up to the judging panel, but they’re not allowed. I had to step down and they had to wear their mask and shield. There were stations everywhere for hand washing and sanitizing, extra masks, extra shields, and COVID-particular cleaning people who would clean the trailers. We weren’t together in dressing rooms. Everybody had their own trailer. It was very different, very distanced, we sat six feet apart from each other with partitions between us.

There was plexiglass between us. People on other productions may think we were being extreme or extra, but 100 percent, not one case, that’s what we needed to do to keep it safe for everybody. Not just the talent, but the crew, the catering, everybody got tested and was treated that way and had to handle it the same way or else they were gone!

And it was all to bring this incredible cast to us. What were your impressions of the queens?

To film in this time was scary for everybody — they’d been quarantined, they only get to talk to each other when they see each other, they don’t get to hang out. It’s very strict. Even that, you could see they wanted to pour their heart and soul into what they’re doing. This was a difficult time and they were risking their lives to come out and do this show, so it was under crazy strict circumstances that they were all so hungry and ready to be there, so present and excited.

Did the runway looks blow your mind even more than usual, given all the difficulties in preparing during a pandemic?

It always blows my mind, but thinking about them doing this stuff and gathering it during quarantine, I was struggling getting my wardrobe ready, and I can buy off the rack and just get it tailored. They can’t! It was amazing.

I interviewed the cast before the reveal and Lala Ri said she wanted to apologize to you because she is a fan of leotards. Do we accept her apology? Did we have a big issue with Lala’s leotards this season?

Here’s the thing with leotards: I love a queen in a leotard at a bar, when you’re on the main stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’m sorry, you have to expand it to make it not look basic. Even if I buy a dress from Macy’s I go, well, everybody can have this, so I try to add something to it so it doesn’t look like it’s right off the rack. If you’re going to do a leotard, you better zhuzh the crap out of it so I can’t tell. There are certain leotards where they come out and I’m like oh, I like that because it’s totally worked into a look. Not just a leotard with some fringe on it. Sorry, that’s too basic for RuPaul’s Drag Race. In a bar, girl wear it, I won’t say a word, I’ll love it, I’ll scream, and I’ll tip.

This year, Gottmik is the first trans contestant on regular season since Peppermint on season 9. He’s a trans man who does feminine drag. What power is there in seeing someone do drag the way Gottmik does drag on a mainstream platform?

I’m so excited that it’s our show that Gottmik is on because it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s powerful and important because there are stories that will unfold throughout the season — we at RuPaul’s Drag Race encourage everybody to audition. It’s up to the audition on who gets on, and Gottmik auditioned and absolutely belonged where Gottmik landed. I love the idea of Gottmik being who Gottmik is and expressing himself the way he wants and needs to, through the hyper-feminine or the way Gottmik paints drag is his prerogative and it looks amazing... I’m excited about all of these kids. They each have a story to tell. One is not more important than the other, he just happens to be the first trans man that’s on RuPaul’s Drag Race and that’s a storyline that we haven’t told yet, and I’m excited that it can be told.

We feel that appreciation from you every season. But you did throw them for a loop on the premiere with this lip-sync twist. Nothing like this has ever happened before. They’re lip-syncing right off the bat?

Could you imagine trying out seven or eight years to get on this Emmy-winning show, you get on, you go in, you lip-sync for your life and you lose day one? Could you imagine?

It’s a nightmare.

I don’t know what I’d do.... Wait until people see the episode. You’re going to lose your minds.

Do you think this puts everyone on a level playing field at the beginning? Every year we get a Sasha Velour or Aquaria that don’t lip-sync the whole season, but people want to see that. How does it change the dynamic of the competition lip-syncing right away?

Ru doesn’t like to do anything run-of-the-mill. We have the craftiest producers in the business. When I got to work and I found out they were doing this, I said, “Are you kidding me? These girls are going to poop their pants.” You’re nervous to begin with, being out there in front of us! It evens the playing field. You’ll be able to tell straight away oh, she’s a look queen, she won’t be able to perform but she likes to pose….. it’s fun as a judge to watch that because you can see and get it.

Kandy is in the comments and says the first day was truly the scariest day ever.

Gagged is an understatement.

Speaking of Gagged, UK season 2 is right around the corner. That promo shoot is one of my favorites of the entire franchise, having the Pride flag with black, brown, and trans color stripes. What did that mean to you, being such an ally, to see that?

That was my idea. Just kidding! When I saw it on Twitter, I thought it was amazing. This is what RuPaul’s Drag Race is all about, this is about unity and love and telling these kids’ stories. That’s why Drag Race resonates with so many people beyond queens and people outside, we all fit in and all have a place where we belong.

People love the show so much, but I’m seeing all of this stuff online people saying it’s too much at one time, with two seasons beginning in January. How do you feel about that?

To say that is not only unnecessary, but why would you waste your time putting that negative energy out in the universe? This is a queer show for queer people, made by queer people, that started out on a queer network, why would you want to take away something that’s been years in the making, trying to build up and make happen for queer artists? How could it ever be too much? Our stories are being told to the world, being heard, and we’re hearing about things that matter: Suicide, addiction, being ostracized, conversion therapy, things that are so important that are never talked about on television unless it’s in a documentary.

These beautiful children are being celebrated for who they are, for sticking through it, for fighting through it, determination, grit…. If you don’t like a queen, leave her alone and vote for who you like. If you don’t like somebody else, shut your mouth. This is not about you bringing you negative energy to our beautiful dolls…. This is an incredible platform; a beautiful television show and we should have it on every day every year. These kids that Identify with these queens and their stories that are 12 or 13 years old that maybe otherwise would’ve harmed themselves, but they now have an outlet because they know somebody is just like them. Why is that a bad thing?

There’s an episode of Canada’s Drag Race, the makeover challenge, where the subjects were literally examples of how the show saved lives. That’s important now, in a pandemic, when kings, queens, nonbinary performers are all struggling for work.

At the end of the day, these are all people who brings us joy when we go see them. Support them. Not every drag queen or king could make it on Drag Race, so support your local performers in any way that you can. This being on television is a gift to all of us within the community.... eventually it’ll stop, I’m hoping 10 years down the line, but right now let’s celebrate all that we have. We’re so lucky, otherwise there’d be no platform for these incredible queens…. If I could speak all the languages I would fight to do every country!

Michelle Visage’s Drag Race Spain!

Please! When they said they were doing it, I texted the producers like, “That’s perfect! I’ve been learning Spanish in lockdown!” And they said, “Your services will not be needed.” [Laughs].

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