"Any other season that comes behind us, you’re going to have to step your p---y up," Atlanta drag legend — and newly anointed RuPaul's Drag Race season 13 cast member — Tamisha Iman tells EW. "Point blank, period. We created history."
As the 30-year industry veteran promises, the upcoming season of the Emmy-winning reality competition series is, finally, something good to gag over amid the hellish landscape of 2020.
As one of the first major television series to re-enter production during the coronavirus pandemic, Drag Race season 13 — premiering Friday, Jan. 1 on VH1 — captures the anxiety of an uncertain moment for queer artists while offering a hopeful glimpse at the vibrant future ahead, with a cast of 13 diverse queens from around the country igniting what New York City competitor Kandy Muse dubs "the renaissance of Drag Race."
Earlier this year, EW exclusively caught up with with each quarantined queen via Zoom from the set of their season 13 promo shoot, a process that proved each new addition to the Drag Race family passes the true test of star power in 2020: No matter how small the screen or how much digital distortion plagues a virtual video call, the talent shines through the static, crystal clear each time.
Among firsts for the franchise: Gottmik enters the Werk Room as Drag Race her-story's first competing trans man, and he plans to represent his community the house down ("drag is for everyone!" he stresses). These queens are also the collective to film a season amid a worldwide pandemic, with strict safety measures in place on set (including quarantine periods, mask-wearing, social distancing, and glass dividers installed on the judging panel).
"I’ve had one-night stands that I was more scared about," says season 13's Tina Burner. "It was such a tight-run ship, and I never felt unsafe. Procedures were intact. I felt safer there in a pandemic.... than being in my house!"
RuPaul noted that the queens competed "safely and fiercely" across new episodes. "Our 13 queens proved that it takes more than a global pandemic to keep a good queen down," he added.
But for all of the on-set adaptation to uncertain times, the appeal of season 13 boils down to what has kept Drag Race as fresh as ever, now almost 12 years into its glistening run on mainstream television: "Drag makes me f---ing happy," says contender Kahmora Hall, member of the legendary drag house that birthed season 11's sweet cyster Soju and reigning season 12 champion Jaida Essence Hall. "Everyone needs something to cheer them up. This season comes at the right moment after this presidency, we're still going through a pandemic, we’re the pillars of life that people need."
Read on for EW's exclusive interviews with the new cast.
It’s a little on the nose for a Chicago-based queen to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with cartoon images of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly while painting her face for her first Drag Race interview, but don’t let her doll-like dressings fool you: Denali is all about the art of the switch. As easy as she is on the eyes, rest assured she’s spent years sharpening her blades — literally — to defy expectations and chisel your attention right where she wants it.
“I grew up in Alaska, and it was either figure skating, skiing, or doing drugs and getting pregnant. So, I decided to pick the gayest one!” says Denali, whose raw athleticism (reared as a professional ice skater) meets “high-energy” pizazz for a unique stage presence that blends traditional showgirl moves with a progressive visual aesthetic that sometimes includes bubbly blonde wigs while, at others, sees her shredding in all-black everything, right down to her colored contacts. “I started when I was 5, and I skated every year for the rest of my life. I was on a national team for five years, I worked with different touring companies like Cirque du Soleil and Royal Caribbean. When I found drag, it was so adjacent. The art forms are so similar: Dramatic, sparkly, performative!”
In addition to being a “major lesson in wig security” (Denali can perform flips and dives on the ice without her wig shifting an inch from her head), honing her skills on the ice gave her a confident leg up on the competition when she relocated to Chicago, a city with inspiring “diverse artistic expressions” and “club kid, pageant artistry,” but “not a lot of high-energy performers that know how to own a stage.” Soon after her arrival, drag mother Chamilla Foxx scooped her up after sensing her budding star, and together they streamlined Denali's talents without losing focus on her Mexican heritage.
“Drag in itself is so political, in being such an outright rebellious art form. In skating, I grew up in a controlled environment, a privileged, white environment, where you were told to not speak out and train and do your job, but drag gave me a voice,” she says. “I’m going to put that through my drag and express myself.”
And, just like her, Denali feels season 13 is a pleasing fantasy on the surface, but will deliver a hard-hitting blow once the layers come off: “It was a testament to our resilience, because we came together and did that and competed while all of that was going on,” she says. “We all had a bit of fire under our asses and things to fight for because of all of that, whether it be our communities or people the president was propagating against, it was a beautiful experience to be surrounded by the best drag queens in the nation, celebrating drag, and really doing the damn thing.”
2020, you’ve officially been iced.
Elliott with 2 Ts is never not performing. “I’m putting on a show!” she squeals shortly after our Zoom link activates. What follows is a few brief minutes of controlled chaos — flashes of her bare chest and half-beaten mug, the rustling of body parts and cords — all in preparation of, well, simply sitting still for an interview. That’s just what life is like for this Las Vegas stunner: Since childhood, she’s rarely failed to make a spectacle out of the mundane.
“When I was 12, I did a national Broadway tour with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was in the children’s chorus. That was my dream at the time: To be able to go to school late every day, like, ‘Sorry, I was on stage last night, sorry I’m late!’” Elliott recalls. “I grew up on a farm in Texas, so any diva moments I could have, I wanted to take them and milk them.”
The moo juice she’s squeezed from life’s utter thus far has landed her a spot on season 13 next to the best drag queens in the world. Before coming to drag in 2009, she worked as a professional dancer on stage and a cruise line, teaching herself how to sew and work a stage with the same delicate precision.
Her talent has brought her from the showgirl circuit in Dallas to the gig-based drag economy of the Vegas Strip, where she booked a starring role in a Debbie Gibson music video (she’s actually a good friend of mine now!” Elliott stresses), entertains at corporate and commercial events, and rubs elbows with big-money elites at galas and charity events with her hair stylist fiancé. No matter the job, though, Elliott keeps her aesthetic consistent, drawing inspiration from theatrical productions to contemporary fashion. Another look she proudly wears? Britney Spears. And she’s well aware that performing to Britney on Derrick Barry’s home turf is dangerous territory.
“Right as I moved to Las Vegas, I was hired by Divas to be the new Britney, I was to replace Derrick Barry. But, the show got canceled before I got to perform in it, so I really never got to keep that credit,” remembers Elliott, who also has another claim to pre-Drag Race fame: “[Derrick] has me blocked on everything,” she says. “But, it’s other reasons, apparently!”
From the moment Gottmik’s tiny puff powdered the tip of RuPaul’s head while working a gig on the set of a Todrick Hall music video, the prolific makeup artist and drag performer felt the divine spirit enter his body. “I just tapped it and [screamed]. I was living my life,” he says. “It was enough [energy] for me for a few years, apparently, and now I’m coming back for more.”
For Gottmik, “more” means, well, more than it does to any other competitor. More than prize money and a shot at fame: It’s a validation of an art form that shaped his identity and saved his life. “This is my third time trying out. If I got on before this time, I literally would’ve been depressed,” he says. “Out of drag, I wasn’t transitioning [when I applied in the past], so I wasn’t happy as a person. I wasn’t where I wanted to be physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, any of it, so I took a break from auditioning for a year or two so I could focus on the out-of-drag part of me. Now that I’m in a good place out of drag, I’m in the best place in drag, and I’m going to kill this.”
Gottmik, who uses male pronouns out of drag and female pronouns in drag, enters season 13 as the first trans man to compete on the American main stage, and the first transgender contestant to appear on a regular season of Drag Race since season 9’s Peppermint, and he doesn’t take the distinction — or the art form’s power — lightly. For a beauty expert whose painted the faces of Heidi Klum, Paris Hilton, Tinashe, Cindy Crawford, and Gigi Gorgeous, Gottmik is well versed in the art of aesthetic beauty, and gravitated toward drag makeup during his transition as a “mask” of armor that actually helped him understand himself deeper, under the skin.
“I was always good at makeup, and if I went out in drag, it was the only time people thought I was a guy. I was living for it, like, I love this! I wouldn’t go out unless I was in head to toe drag,” he remembers. “Even though I’m cinched and lashed and gorge, I’m feminine, but it’s this weird alien thing, I don’t want to look too pretty. Once I got more comfortable with myself out of drag, my drag character was able to actually be my art, and that’s when I started taking it seriously.”
Now, you’ll find him beating his face completely white (he’s inspired by spooky clowns, and even has grotesque images of them plastered around his apartment) as a canvas for the “weird and cool” because, such is life, “it’s the circus, bitch!” And in Gottmik’s ring, you’re getting full volume, comedy, and pure “psychopath” at all times. That aesthetic fit right in within the RuPaul’s Drag Race family, which he calls a welcoming environment, unlike the outside drag industry in which he often struggled to fit in. Speaking of RuPaul, Gottmik calls him the “most supportive, amazing person” who “showed love for my drag and what I do,” and promises fans that their relationship will be an exciting highlight.
“The trans guys I saw [in media before this] weren’t me. Too masculine, too straight…. I looked around like, all of my guy friends are so feminine, that means I can be feminine, too! When I realized that, it was game over. I’m so excited and in such a good place and I’m ready to fight for my community and represent them down,” he says. “The main thing I want to make so clear is that the gender spectrum is really crazy, and I feel like me doing feminine drag is confusing to a lot of people. I want to show everyone that no matter what you transition to, boy or girl, there’s a whole gender spectrum in between that you can play with and have fun with, and it doesn’t mean that your identity is any less valid.”
“This isn’t life or death for me to be in drag anymore,” he finishes, confidently. “I can play with this, and now it’s the best thing in the world.”
If you’re trying to snatch Joey Jay’s wig, literally or figuratively, chances are you’re going to have pull a lot harder to uproot the tuft of neon locks sitting atop her head: For starters, “this is my real hair,” says Jay, who’s known for straddling the line between masculine and feminine, often without a wig. You also won’t catch Jay letting her guard down long enough for foes to land a blow. “If you look at Pink, she’s [an inspiration]. She’s still hyper feminine, but she can whoop your ass,” Jay praises, describing her penchant for androgyny as rooted in overcoming bullying both as a feminine kid and a more masculine, (mostly) wig-less queen bucking glamour traditions. “I like having those options, I like pushing boundaries. When I started doing drag, there were a lot of drag rules. I was like, you know what, f--- these rules. As long as you feel good and you’re living your life, you can do whatever you want.”
Such a mentality will help the Phoenix-based performer navigate the ruthless arena of Drag Race competition, as will her mastery of the dancefloor. Though she performs without a drag name, she once considered hitting the stage as “Adrena Lyn,” a fitting title given her reliance on high-energy choreography, big production values, and wild background visuals. “You’re not going to see me do one song beginning to end or in a gown,” Jay promises. “You’re going to see a show.”
Jay’s talents have even caught the eye of A-list stars, as she was invited to join Christina Aguilera onstage on the Arizona stop of her Liberation Tour in October 2019. Her equally impressive out-of-drag looks could soon earn her the distinction of being the trade of season 13, too. And they’re partially responsible for her drag career in the first place: After turning 18, Jay frequented a local bar home to a playfully raunchy older queen, Desiree Matthews, who’d hit on him (in Jay’s words, her go-to phrase was “hey daddy” in a raspy drawl), marking his first interaction with a drag performer. When he told his mother, she frankly explained that Miss Matthews was in fact his former childhood babysitter. “Desiree was like, ‘I’m so sorry for everything I’ve said to you. I love you,’” Jay remembers. “And then I had to stop picking up guys at that bar because a guy would offer to buy me a drink, and Desiree would be like, ‘You don’t touch him, I changed his diapers!’”
Now that Jay has a platform like Drag Race — without Matthews there to back her up — she’s fighting for more than just her own standing in the competition. “I want [my presence to say], ‘Hey sissies, it gets better. Slay in your Ariana Grande sweatshirts when you cross the street,’” Jay explains. “It’s 2020, you’re 12 years old, it’s going to be so good 10 years from now. Keep going!”
Even with her face half-done, wig nowhere in sight (“This is not the beauty right now, but give me another hour!” she jokes) you can tell Kahmora Hall is beauty personified. After all, she’s got the essence flowing through her chosen-family blood. The drag sister of season 12 winner Jaida Essence Hall and drag mommy to season 11’s Soju, Hall has a legacy to live up to, and she plans to do it with poise, grace, and the “good cheekbones, shoulders, and clavicles” her clan is known for. Well, and kindness, too.
“We just had a really great drag mother. The first thing she taught us was to be sweet and humble to everybody you meet. I’ve been doing drag for nine years now, and that’s the thing I try to do at every gig. Kindness takes you everywhere!” Hall explains, crediting the group’s leader, Chicago legend Tajma Hall, for producing excellence across the board.
But don’t let her youth fool you: Kahmora’s not out here gagging the children with death drops and camp. Known as The Mackie Doll, her inspirations come from classic glitz-and-glam icons of the past: “I’m obsessed with Bob Mackie. He’s glamorous and jaw-dropping, just like me,” she says, gushing over a recent event where she finally came face to face with her idol, and he recognized every inch of her from Instagram. “I make sure my drag is always the glitz and glam, the razzle dazzle, because shine and sparkle never go out of style.”
Her first experience with drag came at an early age, when she’d steal her mother’s shoes and wear them while she was out of the house (“I just didn’t know it was called drag!”), and she later committed to the art as a freshman in college. It was then that she learned she could separate herself from the competitive Chicago scene by digging her stiletto heels deep into tradition.
“I’m not the type of queen to be doing kicks and splits and death drops. That’s not me. I’m Kahmora Hall, I don’t need to do all that,” she says with a laugh. “I do power ballads, connect to the lyrics, I’m a very emotive person. That’s how I grasp everyone’s attention. It’s called stage presence, honey. You’ve got to be born with it!”
As far as aesthetics are concerned, she’s poised to keep those good genes — and the crown — in the family.
In a real-life scene recalling her signature bop, New York City queen Kandy Muse is sitting alone in the V.I.P. Chatting virtually with EW between looks for the Drag Race season 13 promo shoot, she’s isolated from her cast mates in a sterile room all on her own, dreaming of a time when, “after Drag Race, we can all sit alone in the V.I.P. together” with the global coronavirus pandemic behind us.
Before that, fans will get a “spicy” introduction to the rising drag superstar this year, as she promises to bring the peppy energy synonymous with her iconic lineage from the Haus of Aja, the disbanded collective founded by her drag mother, All-Stars 3 contestant Aja. “We’ve rebranded with myself, [season 12 queen] Dahlia Sin, and my other sister, Janelle No. 5,” Muse explains, adding that she remains close friends with Aja, who told her to “have fun and be myself, because reality TV cameras pick up bulls---!” along the way. As for Dahlia, the first-eliminated queen back on season 12? “She was telling me, ‘Keep it in the family, go first!’ as a joke!”
As Aja’s budding career as a rap star (and Dahlia’s subsequent cameo on nearly every episode of season 12 while dressed in her iconic broccoli outfit) proves, her drag family knows about staying power, and Muse’s eclectic approach to drag (“I do it all,” she says) will likely keep her in the game — and fans’ memories — for a long time to come.
“I want people to know I’m coming into this representing a community of brown, POC gay boys back at home. I’m very body positive. Everything that I do, that always involves me being sexy and doesn’t matter what size you are, it’s about how you own your truth,” she says. “I’d like to call myself the first fashionable big girl on Drag Race, and I’m going to leave it at that [laughs]. I came to play, baby!”
It’s that candid, no-nonsense, New York attitude that will both win fans over and spark fires in front of the cameras. But Muse knows — and accepts — that her boldness is a double-edged sword.
“I think that I have a certain star quality! People are either going to fall in love with me or hate me at first and then fall in love with me. I’m fine with either one. It’s not my job to make people like me. I’m not going to please everyone,” says Muse with a playful grin. “I was a very insecure child, and I had body issues and people made fun of me for the way I talk or my mannerisms, and it wasn’t until I started drag that I started to love myself and gain confidence. Now I’m unstoppable. I can’t shut up, talking about myself!”
Like the outfit she’s rocking for the season 13 promo shoot (a sparkly, Grinch-green body suit is not-so-delicately concealed by the fluffy robe she’s lounging in between takes), Lala Ri is a delightful blend of everything unexpected.
“I don’t know, honey,” she says, giggling as she looks down at her body's adornments. There’s a charm in her voice that communicates her years of experience making it work on the road: Having sharpened her stilettos both as a backup dancer for international pop acts (she’s toured the world already) and pageant queens (like season 6 fan-favorite Trinity K. Bonet), Ri has experience in every facet of the industry, and she fuses them all into one creative lane that’s given her a distinct place in the cutthroat Atlanta community.
“It’s known for being a pageant girl scene, so you have to be top-tier, makeup has to be on point, hair has to be on point, but we also have other types of girls: beauty queens, ghetto queens — I’m a mix of all of that in one. I kind of was raised under all of these… I don’t want to say families, but different areas of drag,” she explains, noting that she’s only been a queen for three years, but has a lifetime of hard work put into the craft.
Ri first became an entertainer at age 14, having studied choreography in music videos to teach herself the art. She then began formally training in ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and more, laying the foundation for what she calls “The Lala Ri Experience,” which gives you “choreography down, a sexy look in a leotard — sorry Michelle — glamour,” and everything gorgeous that makes you feel like you’re “at a Beyoncé concert.”
It’s a robust wall of talent even the almighty elements can’t dampen, as there’s a popular video circulating on Ri’s Instagram page showing her performing — twirling, twisting, jumping, and generally thriving as she adapted to the environment — in the rain at an Atlanta Pride event last year.
“On this particular night, it started raining, and the kids came out for a show, so of course I’m going to still give them a show, even in the rain,” Ri says. “And it was one of my best shows ever. I felt like Beyoncé up on the stage.”
Werk Room drama is no match for a woman who can harness Mother Nature’s fury.
“Girl. I was moving. I had no time to go to the fabric district,” Lux admits. “I distinctly remember my roommate going to work with all the bags still intact, and him coming back and me standing in the kitchen in a dress, and he’s like, I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll grab the camera.”
For most of her life, Lux has lived for those camera-ready moments. As a self-taught singer and piano player with a wide vocal range, she calls herself “the Alicia Keys of drag” (not the Alexis Mateo lesbian version, but “the traditional one, with the box braids and big hair in the back) who leaves no corner of a stage untouched. “I love the drama, the wind machines, I’m a queen, but I’m not afraid to take it down a bit, be a little sultry, be a little jazzy, and then bring it up,” Lux says of her shows. “When I’m not twirling on the club stage, I like to sit down at the piano and have the intimate moment with the folks that come to my shows…. The dramatics and divaness of it all, I love it.”
Getting to that point didn’t come without struggle. As a self-professed band geek, Lux played the piccolo in high school. “At the time, child, I was 300 pounds in high school, so I was the largest kid on the football field with the smallest instrument,” Lux remembers. “When I kind of found myself in music I also found dance and theater as a lot of folks in the LGBTQ community do, and I lost a lot of weight in college and it has definitely been an amazing journey. I feel like with that weight loss came the confidence that I felt like I needed to be able to put myself out there.”
She’s now using that newfound confidence to make a statement with her art, far beyond the occasional pageant title she’s won in the past. “Pageantry is a moment. I wouldn’t consider myself a pageant girl, but I consider myself a girl who’s good at pageants,” she says, reflecting on her Miss Paradise 2020 crown.
The power she feels, rather, comes with the territory as a singer and drag queen. “I’m a queen of color, automatically when I walk into a space, I consider that political. When you think of art, you sing because you don’t have words left. You dance and emote because there’s no more feeling that you can project out into the world, you have to go through the art,” she says. “When you sign up to be a drag queen, a megaphone comes in the mail, my love. Automatically your voice is heightened, tenfold.”
Here’s hoping she turns it up to 11 — on all fronts — across season 13.
“The theme is: hideous,” Rosé — white-powdered from the chest up (and not much else) — excitedly says of her promo look, still in its early stages as she chats away about her life in drag. To clarify, Rosé at “hideous” (in this case, that just means a bit of unblended powder on her chest) tops whatever regular folks wear for everyday attire. The physical look might be unfinished, but it’s her charisma and willingness to put herself down for the joke that pulls the whole thing together.
“I’m trying to loosen up the audience to get them to laugh both at me and with me. And also, I’m going to sweat,” promises Rosé. “If you’re sitting in the front row, you’re in the splash zone, baby. Of course, live vocals and sickening looks, but probably with a couple of nails hanging off for dear life. The sweat is more apparent and more common than the vocals.”
The order in which Rosé chose to list her skills (One: Laughter, two: sweat, three: live vocals) should also indicate where her priorities are as an entertainer. “If you come to my show, you’re going to laugh. That’s my number-one thing,” she says. Still, her vocals are no joke. With dear friends Lagoona Bloo and Drag Race season 12 alum Jan, Rosé often performs as part of the musical trio Stephanie’s Child — a group that infamously tussled with Simon Cowell during their season 14 audition for America’s Got Talent. When asked whose face crack is better, hers or Jan’s (from the infamous Madonna Rusical challenge), she’s quick to give her sister props. “Jan learned to embrace the things that didn’t go as planned. She’s turned them into merchandise…. it’s so funny that that image has become so iconic that she’s used it [on merchandise],” Rosé says, chuckling. “Mine is more of a hip crack. I’m a few years older than Jan.”
At the “ancient” (eye roll) age of 31, Rosé has lived many lives. At 10, she immigrated to the United States from Scotland, where most of her immediate family resides. That means “boy” Rosé can absolutely work the homeland’s most iconic fashion: A kilt. “I frown at the person who wears anything under a kilt,” she says. “Unless it’s like, a sexy garter, like a little secret. It should serve no supportive purpose whatsoever.”
That mastery of both the female and male form, the duality of Rosé, is one of the many diverse facets of her art — none of which, contrary to her jokes, register as hideous.
“When I first started drag a few years ago, I branded myself as this lizard queen who felt the most powerful and, dictionary-wise, the most ‘masculine’ in drag, but that’s changed. Drag has taught me to embrace my feminine side,” she explains. “But it’s more important to me to blur the lines of gender than fall into the illusion. I’m also not the most feminine-looking woman you’re ever going to see, darling. I’m the daughter of Brooke Shields, but she’s very into bodybuilding with a jaw implant. But listen, it’s gorgeous. I will be the first and last to tell you!”
Symone knows she’s pretty. That’s clear when scrolling through her carefully curated Instagram grid studded with leggy editorials, or when, after you praise her looks within the first few minutes of meeting her, she tells you (with a wink) that it’s “so much fun — the most fun” being the most beautiful in all the drag land. But, like her dear friend Gigi Goode, Symone leans into a comfortable aesthetic so she can pull the rug out when you least expect it.
“People are always pretty and know how to put a look together, it’s easy to do that, so it’s always fun to flip it on its head,” says the Arkansas native, who recalls regularly (and gleefully) disrupting rural spaces with her friends in a town too small to contain the excellence simmering within. Like, for example, the time she stormed a Walmart while dressed as Whitney Houston, sat atop a pile of soft drink boxes, and posed while a companion snapped high-fashion shots. “You have to make your own fun, so we’d go out in drag in our looks and take pictures, disturb the peace, and poke fun at the madness that is Arkansas… only if to entertain ourselves.”
For Symone, listening to that maverick spark has allowed her to draw out the drag performer inside, not merely as a creative outlet, but as a reflection of her true self. It’s immediately clear that there’s less of a separation between drag “character” and genuine soul than with many of her peers. As an introverted child growing up in red-state America, Symone was admittedly shy, often retreating to her room to soak up pop cultural influences on TV. That lifeline to the outside world didn’t shape a constructed aesthetic as a costume as much as it drew out her true identity. “To me drag is not an escape,” Symone says. “It’s everything.”
She later found her drag family, the legendary House of Avalon, in Arkansas, and eventually followed them to Los Angeles, where she was able to thrive as a performer with the foundation of a chosen-family safe space — which, she says, made it easier to prepare for the biggest televised drag contest in the world thanks to a network of connections and, yes, opinions on how she should be. But in the end, Symone’s art is all about Symone, and doing things exactly as she wants, without compromise.
“I am stunning, gorgeous, beautiful! But a lot of people tend to think that’s all I’m able to do. You will definitely get the funnier, goofier side of Symone. I tend to let go when I’m in performance with more energy, more goofiness, and being completely myself. In drag and on stage, that’s the bitch right there,” she says, calling her signature facial and verbal contortions “Symoneisms” (partially inspired by Bette Midler’s performance in Hocus Pocus) that fans will soon grow to love. Like, for instance, the endearing vocabulary soup she uses to describe her trajectory so far: “It’s a journey not, it’s not a… destination. Journey, whatever, you know what I’m saying,” she says. “Just put the words together. It’s very much that.”
Mother has arrived. And Tamisha Iman is a matriarch like no other Drag Race queen before her. A 30-year veteran of the southern pageant circuit, she’s this year’s most seasoned competitor. But the word “mother” is more literal — and meaningful — to the Atlanta mainstay and cancer survivor, beyond a signifier of respect and dominance. With scores of children — some biologically her own flesh and blood, plus the 78 chosen kids she’s adopted into her family to carry on the legacy of the Iman Dynasty drag house — this legend has virtually shaped an entire Georgian generation with glitz and finesse.
Unlike most crowned leaders, however, Iman wasn’t born into a royal family. She describes her younger self as a “misfit,” an “impressionable” teen who left home at an early age and redefined family values for herself as she strived to work as an entertainer. She came out of the closet after having children of her own, rerouted her Hollywood dreams to find success as an artist in the queer community, and began taking in LGBT youth as a means to give purpose and direction to kids — 53 living, 25 who’ve since passed away — otherwise discarded by families who didn’t understand their identities.
“I showed all the misfits how to make a living,” Iman proudly declares. “I made sure my kids went to school, went to college, got great jobs…. people didn’t know how to connect with their gay kids, I was able to bridge that gap and allowed parents to see their child in a different light versus just seeing them as a gay individual. The dynasty is still growing and I’m so proud of it. When you speak of my name, you know my history, you know I didn’t just ‘go through’ situations, I overcame and brought the community with me.”
As a pageant icon, bucking the norm wasn’t as well received. A prolific career filled with titles and earned admiration put power on her name, but her renegade ways made her an “outcast” among the old guard when she stood up to perceived injustices in the pageant system, and she took a 10-year hiatus from the scene. She eventually made a grand return in February 2020, using a feathered broom to literally sweep the stage to Ciara’s “Gimme Dat.”
“There’s an old saying that the old broom still sweeps,” Iman says. “I entered the pageant just to give back to the community, to show them I’m still that bad bitch, but that I still have a place in this industry if I choose to. It’s not about the winning, it’s about the community coming together, because people got out of their beds and rushed to that venue to see me because I’m respected in the community.”
Her season 13 sisters were well aware of — and slightly intimidated by — her name prior to the competition, but Iman says she provided a maternal energy as the girls bonded inside the Drag Race bubble, momentarily sheltered from the horrors of 2020, safe in mama’s arms.
“Drag is like sugar. It goes great with everything. So, in the midst of turmoil and negativity, drag just added a different element so you could breathe,” she says. “With all the elements going on in the world, we were still able to come together, different races, and uplift the choices we’ve made and bring some positivity to the community. Racism is out there, but guess what, bitch? I’m painted. It’s good to have a great distraction.”
Tina Burner is the kind of comedy queen who can make anything into a bit. “I’m 6’3 out of drag, so I’ve got them stems,” she coos at the top of our interview, rattling off otherwise mundane statistical information that effectively chips away at her female illusion. “Does that excite you?”
Aside from her jock-y past (she used to play flag football and ice hockey), there’s plenty more to be excited about when it comes to this New York City staple, who admits she’s “auditioned [for Drag Race] more than I’ve had sex in my life.” The climax of her pursuit brought her right to the chaos’ doorstep: preparing for the most prominent drag competition in the world amid a global pandemic.
“When I started drag in the past versus now, it’s such a different light, it’s so commercial and mainstream, it’s in every home in America,” she remembers. “I played ice hockey, but I wanted to be a figure skater. I played flag football when I wanted to be a baton twirler. I didn’t have those opportunities. Now, it’s amazing to see the acceptance. You see kids as young as nine or 10 saying ‘I’m a drag queen!’ Girl, if I tried that, I would’ve gotten hit, honey!”
One thing Burner — who’s worked in New York for 17 years both as a bar manager, performer, and community activist — is going to assail a crowd with is quickfire wit. As the reigning National Miss Comedy Queen (a pageant won by Drag Race alum Ginger Minj in the past), Burner’s attraction to making others laugh is second nature, with comedic genes spritzed with her mother’s sass coursing through her veins, with formative influence from comedians like Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers. “I love a good dad joke. Most of the girls on the show called me ‘dad.’ Somebody had to be responsible,” says Burner. “Drag gave me the opportunity to become this super monster. If I said what I said to people whilst out of drag, I mean, I would hit me.”
Often engaged in politics and community fundraising, Burner’s biggest goals with her art are “performance and making people smile,” and perhaps her biggest accomplishment on that front was tickling an entire arena of Celine Dion concertgoers with a gag earlier this year: Clad in a glittery red dress similar to the one the French-Canadian icon wore throughout her Courage World Tour, Burner perched herself in the front row, hoping the 52-year-old would notice.
“Celine’s wardrobe stylist came out and was like, ‘Are you f---ing kidding me, you’re wild!’ I was like, ‘You go back and tell Miss Dion that I’m sitting here and I will not stop until she talks to me.’ I got balls,” Burner recounts. Then, during the show, “she just shifted and turned at me like, ‘You!’ And I high-fived her…. I’d like to think I was the last person who touched Celine Dion.”
The camera on her iPad picks up an image of Utica Queen from a low angle, framing her face delicately in front of a circular light on the ceiling that could pass for either devil horns or a halo. “My brows make me look a little bit angry,” she says of her half-finished makeup, cradling her body with spastic arms that flail about, barely able to contain their excitement. “But, I’m really not.”
Shortly after, Utica explains that she loves performing for children, at libraries, brunches, anywhere they’ll watch. She also takes pride in a particularly disturbing number where she dresses as a human patchwork pincushion, sticks a giant spike through a yarn heart, and dies onstage (for the adults, mind you).
“A typical Utica show is very ethereal, full of wonder. I try my very best to take people out of this world for at least a few minutes and put them into mine, and they’re a mixture of super kooky or sometimes they’re really spooky,” the drag performer says, often referring to herself as a conduit “being” (she’s a “Christian being,” a “tall being,” and possesses “special being skills”) at various points during our conversation. “I create an art installation on the stage and hold the audience by the balls by just standing there and delivering emotion and [lowers voice to a Satanic register] drama.”
In essence, it feels as if Utica is many different people at any given time, bundled in an unorthodox package (yes, she’s this season’s “arty queen,” in case you haven’t guessed) that she’s able to adapt for diverse audiences.
“I’m a childlike queen, I cater to lots of kids, I do kids shows…. I try to spread as much love and praise as much as I can,” she explains. “I was a summer camp counselor for a hot minute, I love kids. I think they deserve a little magic, and drag queens are some of the main creators of the magic in the LGBT community.”
She jabs that “drag queens are much bitchier than children,” even though both have proven to be tough crowds at one point or another during her career, which has taken her from the small farm in Minnesota she was raised on to the glistening cityscape of Minneapolis, where she works today. The one thing that remains consistent across both her whimsical stage work for kids and her darker narratives for adults: “I’m liquid fun, and I love fun at all times. Any chance I can have fun, that’s the main focus,” she said. Turning her focus to her standing in the competition, which prompted her to step outside her self-made box, she adds: “It becomes difficult, sometimes, when it’s hardcore and you just have to get evil.”