How Symone pulled off the most powerful look in RuPaul's Drag Race herstory
Symone tells EW about creating her powerful Black Lives Matter fashion statement: "I wasn't going to let making people uncomfortable make me not do what I wanted to do."
The RuPaul's Drag Race main stage has long been a space for fashion statements, but Symone — a front-running contender for the season 13 crown — took that notion to the next level during Friday's episode with a runway creation that asked audiences to confront a difficult reality via jaw-dropping fashion that was impossible to look away from.
After the queens were tasked with impersonating celebrities for the Snatch Game (Symone performed a genius interpretation of Harriet Tubman) and creating looks spotlighting "Fascinating Fascinator" hats for the runway, Symone strutted toward the judges with a lily on her head and a tight-fitting white gown hugging her form. At the end of the stage, Symone turned around to reveal red crystal-studded bullet holes on her back, and the words "Say Their Names" emblazoned on her headpiece as she spoke the names of murdered Black Americans like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Brayla Stone, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and Monika Diamond.
Below, Symone walks EW through the conception and creation of the show-stopping piece, which reminded the Drag Race family that, as she says, Black Lives Matter is a movement — not a moment — we can't forget.
Conceiving a design to say their names
Filming RuPaul's Drag Race season 13 in mid-2020 posed many questions: How would the queens remain safe on set amid a pandemic? Would there be a pool of queens to choose from as the nightlife scene suffered in the wake of coronavirus? How would the cast address ongoing issues of police brutality amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Symone pondered all of this while preparing her runway collection for the show, but it was Friday's garment that, she says, came to her most vividly.
"I thought that, especially with the times we were in, whenever this airs, I don't want people to forget, and I want to make a statement," she tells EW of the thought behind the dress, which took two weeks to create with designer Marko Monroe. "I wanted to do it in a way that was still in-your-face, but artistically."
That involved working white faux leather into a tight piece that hugged her body, constricting it in a way "that represents what it can sometimes feel like to be of color in our country and in the world." The hips — sharp-cornered edges jutting out from her sides — were added for a silhouette that stripped sexuality from the look, so as not to distract from the central message. From the front, she wanted things to look simple, with the cascading white material (beneath the white lily, a traditional funeral flower) communicating "purity" and "angelic" qualities, contrasted by the red Swarovski crystals (symbolizing wounds) on the back.
"No matter how pretty or beautiful or non-threatening I — and Black people — seem, we're still seen as a threat," Symone says. "In high school, people would say, 'You're not like the rest of them.' None of those things matter in some people's eyes. I'm still Black. It's a reality that I live in this country and this world, and some people find me to be a threat."
Talking the talk, walking the walk
Despite the gravity of the dress' meaning, Symone didn't want to let the garment live as static, wearable art, so she built a concept of motion around the gown, too. So, she incorporated a "hands up, don't shoot" pose into her glacial walk.
"You didn't know what was going to happen from the front, which is what I wanted, and I wanted to turn around and make the statement with my hands because that was part of the story. We've seen the videos, even when we're doing exactly what we're supposed to do, people end up dying anyway," she recalls, adding that she felt a mix of somber, excited, fearful, and anxious emotions (atop the weight of carrying a torch on her shoulders) while she awaited her turn backstage. "People should know what's going on and people should be made uncomfortable especially if it's something wrong in the world…. I wasn't going to let making people uncomfortable make me not do what I wanted to do."
Black is beautiful, in this moment and beyond
Within moments of the episode airing, social media erupted with praise for Symone's fashion-forward activism — appreciation and love she says sustained all weekend, and effectively communicated to her that people are getting the message she tried to stitch into her entire Drag Race runway package which has, up to this point, been a weekly celebration of Black excellence.
"[It shows] that Black is beautiful, but that there are so many things that are put upon us that are negative. I wanted to show that beauty that is part of my community, and I wanted people to understand that we're people, too," Symone says of her runway offerings thus far, including a durag stretched into a flowing train and a RuPaul-inspired dress made entirely out of braids.
Turning heads and changing views
Beyond the show's audience, Symone's season 13 sisters have also voiced support for her talents on the runway, though their reactions haven't always landed the way they might've intended them to. Following the season 13 premiere, Elliott with 2 Ts endured a wave of online backlash after saying she appreciated Symone's drag for not being "aggressive" in presentation, as opposed to the over-the-top looks donned by other queens on the circuit. As many fans pointed out, the word has long been seen as a micro-aggressive term used to stereotype Black people, and while Symone doesn't think "at her core that she's an evil person," Elliott's words were still frustrating in or out of context.
"What I would like for people — and for her in particular — to understand is that it doesn't necessarily matter what you meant, it's what you said. When you connote aggression with Black people, that's a microaggression, and that's how we are perceived," she observes. "Those mindsets, those things that you may not necessarily think, in the moment, are harmful because it's just you speaking, but those mindsets, those things, those perceptions are literally what get people killed. You just have to be aware of that. I don't think she had any malice behind that statement, I truly don't. But you have to be conscious of those things. Especially with what we experienced over the summer."
And with Symone in control of her art — and the conversation surrounding the Drag Race runway — however, collective consciousness is a reality in sight.
RuPaul's Drag Race continues Friday at 8 p.m. on VH1. Keep up with EW's complete Drag Race coverage.
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