The stars of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reunite onstage in Atlanta for “Battle of the Seasons.” Michelle Visage and Topher Payne were supposed to talk about her hosting the event. Not surprisingly, they struggled to stay on topic.
Michelle Visage is a master of reinvention. She burst onto the music scene in the late 80s as a platinum blonde with a serious set of pipes in the trio Seduction. Their single “Two to Make it Right” hit No. 2 on the U.S. charts, and led to a tour with Milli Vanilli (a prophetic first encounter with performers lip-synching for their lives). In the late ’90s, she was the redheaded sidekick on VH1’s “The RuPaul Show,” a gone-too-soon late night chatfest which showcased Visage’s razor-sharp wit, and her easy chemistry with longtime best friend RuPaul.
But it is the most recent incarnation, the raven-haired Michelle Visage, which has truly captured the zeitgeist. Seated at the right hand of Ru, Visage throws truth bombs at the runway as a judge on LOGO’s hit series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Topher gave her a call to talk about “Drag Race,” the live show and her other upcoming projects. But first, they had to talk about this video:
Topher Payne: Okay, so I was just on your Twitter, doing a little research. And because you posted the Honey Maid video, I had to watch it again. Now I’m all aflutter.
Michelle Visage: Isn’t it beautiful? It’s so well-done, and the message is fabulous… but of course then my conspiracy theories immediately kick in, so I don’t know.
What do you mean? Well aren’t they owned by Proctor & Gamble or someone like that?
I honestly have no idea. See? I don’t either, and I feel like we need to check. I hope they aren’t. It’s great to have that support, but before I get too excited I try to follow up, find out where it’s coming from and why. Because it’s so fashionable for a business to get on board with gay rights right now, and you want to check whether it’s just lip service.
It’s like when you drop 20 pounds and suddenly different guys are hitting on you at the bar. Exactly, Topher! The ones who loved you when you weren’t popular, those are your people. Or the whole thing could be authentic and I’m just overly suspicious. Unless I’m not. You have to be careful, not thinking too much, but making sure you’re thinking enough, you know what I mean? Anyway, it’s still a great message. And I like Honey Maid, I really hope they’re not evil. I used to buy them for my kids, dip ‘em in milk before they had teeth. We go way back, me and those graham crackers.
So you’re home now, about to hit the road hosting “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons.” It’s like y’all put together a Vaudeville act. You’re not far off. There’s definitely a variety show feel to it, but I’m more Cher than Dinah Shore. It’s a little bit of everything. Lip-synchs and dancing, Ivy Winters is swallowing fire, Mimi Imfurst is doing a DJ set, Jinkx Monsoon is singing, I’m out there singing-
You’re singing? Awesome! Yes! You know, my first great love was musical theater, it’s what I studied. It turns out Jinkx and I have the exact same taste in songs. We have to work that out because we always wanna do the same stuff.
Do you switch it up from one show to the next? Some. It all depends on the city. The thing you learn from a tour is how regional the tastes are. What plays in Atlanta might not play elsewhere, you’ve got to learn your audience. And I try to help the new kids on the tour with what I learned- I mean, they’ve played clubs, but these huge venues are a different thing. When Seduction was opening for Milli Vanilli, they were at their height, and those enormous crowds really teach you a lot about selling a performance.
What are you planning for the Atlanta show? I’ve been doing “Mama’s Good to You” from Chicago lately …
Oh my god, you’ve got to play that role one day. I’ve got a Mama Morton in me for sure! I’d love to get back to theater. Maybe this year, next year, I wanna make it happen. So I sing Mama, but I throw a little “Two to Make It Right” in at the end if there’s any Seduction fans out there. I might have to keep that for Atlanta—they were so great to us. Atlanta was such an important city for me. Still is. Especially now that I get to be a piece of what looks like a drag show, but it’s really just a plethora of loving and understanding. Plus, being on the road with all of them, it’s my first chance to really get to know them, and they’re all amazing.
You and Santino base all of your critiques exclusively on runway and challenges … That’s how Ru wants it, that’s how we want it. We’re uncorrupted. I don’t get to know them until after it’s over.
You don’t see the workroom and lounge footage until it airs? Right. And I wish some of these angry people on Twitter would keep that in mind. We’re judging the performer, not the person. That queen could be walking wounded and kicking, or, you know, on the front lines with vets digging out their own kidney with a spoon and doing a transplant with their bare hands, but I don’t know anything about all that! I just know her makeup needs work! And even if I did know her whole story, the makeup still needs work, you know? Yes, I’m tough, and I’m specific. These kids are at the top of their game. I’m critiquing pros here.
And you try to push them out of their comfort zones. I try to. There’s usually a fight, and I get that. All of these kids are comfortable with what they’re good at. Everybody, everywhere, is comfortable with what they’re good at. But you can’t let that be enough.
You’ll never know what you’re capable of. I was a musical theater kid—that was my love. And my Mom told me, “We’ve seen you can do that, now you’re gonna do opera.” I didn’t wanna do opera, I didn’t particularly like opera. But she pushed me, and I did two operas. I used my voice in a new way, had a different experience as a performer. I’ll never do it again, but I learned from it, I got better at what I love. That’s why Ru sets up all these challenges—each one refines a specific skill. And oh my god, I wish you could see these performers the moment they break out of their comfort zone. I see it on their faces! They light up! It’s my favorite part of the show.
You and RuPaul have worked on so many different projects over the years. What’s the secret to maintaining a friendship while you’re working together? That’s… hm. That’s a really good question. Because nine times out of 10, it’s the kiss of death, isn’t it? The rule is never work with a friend, never live together, never loan ‘em money. I mean, all the best friends I’ve lived with, I don’t talk to anymore. But with Ru, it works. Drag Race, and the VH1 show before that- my god, that show was ahead of its time.
I can tell you as a gay kid in Mississippi, that show came in handy. You looked like you were having so much fun. That was the takeaway for me, how much fun the weird kids could have. It was! It was such an amazing time! And it laid the groundwork for Drag Race. Because before that, people didn’t have wide exposure to drag as an art. It was just Flip Wilson or Milton Berle or the weird guy in the neighborhood your mother told you to stay away from. The VH1 show was an introduction, and now Drag Race really invites the public in. I do it because—don’t get me wrong, I love being on TV— but I love, love, love what this show has done to clue people in on the art of drag. And you know, Ru and I keep saying we’re not done with that. I mean with the talk show. That show is not done.
Well, Letterman did just announce he’s retiring. Wouldn’t that be perfect? There’s a new face for late night!
And you could take the Paul Shaffer role. I’m loving this idea. We still have so much fun together, which is one of the reasons it’s worked for so long. We’re completely open and honest in our relationship, we don’t leave things unsaid. That’s important. Maybe it’s because of the straight girl/gay guy pairing? We’re able to challenge each other without competing. With two women, there’s always that little edge to it. I don’t know if it’s the same with gay guys…
It is absolutely the same with gay guys. Right! (laughs) Also, and I mean this, Ru is just a more highly evolved human being. When he says it’s all about love, that’s really where he aspires to live, moment to moment. I like to think I’m a little more evolved too, because I work at it. And we surround ourselves with people who support that. But Ru is my soulmate. My husband—we’ll have been married 17 years in June—he’s my soulmate too. I think we get more than one. Each one enriches you, makes you better. And whatever risk your soulmate takes, you want to be there, you want to be the net.
How do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone? Look at what scares you, turn it into a goal. I was just thinking the other day I wanna shave my head.
Well, you’d save so much time. Yes! Just throw a wig on and get out the door. I tell ya, Gaga and Cher, they’ve got the right idea.
You’re making your debut as an author this fall. That’s a big leap. Oh god. It’s definitely out of my comfort zone calling myself an author, but it’s really just telling stories and giving advice, which I’m probably a little too comfortable doing. I fell into this role of mother figure doing morning radio for 17 years, listening, giving advice—I give much better than I take, but that’s true for most people. But, look. Life changes without warning, suddenly the rules are different, and you’ve got to find your inner diva and rise above it. Everybody’s got an inner diva. It took me a while to find mine— my self-love was more like self-loathe. I wanted to write something to help other people find theirs, and Chronicle Books is making it possible. I’m calling it “Even Divas Need Day Jobs.”
Who helped you find your inner diva? You know something? I did. My Mom helped. Ru helped. But other people can just point the way. You’ve got to make it on your own, with humor, with confidence. With love. You have to find the people who will sustain you. For me, truly, that’s the gay community. I know that I was put on this earth to hold hands, talk the talk, and walk the walk alongside the gay community. Those are the people in my life who have always been there, have always supported me. Loyalty, it’s everything. And you repay loyalty with loyalty. I got into it with this guy the other day, he asked why I don’t do something for women’s rights instead. Like we’re supposed to just pick one.
He was Russian, so you can imagine how this conversation started. And I’m trying to explain to him that, okay, gay women’s rights are women’s rights! I’m trying to break down barriers for everyone. What’s funny is that we’re talking about this while I’m watching my daughter run track. I’ve got to fight to open doors for them. My kids know they can achieve anything.
You must be a really formidable Track Mom. You have no idea. I’m a very proud Track Mom. I maintain a separate Twitter account just for bragging. But there’s crossover. Shangela ran track, so she comments a lot. And my daughter’s 14 now, so she’s on Twitter. And I had to have that conversation with her, explain how people can be. If somebody comes at you, block ‘em. They come at you about me? Block ‘em. Because some of these kids will go vicious and nuts, over what? I judge someone’s dress? Come on, people. That’s my job! Whatever. I tell her, block it. Shut it down.
No need to live in the shade. Exactly. The lowest level of person, with five followers on Twitter, will spend their day staring at a screen spewing hatred. For what? They go to bed with that darkness, they get up and carry it with them. Why would you want to live there? With that weight on you?
I think they get so used to the feeling, it becomes their normal. You’re in the dark too long, your eyes adjust to it. You don’t realize it’s surrounding you. I feel sorry for that, but I won’t waste my time there. Me? I’ve got two amazing kids, a husband who loves me—fat, skinny, whatever—a roof over my head and a great gig with my best friend. The darkness can’t touch any of that. It can’t even come close.