Q&A: Jinkx Monsoon from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’
The leading contender to win the reality drag contest on Monday dishes about her fellow queens, fighting to be taken seriously, and growing up in Portland.
Over eleven weeks, the judges shaved down the pool of contestants from 14 to three: Jinkx, Alaska Thunderf*ck (love her), and Roxxxy Andrews (hate her). On Monday, May 6, during the reunion episode, RuPaul will crown “America’s next drag superstar!” (It’s all very dramatic, dahling!) And you can help by tweeting your support #TeamJinkx.
Because we’re having a hard time waiting for the climax, we set up an interview with Jinkx (who’s now full-on celebrity with a publicist who conference calls her into the conversation) to ask what it’s like to watch the episodes for the first time with the rest of us, whether all those cat-fights and tears are real, why she chooses to be “decidedly tacky,” and what role Portland played in developing her drag (hint: Magpie vintage).
Culturephile: First off, where have you been watching the show?
Jinkx Monsoon: I watched the earlier episodes in Seattle, but lately I've been traveling around and doing parties, watching it in each different locale with a different experience every time, which has been really interesting.
So you're seeing it for the first time with strangers? That’s crazy!
It's a little surreal, but I was in such a haze when I was filming, because it was all so exciting, that I didn't really soak it up. When I'm watching the episodes, certain things feel like I'm seeing it for the first time, even though I was there. I'm so hooked to the show that I don't even pay attention to what's going on around me.
What do you think of how they're editing the show? Are there dramas that they're fluffing and other things they’re missing?
Everything that we've seen actually did happen. It's not like the editing is completely fabricating everything. It just makes everything a little bit more dramatic, like [dramatic music tone] “dun dun dah!” Which makes the show more exciting.
What’s it like to watch the other queen’s confessions and how they talked about you?
Some of it I could've expected, and some of it is a little like, “Bitch said what!??” But it was all manageable—you just submit to the sport of it all.
They’ve portrayed your storyline as the struggle to get these pageant queens to take you seriously, and not just to brush you off as a comedy queen. Do you feel like that was your biggest challenge?
Yeah, I think so, but it is the struggle I'm used to. A lot of people are very passionate at this art form and committed to their idea of drag. But I have a mutual respect for all different kinds of drag. I just like to showcase what I think is exciting, and I hope that they appreciate it for what it is.
Along those lines, the thing that you get the most criticism for, at least early on, is not being glamorous enough. What is your definition of glamour, and why do you think they didn't see it?
My definition of glamour is exuding your inner beauty through the way you hold yourself and portray yourself, and that should matter more than what you're wearing. But I also appreciate high old Hollywood glamour. I feel like I have a hard time helping it read on the runway, but I think that in reflection it's obvious what I was going for.
Right. On the runway, the judges don't really get to understand your character—they're just seeing your presentation.
Yeah, the exciting thing about drag for me is creating a new character, and sometimes I will forgo aesthetic glamour for an exciting character choice. And that reads as very tacky sometimes. I've always been okay with that, but I know that it's not everybody's cup of tea. I refer to myself sometimes as "decidedly tacky."
The first show of the season that I watched was “The Snatch Game,” which blew me away. Your Little Edie was incredible, and yet none of the others got it. When do you feel like they finally started to see you as the threat that you are?
I think it had to be Snatch Fame. When it was a success, they started realizing that maybe they just didn't get what I was doing, but the judges did.
Then two episodes later during the RuPaul roast, Michelle Visage, who normally rained trash on your runway outfits, finally loved your Hollywood glamour. And then she loved your next vintage outfit. What was it like to finally bring her around?
That for me was one of the biggest personal achievements on the show, because I was really trying from the get go to take in the critique and apply it into my runway outfits. And I’d keep falling short of the bull's eye. So when I finally succeeded in that, it was really really exciting for me, because it was the first time that I felt like me and Michelle and Ru and Santino were all on the same page, and I had succeeded on the challenge and on my runway look.
And you keep killing it until episode nine, when everybody names you as their biggest competition. And then it gets mean. Particularly from Roxxxy, who goes off about how you're just “lucky,” like this is some Russian roulette of contests, as opposed to a designed show. Why couldn't they see your talent for what it is, as opposed to reducing it to a gimmick and luck?
I'm not sure. I'm still kind of wrapping my head around it myself. All the things that we were challenged on were things that RuPaul has done in her career. RuPaul has been an actress, a comedian, and a singer, and the fact that my accomplishments in those challenges were being thrown off as lucky comedy shtick was ignoring the fact that this is a valid thing that it takes to be a drag superstar. And the thing that RuPaul has done her whole career. And I just thought it was funny that [Roxxxy] was reducing it all to: can you sew or not.
I think Roxxxy is really great at what she does, and I think we all really take the art form seriously in our own ways, and in this type of competition we can get insecure and need to lash out at anything, you know?
I was going to ask about that, because everybody seems really catty and cruel. Do the producers fan those flames? Is it as poisonous an environment as it seems?
I think the heat of competition, especially for drag queens who compete regularly—the pageant girls this season—it's just a very high-stress, high-tension environment. And I think everyone has their own things that they do: some people take it internally, and then some people get all outward and start attacking everyone in the room.
When I start feeling the stress of the situation, I become my own worst critic, and you can see how it affected Roxxxy when she thought I was just trying to play the victim. That was just my way of handling the stress of the situation. I get very very self-critical. Other people make it all outward, and then we see the temper tantrums that we see.
Is there also love?
Absolutely. Even though it gets really catty sometimes, you are in a once-in-a-lifetime experience with only 13 other people, and no one is ever going to understand that experience like your sisters will.
When we fight, it's just like how sisters fight. We can bicker and get really mad at each other, but at the end of the day, you're still sisters and you still love each other. Each and every one of these girls, I have a really good relationship with now. When we’re all in the same town, it's always a party with us.
With that stress and love and cattiness, there's also so much vulnerability on the show and these emotional breakdowns: Roxxxy on stage talking about being abandoned at a bus stop, or Monica Beverly Hillz coming out as transgender. The idea to me of revealing your deepest secrets in a giant, cold studio in front of a panel of bitchy judges and cameras is incomprehensible. Can you help me understand how it is that you all feel safe enough to let these things out?
I want to say that you start to really rely on the people. You're in isolation, and you build this little makeshift family with these people, and you feel safe around them, and you kind of forget that there are cameras on you. I think it's the magic of television: you group enough like people and give them something to talk about and find a way to help them forget that they're being filmed—that's when you get that availability for vulnerability.
And for you to say you have a crush on Ivy Winters in front of everybody—I couldn’t believe you said that!
I didn't say that thinking it was going to be such a huge deal. Anyone who knows me knows I have such a crush on everyone. Ivy and I were becoming close as friends, and we were in isolation, so at some point, you just start looking around the room and seeing everyone just a little bit differently [laugh].
Have you guys seen each other since?
Yeah, we've got to hang out a few times. I stayed with her when I was in New York for a week. But we're just friends. She has a very charming boyfriend.
Is it hard for you all to keep secret who wins?
I think we all just play dumb to it. My trick—when people try to ask me questions about it—is I just go, [Jinkx's character voice]: "Oh, I didn't even know I was on the show until two weeks ago. I don't even understand how it works."
So let's come back to Portland. Was your first drag performance here?
The very first time I performed in drag on a large scale was at the Escape nightclub, which is the all-ages, queer dance club in downtown Portland. I came out of this box, and I was dressed like a windup doll and did a whole act in my point shoes.
A friend tells me he saw you at a high school performance where you performed a song from Chicago in which you walked over a chair as it tipped over for the big finale. But you couldn't get it right, so you did it over several times, rewinding the music each time.
Yeah, that's indicative of my performance style [laughs].
What role would you say Portland has played in your drag?
I think the ability to embrace uniqueness, you know, in all different kinds of styles. Portland and Seattle and the Northwest in general are very open-minded, and I think there's a lot of room for creativity in this region. Drag is very much a regional thing, and I think it reflects the kind of people in that region. I learned to be a hippie performance artist in Portland and Seattle, and I really like that as my drag persona.
Are there Portland roots to your love of vintage?
Yeah, because when I started drag in Portland, I used to go to all the vintage shops and thrift stores that Portland is famous for. It instilled early on my aesthetic for the vintage era and that dress style.
Did you have a favorite store?
Red Light is a good staple in Portland, and then Buffalo Exchange as well. Magpie is where me and my best friend Kenny used to go to all the time for vintage clothes.
In our June issue, we’re running a story about local drag doyenne Darcelle, focusing on the fact that drag is crossing over into mainstream fashion—like all of the designers who are now putting men in skirts on the runway—in no small part thanks to Drag Race. And Darcelle is really our city’s oldest independent designer. She's been designing glamorous outfits for 50-plus years. Did she influence you at all?
I have met Darcelle a few times. I performed at her annual all ages show for three years, and we worked together for Peacock After Dark, the scholarship fundraiser show. I absolutely adore her. She's always been wonderful every time I've seen her. And if you watch her documentary, Queens of Heart, it's one of the most poetic and endearing documentaries I've seen, while also being very quirky and Portland-y.
Video by Alex Berry
How did being on Drag Race affect you as a performer?
I refer to myself these days as Jinkx 2.0. I think I'm still very much the Jinkx Monsoon I went into RuPaul's Drag Race as, but I'm upping everything, taking it to the next level. I'm really excited about it because I feel like I came out the other end a much stronger and more willing performance artist.
And it looks like you're getting all sorts of opportunities from it: you're flying all over the country, not to mention headlining a cruise. It's overnight stardom. What’s that like?
It's very surreal. It's been taking some getting used to. Before all this, I had done no traveling. My family didn't really go on big family vacations. We usually just went to the coast. I've lived in the Northwest my whole life and never really left it, and now I’ve been to New York and Florida, Chicago, I just did two shows in Texas. I'm getting to experience the whole country rapid fire. It's really exciting.
Not to mention getting to experience it as a drag rock star.
That's also very surreal. I'm kind of a goof and a little bit of a dork, and Jinkx Monsoon is the life of the party. But sometimes when I'm being made a big deal of, I go back to being a big dork, and I can't really process the fact that everyone's chanting your name at a dance club. That's just overwhelming.
What's next, and where do you hope all of this ultimately leads?
I am doing a show in New York with my music partner, Richard Andriessen, in July at the Laurie Beechman Theater called the Vaudevillians. This is our original musical comedy show about these vaudeville stars who are frozen alive and have thawed out and are returning to the stage with their original 1920s music. But it's actually pop songs, as if we wrote the pop songs in the 1920s, and then all these people started ripping off our music. So we do pop songs in like ragtime style, like [singing at ragtime tempo] "Hey guys, take another little piece of my heart now, baby." Or Lady Gaga and stuff like that. Hopefully that's something we can take on tour.
Ultimately I hope to do more theater work as a drag queen. I have a personal goal to be the first drag queen to host SNL [laughs].
I just watched the new documentary about the legendary drag queen Divine, called I Am Divine, and interviewed the cult star Mink Stole, who was fabulous. She mentioned that she wished Divine would've gotten more chances to play male roles, and I read in another interview that you hope one day that you can play any character regardless of gender. Do you feel like that's something American audiences are finally ready for?
I think because of things like RuPaul's Drag Race, even though it's a very specific kind of representation of our community, I think the more and more we get integrated into the mainstream, the less of a big deal it is that some people are gay and that gender is in the eye of the beholder. I think within the next couple of years, it won't be that big of a deal for a gay male to play a straight male role, or a female role, or a gay male role all equally.
Do you have any Portland appearances in the works?
I was going to try to do Portland Pride, but it looks like I might be working on Hairspray, the concert musical in Seattle. So I'm not sure when the next time will be, but I want to get a gig in Portland as soon as possible. Hopefully we can get the Vaudevillians a gig in Portland!
The final episode of RuPaul's Drag Race will air on Logo on Monday, April 23 at 9 pm PST.
Video by Anthony Hudson