“I’m just here to fight” said The Vixen when she entered the workroom for season 10 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Those words set the mood for what was probably one of the most controversial runs for any drag queen on the show. The Vixen’s stint on Drag Race was dominated by confrontations with fellow contestants Aquaria and Eureka, and ended with an iconic walk-out from the reunion episode, after clashing with Mama Ru herself.
She definitely brought the fight to Drag Race.
In some ways its a shame that the drama is what the show focused on — The Vixen turned out some absolutely iconic looks, gave some great performances, and was an all-round fierce contender — and she deserves to be remembered for that too. Her “Glitterific” look alone is gag-worthy.
But watching The Vixen’s run back in 2018, her points have proved even more salient in 2020, as the rest of us catch up. What we were watching was a political drag queen doing their most, in a format that doesn’t always know how to celebrate political drag as an art form.
In a show that often delights in bitchiness and shade, it’s rare that a proud political drag queen gets the chance to get her message across.
The Vixen brought the fight to Drag Race, but it was the good fight.
Black Girl Magic
Speaking to The Vixen over Zoom, I was interested to discover why she’d chosen drag as a political medium, as a soapbox for activism.
“You do get this sense of respectability politics when you start drag,” she tells me.
My immediate vibe is that she’s a professional — even though she’s not in drag, and we’re talking over camera in her home, she’s got a backdrop set up, her lighting on point, her answers prepared and concise. She’s extremely polite, and generous with all her responses — patient when it takes me six to seven sentences to find my point.
“When I first started drag, I thought that I was going to have to sit my activism aside. I was very active in my community and college, and I ran a Youth Pride Centre and all these things — but bars say you’re ‘here to entertain people’. You don’t want to bring down the mood. So, I had put that away for a while, and then after just seeing a lot of casual racism in the club scene, I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. I just had to be myself and speak my voice.”
A huge part of The Vixen’s activism is manifested through her show, Black Girl Magic, which she started in Chicago in 2016, a politically charged year that culminated with the election of Donald Trump. The show came about because she felt that while Chicago had a bunch of Black queens performing successfully, they rarely got to work together.
“Each bar had their token Black queen and we didn’t really get a chance to work with each other very often,” she explained, telling me that most bars would only have one Black queen booked, in order to at least tick the “diversity” quota.
“We all were put in that box because we were the only Black representation in each lineup.”
Being able to perform outside of the “diversity box” meant that the queens were able to be more creative, more weird and niche. They were able to be creative as themselves, rather than having to fit into a white perspective of what a Black drag queen looks and sounds like.
“Everyone brings their most unique thing about them instead of trying to fit into a Black box.”
The Vixen explains to me that the overwhelming message of Black Girl Magic, is to celebrate Black women, and Black drag queens.
“I think what’s great about Black Girl Magic is, it gives everyone from any walks of life the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate how much Black women give to the culture. And I think we all have some way that we identify with Black women. There’s so much strength there, there’s so much resilience and positivity. And I think everyone has something that they’ve learned or grown from watching Black women, especially in entertainment. So, we get people from all over and the energy in the room is so great because when you come to Black Girl Magic, you’re there to celebrate the person on stage. You’re not just there to be entertained. You’re definitely going to be entertained, but you show up with the intention to support and love.”
Black Girl Magic has only grown in size and popularity.
“I’ve taken it across the country now, and done it in different cities — this February we got to five different states on a little Black History Month tour, it’s really, really grown. And what I like is I always tell queens, ‘You don’t have to wait for me to come to your city to start a Black Girl Magic. You have my blessing, do whatever you can. I can’t be everywhere at once.’ I’ve seen Black Girl Magic in Paris. I just got an email today from a girl in Africa who’s doing one. It’s really, really great.”
I ask The Vixen if political drag feels more relevant now with Black Lives Matter. She agrees.
“It’s very easy because everyone is much more aware of the issues, and politics are so heated right now that I think everyone is looking for a way to vent through it — if that’s escapism, or if that’s taking things head on. I think it’s kinda like how they say comedians thrive under a bad president, I think political drag queens have that advantage too. It gives us a lot of content to work with, unfortunately.”
“It Just Made Me Look Angry”
Taking the energy and attitude of politics and activism on to a show like Drag Race is a different story entirely.
“I always say, ‘You might not have liked what I said, but you heard me'”, The Vixen tells me. “I think that even though it was uncomfortable for the audience at the time, I think that those things stuck with them and that’s helped us get to where we are today.”
The Vixen tells me that she went on to the show expecting to clash with people.
“Because I was so politically charged, I knew that there would be some instances where I would find myself in a situation where I was saying some uncomfortable truths. I didn’t know how, but I’ve made a pact with myself to not censor my feelings and to be as genuine as possible. I wanted to walk away from the show knowing that I displayed my true self. And that’s what I did.”
Over the course of her time on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10, a lot of airtime was devoted to confrontations with fellow queens Aquaria and Eureka. Both of these situations led to some extremely important conversations about race, and micro-aggressions, and how Black people are cast as “angry” when they stand up for themselves.
“One of the things that I have said is, even though I came into the workroom saying, ‘I came to fight’, at no point did I initiate any fight,” The Vixen points out.
While there are a few twists and turns with the Aquaria situation, the tl;dr is that after a couple of fairly regular Drag Race style spats, Aquaria accused The Vixen of being negative in the workroom, and then called The Vixen a bitch. After they argue, Aquaria begins to cry and storms out. The Vixen was quick to point out how by crying, Aquaria had painted The Vixen into a narrative of becoming the “angry Black woman,” and cast herself as the victim.
“I gotta say this right here is exactly what it is. You say something, I say something, you start crying. You have created a narrative [that] I am an angry black woman who has scared off the little white girl. When you get super defensive and tell me that I’m negative when I’m just responding to what you brought to me that will always read to these [cameras] as a race issue,” she told Aquaria on the show.
“I was always judged more harshly for my reaction, than the initial action,” The Vixen tells me. “And I think the idea that ‘speaking up for yourself is problematic’ is a can of worms. And unfortunately, it really only applies to Queens of Colour.
When we react to the micro-aggressions and we’re seen as aggressive and it’s like, ‘Okay, so am I just supposed to sit here and take whatever is thrown my way?’ And so that leaves you feeling very helpless because it’s like, ‘I can either speak up for myself and be punished — or I can sit here and be disrespected.'”
It’s worth pointing out that while it is pretty great to see education and discourse happening on the show, Drag Race itself doesn’t really deserve any of the praise.
“I think it would have been great for the show to foster that moment and acknowledge that it was something that needed to be addressed, and let it flourish in that way. Unfortunately, I was led away from that conversation a lot by producers, and just placated and patronised and gaslighted.”
According to The Vixen, a lot of gaslighting manifested itself behind the scenes from producers, who would also use opportunities like confessionals and one-on-ones to either try to talk her out of her point of view, or make her double-down.
“It just made me look angry.”
“Everybody’s Telling Me How I Should React,
But Nobody’s Telling Her How To Act”
The way that Drag Race began capitalising on The Vixen, and utilising her for a dramatic villain edit, became very obvious when she was invited back for the season 10 reunion episode.
“I felt as far as the contestant, I felt that I had done my job already. I was eliminated. I was only there to say goodbye really. That’s what a reunion is. And it was very clear that they planned to get a lot more drama out of me.”
By this point, The Vixen has been eliminated, and established as the season’s “villain”.
“Most girls’ segments were one block. They had the segments laid out on the table. There was three blocks reserved for my name, which already told me that there was something coming. And I think during my segment, the reason that they kept doubling down and refocusing the conversation into making me the villain is because they had so much time to fill — because they really wanted to get this ‘aha’ moment out of me.”
Throughout the reunion, Ru presses the antagonism between The Vixen and Eureka, asking The Vixen if she felt she’d “stirred the pot”.
“Eureka manufactured that argument and wanted to produce how we solved it,” The Vixen says. “Once all of that was out in the open and they were still trying to redirect the conversation, it was like, ‘Okay, you are not interested in hearing what I had to say because I’ve already said it’.”
And that’s when The Vixen leaves, with the iconic line “everybody’s telling me how I should react but nobody’s telling her how to act,” which led to Asia O’Hara, another Black queen, continuing the conversation, provoking Ru into an uncharacteristic moment of anger.
It was one of the more telling conversations about race on Drag Race, a show that often dips into feel-good, if toothless, “solidarity” politics. “We’re all family”, etc.
“We Don’t Look Like Cher”
Of course, the ramifications of speaking out and speaking fervently, and being cast as a villain, didn’t end when season 10 did.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” The Vixen tells me, smiling slightly. An understatement, to be sure.
“I definitely have gone through a lot of hateful messages, and gaslighting. It would almost feel like there was just campaigns from different venues that were just trying to make sure that I was discredited and that the work that I did got ignored. Even with Black Girl Magic being monthly and me advocating and speaking at colleges and things like that, a lot of people wanted to keep the narrative around me being this villain, and poking at me and cyber bullying and trying to get a reaction out of me that would validate their perspective.”
Quite a bit has been written about the imbalanced reaction that Black queens get in comparison to white contestants — which are usually defined by hate campaigns and outright racism.
“It happens every season. It takes a long time for the Black queens to get equal recognition, if they ever do. And so then once you’re into the season, every altercation, every lip sync battle, everything you get, you see the bias, you see people distrust the Queens of Colour. You see them make a million excuses for a white queen’s misbehaviour.”
It’s happened over and over again throughout Drag Race herstory — and the evidence can be as simple as the wildly juxtaposed numbers of followers on social media between white and Black queens, with the differences sometimes being in the millions.
“If a Black queen sends a white queen home, that Black queen is going to get so much hate mail and things, and it’s like, ‘Why am I being punished for being good at my craft?’ And it’s unfortunate.”
I ask The Vixen if there’s anything the show can do to try and help sort out this imbalance — the fans are such a monolithic and diverse group, it seems harder to change their behaviour. But perhaps they can follow the cues that Drag Race creates.
“Yes. I think the show definitely has the ability to influence what fans see and what they think,” she agrees. It’s very clearly something she’s thought about a lot, because she has her answers on hand.
“Even before my season, we had seen so many Black queens online and after their season talk about the racism that they face, the cyber bullying, things like that. And I think Drag Race stayed silent for way too long, even after my season. Just now in this current Black Lives Matter movement that we’ve seen Drag Race speak explicitly against racism which is convenient, I suppose. I’m glad that it’s happening because it needed to happen, at whatever time. And I hope that they stick with that as we go on into future seasons.”
The Vixen explains that a place to start within the framework of the show would be the judges’ commentary.
“I think a lot of times we see in the judging, for instance on this current season of All Stars, Shea did a very avant-garde look, and the judges commented that it was “crafty”. And it was like, ‘Okay, but if a white queen was to wear this, it would be next level.’ And it’s art. And I don’t think that this show a lot of times creates an environment where Black queens can be artists and thought of as edgy or quirky or something. I think Yvie Oddly is probably the only Black queen that I’ve seen given the space to be punk…. I think a lot of times when Black queens do things that are off kilter, it’s not seen as polished, but a white queen could come out in denim jeans and a white tank top and be seen as “All American”. But if a Black queen has to do it, she would be seen as ghetto.”
She also explains that the challenges in Drag Race often put Black queens at a disadvantage.
“There’s been so many Madonna and Cher challenges, and country and western… and things like that which obviously won’t favour a Black queen in the end. My season, I went home on the Cher challenge, and all of the Black queens were in the bottom because we don’t look like Cher.”
There’s also the fact that Black queens are often coming from a less privileged place than their white counterparts, something we saw again in the most recent season between a queen like Gigi Goode who could afford to have a huge range of very polished outfits, and someone like Heidi N’ Closet, who arrived with fewer outfits.
“I think the show ignores that Black queens are coming from worse-off socioeconomic backgrounds — and that if the show ignores that, the audience is going to be biased against the Black queens. I think to pretend that the playing field is levelled is toxic because that’s really ignoring the struggle that we’re up against. I think if the show wants to be fair, they have to create an environment that gives Black queens not more of an advantage, but gives them an equal opportunity to thrive.”
“Better Late Than Never”
“With the Black Lives Matter movement taking this new uprising, it’s really, really shocking and gratifying to see that people are getting it. Of course, my instant reaction was, ‘What took so long?’ but in the grand scheme, I’m just grateful that people are starting to understand. It took a while, but better late than never.”
The Vixen has used her platform to be vocal and supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, both broadcasting her own ideas, and boosting other voices. She also spoke at the viral Drag March For Change in Chicago in June. I mention that I’d seen people at other protests holding up placards with her “Everybody’s telling me how I should react, but nobody’s telling her how to act” quote emblazoned on it.
“It makes me feel very, very happy…” she says, thinking about her quotes from Drag Race showing up at the protests. “I’m glad to see that people, when all of the recent events came about, that people were able to connect to that. I’m very proud of it.”
She explains why that particular quote might resonate.
“I think because so many of us have experienced it in our own ways. There are a lot of people who are very passionate about things, and a lot of times we get scolded for how we feel instead of having our feelings acknowledged and having the problem addressed. I think when you make noise, people see you as the problem and they ignore the fact that you are making noise about a problem. I think a lot of people resonate with that. I think a lot of Black women especially know what it feels like to be gaslighted and tone policed. And so that just clicks and it really, I think when you are speaking from your heart, a lot of times you say things that are so true that it resonates with people across the board. And I’m glad that that was something that gave other people a tool to defend themselves.”
It feels fitting to end the interview by asking her how we can be supporting the Black Lives Matters protests.
“First, I think is very important to support bail funds. There’s a lot of people protesting. And if you can’t protest, the next best thing is to be able to make sure that people do get out of jail as soon as possible. I’m very much about bail funds. And then sign as many petitions as you can. I try to at least sign three petitions every day, which is not hard. And there are so many things. And it doesn’t always have to be a Black Lives Matter issue. I think if we get to the point where we are supporting and actively looking for ways to support change and we’re all pushing a petition based environment, I think that will do us all for the better… I think if we all actively look for ways to help, then that’s the change that we need.”
This is the way The Vixen is fighting today.
Feature image photo courtesy of Sandra Oviedo/ColectivoMultipolar. www.colectivomultipolar.com
Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.