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Godmother of drag: Michelle Visage

Michelle Visage doesn't care if you like her or not, that's on you. But she can help.
Photo credit:
Voss Events

It takes a lot to be a drag mother, and even though Michelle Visage is not a drag queen she could be deemed their Godmother. She certainly knows how to mentor them, protect them, help them flourish, but she doesn’t care if they like the sting of her words or not, "Sometimes they’re too belligerent," she tells me. "They know everything, ‘I know what I do is great, you don’t need to tell me how to make it better because I’m the best already’ and then I’ll see them after and I go, ‘oh, you did change that after all.’”

She has done it so often there should be a “House of Visage.”

You know her voice, you know her fashion and you know she never holds back when critiquing the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Yes, it’s Michelle Visage and she’s RuPaul’s second-in-command. This role fits her pretty well and Ru is smart to have her in that position.

Michelle has been in the business for many years and it’s not something she’s ashamed to admit. During our conversation, the few things that I learned about her is that she is extremely hard working, empathetic to those who want to excel in the business and adamant about trying to get talent to where they want to be.

At nearly 50-years-old Michelle may be the hardest working godmother in the entertainment industry. She recently booked a gig on the judging panel for Ireland’s Got Talent, and will be back in front of the stage alongside RuPaul for season 10 of the Emmy-winning reality show.

I also learned I was wrong to label her as RuPaul’s resident meanie who makes shady remarks off the cuff. No, everything she says as a judge on Drag Race comes from a place motivated by wanting the contestants to succeed in every way possible.

Michelle is also currently on tour with “Werq the World” tour: an international drag show that is much more than a weekly cabaret. That show is in San Diego tonight to an almost sell out crowd.

My first question to her was how often she visits San Diego when she's in Los Angeles. She says she doesn’t get here as often as she would like, it’s a three-hour drive, but she remembers the time when the city was good to her and her band Seduction.

“Seduction was huge in San Diego,” she said. “We used to come down there, I think the station was, if I can remember correctly like KISS 106 or something like that, we used to do shows all the time down there. So I have spent quite a lot of time in San Diego, but I’m not going to act like I know the city.”

Having climbed the evolutionary chart of success, I wondered how Michelle gets along with the queens on the tour and how much coaching she has to do to prepare them for what to expect. Werq the World is an international show and the fast-paced lifestyle of a different stage night-after-night is something Michelle is used to.

“I don’t know if you could ever be prepared for that,” she said. “Honestly, I have told time and again, because I’ve been doing this since I’m nineteen years old.”

She also says drag queens doing nightly local shows may think they're already prepped, but world tours are a different monster. “So these kids are workhorses," she says. "They’re used to working for their bucks every single night. But touring is different because you don’t get to go home at the end of the night, right? You’re going to a hotel room where the bed is sometimes comfortable, sometimes not. Or a bus bunk, you know sometimes you’re able to sleep on the bus, sometimes you’re not able to.”

Very wise words from Mama Michelle indeed, but sometimes it falls on deaf ears. Although she is there to mentor the artists, she is no babysitter. They have to live it first, then decide which way they want to go in their careers. Their motivations must stem from the mind and what makes them happy. 

“Some of them realize that touring is not for them,” she says. “But they didn’t really complain much. Like they’ve all been troopers and hard workers and I think that goes along with the drag mentality; you don’t know where that next buck is coming from in that bar tonight, they might not be tippers so I have to hustle and I think that’s the mentality of a lot of drag queens.”

And really, the more I talked to Michelle I realized whether it be on Drag Race or touring with them through various countries, she is the muscle in their hustle. She’s more than a den mother, it’s not like these artists are children; they can do whatever they want.

But don’t disrespect Mama Ru or the show; that is definitely a no-no.

“I usually say, you’re on Drag Race time now,” she said in a very stern voice. “You know you can do what you want in your spare time: you can drink, you can do drugs, that’s your own business. So when you’re on stage you belong to Drag Race, you’re representing the show. I need you to be as professional as you can be."

Those sentiments are levied by her interactions with newborns in the business. On Drag Race she snaps like a lioness at some of the newbie girls, which you might think is a great way to make enemies. "I have never, ever, ever, had anybody, not like me or have a problem with me outside of the show because of the critique," she says. "Ninety-nine percent of them know when they go on that show what they’re there to get. I’m not there to sugar-coat things, I’m there to break it down, tell them what they can do to make it better. If they want to fight with me they can, but they’re not going to win and at the end of the day, as a human, I’m a different person than I am for my job as a judge so I’ve never had a problem. They might have had a problem with what I said about an outfit, but that’s an outfit, I mean I’m not judging them as a person. I’m judging their clothes. For them to be upset with me over that would be kind of shallow and ridiculous.”

She's right of course. At the end of the day it's not her doing the drag show, but if they want to be pushed a little bit further into changing things up so people don't get bored, then they should probably consider hushing the voice in their head just long enough to soak in what she's recommending.

"Because if they are getting bored with it, their fans are going to get bored with it, so my point is do something different shake it up, try this instead of that, and then when they do it, it’s like, ‘oh my God, I didn’t know I could do this'" she explains. "And it’s almost more about me seeing them with self-pride than it is about being right. Because again, me being right is not going to benefit me—I don’t care – I just want them to be the best that they can be, and make the most money that they can while our show is on the air.”

As far as working with the queens on tour, Michelle says they all pretty much get along, "I hate to break it to the people that want me to be the Miss Hannigan and all the girls in the orphanage to hate me, but it doesn’t really go that way." She adds that they, "have fun, create together, laugh together and perform together."

These seem to be the basic rules for any theater troupe, but if drag queens are as combustible as they are portrayed backstage on Logo, all that personality may ignite.  

“They do their own thing on tour. I mean we are who we are. If they have a question if they want to talk I’m there. But most of them are there just to go have fun and party with their sisters, earn a few coins and then the tour is over. It’s not that deep.”

As for Drag Race, she says she doesn't meet anyone before the show but afterward the contestants are some of her most loyal followers, "they say, ‘Oh my god, I actually love you, you’re so scary on the show,' because they know what they’re going to expect and they don’t have to like me. I want them to listen to what I’m saying so they can improve, get longevity from what they're doing."

They don't always listen and that's fine too, "Again, it does not benefit me in any way if they don’t do what I tell them to do," she reiterates. "It’s not going to affect me, it’s going to affect them, so everything I do is not for me to get camera time. Everything I do is for them to listen and get with it. You know, I’m a bit more dramatic for effect because it’s more fun that way."

And what fun it is. The numbers for Drag Race have increased every season. The show has won four Emmy's and has even spun off into a just-as-popular All-star show. 

Michelle would be the first to tell you that she is not the reason for the show's success, but I feel that many of the people who have made great careers from their time there have her partly to thank. 

Godmother Visage is not only a smart business person, she continues to bolster the fortitude of her own brand. Through all of this, she is also a mother to two teenagers. Her straightforwardness is I believe an attempt to organize her life. There is no time for small talk or coddling when your career is in the line. 

“Somethings aren’t really worth fighting for because if they’re not going to see it then why am I going to keep banging them over the head with it, so you try only so many times and hope it works and at that point you go, oh okay my arms are up in the air, you know you want the best for them. And you know a lot of them didn’t get the guidance that should have gotten so this is where they’re getting a lot of guidance so I understand that.”

Most of all, Michelle says in order to achieve greatness, one has to appreciate who put you there, she's is not taking any credit for that. 

"Be kind to the people who are buying tickets to see the show, don’t be an asshole."

Spoken like the true drag Godmother she is. 

RuPaul's Drag Race Werq the World Tour is on Thursday, October 12, 2017, at Spreckels Theatre starting at 8 pm.

Spreckels Theatre is located at 121 Broadway, San Diego, 92101

Remember, after you see the show, bring your ticket stub to Rich's and join the cast after party for free. 

Tickets for the RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE WERQ THE WORLD tour are on sale now at www.werqtheworld.com.