Politics

Michelle Visage Interview: ‘It is Harmful Out There – I might Be Remiss To Sit Again And Shut My Mouth’

Singer. actor. Presenter. Author. icon. Legend. Diva.

Michelle Visage wears all of these hats and more – it’s a truly marvel her hair remains as voluminous as it is under the weight of them all. Still, to most people, she’s still best known as the long-serving, straight-talking judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

A long-time friend and right-hand woman to the show’s resident Glamazon, RuPaul, Michelle joined Drag Race in its infancy and has remained with the show as it exploded into the behemothic star-making phenomenon it is today.

“It’s truly an anomaly that none of us could have predicted, that none of us could explain,” Michelle says of Drag Race’s ascend. “It’s just got that magic je ne sais quoi, and I am so honored to be part of this legacy.”

Since taking up her spot on the panel, Michelle has seen literally hundreds of queens shantay and sashay down the runway, offered critiques to contestants on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as Down Under, sat alongside a plethora of A-list guest judges and witnessed some of the most iconic and meme-able reality TV moments of the past decade up close and personal.

Still, she insists, life on the Drag Race panel is just as exciting now as it was on her very first day on set.

Michelle on the Drag Race UK panel with RuPaul and Graham Norton

BBC/World of Wonder/Guy Levy

“Imagine being able to go to work every day, sit next to your best friend, and see the best drag show in the world,” Michelle says. “I was a drag superfan long before drag was ever on television, so, for me, it’s enthralling to say the least. That will never ever get old.”

It’s not just the queens that have benefited from Drag Race’s success, with the show having also been a star vehicle for Michelle herself, who acknowledges it as “the biggest gift in my professional life”.

At 54, she is more in demand than ever, having racked up appearances on Celebrity Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing, collaborated with Steps on their single Heartbreak In This City, performed in the West End and landed her own show on BBC Radio 2 in the last few years alone.

At the time of our conversation, she’s fresh from representing Drag Race at the National Television Awards, the night after hosting the Attitude Awards in London.

“It’s surreal, it’s a blessing, it’s a gift, it’s an honor,” Michelle says of attending A-list events thanks to Drag Race. “It does not go wasted on me what I do for a living, which is to represent queer artists in a queer space to mainstream media. I am blessed to be able to be one of the faces of it.”

However, while she’s unquestionably enjoying the platform that Drag Race has afforded her, we probably won’t be seeing Michelle on any more reality shows for the time being.

Michelle Visage and her Strictly partner Giovanni Pernice in 2019, bringing voguing to the Strictly ballroom

Guy Levy via Press Association Images

“Listen, never say never to anything, but really Strictly was the one thing that I wanted to compete on, because I wanted to learn how to dance,” she explains.

“But you never know. I’m A Celebrity? I would be picked for every Bushtucker Trial so that everybody could watch me squirm. Maybe I’d do Celebrity Bake Off for charity. I’m shit at baking, but I’d love the world to see me try.”

For her latest venture, Michelle has teamed up with Virgin Atlantic for a glossy new campaign to promote the airline’s updated gender identity policy, which allows staff members to wear whichever uniform they feel best represents them.

In the late 80s, Michelle was heavily immersed in the New York ballroom scene, where she walked in the “face” category (hence the moniker Michelle Visage, the French for “face”) and learned to vogue from legendary choreographer and ballroom staple Willi ninja

Reflecting on her ballroom days, Michelle admits that back then she “never” could have predicted a campaign like Virgin Atlantic’s at a time when celebrations of queer culture were still mostly taking place out of sight and underground.

“I would get stuff screamed at me just walking down the street with these queerdos and weirdos – of which I identify as myself,” she says.

“So no, I never thought I’d see the day that we have a television show about drag [or] a worldwide campaign about an incredible juggernaut of an airline. Or for them to be putting themselves out there for trolls and everybody to give their point of view, and still not caring, and moving forward for the greater good of humanity.”

Michelle modeling a Virgin Atlantic uniform as part of the airline's new campaignMichelle modeling a Virgin Atlantic uniform as part of the airline’s new campaign

Virgin Atlantic via PA Media

“It’s amazing what Virgin Atlantic is doing, and it actually makes sense,” she adds. “But in this day and age, it’s still very brave for them to do that.”

This “bravery” has already been put to the test. While the campaign has received a wave of praise, the usual suspects within the right-wing media have also come out to make their predictable digs around an initiative that’s intended to promote inclusivity and progress.

Responding to criticism of the campaign, Michelle says: “We’re going into 2023 here, it’s ridiculous for us to be worried about other people. Who the person is next to you has nothing to do or take away with who you are, and the way you lead your life.

“Moving forward, in order to progress as a society, I think humanity – because it’s no longer mankind or womankind, it’s humankind – needs to let go of the antiquated thoughts, and open your mind and maybe educate yourself on thinking outside of the binary .”

She adds: “People will always have their thoughts and hide hate behind religion and things that are comfortable for them that they think that they know… and the reality is, we’ve evolved in so many ways. It’s a wonderful space where we can be in this world where we don’t identify as the X and the Y or the man and the woman so to speak.

“I have a non-binary child, I want this world to be a better place for them. And I would be remiss if I sat back and shut my mouth, because it’s dangerous out there.”

Michelle posing with Virgin Atlantic crew members at the Attitude AwardsMichelle posing with Virgin Atlantic crew members at the Attitude Awards

Ian West via PA Wire/PA Images

Dangerous, indeed. The campaign – and, regrettably, its inevitable backlash – come at a time when the media seems intent on pitting opposing views against one another, while the rights of women and many marginalized people are under threat or, in many cases, being actively reversed.

Michelle agrees: “We’re going backwards. Our brothers and sisters who fought before us didn’t do it so that we could go backwards. I’m talking about women’s rights, I’m talking about trans rights. Again, this brings me back to human rights. We are all equal – that’s the way it should be as humanity, as humankind.

“We are only here for a limited time, and Mother Earth is pissed off. So the time that we have left, we should be focusing on lifting each other up, supporting one another and leading with kindness instead of bringing back or amplifying hateful agendas and voices. We have no time for this.”

And what would be her message to the young queer people coming of age in the current political climate?

“We are not giving up,” Michelle insists. “You matter. Everything you stand for matters, the very sense of you just being who you are authentically matters.

“So – focus on the positive, focus on the kindness and the love. Try to steer clear of the negative energy in your precious bubble. And remember that you are loved. The light is not always there, sometimes you have to go digging for it, but in the presence of light, darkness cannot exist.”

Michelle has been with Drag Race since its infancy, and is now judging the show all over the worldMichelle has been with Drag Race since its infancy, and is now judging the show all over the world

Albert Sanchez via PA Features Archives/Press Association Images

For many in need of escapism during troubled times, Drag Race has provided some of that much-needed light, not only offering joy and fun through a queer lens but amplifying conversations around important topics, particularly those relating to the community.

“I heard a lot of that in lockdown, how Drag Race saved so many people in a dark time,” Michelle recalls. “And I have to tell you, that’s the most rewarding part of what we do.

“I adore hearing about queer kids, or weirdos like me who don’t really fit in with everyday school life or whatever, watching Drag Race with their family and their parents understanding them because of that. That’s so rewarding to hear those stories, they never get old to me.

“People come up to me all the time and they say, ‘oh my god, you must get sick of hearing this, but I love you, I love what you stand for’, and it’s like, ‘who could ever get sick of hearing love and kindness and acceptance and praise?’. I will never get tired of hearing ‘I love you’.”

Drag race has never been more popular, but Michelle maintains RuPaul’s old mantra that “true drag will never be mainstream”.

Michelle posing with RuPaul and Drag finalists Gottmik and Symone at last year's EmmysMichelle posing with RuPaul and Drag finalists Gottmik and Symone at last year’s Emmys

Jay L Clendenin via Getty Images

“Queer artistry in general will never be mainstream – that’s kind of the reason it exists, to give a big ‘F you’ to society, because we were never accepted in the mainstream,” Michelle says.

“It is more mainstream, but when I think ‘mainstream’ I think, ‘Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts’. Those are mainstream. Drag is not mainstream. But more people absolutely know what it’s about now and that makes me happy. Because drag is an art form.

“People know what sculpting is, they know what painting is, they know what ballet is. Well, drag is up there with those artforms, and finally people are seeing that.”

In recent years, the show has been praised for taking more steps towards inclusivity, with an increase in trans and non-binary queens taking part, and the UK’s own Victoria Scone making herstory in 2021 by becoming the first cisgender woman to compete on any Drag Race franchise.

Michelle enthuses: “Having Victoria there made me so happy because I identify as a drag queen – I don’t have to say ‘biological’ or ‘cis’, I just identify as a drag queen.

“It was really wonderful to have her on – it was sad that she got injured [Victoria had to withdraw after two episodes due to a knee injury]but she is amazing and we welcome all sorts.”

Michelle hits the runway with RuPaul, Jade Thirlwall and Graham NortonMichelle hits the runway with RuPaul, Jade Thirlwall and Graham Norton

BBC/World of Wonder/Guy Levy

In another move towards inclusivity, RuPaul – who previously faced backlash after comments about the involvement of trans contestants on the show – traded the show’s “gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win” tagline to the less gendered “racers, start your engines, and may the best drag queen win”.

However, this in itself has been called into question by some viewers who felt it excluded drag kings from competing in the future. To date, a drag king is yet to be featured on RuPaul’s Drag Race (rival drag competition The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula featured its first king in 2019), although it’s a move Michelle herself would be welcome.

“Oh my god I love drag kings, absolutely love them. We all do. Alright, let’s hope!” she says when asked about kings competing on the show.

“Everybody is welcome to audition, just make sure that is a very very good audition tape.”

For now, though, Michelle says Drag Race is doing “a wonderful job at evolving” with the times.

“We’re now an evolutionized version of what we were,” she says. “Just like humans, hopefully we all evolve, if we allow ourselves and embrace change. And I think that’s what we’ve done as a television show.

“And there’s no stopping it. Everybody needs a bit of Drag Race in their life.”

Michelle Visage has teamed up with Virgin Atlantic to reveal the airline’s updated gender identity policy, which allows its LGBTQ+ people to choose to wear the uniform that best represents them.

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