Alaska Thunderfuck on How RuPaul's Drag Race Is Challenging Gender Norms
Season 5 runner-up Alaska Thunderfuck performs with six other queens at Celebrity Theatre on Wednesday during "RuPaul's Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons."
Drag devotees know the eighth season of RuPaul's Drag Race is far from over, but if tuning in to Logo TV on Mondays isn't enough fierce to get you through the week, more than a dozen former contestants have put aside feuds (whether real or made for reality TV) and put on their faces for a live show: RuPaul's Drag Race Battle of the Seasons 2016 Extravaganza Tour.
Following a 14-city European revue, Battle of the Seasons crossed the pond, bringing a mix-and-match lineup of crowned queens and fan favorites to stops across North America, before taking off again for Australia. It's been called the "world's biggest touring drag revue," and with dozens of talents taking the stage and a global reach thanks to reruns and streaming, that's hardly a stretch.
Seven RuGirls will appear on the Celebrity Theatre stage on Wednesday, including reigning queen Violet Chachki. Casual viewers and die-hard fans will recognize the rest of the lineup, featuring season four runner-up Phi Phi O'Hara, season five runner-up Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, season six runners-up Adore Delano and Courtney Act, and Miss Fame and runner-up Ginger Minj from last season. The raunchy, interactive variety hour is hosted by show judge Michelle Visage and features a DJ set from Pearl, joint runner-up from season seven. The queens re-create some of the show's best moments, including the "Snatch Game" celebrity impersonation round, and dance numbers with costume changes fitting of the tour's "Extravaganza" name.
Though she lost the title of "America's Next Drag Superstar" to season five winner Jinkx Monsoon, Alaska (real name, Justin Andrew Honard) is arguably Drag Race's favorite runner-up. The queen first introduced to fans as "Sharon Needles' boyfriend" quickly rose up the ranks, from proving her comedic chops with the introduction of "Lil' Poundcake" to owning the runway with some daring looks — has the show seen more duct-tape accessories since? In the years that followed, Alaska has come into her own, with a string of solo tours, the success of her 2015 debut album Anus (which topped the iTunes dance chart), and appearances on many RuPaul-related road shows, including "Christmas Queens," which came to Phoenix in December.
New Times chatted with the queen, who recently returned from performing in Brazil, by phone about Battle of the Seasons and what Drag Race is really like behind the scenes. The drag personality was joining the Battle of the Seasons cast for its first North American date in Seattle.
"I'm actually at Starbucks," Alaska told us in her signature drawl, a sort of sleep-tinged groan with a high-pitched inflection. "Isn't that cliché?"
New Times: Battle of the Seasons is taking over the world this tour: Europe, North America, and Australia. Do you think RuPaul's Drag Race has made drag more accessible and started a larger conversation about gender norms and conformity?
Alaska: I would like to think so. There are so many amazing political implications to what Drag Race is doing. It's loosening up this strict binary that says "men do this and women do that." And I think that's good for the world. I think the more that we loosen up those strict social rules that have been in place for so long, I think the better the world will be. But the reason that Drag Race is so popular is not because of all those things: It's because it's really fun and it's really pretty to look at! (laughs)
You auditioned for every season before finally getting selected for Season 5. Did you have any expectations going in that changed immediately?
Well, there's the moment you get told you're gonna be on Drag Race and you're extremely happy, and then from that point forward it's basically a walking panic attack because you're just constantly afraid you're going to be sent home. You're just in a constant state of fight-or-flight, adrenaline fear. The whole time. But, I mean, I wouldn't change that. (laughs)
Were there any moments you wish they'd aired or anything you would've done differently while you were there?
I was so happy with how the season came out. There's no like, mysterious amazing thing that happened that they didn't show, because if anything even vaguely interesting [happens] I think they put on there. I'm glad they kept in when I took all my clothes off and was swinging my dick around. (laughs) Yeah, I'm extremely happy about that.
Drag Race wasn't around when you were growing up. Who were your idols and inspirations, and how did you turn to doing drag?
I remember when I was a little kid and "Supermodel" by RuPaul was on the radio, and I remember my sister saying, "Oh, the woman who sings this song is a man." My little tiny child brain couldn't really wrap his head around what that meant, but I knew that I thought that was really cool. I guess that speaks to the impact that RuPaul has had, how him becoming so huge and popular sort of like blew everybody's mind open a little bit. And he's still doing that, I think. But like aside from that, I really like Divine, I think his music career is really cool, and I really like Heklina in San Fransisco and Trannyshack, and what those queens were doing. That's really what sparked the fire to make me look at drag and say, "Oh, that looks like something I can do and something that I want to do."
Do you think there are more opportunities for people starting out now? I mean, it seems like every city has a drag scene — whether its underground or more mainstream — and Drag Race is aired and re-aired across the world. Do you think it's a little easier for people to get into it these days?
It's easier in some ways. It's way easier to get hair and clothes because drag is so popular now, so you can go on eBay; you can get these things. But it's also harder because everybody does drag now, so there's so much more competition and you really have to have a strong vision of what you want to look like and what it is you do, and provide that. That stands out from the crowd.
Did you have a set look and keep that vision consistent, even before Drag Race?
Yeah, when I first started doing drag I knew exactly what I wanted to look like. I had no idea how to execute what I wanted it to look like (laughs). I didn't know the skills. I spent so many years in my room drawing pictures of beautiful women, so it was like, it was very natural for me. I knew what I wanted it to look like because I spent those years by myself being introverted. So I'm really grateful for those awkward, terrible years, when I was a weird, shy kid.
Alaska does have a very distinctive look, and backstory as this alien-like creature from planet Glamtron. I want to ask you about that look, because your single "This Is My Hair" kind of hits on points about being pigeonholed in drag — like wearing a wig. What are the public's biggest misconceptions about drag? Did you intend for this song to address those assumptions?
The phrase "this is my hair, I don't wear a wig" was something that I was constantly saying. Whenever someone would come up to me in a club and say, "Oh I love your wig!" I'd say, "I don't know what you're talking about, this is my hair." It's just a silly fun song, but I think there's a deeper message in there that is something about passability, and don't assume things about people that you see. I'd never go up to a woman and say "I like your wig." It's always, "I like your hair."
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We're talking about passability and gender identity, so I'm curious about your thoughts on what's happening in North Carolina with their recent legislation.
I think it sucks. It's terrible, and I'm really glad that there's a lot of attention being brought to it. We're definitely at a time now where we're not gonna let something like [House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act] slide anymore. We're standing up and really making noise about it, which I think is the important thing.
As far as I know, we're not canceling the Battle of the Seasons shows [in Charlotte and Durham]. I don't think we should cancel them because there's a terrible bill that's discriminating against gay people, so why should we punish gay people more by taking away this really amazing gay show? I think we should do the show and use that as an opportunity to make some more noise about how ridiculous that bill is.
What do you think about performers who are canceling shows there?
Well, I think it depends on who the person is. If it's a straight act with a hugely straight audience, like Bruce Springsteen, then I think he's very smart for canceling his show. He's saying, "I'm not going to bring all this revenue into a place where straight people are discriminating against gay people and trans people." So that makes sense and I think it's cool that he did that. But us, it's like, our audience is going to be predominately gay, predominately queer, and so I think it's a case-by-case basis.
In addition to watching Battle of the Seasons videos on YouTube, have you been keeping up with season eight of Drag Race?
Absolutely. Wild horses could not keep me from watching it.
Who are you rooting for?
I really love Thorny [Thor]. She and I have been friends for years, so it's really exciting to see her doing well and seeing the response she's getting. I'm really proud of her. I think Bob [the Drag Queen] is great and I think Chi Chi DeVayne is captivating. It's just a really great season, I love watching it.
Last summer, producers confirmed there will be an "All Stars" season two. Can we expect to see you on it?
(Laughs) I hope that they call me when they film that! That would be really nice. And if they called me and asked me to do it, I would totally say yes.
Fan favorites and former winners work it out during RuPaul's Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons 2016 Extravaganza Tour in Phoenix this week. Doors open at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at Celebrity Theatre, 440 North 32nd Street. General admission tickets are $37.50, VIP passes are available for $303, which includes a meet-and-greet and signed swag. (Line-up subject to change.) For tickets, click celebritytheatre.com or rupaulbots.com, or call the box office at 602-267-1600, extension 1.
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