Film and TV

Drag Race's Joey Jay on TV Stardom, the Politics of Drag, and His Love for the Phoenix Scene

More than just a filler queen.
More than just a filler queen. Scotty Kirby

It’ll go down as one of the iconic moments of RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 13. As Joey Jay lip-syncs to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in the season premiere, his red chicken feather-adorned outfit starts shedding all over the stage.

Typically in the first episode, each queen enters the room one by one, after which they get an opportunity to mingle. Instead, after just two entrances — Jay and Kandy Muse — host RuPaul announced a lip-sync challenge. Jay’s outfit — red leotard with voluminous feather sleeves, garters, and high-heeled beaded red boots — wasn’t exactly conducive, it turned out, to an impromptu performance.

“We were finding feathers throughout the entire filming of the season just from that one day,” says the 30-year-old Joey Jay, who lives in Phoenix and whose real name is Joey Jadryev. “But you know what? I’m not upset about it, because everyone can’t stop talking about chicken feathers. It works out in my favor in the long run.”

Jay didn’t set out to be a drag queen; living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he saw himself more as a drag ally, doing backup dancing and choreography for performers in the local scene.

click to enlarge The infamous chicken-feather ensemble. - RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE
The infamous chicken-feather ensemble.
RuPaul's Drag Race
“Then one day, I went to a pageant, and the prize package was really big — like a lot of money,” he says. “And I saw the people competing, and I was like, ‘These queens are not that good. Are they about to win all this money? That’s it. I can do this.’”

He did drag in Milwaukee for about a year, then moved to Phoenix in 2017 to open a franchise ballroom dance studio, a plan that didn’t pan out due to injury. Here, he performs Friday nights at Kobalt Bar’s 4Some Revue. (During the January 1 revue, Jay wore the notorious red outfit and spontaneously auctioned off some of the feathers, raising almost $800 for one-n-ten, a Phoenix nonprofit that supports LGBTQ youth.)

The process to get on Drag Race is, unsurprisingly, an arduous one. The application video has to include three performances, eight to 12 looks, and an interview, all in under 20 minutes. Then comes the months of waiting. The psych interviews this season, which would normally be held in person, had to be done virtually because of COVID.

But it was all worth it; in June 2020, Jay got the call to be a contestant. He had to quit his job as an account manager for a software company to be able to participate in the show. Episodes were taped in July and August, and everything has been filmed except the finale and the reunion, he says. The show began airing earlier this month (Friday nights, 8 p.m., VH1) and as of this week, Jay is still in contention to win it all.

click to enlarge Jay's go-to drag look is punk mixed with glamour. - SHAUN VADELLA
Jay's go-to drag look is punk mixed with glamour.
Shaun Vadella

To the extent that there are traditional drag queens, Jay isn’t one. For starters, you won’t often see him in a wig, one of the staples of most queens’ wardrobes.

“I’m inspired by things that are a little bit more genderfluid, like Annie Lennox or Pink,” he says. “I kind of like that androgynous look. I always loved a badass female in movies, and that’s kind of where my drag is. Like a little punk rock, but definitely still glamour.”

He’s also blessed with a self-deprecating wit. In the Drag Race season premiere, he enters the room and declares himself a “filler queen,” much to the amusement of the other contestants — and later, the online fanbase. (For those who don’t know, a “filler queen” is a drag queen who gets cast only to be eliminated right away.)

“I think that every drag queen is fierce,” Jay says. “Okay, well, if you’re competing and you’re fierce, and everyone else is fierce, how are you going to stand out? This isn’t a pageant, this is a reality television show. So I’m like, I’m going to walk in and I’m going to say ‘filler queen.’

“I don’t recall a lot of people bringing up other people’s entrance lines as much as this one. ... But I knew everyone was going to walk in and think they were the best queen ever, and I was like, I’m just going to walk in there and be funny and relatable.”

How Jay fared in this season of Drag Race remains unknown to those outside of the show, but he’s got bigger ambitions than just a TV competition, including a touring show, guest judging on reality programs, and being an advocate for the LGBTQ community. (He’s also on Cameo, where he often gets requests to tape funny videos and make fun of people.)

“There have been some queens on the show who have definitely been trailblazers who’ve broken boundaries,” he says, “and I plan on being one of those. I want to become more mainstream. I want to do things not just in drag, but as Joey the boy.”

But celebrity is definitely part of the plan. He’s done appearances here and in Milwaukee, where he got to see his mom, who he says has always been supportive of his drag career.

“I’m loving [the celebrity experience],” he says. “I’m a Leo and I love attention. I don’t care where it comes from, whether they’re an enemy or an ex. You’re giving me a compliment? I will take it!”

click to enlarge The cast for the 13th season of RuPaul's Drag Race, with Jay third from left. - RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE
The cast for the 13th season of RuPaul's Drag Race, with Jay third from left.
RuPaul's Drag Race

No matter how big Jay makes it, he’ll always have love for the scene where he came up.

“The Phoenix drag scene is everything,” he says. “It’s been overlooked. I’m so happy it finally has the spotlight it deserves.

“I wouldn’t be who I am without the Phoenix drag scene. They took me in. It’s a sisterhood. It’s massive — there’s so many types of drag here, whether it’s pageant drag, or Top 40 drag or alternative drag, spooky drag, drag kings, drag queens, burlesque. And everyone has each other’s back. It’s not a catty community.”

click to enlarge Jay looks quite different out of drag. - @JOEYJAYISGAY/INSTAGRAM
Jay looks quite different out of drag.
That kind of unity feels more important than ever lately, at a time when the demographic that doesn’t have much use for drag queens is getting louder and scarier. Jay sees Drag Race as a chance to educate people on experiences outside their own.

“What I’m so excited about is RuPaul’s Drag Race, the main demographic is 13- to 17-year-olds. And they’re not able to vote, and who knows what their parents support, who knows what their parents stand by or what they encourage? So I think Drag Race is doing an amazing job taking the opportunity to educate people on what being trans is, what the LGBTQ community is.

“When you get into drag, it’s not just to lip-sync to your favorite Britney Spears song. I think when you do drag, you are a political statement and you use that platform to educate people.”
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Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.