By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
PQ Monthly’s own Andrew Edwards, author of The Comeback Kid, had a chance to chat with Jinkx Monsoon fresh off her Drag Race win. As expected, The Monsoon was lovely, charming, easy breezy to talk to–and she remains wildly in love with her hometown: Portland (and I think it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual). Their conversation, which covers Drag Race, Detox Icunt, Poison Waters, Carla Rossi, The Escape–and much, much more–follows:
PQ Monthly: Hi, Jinkx! First off, congratulations! I was going to say condragulations, but you’ve probably heard that a million times already.
Jinkx: [laughs] It’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over.
PQ: I’m sure it’s not the worst thing in the world. The past week must have been one the craziest of your life!
Jinkx: Absolutely. It’s something I don’t think I ever prepared myself for when I started doing drag, that one day I would win such a prestigious title in the drag world. I have to feel a mix of shock and awe but also a sense of accomplishment because I really feel like this was something I was meant to do, and I’m just excited that I was able to pull it off.
PQ: Well, all of us here in your hometown were certainly rooting for you. How would you say being from Portland has shaped your drag career?
Jinkx: Portland is such a wonderful little Mecca for its queer community and it has such a diverse community at large. I first was exposed to an actual drag queen – like, face to face with a drag queen – at the Sexual Minority and Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) in Portland, which is an outreach center for queer teens of all walks of life. Some of my best friends were trans teenagers and I met all kinds of people who expressed their gender and their identity in different ways. I learned at an early age to have a very open mind to all the different kinds of people out there, and I’ve always tried to bring that open mindedness and that embracing of all different kinds of culture and personality into my drag work. And I think that’s what made me the kooky, eccentric anachronistic enigma that Jinkx Monsoon is.
PQ: Right. I grew up in Eugene, and I spent my teen years coming to Portland with my secret boyfriend and going to the Escape Nightclub, which I hear is where you had your first full drag performance.
Jinkx: Absolutely, yes it is.
PQ: I have a lot of silly, silly memories of being a 17-year-old at the Escape.
Jinkx: [laughs] Oh every gay teen in Portland has a lot of silly memories of the Escape.
PQ: Speaking of, what are some of your favorite memories of gay Portland and the drag scene from back in the days when you started performing and getting into local drag culture?
Jinkx: In Portland, I made some amazing connections with people that have lasted a lifetime. When you as a drag queen find other drag queens you really relate to and really get along with – and I call them my sisters – when you find people like that it’s very, very exciting because it’s such a competitive field and it’s always more fun when you have people you work with and not against.
I don’t think any of us would have ever expected that my drag would have evolved and shape-shifted the way that it has, because I used to be the most eccentric and quirky queen. I was the only drag queen in my teen years doing vaudeville acts or portraying myself as twenty years older and a cougar-MILF. But because Portland is the community that it is, even though my drag was different from every other queen my age, it never didn’t have a place here. And they really embraced me when I started singing live and bringing that kind of talent to the stage as well.
PQ: Are there any queens, from today or back then, that have influenced you or helped get you to where you are now?
Jinkx: I actually went to high school with Jackie Daniels; we started drag at the same time more or less, and we both competed and won the Rosebud [and Thorn] Pageant, which is the longest running under-21 drag pageant in the country. I also worked with a number of drag queens at the Red Cap Garage when it was still around, and they were my really good friends: Sabel Scities, Vivica Valentine, Tommy Girl, Hairica St. James, Brita Filta, and Jade Jolie actually worked with us for a short amount of time. And then there are the more established queens that really took time to make me feel welcome in the community, like Maria Peters Lake, Poison Waters, Darcelle, and Tiara Desmond.
Nowadays, some of my best friends are reclaiming the Portland drag scene for the weirdos. One of my best friends and favorite performance artists in Portland is Carla Rossi. Anthony (Hudson), who plays Carla, and I have been friends for many years and have collaborated on a lot of projects. When he started doing drag and told me what he wanted to do with it I was his hugest fan, and I still am. Kaj-anne Pepper is a friend of mine; I really love what he does in terms of intellectually examining gender and gender expression. I don’t think either of them do straight drag – they do gender performance art, and I really love that.
PQ: Speaking of friends, Ru really hyped up the fan participation on “Drag Race” this season to help make his final decision. As it started dwindling to the final contestants, it seems like people came out in droves to support Team Jinkx. Do you think your fan popularity had much to do with your victory?
Jinkx: Ru always reiterates that the final decision is hers to make. I think she opens it up to the fans so that they feel like they get to participate, and also to double check that the fans see what she sees. I think the fans aren’t the end-all-be-all, but if you can win over your fan base that’s another thing that makes you right for the position of America’s Next Drag Superstar. Of course there are the critics out there who say that I wouldn’t have won without the fan vote, or that it could’ve gone to Roxxxy (Andrews) if it was just based on drag talent. What I would like to say to them is even before it was open to fan voting – even before the fans got to chime in – the judges and RuPaul herself ranked me in the top three for eight weeks in a row. So I don’t think that I needed the fan vote to make it to the top three or even to win, I just think it’s nice to know that not only was I Ru’s choice, but I was the people’s choice as well. It connects me with the community and makes me feel like I won this not only for myself but for all my supporters and all the people who really get what I’m going for and have received my message.
PQ: What was it like filming three different endings for the show?
Jinkx: We filmed the three endings so the people in the audience that night couldn’t turn around and blab. It would’ve been one thing if we just had to contain it between three drag queens but it’s another thing when you have a whole live audience. I’ve talked to some people on the road who say, “How could that have been your honest reaction to winning on the reunion episode? If it had been me I would have been bawling and speechless.” And it was kind of hard to synthesize that moment, so I just had to play up victory rather than shock. But I think it made it more exciting to draw out the suspense even longer.
PQ: When did you actually find out that you were the winner?
Jinkx: I did not find out until it aired. I was in New York at the time and I didn’t find out until all of America found out.
PQ: Oh my god, you actually didn’t know that you won until everyone else knew?
Jinkx: Absolutely not. They filmed the three endings and then they told us that whatever ending aired, that’s who won.
PQ: Wow. That’s crazy.
Jinkx: There’s footage online of me actually finding out for real for the first time, and that’s when it really hit me like a ton of bricks.
PQ: I can’t even imagine. On another note: You’re a trained stage actor with a pretty impressive resume. What does drag do for you that simply acting doesn’t?
Jinkx: I always say that for me there’s no theater without drag and there’s no drag without theater. Even when I’m playing male roles in theater I tackle them the same way I would one of my drag personas. I think characters have to have whole, fully realized personas – they can’t just be talking heads that deliver lines. But for me, all of my favorite roles in movies and plays are the female characters. I was always more drawn to the female villainesses in Disney movies, for example, than the leading man. And in all my favorite shows, too: the witch in “Into the Woods,” Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” even in “Rocky Horror” – my favorite character is a man, but he’s a sweet transvestite. So my hope is to get to marry my passion of drag and my drive to be a professional actor together as much as possible, and to play female roles on the stage.
PQ: Do you think this idea of drag queens as fully realized characters with backgrounds and habits and mannerisms – what you call “high-concept drag” – is the future of the art form?
Jinkx: It’s not just the future; it’s what it’s always been. Before “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” you had to really work your ass off to be a successful drag queen nationally. Drag is very much a regional thing. But if you look at the queens that have been successful for a while now, it’s Lady Bunny, Coco Peru, Varla Jean Merman, Dina Martina, Lypsinka, Jackie Beat. And then locally in Portland, it’s Jackie Hell, Carla Rossi… These are the people who are making a career out of drag nationally, because they have invested that kind of time and work into high-concept drag.
I think we lose sight of that when we turn our focus to supermodel drag and pageant drag, where it’s really just about the look. No one asks pageant queens to create back-stories for their personas. And that’s a form of drag that’s completely valid and a huge part of our community, but it can’t really carry the attention of an audience. True, pageant audiences go to see a pageant. But a show audience wouldn’t sit and watch that – they want to see the high-concept characters that have been successful and prevalent in their time. So it is the future, but it’s also the past.
PQ: So, taking that fully realized persona to an even further level, you said at the finale that you want to use the crown as a platform for social change, and you particularly mentioned same-sex marriage. How does Jinkx plan on helping bring about such change?
Jinkx: I think the way that I as America’s Next Drag Superstar can use the crown to promote social change is to take every opportunity in front of an audience that I have to talk about my passion for equal rights. Gay marriage is the hot button issue right now, but [there’s also the issue of] nationwide anti-discrimination laws to protect trans and homosexual individuals, for example. I’ve been given a huge straight audience in addition to my gay audience, so I think it’s about talking at every opportunity about those issues, bringing them up to people who maybe wouldn’t have heard about certain things if I hadn’t, and aligning myself as a spokesperson with organizations that are doing the logistical work. I can be a face that people recognize and relate to.
PQ: It’s a lot of responsibility that’s been suddenly thrust on you. How is life different post-Drag Race than before it?
Jinkx: One thing I didn’t expect is that I get people all the time telling me I’m an inspiration to them, not because of my drag and not because of my win on the show or in the challenges, but because I persevered in a very high stress, negative environment at times, and never let it get the better of me, and never turned into the person who I was fighting with. It’s a good reminder for people that it’s easy to lose yourself in competition, but it’s so much more rewarding if you can overcome that and really stick true to what you believe in.
PQ: It didn’t seem to be quite so easy for all the other girls to do that. How are you and Roxxxy now? Are you guys friends?
Jinkx: Roxxxy and I are great friends and the thing is, there’s always the question of how much they edit the show and how much do they make it look like something is happening that isn’t. Roxxxy will be the first to admit that she absolutely did say those things, and at that time she was going through her own struggles with the competition and she reverted to what pageant girls would do in the middle of a competition, which is try to get into the head of their competitor. Roxxxy has apologized to me, but she didn’t just apologize because of all of this. She and I never ended the day fighting. That’s the only thing they edited out, that even though we’d get into these horrible fights we’d always find a way to put it aside at the end of the day. We still had to have dinner together at the end of filming, and go back to the hotel together, so we always found a way to maintain a working friendship.
And I really think the only reason we fought is because we both are so passionate about this art form and even though we express that passion in very different ways, all she was doing was being passionate. And it did kind of manifest in some questionable behavior at times, but she’s such a devoted artist that I can totally understand how she let that high stress get to her like that.
PQ: Sure, and that’s one thing that I think the viewers could see the three of you [Jinkx, Roxxxy, and Alaska Thunderfuck] in the final had in common. The three of you showed an insane amount of real passion and drive, like there was nothing that was going to get in your way, which couldn’t always be said of the other queens. Even Detox [Icunt], who was such a frontrunner in people’s minds – I know a lot of people have asked why didn’t she bust out that amazing black-and-white reunion look during the show. Why do you think some queens didn’t quite bring their A-games?
Jinkx: I always think back to, “Oh, I wore that wig with that dress, and now in reflection if I were to do that look over it would be ten times better.” That’s the catch-22 of the competition, is you have to make all the snap decisions by yourself – you don’t have the chance to reflect with your friends – and just hope it’s for the best. There’s a lot of stuff you have no way of learning until you do the show. Doing “Drag Race” forces you to step your drag up to the next level and to become someone worthy of being one of the 14 people chosen that year. It forces you to put your money where you mouth is, which forces most of the queens on the show to evolve and become much stronger artists and performers. But you can’t get that fire lit under you unless you do “Drag Race.” I wish I could do “Drag Race” knowing what I know now, but I never could have learned what I know now had I not done it the way I did it.
PQ: So what’s in store for Jinkx in the near future?
Jinkx: I actually have quite the full dance card right now [laughs]. I’ll continue to tour the country performing, and of course I’m headlining the Absolut Drag Race Tour. In June I’m playing the role of Velma Von Tussle in [Seattle’s] 5th Avenue Theater’s concert version of “Hairspray,” and I’m doing “Freedom Fantasia” at the Triple Door in Seattle, the show I do every Fourth of July weekend, which is a satirical look at patriotism in the gay community and what it is to be an American when you’re growing up a liberal gay boy. Then I have my show “The Vaudevillians,” which I co-created with my music partner Richard Andriessen, in July at the Laurie Beechman Theater in New York, which will be our New York debut. For personal goals, I really want to continue to act and play female roles in theater productions, and I have a personal fantasy to be the first drag queen host of “Saturday Night Live” [laughs].
PQ: I can definitely see a Betty White-type campaign happening to bring Jinkx Monsoon to “SNL.”
Jinkx: [laughs] I would just die. I would love, love, love that opportunity.
PQ: Are you planning any Portland appearances soon?
Jinkx: I don’t know when my next one is, but I absolutely am going to jump on the chance next one I get to go to Portland. I just love getting to go home and see all my friends. And even though none of us saw this in my future when I started drag in Portland, now that it’s a part of my reality everyone’s just all smiles and support.
Sing it, queen: