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By Andrew Edwards, PQ Monthly

Editor’s Note: I recruited local drag darling, Shitney Houston, to conduct this interview. (Thank you, Andrew, for transcribing this beast.) Catch Michelle Visage this Sunday at Gospel, presented by Nark and Glitterbear. (Hint: check out the link to the left for event details–9pm, The Fez.) We can’t wait to see you, Michelle! –DB

Michelle Visage: Hi Josh, this is Michelle Visage, how are you?

PQ Monthly: I’m great, how are you honey?

MV: I’m good!

PQ: I’m so excited to meet you on Sunday—I’m Shitney Houston!

MV: Oh, you’re the one they showed me the funny pictures of!

PQ: [laughs] Yeah!

MV: I love it! Yeah, I’m so excited; I’ve heard so many great things about Portland. The last time I was there was 1990, on the Milli Vanilli tour when I was with Seduction. I remember doing a big radio station event on some huge grass area, I wanna say by a lake?

PQ: Oh, on the waterfront!

MV: Yeah and it was us, it was Bell Biv DeVoe, it was like huge names—like, fifteen acts. I remember it was Portland specifically because A) It was so beautiful and clean and not like in Jersey or New York City…

PQ: Girl I know, I’m from Cleveland, honey.

MV: Oh, OK, so then you know. And B) The air was so fucking pure that it hurt my lungs. And everybody was like “Yeah, it’s because there’s no smog, bitch.” So yeah, that’s the last time I was in Portland, so I’m really looking forward to it. And me and my daughter are obsessed with “Portlandia,” so my little one is so excited that I’m going to Portland! I’ve met these people who are like, “Oh my god, it’s so true—that is so Portland. Everybody’s telling me how great the food is, and you know, I love my juicing stuff and they’re like, “You can get organic juice on every corner.” I’m really excited.

PQ: OK, I’ve gotta ask you: Is Michelle Visage your real name?

MV: Well, no, duh. I mean, Michelle is my real name, does that count?

PQ: Sure! Of course!

MV: Visage has been my name since I deemed in my head that I was a professional. I designed a name that I felt good with, and thinking back I probably shouldn’t have chosen it because nobody can ever say it with the ‘sh’ and the ‘z’ [sounds]. Most people say “Michelle Vishage” or “Micelle Vishage,” But Visage is a ball reference. When I first moved to New York City and I got taken into the gay circles, I used to walk balls and the two categories I walked were Vogue and Face. And in the ballrooms, everybody is Latin or they’re black, and all the Puerto Rican kids used to call me “cara,” which means ‘face’ in Spanish. But when you write “cara”—they used to write it on the back of my jacket—it looks like [the name] Cara. So people would be like, “Hey, Cara!” and I’d turn around and be like, “It’s not Cara, it’s cara.” And I took French for six years in school, and I thought: ‘visage’ means ‘face’ in French. So that’s where it came from.

PQ: [laughs] I’ve done a couple of balls myself.

MV: [sighs] God, aren’t they the best things ever?

PQ: They really are, it’s so different from doing a show because there’s just so much more love going around I feel like, you know?

MV: Love, passion, urgency—these kids save up all year for this one event. It’s this one event that’s life changing for them, and for me, the passion is so palpable it’s amazing. I think that’s what I connected with, the sense of urgency and “do or die” in this moment, you know?

PQ: Right. There seems to be more creativity there sometimes, too.

MV: Oh, definitely. Anything—and I’m talking back in the day—but anything creative was always brought to the ballroom.

I was a pier queen too, you know? All the piers that you saw in “Paris Is Burning”—I was there during that whole era. I mean, [some of them] didn’t want any biological women down there, so I was booted. But I was there with all of them.

PQ: Isn’t that wild?

MV: It really was, to be able to know the legends—to watch Venus Xtravaganza in person, to know Angie [Xtravaganza] and Danni [Xtravaganza], all of them.

PQ: And Willi Ninja, my movement idol.

MV: Willi was my walking mentor. He’s the one who taught me how to vogue. I was the only biological female to walk Vogue back then, and it was because of Willi. We were at a ball and he literally pushed me in from the crowd and I just started voguing, and I wasn’t even signed up to do it and I snatched the trophy.

My first house father—his name is Cesar Valentin—is still alive and teaching vogue, and he worked with Ninja also. When I went to New York a couple years ago when we brought the tour there, I went to one of his vogue classes and it was packed. And these kids are just gorgeous and some of them are from, like, Japan, and they’ve just come here to learn the basics of voguing. It’s pretty amazing.

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PQ: That’s gorgeous. So, let’s talk Drag Race for a minute. Last season, you were giving the queens critiques unapologetically and you really pushed them. Do you feel like that’s your duty? Where does that come from in you?

MV: Well, yeah, I do. I’m a Virgo, and I’m a perfectionist, and whether you like my style or not—whether you like anything I have to say or not—I know what Ru wants. He’s been my best friend for 20-plus years. Ru is beautiful, Ru is kind, Ru is intelligent, and Ru won’t say the things that I say, but I guarantee you Ru feels the way that I feel. If I didn’t push them, they wouldn’t strive for bigger and better! Don’t you want bigger and better? They’re all so talented and sometimes they can miss just a little thing, and if they get that little thing pushed it can change everything. It can be as simple as changing the shading on their face, like Jinkx, you know what I mean? It’s not about making me happy, it’s about being the girls that they can achieve if they just open their mind.

PQ: Good for you, that’s really smart.

MV: I don’t know if it’s smart, I don’t know if it’s necessary, but I know that it works. Nothing makes me happier than seeing their faces when they come out and I’m like “Oh my god, she listened—holy shit, it’s like night and day!” For me, when I judge, I have one critique, and that’s, “How can I make this better?” Not for me or for the viewer. I don’t see anything until they’re on the main stage, I don’t know how they are in person, I don’t know how they are to each other, I don’t know if they’re cunts, I don’t know if they’re sweethearts, I don’t know anything about their characters, all I know is I’m judging this challenge. So I look at them and I say, “How can I make what they’re trying to do better?” And they either give me an eye, or they’re like thank you, definitely. Or they’re like, “That fucking bitch is crazy, she has no fucking idea what she’s talking about, look at her—she’s a fucking mess.” But I will tell you this about season six: I am on fire this season.

PQ: This season is a real step up from seasons past, by my estimation.

MV: After the last episode is over we look at each other and go, “I don’t know how we’re gonna beat this season.” Every season we say it! And then these queens, I don’t know where the fuck they crawl out of or if it’s that their time is now and they’re finally ready—maybe the kids who were 18 when they first watched the show and now they’re 23 and 24 and have been working on their drag wherever they are. But I feel this season, right out of the gate, is anybody’s game. Usually there’s one or two who are kind of sacrificial, but this year there’s really not.

PQ: I think a lot of people are thinking this, especially up in this part of the country—BenDeLaCreme sort of bears a striking resemblance to someone, huh? [She’s a dead ringer for Visage.]

MV: It’s really funny because I like to not know the queens until after the show—I like to be really unbiased and I really don’t make friends with them until afterward. So, I didn’t know anything about Ben and then the first episode came and we sat there and they walked onstage and I was like, “What the fuck?!” She looks great. I have to say, she’s gorgeous. [laughs]

PQ: And she’s sweet. We’re doing a show—she, Jinkx [Monsoon], and I—next month.

MV: That’s super fun. Great queens. They all have different things to bring to the table. I’m so excited for everybody to meet them. Honestly, I’m dying.

PQ: So when you came on to judge for the first season that you did, you must have been so floored. I know you had to leave a gig that was kind of hard to get out of?

MV: Yeah, I had a radio gig. And you know, I was supposed to be there for season one and then couldn’t make it out, and when it finally happened I was so excited to take my rightful spot next to my baby. I just couldn’t fucking wait. I just don’t know if the queens knew what would happen because they didn’t know that there was gonna be a new judge. But the ones who did their homework and know Ru, like Raja [winner of season three], knew who I was the minute they walked onto the runway and turned that corner. So there were several of them who were like, “Oh, shit.” They knew that I wouldn’t settle for any sort of bullshittery.

PQ: Nor should you!

MV: Right, exactly! This is big time. This is America’s next drag superstar, this ain’t no fuckin’ America’s next bar queen. Which I ain’t got no problem with because I naturally am one.

PQ: Were you nervous? Did you feel like you were qualified?

MV: Are you kidding me? Who the fuck is more qualified than me? I mean sure, there are people who question me, especially the first season I was on. These kids who had no idea who I was who were like 14, 15, like, “Who the fuck is this bitch? What the fuck does she know?” Assholes. Do your fuckin’ homework. Google my name and you’ll learn real fast who I am, bitch.

PQ: Oh my god, you’re killing me.

MV: So, was I worried? [shrieks] No! Please. Ru knows. I grew up around drag queens, you know? I moved to New York City when I was 17 to go to college and the minute I moved there, day was college, nighttime was the gays. I literally was raised by queens. That’s where I first met Ru, that’s where I met Bunny [Lady Bunny], that’s where I first saw all those people.

PQ: That must have been so exhilarating, especially during that time.

MV: Oh my god, what a different time it was.

PQ: What about drag interests you to have been around it and maintained it for so long?

MV: You know, it’s the gay community in general and drag is like the beautiful glittery icing on the cake. I got in an argument with one of my daughter’s friend’s father in the middle of fucking Sears, cause we were at the mall, and basically he was saying, “Why do you care about the gays? You’re a straight woman. Why do you care? If you wanna do something, fight for women’s rights.” And I said, “You don’t understand. I am a woman. And there’s gay women.” I can’t tell you why, but this is something that’s within me. I’m fighting for the rights of human beings who are completely shit upon. It’s about equality. It’s not like a gift—you’re not giving us anything. It’s not something we earn. So the queens—for me—are the icing but also the group that is the most kind of ostracized because of what they do.

And seeing all this talent and some of them perform live, some of them lip sync—I mean, watching Lypsinka live, or Joey Arias, it’s an art form. And it’s not taken seriously enough. People don’t look at it as a form of art, they look at it like fucking Milton Berle or Flip Wilson in a dress, and we’ve come so far since then. And that’s what this show has done and that’s why I’m so glad that RuPaul and World of Wonder had the balls and were able to do this.

My heart belongs to the entire gay community—trans, gay, questioning, bi—all of it, every letter in the alphabet. But for me it’s the drag queens that just deserve a little extra attention because the form of art that they give to the world is real.

PQ: So you and Ru have a great connection and personal relationship, you’ve worked with each other off and on for years—to what do you attribute the longevity of your relationship?

MV: You know, one doesn’t really know—it’s like a marriage of sorts, I suppose. Ru and I connected within the clubs, and then we hadn’t seen each other for a couple years, and then the radio station happened in New York [WKT’s morning show “RuPaul,” on which Visage was a host]. It was 1996, and they put Ru and I together for fashion week. I go, “Do you remember me?” and Ru was like, “Bitch! I’ve been watching your ass since you been in Seduction, you’re a fucking superstar.” And when she mentioned that I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening.” After a month we were finishing each other’s sentences, finishing each other’s thoughts, and that stuff is kismet, you can’t make it happen. And when he brought me to VH1 with him, I was like, “I can’t thank you enough,” and he was like “Bitch, I love you, but I bring you because you make me look better.” And I was like, “Well you know what, then I’m gonna make you look better for the rest of my motherfucking life.”

PQ: You touched briefly on how different things are now with the balls and the clubs and the drag shows. I don’t know if you can put your finger on it, but what do you think exactly has changed over the years or for better or for worse, or is it just different?

MV: Well, I think there’s a little bit of each—for better, for worse, and just different. I think—and this sounds like I’m an old lady—I feel like social media, as good as it is, dampens things because people feel that they have the right—and they do because it’s a free world—to speak their mind and be hateful, hurtful, awful, evil, mean, instead of using it for good. And I love social media, you know I’m a social media whore. But what upsets me about these young gays is some are just so fucking violent and evil with their words. Let me give you an example: When we did an appearance in Philly last year with the tour, suddenly we had a Roxxxy [Andrews] fan who was being really evil to Jinkx, saying shit to her face while she was performing, and I had to literally go, “What the fuck are you doing? You don’t have to be a fucking Jinkx fan to have respect. And if you hate her—who the fuck are you?” And my point is: we want the world to take us seriously as a community, isn’t that our goal? So if we’re constantly doing these gay-on-gay bullshit hate-type crimes—they’re hate crimes to me—then we look like a fucking joke, and how the fuck is the world gonna take us seriously and think that we deserve what they deserve? And on social media, these kids are awful. A lot of people aren’t willing to have balls anymore, it’s just a different time. The love isn’t there like it was in the nineties. It sounds so cheesy, but it’s true.

PQ: So, I want to ask you about your sobriety. I know you don’t drink. But, I have to say, coming up in the club scene, if there wasn’t a more perfect opportunity to get fucked up… It’s crazy that you somehow avoided it. Was it a decision you made? How did you come to that lifestyle?

MV: It’s funny, everywhere I go everybody’s like, “Let me buy you a drink,” especially when I do these cruises. I’m like, “No, I don’t need it. You can buy me a bottle of water.” I don’t judge anybody if that’s what they want to do. Plenty of my friends get fucked up. I was always the designated driver. It was a decision that I made early on. Everybody would go to parties and get fucked up! I’ve been drunk probably about six or seven times in my life. And I’ve gotten high probably about five times with pot or hash. And speed once, and I realized that was not a good look. I never did any other drug. This is all true. I realized that I have a better time when I consciously know what’s going on. I was also the girl who didn’t know she was drunk until she puked, which was horrible. I was the girl who would have sex with anything when I was drunk. I didn’t care if you were a man, a woman, if you were 500 pounds. There was no discriminating at all. So I would wake up and be like, “Holy shit,” in the middle of orgies. And I know you know what I mean, cause everyone’s done that. But I would continuously have really bad sex choices, and I thought, “This is dangerous.” Unprotected sex all the time with complete strangers. So I was trying to build a career and it was a conscious choice.

PQ: Speaking of your career—when I was growing up, my brother and I used to listen to those Seduction songs, girl, and all those groups. We would turn our boom boxes together, cause we couldn’t afford CDs. And when Seduction’s songs would come on the radio on one boom box, we would hit record on the other boom box with a blank tape ready to go.

MV: Oh my god, that is so cute! I used to do it with my old school tape recorder. So the radio would come on, like my clock radio, and I’d have the tape recorder there all the time. So you have a gay brother?

PQ: No, I don’t, he’s straight!

MV: Oh my god, that’s the cutest thing that he looks out for you.

PQ: He does. He’s my best friend. He’s the best.

MV: I love him already.

PQ: So, when you were in Seduction, what was it like for you back then? You were so young, were you just completely reveling in it?

MV: It was just crazy! I mean, I was just 19 years old, 20 when we recorded it. It was my fucking dream come true! It was everything I ever wanted. I wanted to be Madonna! That’s all I ever wanted to be. For me, there was nothing else in my head, except, “I’m the next Madonna.” So to answer your question, hell yes I was reveling in it, are you kidding me? Yes. Absolutely.

PQ: How do you think of it now? Do you have any regrets about it?

MV: Maybe. I mean, the best thing about it was, I was in a group with my best friend. So for me, not only do I get to do a record, I’m doing it with my best friend. That’s amazing! I got to tour the world and have my best friend do it with me. But the regrets are, when I signed that contract, my attorney told me that I wasn’t going to make a penny off of it. And I was like, “Oh, that’s OK.” We made no money. We made $1000 a week, but that was only while we were on tour—our touring stipend. And I’ll tell you, Seduction was pulling in $10,000 to $20,000 per show. We got completely ripped off. And we didn’t sell that many records. When Seduction broke up, we were going to litigate, but it ended up falling apart and going away. It was a real legal mess.

PQ: But you got to do your thing. And in a way, that’s really beautiful, because not a lot of people can say that.

MV: Fuck yes! I mean, I wish I would have protected myself, I wish I would have protected myself a lot more.

PQ: Yeah, I see. But the characteristic that told your attorney to “fuck off” is the same characteristic that got you into the group.

MV: Right! And that’s what I went with.

PQ: And then a couple years later you ended up on that Bodyguard record, girl!

MV: Right. So a couple years later, the same producers came back to me, and this was supposed to be my venue, my foray into the solo world. But everything fell apart! I did a full album. Nobody knows where it is. I don’t even know where it is, but there is a whole, like, kind of rappy album that I did.

PQ: Really? Oh my God, I would die for that record.

MV: Yeah! You and me both. And I was supposed to do a duet with Marky Mark. Back then samples were really big, so we were going to do “Hearts of Fire” by Earth, Wind, and Fire.

But, you know, I had the opportunity to interview Whitney [Houston], and thank her for being able to buy my mother a house.

PQ: Wow, that’s beautiful.

MV: I don’t know if she understood a word of it, if she understood that I was on the album. But I do know that I was able to say thank you and that meant a lot to me. I’m a lucky, lucky girl.

PQ: Now, you have been doing a lot of hosting and traveling with the Drag Race shows. Does it bring you back?

MV: It does! It’s exciting for me now because it’s gay clubs. I hate nothing more than hanging out in the straight bars and straight clubs. It’s horrible for me; it’s like torture. I’m like, “Where’s my gays so I can feel comfortable?” My poor husband—I tell him I get hit on more by gay men than by straight men, and he goes, “When the fuck are you ever around straight men?”

PQ: Do you love the touring and the shows and the traveling?

MV: You know what I love, honey? I love making people laugh. I’ve started doing more cabaret stuff, and I’m getting back into my theater roots and singing again and delivering songs and it’s so much fun to be able to have a new school of people come up to me and go, “Girl, I had no idea you had pipes like that. I had no idea you could sing.” And a part of me goes, “Where the fuck have you been? Do you just accept me on the judging panel and not know who the fuck I am?” I love that we’re making theater important again, at least in our little world, and it lets people know I have a talent and that Ru didn’t just bring her best friend along for the ride. And it makes me happy to see people happy.

PQ: And that’s sort of the job of a drag queen, isn’t it?

MV: I think so. For me it’s about joy, and all drag queens want to do is entertain—and for the one’s that can, make people laugh. And that’s why I love me a camp queen. But it’s really a gift—the greatest gift for me is people laughing at my jokes, and understanding what I’m saying, what I’m doing, and that everything comes from a place of love. If they think I’m evil, then they just don’t get it.

PQ: You’re doing the good work girl, I’m telling you.

MV: Well thanks, love. I’m honored to be able to do it. I wanna leave a mark. I wanna help in some way, you know? I’m no Harvey Milk but I can at least be an ally and spread the word of acceptance and love and all that shit.

PQ: Now listen, I’ve only got a few more questions, I won’t take up much more of your time. I know you’re a busy gal.

MV: No, I’m baking cookies because my kids are coming home from school in like an hour.

PQ: Aw! That’s what I wanted to ask you, was about your home and family life. You’re married, but I couldn’t find much about that.

MV: Yeah, well I keep that kind of separate. It’s my personal life, but if people wanna know about it, sure, I’ll tell you. I’ve been married for 16 years to a great guy who I met in Central Park. He was an actor and was going to Julliard when I met him. Right now he’s a stay-at-home dad—we are lucky enough to have that. My daughters are 11 and 13, and my 13-year-old is a track star. I’m constantly going everywhere with her, and I’m also the announcer for the track club—I’m a total track mom. Lola, my little one, is a drag queen magnet. They love her and she’s obsessed with everything drag and she’s a huge fan of the show. Lola watches every single episode. Lillie used to watch it, and then season four rolled around and she got really weird vibes from Sharon Needles. She hated her name, it freaked her out. And I said, “Thanks, Sharon, you ruined my fucking kid’s life.” She gets the joke now, she totally does. She has my sense of humor, she’s 100 percent my child. I’m a grateful mother and wife, and I couldn’t do this without them.

PQ: I wonder—is there a spiritual side to Michelle?

MV: Yes, there’s a very spiritual side. I believe in a higher power, and I also believe in somebody who is nonjudgmental. It’s about connecting to the higher power that makes you a stronger person. And it doesn’t have to be religion; spirituality doesn’t have to be Jesus Christ, or Allah or Buddha. I just think that it’s about a higher source, and however you tap into it and whatever fuels your fire, that’s what you go for. I was raised in a Jewish family because I’m adopted. By birth I’m Hungarian and Irish-Catholic, but my parents knew I wasn’t Jewish by birth so they raised me in a Bible chapel, and we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, so for me it was like, I didn’t believe in any one thing. It was only when I was older that I was like, “I’m gonna go with the Jesus bandwagon cause that works for me.” But what I don’t believe in is when people get crazy and start spouting the Bible at me and telling me that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, because I don’t believe that. I love going to churches that are open, that allow you to be who you are. The Bible is one thing; how you interpret it is another. And everybody interprets it differently. And even if it said in black and white “Being gay is a sin,” it’s not for you to judge. If that’s the way you think, then let Jesus or whoever your god is take care of it in the afterlife. Don’t bother yourself; it’s a big burden for you to carry. Let it go baby. Have some tea, have a nice bath.

You’ve gotta just put everything into perspective. And for me, perspective is, “I’ve got a husband and two mouths to feed. And that’s my job. We have good days and we have bad days. It’s just trying to get by in a world that’s really not so easy to get by in. So right now, I’m baking cookies so when my kids get home there’s a smile on their face. Am I the best mother? Please don’t think that I’m June Cleaver, cause I’m not. My 13-year-old has a fucking sailor mouth like her mother and it’s horrible. But I said to her, “I’d rather you curse in my house then be in someone else’s house and act like a troll.” She’ll do it at home and I’ll say, “Listen, Lillie. I wanna teach you the nuances of using the word “fuck” because it’s not something you throw around, it’s like salt and pepper. If you use too much of it it’s horrible and you can’t eat the meal.”

PQ: You seem very devoted to your friends and your family. You seem to be just generally helpful and nurturing. You care about the people around you, and even strangers—like when you meet these Drag Race girls you don’t know.

MV: The drag queens are my other children. And for me, I think with every drag queen there is a connection, because I never fit in, never ever. I was adopted which always made me feel weird and different, though my parents always allowed me to be who I was. I was one of the people that always got chosen last, and I think I bulked up the comedy bone to make up for my lack of friends. None of the cool kids ever liked me; I was a freak. And for me, I think that’s a connection to the gays, to the queens, to the weirdos, to all these people who never fit in because that’s how I lived my life and I know what it feels like. I still don’t fit in! But I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want these kids to think that there’s no love out there because there is. I will mother the whole world; they can nurse on these breasts.

PQ: [laughs] There’s enough of them!

MV: Yes, there is. Thank you, Dr. 90210.

PQ: [laughs] OK Michelle, I’m gonna let you go. This was so fun for me to chat with you! We appreciate you doing this.

MV: Well, no one appreciates it more than me. I’m very excited to come back to Portland, maybe I can make it a regular thing and come back a few times now that you see that I don’t bite.

PQ: We would love it.

MV: And also, I wanted to tell everybody that I just got word that we might be bringing the battle of the seasons toward Portland.

PQ: Yes ma’am! That’ll do well; there are a lot of Drag Race fans here. So, I’ll see you all dolled up on Sunday! We’re gonna be on that stage, girl.

MV: I can’t wait, Shitney! Bye, honey.

Find Shitney (below) on Facebook. Photo by Eric Sellers.

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