For Michelle Visage, whether it’s doctor’s scrubs or a Nando’s uniform, it’s all drag. Here’s why

Sophie Wheeldon
·10-min read

For Michelle Visage, whether it be doctor’s scrubs, a Nando’s name tag, or a fabulous feather boa and sequinned dress – it’s all drag.

Michelle Visage is a wisecracking judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race where the world of drag and fashion collide. After all, fashion elites Marc Jacobs and Jeremy Scott have sat on the panel beside her.

Fashion has always been important to the reality diva, and in an interview with PinkNews, Michelle Visage reveals how 80s punks and drag queens alike have all influenced her style and what it means to be inclusive today.

PinkNews: Why is fashion so important to you? And what part has fashion played in your life?

Michelle Visage: Fashion has always been important to me since I was a young girl. I actually know a lot about fashion.

I didn’t go to school for it, but I studied it endlessly when I was younger, on TV shows like MTV and style network, and I used to obsess over magazines.

My affinity for fashion started in the very early 80s and late 70s when I was very young. I remember looking at magazines and really loving style and wanting to look like these women, but I never could because A, my parents didn’t have money, and B, I lived in central New Jersey — where was I going to get these fashions?

It was always a dream and just an obsession of mine.

Then I got into the London, UK, punk rock scene, and it was so much more than music to me. The whole punk rock scene from the 70s and 80s was so much more than music.

Punk rock was a movement, and it was a fashion show. It was a kaleidoscope of colours.

So, my obsession with fashion started in the British punk rock scene. And being where I was, nobody understood it. Nobody got why I’d wear a big dog chain with a padlock around my neck and I’d wear conflicting patterns, striped jeans with a plaid top.

Nobody understood where I got my sense of fashion from, I didn’t even understand it! I just knew I wanted to look like the British punk rock people – I wanted my hair to stick straight up!

My fashion was never sleek, beautiful things which I love now because I’m a woman of a certain age, it was always loud and raucous and anything that could make people shriek, shout and turn their heads.

Michelle Visage is becoming the 'unofficial sixth member' of Steps
Michelle Visage (Getty/Chelsea Guglielmino)

So, when I do drag or when I have done drag on RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s always high drag.

It’s not about being gorgeous, which I love, but I never felt like I belonged in that part of fashion. I always feel like my heart’s in Liverpool.

I’m from New Jersey, which is the Liverpool of the United States, in my opinion. So, I like really loud, flashy, and to be honest, really tacky and gaudy, because I feel like that is dramatic to me and gorgeous.

I think fashion plays such a part in society because it’s an expression, it’s our drag. Some people might say, “I’m not a drag queen,” but when you put on fashion to feel good, to put on a show, to walk a runway, no matter what it is, that’s your drag.

For me, fashion has always been a sense of escape – I love it! My style changes through the years as it should.

I mean I wish I can wear those things that the models wear, but I’m 5’4” and I’m not a size zero, so I have fun with what I want to have fun with.

It’s so important for self-expression.

RuPaul’s Drag Race rewrites the gender rulebook, why is it important we continue to tackle gender stereotypes?

Gender stereotypes must be tackled continuously because we’re not on top of it, we’re not understanding that there’s more to life than the binary.

It’s not for the people that are in the know, it’s more about educating the people that aren’t in the know or need to be educated. And it’s doing it through love and compassion and understanding instead of through hate and pressure to accept.

I think if we explain to people what’s going on, they’ll be more open to it.

There’s so much more than just male and female. There always has been, we’ve just never had a ballsy enough society to take ownership, to talk about it, and to allow people to allow themselves to be who they are.

No matter how somebody identifies or who they are, it’s not going to affect who you are.

As a kid, around seven or eight years old, I remember a local person who was back then considered a ‘ssoss-dresser’ and I was so enamoured with her, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

My mother would say, “Don’t stare, look away,” but I just thought it was really cool.

There’s a person here who’s very hairy, wearing heels, a very bad wig and a dress at the local delicatessen getting a sandwich, and I’m thinking: “This is really cool. I don’t know what it is, but it’s different and I want more of that.”

So, from an early age, it spoke to me and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Michelle Visage, RuPaul, Ross Matthews and Chaka Khan behind the Drag Race season 12 judging table
Michelle Visage alongside RuPaul on the set of Drag Race. (WOW)

I continue to learn. I have a gay daughter who sometimes goes in and out of the non-binary wheelhouse.

It’s so important that people understand all these things in life are valid, they all matter, and we should stop trying to force our beliefs onto other people and start opening up and accepting people for who they are.

Allow them to be who they are. It’s pretty simple. Mind your own business, respect other people’s wishes the way you would want yours respected.

No matter how somebody identifies or who they are, it’s not going to affect who you are. It’s really odd that people still get hung up on this gender thing or genitalia thing or sex or sexual preference. It blows my mind that we’re still talking about this in 2021!

It shouldn’t even be a thing. You worry about you; they will worry about them – tada just solved it!

Two of the main themes of the show are acceptance and inclusion, why are acceptance and inclusion important? And what are some of the negative effects a lack of inclusion can have?

To be accepted and to be included sounds really easy, but it’s not. Some people within your own race, within your own gender, within your own community, for whatever reason (usually comes down to self-loathing), have a hard time accepting and including people.

A lot of women don’t accept and include other women. A lot of gay people don’t accept and include or lift each other up within the community.

It’s so important that we stop that now, especially for those two groups, women and the LGBT+ community, because we have fought so long and so hard to be where we are now.

To tear each other down and not lift each other up is doing a disservice to all of our ancestors and all the trailblazers before us.

Women worked really hard, the suffragettes, they all worked really hard just to get us to be able to vote, let alone to run for president of the United States or vice president!

You work at Nando’s, you put on your outfit – drag! Anywhere you go, that’s your drag.

It’s so unbelievable to me that women are almost raised to be catty, to tear each other down. Their man cheats on them, they blame the other woman instead of blaming the man. It’s very eye-opening.

The very saying that women are “catty” comes from the feline which is linked to what women’s privates are called – it’s all related. We need to start including, accepting, and welcoming other women into our pack, into our group.

I think that everybody needs to open up. If somebody’s struggling, we need to open them up, even if in their eyes you’ve done wrong, we should talk about it.

There’s room to learn, to open our hearts and our souls. Inclusivity and acceptance are so important, now more than ever, because a lot of people are struggling.

So, let’s learn how to lift each other up through communication, support, even people you don’t know! Everybody deserves to feel love.

Michelle Visage holding a book
Michelle Visage on the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. (BBC)

What does it mean to be a drag queen?

A drag queen to me is giving a big FU to society. It’s for all the people who never felt like they fit in. They have a place in drag, and they have a place within the community.

It’s also when you don’t feel strong enough. Superheroes have capes, drag is our superhero cape. So, when you’re not feeling good enough, let me tell you what we do because you know what I’m talking about.

You go into the bathroom, you fix your hair, you put a little slap on your face. For me, I’ll throw some glasses on and some hoop earrings, I’ll wear leopard print, get my nails done – it’s all drag!

RuPaul says “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag” – if you think about it, that’s true!

If you go to work and you’re a doctor, you put on your scrubs, you put on your stethoscope, your hat – drag! You work at Nando’s, you put on your outfit – drag! Anywhere you go, that’s your drag.

Sometimes for me, I just feel lousy. Then I go into the bathroom, I pick up a powder brush and I’ll start.

Next thing you know I’m wearing full blue mascara, full blue eyeliner, and that’s my drag today. I have the gym, I have a dance class today and I’m not going to take it off because sometimes you need that pick me up, especially when you’re in a worldwide pandemic!

Put on all the colours in your closet, at the same time! Do something you never thought you’d do – that’s drag and drag just picks you up and makes you feel good.

It is such a strong power and that’s why these kids on RuPaul’s Drag Race are superheroes. They’re so powerful. Their drag is moving, their drag is enlightening or challenging.

That’s the beauty of it all, and that’s what it means to me.

What advice would you give to those struggling in these unprecedented times?

To those who are struggling right now, there’s some solace in knowing that you are not alone. For me, there’s solace in knowing that for the first time in our history, collectively, the world is together in this.

There are so many people struggling with substance abuse, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and abuse at the hands of others because you can’t get out, you can’t leave, you can’t earn money to go somewhere – it’s a very tough time right now.

So, for the people who are struggling, know that you’re not alone and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We see it. We’ll be able to get out and take on the world, starting from the beginning.

This was a global reset. Now is the time for us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and say, “OK, how many times do we get a second chance? Not many!”

So let’s use the second chance to live healthier, to live happier, to love ourselves more, to love our neighbours more.

You’re not alone, you matter, you’re loved, and let’s reset together.

Michelle Visage and other Diversity and Inclusion Speakers are available to book via The Champions Speakers Agency.