No one wants to be the first person voted off the island, but Vanessa Vanjie Mateo will always be remembered. The first drag queen eliminated from Season 10 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” became a viral sensation when she slowly walked backward off the runway, repeating her name three times in a kind of plaintive howl. As soon as she left, RuPaul turned to long-running judge Michelle Visage and whispered: “I didn’t get the name, what was it?” Visage replied with her own impression of the moment, instantly cracking RuPaul up. Miss Vanjie’s fate was sealed.
Miss Vanjie’s joke rippled out into the gay meme circuit as quickly as she had sashayed away. Visage would revive her impression throughout the season, always eliciting the same hearty laugh from RuPaul. It’s moments like these that illustrate Visage’s unique role on the hit reality show: As the glamazon sidekick to RuPaul, she can take as well as she gives and is always there to pick up the slack. If RuPaul were an (actual) supershero, Michelle Visage would be riding sidecar, shouting out directions with a fierce nail and a bold lip.
Visage feels as much a part of the show as its weekly lip-sync performances, even though she arrived in its third season. Incidentally, that’s also the season the competition became much stiffer and the show hit its stride. “Season 4 is really what changed the game, but Season 3 was the one that woke them up,” Visage told IndieWire in a recent phone interview. “Seasons 1 and 2 were amazing. It was just that we were testing the waters on so many different levels.”
Like Simon Cowell (“American Idol”) or Nina Garcia (“Project Runway”), Visage has the toughest reputation as a judge. She is the one who gets into the weeds with the queens over their makeup and fashion choices, never missing the chance to read an unblended contouring or uninspired bodysuit. “My love for them is tough, but my love for them is genuine,” said Visage. “I’m their biggest fan first, but I don’t speak to them like a fangirl, because I want them to be the best that they can be. I know television, I’ve done it for a while, and I know that most of the time you don’t get second chances.”
She would know. “Drag Race” has catapulted Visage into a mid-career renaissance. Originally a singer, she came up in the trio Seduction, best known for the song “Two to Make it Right,” which hit number 2 on the pop charts in 1989. Her professional collaboration with RuPaul goes back to his short-lived VH1 talk show, which ran for two seasons in the mid-’90s. In true drag fashion, almost every Snatch Game episode of “Drag Race” features a joke about Visage riding RuPaul’s coattails, which she takes in stride. Anyone who watched the first two seasons of “Drag Race” can attest that Visage brought a much-needed jolt of electricity and professionalism to the show, just as she brings out something in RuPaul that no one else can.
“He’s my best friend,” she said. “Think about how you’re gonna be with somebody you work with, or with somebody who’s truly a lifelong homie. There’s gonna be a different side that comes out, and I think Ru knows that I’ll never let him down. I will always be there for him. I’m his safety net, nothing’s gonna stop with me there ever.”
Having Visage and RuPaul riff on the Miss Vanjie moment, for instance, took the joke to another level. While it may sound mean-spirited, Visage said it was all out of love. “We weren’t making fun of her at all, we were enjoying it,” said Visage. “Listen, she gave me something that I knew Ru would die over. I knew he would go mental and he did and it was great and it was a moment.”
With the shift to VH1 from Logo in 2017, the “Drag Race” fanbase has only grown, including many heterosexuals. Visage’s presence acts like an outstretched hand to straight women as if so say, “Come on in, honey. You’re welcome here.” Visage stressed that she’s not the average ally, as she’s never considered herself “normal.” “Even though I present as heterosexual, I’ve been all over the planet sexually and proud of that, and never tried to hide it,” she said.
While she has been a staunch ally for the LGBTQ+ community for years, she is careful not to speak outside of her own experience. In addressing recent controversial comments RuPaul made about trans women on the show, Visage disputed the characterization that RuPaul would not allow someone on hormones to be on the show. “Well, he didn’t say that, because we’ve had people that are on hormones on the show,” she said. “We love trans women, all of us know that drag wouldn’t be an art form without trans women. I know that, RuPaul knows that, everybody in the gay community knows that. Trans women have always been a part of and the face of drag. And I can guarantee trans women will always be a part of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ That is what it is.”
As for whether the show might eventually include the growing world of women drag queens, known as “bio queens” or “faux queens,” Visage said she was “all for it.” “Who am I to judge? I do drag, just because my drag is not the drag of Creme Fatale or Holy McGrail doesn’t mean it’s less drag. I perform live, I just sing with dancers. It’s drag on a different level.” She also would love to see a drag-king challenge. “I love drag kings, and there’s a lot of sexy ones out there.”
The success of “Drag Race,” which RuPaul has called a “reality show in drag,” has edified the show’s longtime fans, as well as changed the face of live drag. Gay bars around the country are packed on Thursday nights, with queens hosting viewing parties and shows afterward. Visage said the show’s success had brought more “validity to the art of drag.”
“[Drag] was never really looked at as an art form, in my opinion. It was always, we’d go to the club and see the girls but it was never like, ‘this is truly art.’ Now it’s revered, and it makes me really happy.”