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RuPaul’s Drag Race Judge Michelle Visage on What She Looks for in a Winning Queen and Why She Loves Hosting Whatcha Packin’

Despite the above headline, Michelle Visage isn’t simply a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, she’s also integrally involved behind the scenes as one of the show’s senior producers, as well as the host of its Emmy-nominated companion series Whatcha Packin’, where she gets to know the eliminated queens on a more personal level — especially their tastes in fashion.

Visage initially rose to fame as a member of the girl group Seduction in the early ’90s, and she actually addressed whether we might see a Seduction-themed musical challenge one day on Drag Race, which has turned her into a global celebrity and made her an icon within the LGBTQIA+ community alongside host RuPaul.

Indeed, Visage has traveled the world with the franchise, appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK Versus the World as well as on RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. She has also lent her judging expertise to Ireland’s Got Talent and the Paramount+ series Queen of the Universe, which follows the world’s first all-drag queen singing competition. That show’s very existence is evidence of the impact that Drag Race has had on television over its 15 seasons.

Additionally, Visage has been a staple on morning radio for 17 years, hosting and co-hosting programs on various stations, and she was also the co-host of the hit podcast RuPaul: What’s the Tee? with Michelle Visage.

Above the Line recently spoke with Michelle Visage, who explained why she loves working on both Drag Race and its exit interview series Whatcha Packin’, and what she’s looking for in a winning queen — namely, a sense of humor and a point of view. She also discussed her own vegan lifestyle and her favorite Lipsync segments on the show.

Michelle Visage
Michelle Visage photo via IMDb/Accolade PR

Above the Line: As a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race what are you looking for in a winning queen?

Michelle Visage: Oh nothing much, just everything. For me, a total package is, you know, obviously, they have to look the part, but they have to have a sense of humor, they have to have a point of view, they have to know why they do what they do. It’s more than just looking pretty and wearing fun clothing. I feel like, as a drag queen, there is a sense of responsibility to the community and to the LGBTQIA population in its entirety, really. I think that they’re there to be a voice, but also to be a sounding board and be a whole bunch of different things, [including] role model — you name it. I think a lot of people get into this business — not just in drag, but show business — to seek fame and fortune and stardom, but “role model” is one of those things that not many people sign up for because it’s such a huge responsibility. But I think these queens are role models in so many different ways, so we have to include that in the total package as well, so there’s so much more than being a pretty face in drag.

ATL: As a senior producer, what do you look for in terms of casting — potential role models or the fun, spicy type who can provide juicy commentary and shake things up?

Visage: For me, I like everything. Any TV show that I watch, whether I’m a part of it or I’m just a fan, there are always boxes that need to be filled to complete a story. Even in scripted, where you see a not predictable ending, there are boxes that need to be filled. You always need the protagonist, the antagonist, the villain, etc. You need all those boxes, so for me, that’s what makes a diverse and versatile cast, is having all of those things. And the greatest thing with reality casting — and competition, in particular — is when you don’t see something coming. You think you’re signing up for this one person and that person flips the script. And that’s when it’s really, really exciting.

Michelle Visage
Michelle Visage on RuPaul’s Drag Race/World of Wonder

ATL: What are some of the best and worst outfits you’ve seen while judging?

Visage: Well, I’ve been doing this for far too long to single out one or two, but there have been some really, really strong ones over the years that are iconic and will live on forever in memes and fan art, and then there are [ones that are] equally as bad.  Let’s use, for example, not to single one out, but you asked… LaLa Ri when she wore those bags glued to her. I think my critique to her was like… ‘you know what I’m going to say.’ I didn’t even have the heart to say it because she obviously saw it. She wasn’t visually impaired. She saw what she put out there.

But she had an incredible sense of humor, you see, and that’s what life is about. It’s about not taking life too seriously. Like, I can look in the mirror and see when I look really bad. Like, you know, we can see this! But when you have a limited amount of time and you have to get it on the stage, you gotta get behind it and you’ve gotta support it like it’s the best, most fierce piece of couture that you’ve ever worn, and you have to sell it, and that’s what she did, bless her. But that’s definitely one of the worst. But I love her so much that we all fell in love with her even more after that because she could laugh at it.

ATL: For Whatcha Packin’, there’s a one-on-one between you and whichever queen gets eliminated, and I’ve noticed there are multiple looks behind you, so have any of the looks ever been so garish and outlandish that you’ve felt like, “Oh my god, what is happening behind me?”

Visage: No, you know, I always get three looks behind me, and sometimes they’ve worn them, and sometimes, if [it’s] really early, they haven’t [yet], and sometimes, knowing the queen, I look at the looks and I go, “Oh, this makes sense,” and sometimes I look at the looks and it’s like, “No, I wouldn’t have expected this to come from you. Explain it.”

And the beautiful thing about these queens, whether they made it themselves or they had it commissioned, [is that] there’s always a story and they always have an intention and a point of view, and that’s really important in drag — to have a point of view.

So one of my favorite things about Whatcha Packin is being to see the looks that they didn’t get to wear, and if they did wear them, how they came about — because on the main stage, we don’t have time to talk to them about the history of the look that they’re going to wear, so there’s all that. So that’s really a fun part of Whatcha Packin’ after getting to meet them one-on-one.

RuPaul's Drag Race
RuPaul’s Drag Race image via World of Wonder

ATL: As a fan of the show, the thing I pick up on about you is what an incredible mother figure you are to the queens, and that when you go on the road with them, I think it was Adore Delano who said that you encourage a vegan lifestyle and to limit the drinking. So when are we going to be getting a vegan RuPaul chocolate bar?

Visage: I know, I know! I’ve been asking about that for a long time. There are so many options out there now, I’ve just gotta make Ru do Ru’s non-dairy chocolate bar, although I think the dark chocolate one may be that. I’m not sure. I try not to eat sweets anymore so I’m being a good girl… but the milk chocolate peanut butter one that Ru has was my favorite back in the day. They’re all very, very delicious. I think the dark chocolate one has Nutella. [whispering] But they’re so good! They’re so good.

But, you know, when we do go on tour, I’ve always been that girl. I’ve always been somebody who’s constantly chasing my health and trying to do the right thing. I never drank alcohol in my life and I’ve never done a drug in my life apart from, you know, the few times I smoked marijuana in high school, which just doesn’t agree with me.

I would never force my point of view onto anybody but if anybody’s interested in learning to live a more holistic, healthier lifestyle then they could always come to me, and I was kind of there as that mother to do that. My kids live the life that they wanna live but I’m always there to listen, talk to, encourage, and help.

ATL: I love that. I think it was Linda Evangelista who said, ‘If you choose to smoke, you’re intentionally limiting your career to a shorter amount of time,’ and I think that truly speaks to how you and RuPaul have been in this gig doing it for as long as y’all have, because of your healthier lifestyles.

Visage: I’d like to think so. If I looked like Linda Evangelista, I wouldn’t do anything that would accelerate my aging, I mean, with that [beautiful] face.

ATL: Do you think there’d ever be a Seduction-themed musical challenge on Drag Race?

Visage: [laughs] Um, I don’t know. The funny thing is, people who know about Seduction [are] people of a certain age, but so many of these kids are getting younger and younger and they know Seduction because of me but they never lived Seduction — because we were never on the Destiny’s Child trajectory or the Spice Girls trajectory, but we did great.

We were a platinum-selling girl group before there was social media. We had zero marketing dollars; nobody really cared about us. And then we ended up being the second-bestselling act behind Janet Jackson that year in 1990 for A&M Records, so that was a really big deal. Might there be a Seduction challenge? I would love it. I’ll have to bring that up to the producers.

Michelle Visage
Michelle Visage on RuPaul’s Drag Race/World of Wonder

ATL: Yes! It would be incredible. Speaking of incredible episodes, I personally loved the Lipsync for Your Life between Trinity K. Bonet vs. Laganja Estranja set to Dua Lipa’s “Physical.” What has been your favorite Lipsync segment?

Visage: You can’t really pick a favorite because there are so many. I[‘ve been doing this for a very long time now and there are so many favorites. One of my favorites was Kenya Michaels and Latrice Royale [performing] “Natural Woman.” The Dina Ritz lipsync to Natalie Cole. And most recently Marcia Marcia Marcia and Anetra. And there are so many between those spaces in time. “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth” [from] Roxxxy Andrews.

It’s a very, very long list but they keep getting stronger and stronger. there will always be some queens who aren’t as strong with the lipsync because they haven’t had time out there to be in the clubs and be on the road but there are some incredibly strong lipsync-ers out there who are getting stronger and stronger. I love it.

ATL: It’s always wonderful to see the progression of drag.

Visage: Oh, yeah.

ATL: What else is it that working you’re on right now?

Visage: Well listen, I’m always working on something. There’s constantly a Drag Race filming, if not here then London or Down Under in New Zealand, so we’re constantly filming something. I hope to shift a little bit and focus on acting more in the coming years just because people don’t know I want to do it, I want to see a more scaled-back, scaled-down version of me and what I have to offer apart from this incredible job and wouldn’t trade for anything. Literally, if somebody said to me, “Manifest your dream job. Write it down every day. Speak it into reality.” This would be it for me.

RuPaul's Drag Race
Michelle Visage, RuPaul, Carson Kressley, and Ross Matthews on RuPaul’s Drag Race/World of Wonder

ATL: Would you want to play a villain or what would be the goal/dream?

Visage: A villain would be a dream. I mean, imagine being able to be a Bond villain. There’s always room to dream and manifest. But I think for me, I would really like to show the other side, the part that wouldn’t be predictable. But if you have to start somewhere to get somewhere else then do it, but I’d like people to see all sides and make people go, “Oh, she can do that, too,” and that’s what I try to do with the queens and try to encourage them to do things outside what they would normally do. I love surprising people.

ATL: The queens have occasionally had different prosthetics and body modifications, like Jimbo’s huge breastplate. Do you ever get concerned about what they’re doing to their bodies for the sake of the competition?

Visage: You know, I don’t get concerned. I think these kids know exactly what they’re doing and I feel like you get one life to live, you have to live it the way you want to live it. I think, you know, if you know the risks and the side effects and you go into it with your eyes open — which is what my explant documentary is all about [Visage has been very public about having her breast implants removed] — as long as you have the information and you’re not going into it blindly, then do it. If Jimbo’s worried about her lower back, she’ll take a break from that breastplate, I promise you. I don’t worry, as long as they know and they’re responsible.

The most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race can be found on MTV as well as VOD platforms, with past seasons streaming on Paramount+ and Hulu.

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