Q&A with ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ winner Chad Michaels

Dargan Thompson

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Chad Michaels  Photo by Connor Spielmaker

Chad Michaels
Photo by Connor Spielmaker

Standing over six feet tall in heels, outfitted with makeup, a wig and sequined black bodysuit, Chad Michaels makes quite an impression.

Unlike other drag queens, Michaels left her female stage name behind several years ago. And despite the get up, Michaels doesn’t put on airs for our interview. She speaks confidently in a naturally deep voice, sharing stories and insights into the world of drag.

Recently, Michaels was a runner up on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 4, taught in season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag U and won the first ever RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race.

Michaels is a 20 year drag veteran who was known long before Drag Race for her Cher impersonations. She performs and produces with The Dreamgirls Revue, the longest running female impersonation show in California, and often travels around the country to perform.

The Spinnaker caught up with Michaels before her March 8 performance at Osprey Productions’ drag show.

Spinnaker: How did you get into doing drag?

Chad Michaels: By a fluke, like a lot of people did. I did it on Halloween. I think the first person I dressed up as was Madonna and went out to a club and had a good time. I think if you’re going to do drag it’s in you from the beginning. I was always kind of a theatrical kid, rummaging through my mom and my grandma’s closets and playing dress up and stuff. So it’s either in you or it’s not in you. I guess I started a really long time ago, like I set foot out of my mom and started doing drag.

S: And how did you create your persona of doing Cher impersonations?

CM: Doing Cher has been pretty much like a 20 year ongoing project for me. Originally, doing Cher was a way for me to get into the drag show that I wanted to be a part of. You had to do a character allusion to get into the show so that’s how I started doing it. And my drag mother, Hunter, put me in drag the first time as Cher and it all kind of just went from there. But it’s been, like I said, a 20 year roller coaster. It’s hard to keep up with Cher, she moves really fast and she wears lots of expensive costumes. If you want to be a timely impersonator you have to keep up with the looks. It’s been a lot of fun. I love it.

S: You’ve been doing this for a long time, but I saw an interview where you said you had learned a lot through doing RuPaul’s Drag Race — what are some of the big things you feel like you took away from that experience?

CM: Well Drag Race was, like you said, many, many things. It was for me a really personal test, like what can I do, what can I accomplish? I’m 40 plus years old — can you go in there with 12 relatively new, nubile drag queens and can you tread water? That was the big insecurity for me before I went in is, can I do this? But going through it you learn a lot about yourself. You learn what you’re capable of, you learn your extremes and thresholds for pain because you’re up on the runway for hours and in heels and during the critiques. And you just learn a lot about people. I personally took a lot away from Drag Race with my relationship with Sharon [Needles], and kind of getting through the show with Sharon as kind of like my buddy. And that was a wonderful friendship formed in an unlikely place. So there was a lot of things to be taken away from Drag Race. I think most of all is just to really have pride in who you are and what you do. Because you can achieve your dreams if you really want to.

S: I know there’s a lot of drama on the show and it’s probably pretty cutthroat. How did you deal with that?

CM: Oh we flew above the drama, at least we tried to. I really only tried to give input when it was needed. And when I had something to say I said it and that was that. I’ve been in the business a really long time and I had my dramatic days. But it’s easier just to coexist with people and get through whatever situation it is that you’re in with people, whether it be RuPaul’s Drag Race or your day to day job or going here to school. Get through it. Coexist. There’s plenty of time to be b—–. Who wants to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race to be a b—-? Oh, wait, there’s a whole bunch of them, nevermind!

S: How do you feel like drag fits into the gay community?

CM: Within the gay community, drag is really our staple form of entertainment, and it’s a source of inspiration and art. And the people that do drag — it’s not just about impersonating Cher, this is just one shade of gray. There’s so many different styles and it’s evolving now, as we speak. I’ve seen drag change so much from the time when I started when it was — you know, you were kind of like a celebrity impersonator, and now it’s anything goes. You’re your own creation. You’re your own persona. You’re your own celebrity. So those have been great things for me to adapt to. But within the gay community I think that drag queens should be respected. I think that they offer a lot of commentary on life in the way they live their lives unapologetically. And I think they can set an example, you know, those queens who are out working within the community. It’s a conscious choice to either set an example or be a trainwreck. Hopefully, there’s a lot more girls out there choosing to be a role model and show the community that we deserve respect and that we offer something really great to the LGBT community.

Chad Michaels lip syncs to Cher at Osprey Productions' March 8 drag show in the student union ballrooms.

Chad Michaels lip syncs to Cher at Osprey Productions’ March 8 drag show in the student union ballrooms.
Photo by Dargan Thompson

S: Speaking of it being an art form, I know you do a lot of your own makeup and hair. How much time, generally, does it take you to get all ready?

CM: You know, I actually just remade this Cher outfit, because my old one was like 15 years old and it was falling apart. This took me like a week. And I mean, I sat for hours just putting rhinestones on this. It all depends on what you’re doing. A project like this took me like a week. But doing my makeup takes about an hour and a half and busting out wigs can take anywhere from two hours to six hours, just depending on how complicated it is. A lot of time and effort goes into drag and a lot of people don’t realize how much because all they see is the end result. They see us toodle out on stage in a cute little outfit, looking great, but they don’t realize all the hours that went into prepping that. Sometimes when I’m on the microphone I like to remind them of that. We didn’t just, like, snap our fingers and then we just walked out here like this. And that’s another thing where people need to realize that what we do is an art form. It’s becoming more and more so evident through shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race really giving us a showcase to show what we do and every aspect of it. Showing us sitting doing our makeup, showing them styling their hair and making costumes, and then the end result on the runway. A lot of people are pretty impressed by that, and they should be.

S: How much of your life would you say is spent in drag? Is it just for shows?

CM: Yeah. For me it’s my job. It’s my career. But like I said there’s so many shades of gray, you know. There’s the transexual community that’s living 24/7 as a woman. It’s like a uniform to me. I put it on when I go and I take it off when I leave, but everybody is different. For me it’s just when I’m at work. I love being a boy.

S: You’ve decided to keep a male stage name, but you had a female stage name before, what made you decide to do go back?

CM: Well I changed it back to a boy name because when I worked in Vegas they required us to be introduced at the end of the show by a male name. And so I just kept it, but I’ve always kind of thought that it just lends a little more legitimacy to what I do. If you say “Bridget Love is coming here to do Cher,” well who the f— is Bridget Love? I want people to know who I am, and I want them to know what I do and I want to take credit for my work. I’m Chad, you know? And I’m very much the same in and out of drag. I’m a little bit louder, a little bit more amped up when I’m in drag, but I don’t put on — (speaking high and soft) I don’t put on a voice like this — you know what I mean? It’s me and it’s take it or leave it, like it or don’t. At this point it’s like, I’m going to give you Cher out the backdoor no matter what, so you’ll probably like that if you don’t like anything else.

S: You’re from California, so what’s it like coming to the South and coming to Jacksonville?

CM: I love Jacksonville. The view from my room of the riverfront is so gorgeous. I love traveling. It’s been a really crazy year, actually a year and a half, just getting around all over the country. It’s been wonderful to get around and meet all the different entertainers, all the different cities. And it’s nice to see that each city has — it’s a different family, but it’s the same family. It’s like this series of little dragvilles everywhere I go and it’s nice to see their support systems and where they come from and who they are and their stories. And I love that and I’ve met so many people this year. I can’t really remember all their names, but it’s been very very rewarding to be able to get out there and be in a position to do that. And I love the South. There’s something to be said for southern hospitality, for sure. I’ve been treated very very well and I appreciate that.

S: That’s pretty much all I have for you. Is there anything else you want to add?

CM: I’m just grateful to be here! And excited to entertain our up and comers. And I’m really proud that there’s an organization like this here on campus in Jacksonville. Gay and Lesbian civil rights here are way behind the times and I’m aware of the struggles that Gay and Lesbians go through in Jacksonville and throughout the South. Having an on campus organization like this that is doing such major things and incorporating the mainstream and the straight student body, inviting them to come down, see who we are, what we’re about — It’s amazing for me. I’m not at the end of my journey but I’m on in — I’m going to be 42 actually on March 20, Happy Birthday to me! — but it’s so heartening for me to see little babies fighting for themselves and for who they are and being so open and so willing to say “this is who I am. Love it or leave it because I’m not going to change for you or anybody else. And you are going to give me my equal rights, and you are going to allow me to be married because I’m just exactly the same as you. Cut me open and I bleed red.” I’m so glad to be here and be a part of it. I’m very proud of the students.

Email Dargan Thompson at [email protected]