Drag star Jujubee is best known for her stint as a sassy contestant on American reality TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race – but she’s just as happy to talk about her family drama, beloved Lao heritage and the next stop on her tour: Cambodia.
I’ve got a secret – I’ve never watched a drag show. Until last week, I’d never seen American reality TV sensation RuPaul’s Drag Race and had no idea what it might be. Perhaps something to do with India and Formula One. I’m a far gloomier sort of TV viewer. Between looping news on CNN and multiple Aung San Suu Kyi documentaries, the odd one, or four, Locked Up Abroad episodes might slip through and that’s the closest I come to reality TV. I’m behind the curve – drag scores plenty of avant-garde cred in the hipster quarters of the West, and Drag Race pulled record audiences for its network. Even Scarlett Johansson’s a fan. Now that I’ve watched the show and sort of met (does Skype count?) one of its biggest stars, larger-than-life former contestant Jujubee – the 28-year-old Laotian who is one America’s most loved drag queens – I’ve discovered something.
A real giggle. As hilarious as she is glamorous – think Jolie lips, curves eased into sequined bodycon – and creative with the catchphrases – ‘I’ll read a b—, ‘I’ll pee on your pillow’. She’s both, to use her favourite phrase, totally “fierce”, and totally ordinary. Some nights she struts on stage channeling Beyonce in a diamante-studded leotard after hours applying enormous amounts of makeup and hairspray; other nights she cooks at home and watches dumb TV. She’s addicted to Wheel of Fortune and court shows. She geeks out over Laotian recipes. She lazes around with her “boyfriend-slash-manager” Chris.
On the show, she won hearts with her dramatic performances in the Drag Race contests that the rivals undergo in hopes of being named the top drag act in the country. The competitions consist of everything from lipsynching to “reading” – a drag game where the rivals rip into flaws of other contestants.
We’ll probably never shriek together about what b— stole her ring or fall down and cry to Total Eclipse of the Heart, but there’s much more to talk about than that. She’s got an interesting backstory – starting with a downright bizarre real name – and a lot to say about women, men, drag and the reality behind reality TV.
When we speak, she’s just bounced off the plane from California – finishing a tour of nightclubs and university campuses around the country that has kept her busy since last November, the end of the last season of RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race, a “best of” competition featuring favourite characters from the series. But what she really wants to talk about is Cambodia. She’s here next week to perform at Glamazon, the second year of Phnom Penh’s most extravagant arts and entertainment gala. The show promises dance and avant-garde segments, a catwalk show, a transformation section – participants will be given a style make-over – and a drag act courtesy of Jujubee. The trip will be her first to Southeast Asia.
“I’m so excited, you don’t even understand. I haven’t been in that area ever. I’m so excited to see everything.”
She was born in Boston, though both her parents are Laotian. They moved to the US nine years before she was born – to New Mexico and then Boston. Jujubee still lives there.
As for “Jujubee”, it’s just a stage name. Her real name is “Airline”.
“Someone messed up,” she says. “It was supposed to be Airlin, and the ‘e’ was added on mistakenly. I didn’t know when I was a kid. When I came to the realisation it wasn’t a normal name, I thought it was kind of cool, so I just kept it.”
Her parents didn’t speak any English when she was born and missed the error.
“So the understanding of what the ‘e’ sound would turn the name into wasn’t there and I mean, I think it’s funny because I do fly all the time, so my name makes up for it.
“I like Airline better – it’s weirder, you know.”
She was never a typical child, she says. She embraced dress-up early, and caught onto sexuality quickly.
“We were really poor, so it wasn’t like we had everything in the world to entertain us, but I had my two sisters and me and we played house. A lot. It was the imagination that was the thing for me.”
She has said she was five years old when she realised she didn’t like girls, and still in primary school when she realized she quite liked being gay.
It wasn’t easy. Her father’s friends gossiped about her, and few people around her could give advice on her sexuality.
“Being gay wasn’t anything that anybody talked about at school or anything. It was quite difficult, but I came to the realisation very early, when I was like 10, you can’t change who you are, you can only build upon what’s already there. I decided to be me – it’s more fun to be me.”
At 18, she performed in drag for the first time.
“Oh my gosh, my first performance. It was a room of maybe four people, but the important part was getting through. I did it, and I enjoyed it. It was exhilarating. It was like: this is what I wanna do, this is what I want.”
As for the name “Jujubee”? “It was the most random choosing,” she says.
Her “drag mother”, a queen called Charisma, chose it when she won an amateur competition.
(“When you say drag mother, it’s like a mentor. He’s been so amazing. I’m probably going to call him ‘he’ and ‘she’, interchangeably!” Jujubee is also happy with being called either “she” or “he” and refers to herself as both man and woman.)
“I won and they announced ‘Jujubee’. She just announced it out of thin air. Then it turned out to be a fruit.”
If Jujubee is sparkly leotards and witty comebacks, then who is Airline?
“I’m a bit more reserved. I have fun, but I like to blend in. Jujubee’s definitely an extension of who I am – she’s more of a daredevil.”
She proved so popular on season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race – she came in third – that the creators made her a “professor” on a spinoff show, RuPaul’s DragU. In each episode, three women are given drag makeovers and taught to embrace their “inner divas”.
“There are parts that are just satire and just funny, but when you delve really deep into it, these women come in with really personal issues that they don’t want to tackle alone and I thought that was a special thing.
“I think everyone desires to feel as beautiful as they can, and if it takes a bit of makeup and a wig then that’s OK – it all comes off, it can be stripped down. But the feeling of greatness will still be there after it comes off.
“That’s what drag is – it can transcend that iffy line between what a man can be and what a woman can be. It wipes it all away because you have strong powerful men dressing as strong powerful woman. Drag is about celebrating the beauty of a woman.”
While RuPaul promotes a celebratory attitude towards womanhood, the show can also be incredibly bitchy – see the “reading” scenes.
The most important things Charisma taught her, she says, were more than “great makeup and hair ideas” but also “how to be a really nice drag queen.”
“Sometimes you are introduced to ones with way too much attitude, and I didn’t want to be one of those.
“I’m a very direct person, but I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I’m very aware of what people feel. I find that some people spotlight themselves – I’d rather be around everybody. I enjoy people.”
That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover. After her father died when she was 15, she stopped speaking to her mother. They haven’t said a word to one another in 13 years.
“She basically put my sisters and I in a situation where we had to distance ourselves from her. There were a few choices that she made in her life that didn’t seem too appropriate for us. I was always a child who had an adult mindset. When I got to the age that I could speak up for myself and my sisters, I would go and protect my sisters.
“Sometimes in life there are people you should be really close to, but things happen. I think one of my sisters is communicating with her. I forgive her for my sake, but I don’t think I’m gonna restart that relationship.”
It was when the separation was still fresh, just a few years after her father’s death, that she first started performing in drag. Does she see it as an escape from the everyday world?
“It was three years after my dad passed so it definitely brought me back to childhood again – I was imagining this new world.”
If he saw her now, she says, her father would be proud.
When she was a child he gave her pep talks from the front seat while driving her to school.
“He would always tell me to be a great person, that I was smart, I was beautiful and that no matter what anybody said about me, it was OK. As a parent, he obviously knew that I was different from everybody else.
“His friends probably said something, but he always stood up for me because he was my father, and he was a great man.”
She keeps in touch with her Lao heritage and sees her sisters at least once a week.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out the most authentic recipes for Laotian food.”
She looks at her time on Drag Race as “a big soap opera” and Jujubee as a character she loves but will eventually leave behind.
“The whole Jujubee thing is just so much work – I don’t think I could ever be that person, but it’s a fun job. There are so many memories. When I’m an old man, I want to look back and just giggle.”
She won’t take Juju to old age, she says. “I’m not gonna be a drag queen in a walker!” But if she did, “it’d have to be a really sparkly walker.”