jinkx monsoon talks the evolution of the art form
Soon in town for a new show, Unwrapped, at the Soho Theatre, we talk all-things drag with season 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon.
Jinkx Monsoon deservedly ended season five of RuPaul's Drag Race with a winner's crown on her head, but her charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent made her stand out from the start. Who can forget her impression of Grey Gardens' Little Edie in Snatch Game, or her soothing mantra "water off a duck's back"? "I thought sooner or later people would get sick of seeing me, that would be it and I would go back to my old life," she tells i-D over the phone from San Francisco, where she's recording a new album with her musical partner Major Scales. "But actually, we really haven't stopped touring since my episodes aired in 2013."
Later this month, she and Major Scales are back in London for an "anti-holiday" cabaret show called Unwrapped. "At this time of year, everyone's supposed to be happy and complacent with being completely force-fed holiday cheer," Jinkx explains. "So with this show, we're looking at the holiday season through a very biting satirical lens. It's a juxtaposition of what's great about this time of year with ways we can poke holes in that, basically." Before she begins Unwrapped, we take the opportunity to ask Jinkx for her thoughts on drag in 2016 and the future of the art form.
You've hardly had a break since winning Drag Race in 2013. How does your workload affect the narcolepsy that we saw you battling on the show?
It's funny because in many ways my schedule is much more intense now and involves a lot more travelling - I can go for days and days with barely any sleep and generally drinking too much. But when you have narcolepsy, the biggest contributor to having the symptoms [manifest] is stress. And so even though my schedule is intense, when I'm loving what I'm doing like I am now, the stress is so much lower. Like, my symptoms were highest when I was in college and trying to balance my classes, my homework, my day job and doing [drag] shows. Then going on Drag Race, I don't know if you can imagine, but the stress was pretty high as well! So the symptoms were much more exacerbated then. But nowadays as long as I keep myself centred and my mind focused and find time to smoke weed here and there, I'm pretty much set.
We're now seeing Drag Race help to bring drag closer and closer to the mainstream - RuPaul even won an Emmy this year. How do you feel about this?
You know, I think the pros outweigh the cons. It's being accepted and integrated into the macro community in a way that drag or any gay-centric form of performance never really. But it's definitely a double-edged sword. Of course we have teenage gay kids watching the show and the occasional teenage straight boy too, but the majority of our fan-base is straight female teenage girls who draw empowerment and inspiration from what we're doing. I think that throws a lot of queens for a loop because their material wasn't created for younger audience members. But at the same time, it kind of challenges us to find ways to make our material more universal and accessible for a wide range of audiences. I myself have not relented with being foul-mouthed or sexually explicit - I'm still absolutely a terror! But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "If so many teenagers are going to draw inspiration from this, I want to make sure I'm not alienating them." That doesn't mean I have to change my content exactly; it means I have to change my thinking as an artist.
On Facebook, you've clapped back at critics who call drag anti-women and trans-shaming. Does it frustrate you that some people still misinterpret drag in this way?
I think with art, you have to look at it from artist to artist. It's not fair to say drag queens are misogynists because you saw one drag queen do a lot of misogynist material with no reverence or satire behind it - that person was just being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole. But the biggest thing that frustrates me is when the people who speak out against drag say, "Drag queens as cisgender men don't have the right to make this comment or that comment." That's based on an extremely false assumption that all drag queens are cisgendered men. Many drag queens don't identify as cisgendered - they identify as gender-fluid, gender-ambiguous or non-binary, and plenty of drag queens are trans women too. So to assume that all drag queens are cisgendered men is discrediting a huge amount of the drag population. And to assume that all drag queens think the same way, well, that's just being a bigot.
With the US election and Brexit especially, this year has been incredibly politically tumultuous. Do you think the purpose of drag changes at a time like this?
Oh, absolutely. I think drag queens are inherently political by nature. To be a man, woman or gender-fluid person who presents themselves with an exaggerated form of femininity, that in itself is subversive and political. So when the political climate is as charged as it is right now, I think it's very, very difficult for drag queens not to make some kind of comment on it. For the last three summers, I've done a show with Major Scales in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and this year, with the election coming up, I would say probably 90% of the drag shows there mentioned or had to do with the election in some way. Our show was based on my thoughts on the election as a queer trans drag queen. The conceit of the show was that I'm someone who's never given a shit about politics, but this year, with the election being what it was, I knew I couldn't sit back and not get involved.
Finally, what do you see as the next evolution of drag?
I think we're starting to see it, but it's going to go much further. I want to start seeing drag queens being incorporated into every medium. Think about the times we've seen a drag queen make it on a straight show like American Idol. More often than not, it's so she can be laughed at or used as some kind of spectacle. And what Drag Race shows us is that drag queens are multi-faceted human beings; no two drag queens are the same, and some of us are very serious, sombre people who aren't clowns at all. So I look at Adore [Delano] as quite the inspiration because people have accepted her as a legitimate pop artist, and not a "drag queen pop artist". The more we can do that, the more drag queens can be integrated into multiple forms of artistry and entertainment, that's the way forward. All of us drag queens are creating legitimate art - we're as much artists as anyone else. Just because we happen to be a guy dressed as a woman doesn't mean it should discredit or belittle what we're doing up there.
Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales: Unwrapped takes place from 21 November to 10 December at London's Soho Theatre.
Text Nick Levine