I won RuPaul's Drag Race when I was 24, and I'm 30 now. It's crazy to me that there was ever a time before Drag Race. Then again, I've been doing drag since I was 15, so it also feels like everything pre–Drag Race was just practice for what life was going to be like after I was given my big break. Or as I like to refer to it, one of my big breaks. My first big break. There will be more to come.
We filmed three endings of that season of Drag Race, so we didn't find out until the night the episode aired who the winner was. I had prepared myself for any outcome, but I felt very confident that day. One of the hardest things about it was that I had grown so close with Alaska and Roxxxy, the other two finalists, that even though I wanted more than anything to win, I was also worried about my two new friends. Knowing how much I wanted it, I could only assume they wanted it just as much.
The night I won, I was thinking about everyone but myself, but I was also freaking out on the inside. Then we performed a show, and I accepted the check and had the crown placed on my head by Michelle Visage, and I sang "I'm the Greatest Star" from Funny Girl for this audience in New York that was going nuts for me. Once it was all done, I got out of drag and went down to the after-party. I met this guy who was performing on Broadway in Chicago. He and I hit it off, and then we had sex in my shower. That's one of my biggest memories of the night. Everyone wanted to party in my room with me afterward, but I had to kick them all out because I was getting banged in the shower.
So I really made the most of my crowning night.
Throughout the filming of that season, I always felt like RuPaul knew exactly where I was coming from. I couldn't make a reference to something without Ru knowing exactly the next reference. If I said a line from Death Becomes Her, Ru always knew what line came next. Even though your time with Ru while you're filming the show is limited, I always felt like: Whatever I know, Ru also knows.
And even though I did well in the competition, lots of critiques came my way. I remember telling Ru at one point: "I don't get it. You guys want me to be myself, but then you also want me to amp it up. I feel like I'm being myself at full capacity right now, and I don't know how to amp it up any more."
And Ru was like: "No one wants you to change. Everyone just wants to see you be the most fully realized version of yourself." A lot of that had to do with superficial things like my makeup and my styling, as you know if you've seen the show. It's funny, because for years I had drag queens telling me, "Oh, this is how you do your makeup, but this is how you could do your makeup better." But I'd insisted on doing it my way. It wasn't even so much that I thought I was doing it the best I could possibly do it. It was more like: "No, I've decided that my character is kind of scary looking, or my character is kind of weird, and this is how it's got to be, otherwise it's not Jinkx."
Ru said to me: "Don't you think that's maybe you putting up a wall a little bit? You not wanting to let people in? Because if people are telling you that something about this is off-putting, or that they can't see past your weird outfit, there might be something there. How can you remain yourself, while also taking it to 100 percent, while also letting people in?"
All of that combined is when something just clicked in me. I think you can see the turning point in the show, the point where I realize: "Oh, these people are honestly just asking for my best work. They're not trying to change me." I went to Cornish College of the Arts, and everything I learned in art school kicked in at that one moment. In art school, you learn it does not matter the amount of work you put into something, or what your intentions were—none of that matters because all the audience gets is what they see onstage.
Other artists make this mistake all the time. When I see someone get bad reviews in a show or some criticism, and they say, "This reviewer doesn't know that I actually went to the real person that this character is based on! I went to their house! I got to know them! My performance was spot-on! Blah blah blah blah," I can't help but think: "Of course we don't know that. Because that was your job as the actor. Our job as the audience is to see what was put onstage in front of us and then tell you if it was effective or not."
So your justifications, your excuses, all of the background work you put into it doesn't really matter. All that matters is what we get out of what you put onstage. You can see in my journey on Drag Race when that snaps into place. I just go on an upward climb from there. And I've tried to maintain that in my work since Drag Race. Rather than thinking about how my ego is involved, I think instead about whether or not I'm being effective, and whether or not my audience is getting the message I want them to get.
For years, I never really got to interact with RuPaul when it was both of us just being ourselves. I was always in drag, or Ru was in drag, or we were both in drag. And there was always an audience, and if there wasn't an audience, there were producers or camerapeople.
I've gotten to interact with Ru a little bit for the season finales, but even during our little moments talking to each other onstage for the rehearsals, or at the filming for the finales, there were all these eyes on us.
After my season, my musical collaborator Major Scales and I took our show The Vaudevillians to New York, and Ru did come to see it, and we got to talk a little bit backstage. But even there, I was in full drag and I'd just done a show, so my guard was still up. Ru was giving me his opinions on The Vaudevillians, his opinion on my work for the first time ever where it wasn't in a competitive arena.
He loved The Vaudevillians. He went on and on about how it was not only hilarious but also smart, how you could tell that we had put years and years of work into it, and that even though it was such a stupid premise, a stupid joke, that the intelligence we possess was evident in the performance. I was so grateful to hear that. But like I said, we only had like five minutes to talk, and it felt like we were rushing through this conversation.
Just last year, I got to be a guest on RuPaul's podcast with Michelle Visage, What's the Tee? It was the first time ever that I got to hang out with Ru where neither of us was in drag and there was no audience. It was just me and Ru and Michelle. Michelle and I have grown really close over the years, and Michelle's daughter and my assistant Kenny were hanging out in the next room. But before we sat down to do the podcast, it was just me and Ru and Michelle having an actual conversation.
I was so nervous leading up to this, because I knew this was going to be the first time in my life when I actually got to just sit and talk with Ru as two people, not as two performers. I mean, even though Ru and I have known each other for years, our interactions have been so sparse and so performative. Anyway, I walked into the room and I felt like Ru was treating me like a friend he's known for years, and talked to me like a person he hangs out with every day. He was just so personable.
And you know what really fucking impressed me? I don't have eyebrows anymore, because I shave them off for drag. But for special occasions, I paint on boy brows—you know, day brows. I had painted on day brows, and RuPaul was like: "Your eyebrows look really nice, what is that?"
"Anastasia Beverly Hills," I said.
"Oh, Anastasia!" Ru said. "So it must be Brow Palette 108, and that color is granite, right?"
And I was like: "Yeah, that's it!" It was amazing. Ru knew the exact name of the color and the brand that I use. I remember that because, you know, everyone talks about how Ru doesn't do his own makeup or make his own costumes. But that doesn't mean he's not 100 percent invested in every aspect of it, or that he's not self-curating everything, even as he's hiring people to do the legwork. So while Ru is an amazing businessman, at the end of the day, he's still the queen of all drag queens.
I get asked all the time about Ru's statement about the Drag Race rule that it's not a competition for trans women. I think so many things about it. But I don't think Ru is transphobic.
It reminds me of that joke that Ellen DeGeneres made about Liza Minnelli at the Oscars in 2014. Liza was in the audience, and Ellen was the host, and Ellen pointed to Liza and said, "Liza Minnelli's here. You look lovely tonight, sir." And people said they thought it was transphobic.
I just thought it was a tired, played-out joke that would exist in the queer community. To say Liza Minnelli looks like a drag queen is tired, you know? It didn't read to me as offensive. And when I made that comment, I had people tell me: "If you're not part of the trans community, you can't have an opinion about how we should feel about this joke."
That was the thing that led to me coming out as trans.
I wrote back to that person and said: "You don't know my own gender identity. I actually do identify as trans, I just haven't felt the need to come out publicly." And that person said something like, "If you identify as trans, we need more advocates out there."
This was about five years ago. This was before the current-day conversation we're having about trans issues. I remember that person basically said: "You may not think it's important to come out personally, but you're already such a big public figure and you're already such an advocate for our community. We can use all the help we can get to help people to understand."
We didn't always have words like "nonbinary" and "gender nonconforming" ready to go. Back then, those words weren't being publicly used and accepted, like they are right now. My big fear of coming out as gender nonconforming is that it would seem like I was trying to take credit for being trans when I haven't been through the same struggle, the same journey, as my trans family has been through. I haven't done any transitioning steps, I haven't taken hormones, and I haven't changed my body. I didn't think it was fair of me to claim this word if I hadn't been through what other trans people had been through.
But this other person enlightened me, saying: "You know, we all go through our own journey, and if you open up and start talking about it, more people will realize that not every journey is the same, but they're all valid." So I did start carefully talking about my gender identity.
Nowadays, I won't shut up about it. Nowadays, I talk about it at the drop of a hat. It's in all of my shows I write. It's on the album I just released earlier this year, The Ginger Snapped.
The biggest thing I'm trying to teach is that the word "gender" was created by humans. The importance of that word is the importance we humans put on it. So if we created the word, and we assigned the importance to it, then we can also redefine the word and take the importance away. It's up to us as a culture and as a society to redefine the word and make it less important, and to stop putting so much importance on the idea of male versus female and gender being a binary system. People think that because "gender" is defined in a dictionary somewhere, that means it's the law. But we're the ones who created that word.
Anyway, I didn't see Ellen's joke as transphobic. I saw it as tired and played out. And if you're in the queer community, and you live around queer people, and you have a queer family, and you spend all your time with drag queens and gay guys and lesbians and bi people and trans people, you're going to make certain comments and jokes because you have a history of being part of that kind of community. But if you say it publicly, and there's a bunch of people who don't have the same history as you, that's when it gets put under scrutiny.
I think that's why people have to be more conscious of what they're saying, not so much that they have to censor themselves at every step, but they have to remember that not everyone comes from the same educational background or has the same history as you.
I said the same thing about the whole Drag Race controversy a few years ago over the part of the show where RuPaul used to say, "Oooh, girl, you've got shemale." If you watch the show, you know they eventually changed it from "Oooh, girl, you've got shemale" to "Shedonealreadydonehadherses," which cracks me up. It's almost like they asked Ru to change it, but Ru was like: "Okay, I'll change it, but now it's going to be the most ridiculous thing I can think of."
When you hear Ru talk about where "Shedonealreadydonehadherses" is from, it's such an obscure reference from such a small moment of Ru's life, and now it's a big thing. The reason I think it's a good thing they changed it from "shemale" to "Shedonealreadydonehadherses" is that the Drag Race audience is no longer just queer people. Our audience is everyone, basically. There are all kinds of different demographics watching Drag Race now. They don't all have the same history.
So two drag queens, one trans and one male bodied, saying the word "tranny"? Honestly, that's just normal in our community. Because drag queens have also always been trans women. In every bar I've ever performed in since I started doing drag at 15, there were drag queens who were male bodied, and there were drag queens who were trans women, and there were drag kings who were trans men, and there were drag kings who were female bodied. We've always been working together. We've always been one community together.
So drag queens did say the word "tranny," because they were hanging out with trans women who said the word and we all just used that word in our shared dressing room. But when you leave the dressing room, and you're now in public, and your audience and the people around you don't have the same history and education as you? That's when I think: Okay, stop using the word. Everyone is now part of this conversation, and we don't want people from outside the family to use our word flippantly, with no history or context.
The public space has changed from what it used to be, and drag has gone from underground to mainstream in the last 10 years in a way I don't think we ever predicted. In doing that, we have to let go of certain things that don't work with a larger audience.
Ru has been in the community for so long, and I think Ru sometimes forgets that his audience doesn't have the same history as him. Sometimes he uses language that works for him and his best friends, and we can't tell them to stop thinking that way or speaking that way with each other, but we can ask to evolve the conversation and adapt it to be more appropriate for the community at large.
I want RuPaul's Drag Race to include trans contestants because they've always been part of the drag community. I've always known trans female drag queens. We've always commingled with each other in the drag community, so to exclude them from a show that's about drag doesn't make sense to me. At the end of the day, the show is about drag. It's not about gay men. It's about drag queens.
Ru retracted a statement he made about trans contestants after seeing the backlash. The funny thing is, I don't think Drag Race was trying to be malicious. They've had so many people from that show come out as trans who are still part of the drag community. I think they just thought they were going to have to rethink the whole formula.
My favorite comment was from Trinity "The Tuck" Taylor. She said, "For years, I've competed against trans women in drag pageants. Sometimes I win, and sometimes they win. But the drag pageant is a pageant about drag, not about who has real boobs and who has foam boobs." I do believe we're going to see trans individuals on Drag Race really soon.
Meanwhile, let's start creating more trans programming for us, by us, so that Drag Race doesn't have to be the one program that speaks for everyone in our community. Because no one thing should ever have to speak for everyone. To ask that Drag Race be a voice for every single person in the queer community is impossible, and it's not a good idea.
That's why I'm so excited that the Ryan Murphy project Pose is doing well. It is telling a story from the trans perspective, and my friend Lady J is a writer on that. I'm so glad that it's a trans story being told by trans people.
About a year before recording the album The Ginger Snapped, I told Major Scales that I needed a song that talks about gender, that explains that my gender is both male and female, and that I don't really care if you see me as a man or a woman, as long as you know that I'm both at all times. I exist in the in-between.
The track is called "Just Me," and everything mentioned in it has actually happened to me. Because I'm touring all the time—at this moment, I'm in the UK doing a run of sold-out shows—I'm in airports a lot. I go through TSA scanners several times a week.
One of the worst experiences I've had at a TSA checkpoint was in Seattle, of all places. I was just dumbfounded that this happened. The TSA agent thought that I was female bodied, so she scanned me as a female. I came out and saw the screen, and there was a big yellow blob at my crotch.
"So what's there? What's going on there?" she asked.
"That's my penis," I said.
She and her coworker went, "That's your penis?!"
And I went, "Yes, I can see right here by looking at the screen that you scanned me as a woman, and I'm actually male bodied, and that's my penis, and that's what the scanner is detecting."
And the TSA agent went, "YOU'RE A MAN?!" loudly and incredulously. "We're going to have to scan him again, he's a MAN, apparently!" Of course, this was in front of everyone in line. And then she said to me: "We're going to have to re-scan you because you have a groin anomaly."
I said: "I don't have a groin anomaly. I have a penis. If you would have asked me how I should be scanned, I would have been forthright about that." Not only did this person misgender me, scan me the wrong way, and not apologize, but then she acted like I was the jackass. The gall of having a penis. Why don't we just ask the person how they should be scanned? Why doesn't the person being scanned have any say in how they're being scanned?
Anyway, there are more stories like that on "Just Me." After I released the video, I got all these people saying, "How dare you attack RuPaul this way when you owe your success to RuPaul." And I thought: I really don't see how releasing a video about my ideas on gender politics has anything to do with RuPaul. Plus, why are you acting like I haven't spent years giving RuPaul props and thanking RuPaul publicly?
I give RuPaul all the credit for what she has done for the drag community, and I always make sure my fan base knows that. And it goes both ways. Ru has always been gracious about promoting my albums. In fact, the very last voice you hear on The Ginger Snapped is RuPaul's. That's because, even though the album isn't about Drag Race, I do acknowledge the fact that Drag Race is where my career really began.
My career at large, anyway. Before that, I was content with where my career was going in Seattle. Jerick Hoffer the theater actor was having success, and Jinkx Monsoon the drag performer was having success. But I also knew that I've had certain aspirations since before I could walk. I've always known where my heart lies and what my goals are. When I auditioned for RuPaul's Drag Race, it was because I had decided: I'm going to take this first big leap of faith to try to accomplish that.
Getting to experience the success that I've had has been meaningful to me because I've also been able to infuse my politics and my beliefs into everything I do. Obviously, I love performing and I love being onstage. I'm really happy making my living doing that. I'm happy that I can support myself as an artist. I didn't get into this career to be an advocate, but it is the best added bonus.
I'm forever grateful for my time on Drag Race. In many ways, Ru has been like a mother to me—but more importantly, he's been a friend. He truly inspires pride within me because of his punk-rock drag-queen mentality, and the way he's taught me to not give shits about what people think—something all of us can never be reminded of too much.
For an interview with Jinkx Monsoon about success, jealousy, mental health, the queer community, her new digs in San Francisco, and the house she bought in Portland and turned into an Airbnb called Monsoon Manor, click here.
• The above essay appears in the 2018 Queer Issue as "That One Drag Queen." See also: “That One Serial Killer” by Dan Savage, "That One Roommate" by Christopher Frizzelle, “That One Parent" by Jing Jing Wang, “That One Writer” by Sophia Stephens, “That One Filmmaker” by Chase Burns, “That One Coworker” by Trisha Ready, “That One Teacher” by Katie Herzog, “That One Radical Faerie,” by Marc Castillo, “That One Songwriter,” by Eli Sanders, "That One DJ" by Charles Mudede, and “That One Spouse” by Natalie Wood.