Aquaria and the New Queer Celebrity Experience
The RuPaul’s Drag Race winner sat down to talk with us about what it’s like to be a queer celebrity in the first moments of LGBTQI+ access to the mainstream.
I called Aquaria on her day off. This was only two weeks after World Pride, so any moment of rest she was getting was very well-deserved. From working the Klarna-sponsored “Looks & Laughs” event to mounting a flamboyant locomotive at the parade, it was a jam-packed New York City weekend for her. “It was definitely all business and a lot of work, but I took a couple of weeks off [after]… Being able to be home, in my closet, and keep things a little more centralized was a nice little treat for myself.” Despite the much-earned recharge, she was still talking to me on a random Thursday afternoon.
“I always wanted the best for myself… I always wanted fame more in the sense of respect, success, and opportunity. Everyone wants to be a superstar because growing up we definitely feel like we’re all not superstars,” she said. Luckily for her, she’s displayed an incredible work ethic towards a demanding career. Drag is intense and all-consuming. Just ask any drag queen how long it takes them to get ready. Elaborate costuming, perpetual routine rehearsals and brush-activated facial reconstruction do not add up to a low-maintenance hobby. For Aquaria, it’s endless: she has been touring the world with “Werq The World” since she won Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and has bagged plenty of high-profile work in the fashion industry.
Take a scroll through her Instagram and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Aside from the stunning photos and face (Aquaria was signed to IMG in 2018), you can tell she’s a magnet for glamorous corporate sponsorships. She gets to be “#proud” in her Calvins, embrace the Viva Glam initiative as a Mac Cosmetics Ambassador and model the “Moschino x Playboy” collaboration for her 1.4 million followers. Reflecting over it all, she says “[Being in campaigns and on runways] is definitely fabulous and fun.” Ask any member of the queer community 20 years ago and they probably couldn’t have predicted the kind of stardom queer people can now enjoy. Especially a gay boy doing drag, dressed as a woman.
As an LGBTQI+ person growing up, I could count the number of queer celebrities I knew and regularly saw on one hand. Being only twenty-three, Aquaria’s experience was very similar to mine. “I was just seeing online one of those Disney shows had a gay couple on it or something like that… I don’t recall growing up with that level of positive representation,” she said. Now, that’s not really the case anymore. Actors and musicians can enter the public eye already out, hiding nothing from their growing fanbases. Celebrities that identify as LGBTQI+ are less afraid to do so publicly. Even the fictional characters we watch on prime TV represent sexual diversity better: 8.8% of series regulars last year were LGBTQI+, an all-time high.
Aquaria noted it’s a lot more than just numbers, “For people who are feeling alone or lost in the world, I think seeing that representation is a lot more assuring than we take it for normally.” LGBTQI+ advocates argue that it’s representation like this that accelerates acceptance in society. Miley Cyrus coming out as genderfluid or Gus Kenworthy kissing his boyfriend at the Olympics matters. When our public figures are truer to themselves, everyday people are more inclined to accept themselves and the people around them.
This rapid influx of queer representation is long past overdue. But for the ones representing, who have been catapulted into a spotlight that was never there, there are some associated growing pains. On the personal side, it’s the privacy. Aquaria talked about recently going to a Carly Rae Jepsen concert in New York and having a hard time enjoying it. She said, “People are very respectful and it’s not like they’re always on my butt all the time… but people can unknowingly create these stories just because they know you.” If she wants to make a funny comment or has to leave early due to overlapping events, it can be taken out of context and blown out of proportion. Every action, no matter how mundane, is interpreted under a different purview.
Sadly, burden seeps into their professional lives too. It’s one thing to be brought into a partnership to laud diversity and bolster your community. It’s another to be tokenized and used to turn a profit. This is something that queer people have to worry about as we proliferate into the mass media. Aquaria quips, “You get to see the companies that want to make the effort or fake the effort.” Companies are every bit as willing to promote LGBTQI+ identities as they are to turn a profit, and it’s become increasingly difficult to determine their true intentions when including queer voices. She’s handled this conundrum well, “I usually don’t involve myself in those kinds of situations. I’m one of those people who says what I’m thinking… if it’s not feeling authentic, then I’ll say it beforehand.” Regardless of her proactivity, there’s still an issue, one some queer stars don’t have the luxury of avoiding.
Despite these tribulations, Aquaria wouldn’t want it any other way, “I’m happy because I get to do what I love to do… but I think it’s really cool that someone else gets to see someone like me and is able to look up to that and find relatability to that.” Even with routine negatives, Aquaria expertly navigates murky waters and steers bad actors in the right direction. She, and queer celebrities like her, are like the Northern star, guiding companies and major media networks through the mainstream ocean. She corrects their course when they deviate from acceptable action and creates a better environment for everyone representing LGBTQI+ people. Along the way, she solidifies herself as a role model, becoming a figure that queer kids can look up to, that kids of the past never had. She said, “I feel like being on earth and doing your role as a human is to make life better for not only yourself and your community, but also the youth. So I feel like we’re going in a much more progressive direction.”
When we talked about our World Pride experiences, Aquaria and I were in unison. She said, “The energy in the city was just so bright… It seemed like a very wholesome Pride—a Pride that really echoed the real meanings of Pride and community.” It truly was palpable. The spirit, the acceptance, and the love all around us was so moving. But it’s not every day when everyone in our near vicinity is expressly voicing their support of our existence. It’s people like Aquaria, covering our billboards and filling our computer screens on the daily, that make us feel that same electric feeling every other month of the year. Of course, no one looks as good as her while they’re doing it.