Sasha Velour interviews the “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” star for V, unraveling the cultish appeal of the Smalls World Show.

Sasha Velour interviews the “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” star for V, unraveling the cultish appeal of the Smalls World Show.

Text: Dante Silva

Naomi Smalls has nothing left to prove: she’s become one of the most renowned artists of the twenty-first century through performances on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, cementing her iconography on Ru Paul’s Drag Race: All Stars. As of this writing she’s accumulated some 1.6 million followers on Instagram, and a quick “Naomi Smalls” Google search would return no less than 8,370,000 results. What was once considered esoteric, it seems, is becoming mainstream.

Even her legs have their own disciples, replete with comments such as “I rly want Naomi Smalls to stab me with her left 6 inch heel”. They’re certainly warranted. Picture Naomi Campbell, though a bit taller, and with all the more proweress (if possible). Her bio aptly describes her as a “conceptual drag queen supermodel wannabe”. And yet the ‘wannabe’ feels insufficient, maybe even a bit misleading, because she’s far less concerned with precedent than she is with her own, offbeat inclinations.

Her most recent work doesn’t come as an iteration of an existing phenomenon, nor does it conveniently fit some archetype. The Smalls World ShowNaomi’s independent, eponymous projectdelves into all the possibilities of what could be when one revels amidst the deviant counterculture. And it is, in every way, deviant. For if Camp is dead, has been utterly destroyed and appropriated by our strange, modern culture, then Naomi stands in its wake fully armored.

There’s the démodé sense of style that only exists in the avant garde, performances (even those to rival that one ‘Adrenaline’ lip-sync), and visuals from the more outlandish crevices of Smalls’ own psyche. The sense of difference becomes provocative in and of itself. Sasha Velour—one of Naomi’s muses—puts it most eloquently: “Uniformity is not very interesting or sustainable, it’s boring.”

The 'Smalls World Show' does take inspiration from Velour's Smoke & Mirrors, though entirely reconfigured for the current moment. It’s quite the paradox: there’s an opulence about the project itself, which comes filtered through the lens of digitized mediums, and yet Smalls has never appeared as vulnerable. It’s as if we’re forced to consider; without any semblance of normalcy left to offer, what’s left that’s worth expressing?

While we’re not quite sure of the answer(s), there are certainly more questions left to ask. For V, Sasha Velour interviews Naomi Smalls, unraveling (only slightly) the cultish appeal of the ‘Smalls World Show’. Naomi Smalls appears without the extravagance we’ve become accustomed to, opting instead for a Smoke & Mirrors t-shirt (a puckish nod to Sasha, to be sure). Though it almost feels more intimate, as her infectious smile is on full display.

The conversation is condensed below, and tickets for the 'Smalls World Show' are available here

Sasha Velour I want to dive right into the ‘Smalls World’ and talk about the fashion, first and foremost. You’ve been one of the first people who’ve really shown me that fashion in drag always tells a story; it's not an afterthought, it's not superficial, it’s full of meaning. And there’s so much great fashion in the show, from your Amazonian version of the ‘Birth of Venus’ to Gaga’s ‘Fame Monster’. How do you choose what to put on for a drag performance?

Naomi Smalls I think there’s such a power in being able to let an audience be fully immersed in a world that you’ve dreamt of, and fashion—something so visualis always going to be a huge part of that. It’s definitely something that comes super easy for me, to imagine what I’m going to wear. I do design around 85% of what you see, and I think that’s my favorite part of drag; making it all visually come to life. 

SV I mean, traditionally in drag, you have to create a whole world just with the outfit. And I’ve seen you do that so many times. Like, step on to the stage and the look is so together, what you’re serving actually changes the entire club space. The Naomi Smalls multiverse takes over. I’m obsessed with the—I think it’s a performance look—from the Beyoncé number in the opening. I interpret it as a little kid with a towel wrapped on their head, singing to the mirror. I think that look is so beautiful. The terry cloth robe!

NS The terry cloth robe, or the terry cloth wig, is definitely part of my childhood story. It’s cool to plug that into the Smalls World Show for sure. 

SV Your mom talks about how you used to wrap a tea towel on your head, to become hair. I used to wear a tea cozy as a hat, and I would also wear my mom’s slips on my head, like a white silk slip of lace. A little queen will find anything she can in the house.

NS If it moves it’s hair

SV Even if it doesn’t, in my fantasies. That ties into a theme I wanted to mention; the power of taking a dream you’ve had for a while, and using your own powers and the community around you to bring it to life. In this show you literally go to your childhood home and revisit certain fantasies that you talk about. We see you reenact them and transform them into something modern for your adult self. What did that feel like?

NS I think it’s cool to have a fully realized personal moment. That’s not something I’ve had a huge opportunity to do when I’ve been a part of someone else’s production, or even part of a franchise; you’re always catering to what story needs to be told in a certain amount of time. But having it be so personal, and having it be on my own terms, was refreshing because I knew it was going to come from a place of honesty. 

SV I was going to quote your mother, I even wrote it down; “It’s all about attitude, and when you’re grateful for what you have, you can make do with the rest of it.” I thought that was so on point. I think you and I also connect because we had mothers who supported us as young queer people and who we look to as inspiration for being an ‘adult lady’. Tell me more about your mom.

NS June Heppenstall is the most progressive woman, the most accepting woman. She has really seen it all—she’s been a mom now for nearly 45 years, since she was 19. She always had the drive for wanting a big family, though she didn’t necessarily know how she was going to get it. She did struggle with not being able to have kids, she did struggle with stage 4 cancer, and I think that she—even after being so close to losing her life—she always knew that she wanted to give every baby that she possibly could an accepting, loving home. And she’s also such a powerhouse in California where it was so caucasian, and she adopted a Black baby. I remember she told me stories of people coming up to her in the grocery store and being like “You couldn’t find a white baby?” Something about her loving mind shocked her into reality—the world is not such an accepting place. Though it didn’t stop her from wanting to spread that love and fulfill her dreams.

SV And you, obviously, must have been an extremely special child. You can tell in how she talks about you running around the house—you were always creating a world and putting on a show. I’m curious about the evolution of Naomi Smalls for you, and how she is both connected to and different from Davis.

NS Naomi and Davis definitely share the same brain, but Naomi is constantly teaching Davis a lot about vulnerability. When you’re in drag, and you're dealing with people's thoughts of you that aren't necessarily going to be from a place of love, you really need to build thick skin. That's something that Naomi has been a great tool for, in terms of building my armour up. I still have a huge fear of rejection, a lot of artists do, I just hope a lot of people can connect with what I’m putting out into the world. So Davis is definitely “in charge” I guess, but Naomi is definitely living the fantasy.

SV I feel like Sasha Velour is aspirational, I’m always trying to move towards actually being that. The journey never being quite there is the human condition; never being quite your drag self, for real. You talk about how the ‘Smalls World Show’ is part of the Naomi Smalls multiverse, and I could not stop thinking about that. I wanna know what the Naomi Smalls multiverse is: where is it located, what does it smell like, what does it look like, what are the sounds there?

NS There’s definitely a lot of laughs and definitely a lot of love. I wanna say the ‘Smalls World’ consists of self-confidence, also a lot of passion and dedication to getting people to really hone in on knowing that what they want in this world is possible. You can dress it up whatever way you want to, and if you feel like you're 100% confident with something, that's the best feeling in the entire world. And when you can go into a situation and believe in yourself—I wouldn't trade that for anything. And I feel like Naomi has really got me there. Sometimes I feel I need to hop on that spaceship and visit that planet a little bit more when I'm out of drag. Naomi has definitely opened up a completely different side of my outlook on the world. 

SV It’s radical to believe in yourself, especially for queer people. A lot of times our ambitions get written off as being unrealistic or undesirable, so to present that so strongly as realistic and as beautiful affects people so positively. And that transforms the world for people who don't necessarily have families or mothers to cheer them on and tell them that they can. Being Naomi Smalls makes a big difference.

NS And I hope, through that, I can also inspire people to do the exact same thing in their own life. I also do feel a big responsibility to the kids—you know we have such a cute relationship with our fans, and we wanna do them proud. I think that when we’re watching someone on television or watching someone in the media, we’re looking for that confidence and that drive to believe in yourself, so I definitely take it seriously. It's become a learning experience since starting this when I was so young. I like getting older with the fans and hopefully maturing with the media. 

SV I’m significantly older than you but I still feel like I matured with the fans. And seeing them take things in their life seriously kind of reminds me of how important it is to take the things that I’m doing seriously too. And we’re worthy of taking ourselves seriously—and then laughing at ourselves.

NS I mean you’ve also been a huge learning lesson in how serious to be when you're presenting yourself on stage, or with your content / media. I think that when you take it seriously it’s much easier to take a step back and be proud of your work. 

SV I’ve been freaking out—hearing that it meant something to you and helped you inspire you to create your own stuff is like achievement number 1. That means so much to me. And especially because there are so many tributes to you in the show.

NS You have really changed the science of drag, and changed the science of performance reveals, forever. 

SV Put that on my gravestone, please!

Credits: Images by Sarah Crump and Martin June


VMAS Recap: Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, BTS and more
See our top highlights from this year's televised ceremony.