Every week, NYLON writer Michael Cuby will conduct an exit interview with the queen eliminated from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12. This week, Georgia queen Aiden Zhane was asked to sashay away.
As a queen from Acworth, Georgia (population: 22,000), Aiden Zhane is the rare Drag Race competitor to enter the show without any real experience performing in bars. Instead, the self-described "spooky queen" has spent the better part of the past eight years doing drag from the comfort of her bedroom, where she has crafted a difficult-to-categorize aesthetic that is "equal parts cartoon, colorful, dark, horror, all sort of mixed into one." Unfortunately for the 29-year-old, her lack of on-stage experience (coupled with her playfully amateur style) easily pigeonholed her as the season's underdog. She was frequently underestimated by everyone in the competition and, even during weeks where she performed relatively well, many thought she didn't belong there. It's a mentality that could easily shake anyone's confidence in their art, but for someone as admittedly introverted and prone to self-doubt as Aiden, it could prove fatal.
Such was the case last week during the all-important Snatch Game celebrity impersonation challenge. Opting to portray Patricia Quinn, best known for playing Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Aiden could have found a character right up her alley. But instead of referencing that queer cult classic, the small town queen settled on Quinn's late-in-life persona, resulting in a performance that relied too heavily on not knowing where she is along with references to past heavy drug use. Many of her jokes failed to make Ru or the guest judges (Mean Girls' Jonathan Bennett and Daniel Franzese) laugh, and ultimately, she landed in the bottom, where she was forced to go head-to-head with her arch nemesis Brita in a lip-sync to "Let It Go" that ended with literal snow pouring down onto the stage. Aiden gave it her best shot, but in the end, she was overshadowed by Brita's Broadway divaness and was sent packing.
In the lead up to last week's episode, NYLON hopped on the phone with Aiden Zhane to talk about competing as an underdog, what serial killer she might have played in the Snatch Game, and why she thinks she shares a few things in common with Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon. Most importantly, the native Georgian finally set the record straight on why she decided to take a nap while other queens were hard-at-work preparing for The Ball Ball.
What do you think went wrong in this challenge?
Snatch Game is that one challenge that I think the queens place a lot of pressure on. You know it's coming every season and you know that it's a difficult challenge, so I think a lot of girls go into it with a lot of weight on their shoulders, just thinking, I have to do well in this challenge. I cannot mess this up. So that, in itself, is enough to scare anybody into doing terribly.
Was Snatch Game something you were dreading or were you looking forward to it?
Celebrity impersonation has never been my forte so it wasn't really something I was necessarily looking forward to. I don't really consider myself to be a comedy queen. I wasn't excited about it at all, but I knew it was going to come and I was just going to give it my best damn shot.
You chose Patricia Quinn because you've met her and had lunch with her. In the end, would you say that connection helped you feel more or less prepared?
I definitely felt completely underprepared in this situation. My backup was [famed serial killer] Aileen Wuornos and, in retrospect, maybe I should have stuck with her. But I went with who I went with. There were a lot of cues that I missed and a lot of things that I didn't do that I could have done. But at the end of the day, that's how the cookie crumbles, I guess.
What was the decision behind not referencing Rocky Horror?
I chose to portray the more current Patricia Quinn, if you will, because, like I said, when I had the chance of meeting her in person, I got to see what a crazy, kooky, hilarious old woman she's become. I just think that version of her now is way more funny than her in the earlier years. She was a little bit more normal in the earlier years compared to how she is nowadays.
You've been pegged as an underdog since first coming on the show. How did it feel to be underestimated by your competitors?
We've seen it time and time again on Drag Race. We've seen queens like Sharon [Needles] and Jinkx [Monsoon] sort of rise above it. You can see that it definitely affected them on the show as well, but they were able to push through it. It makes things harder. It really does. I can't sit here and say that it doesn't. Nobody likes to be judged. Nobody likes to be made to feel like they're not good enough or whatever. It definitely puts an even bigger strain on you in this competition, and I was somebody that let it affect me. I was somebody who went into this competition already feeling insecure with myself, and I let those insecurities get to me.
Sharon and Jinkx were obviously approaching drag from a different perspective than their competitors, but I think they were able to push through because they were personally assured in what they were doing. What made you decide to come on a platform like Drag Race if you were still feeling insecure in your abilities?
I, believe it or not, have been doing drag for around eight years or so. It's been a long process, a long struggle, and I had just reached a point in my life where I decided, you know what, it's either all or nothing. I was like, I've been doing drag for so long and I'm still in my damn bedroom. I felt that it had to be either "I take this all the way" or "I don't do it at all" — and that was it for me. So I did exactly that. I took it all the way. I knew that, at the end of the day, it was going to go how it was going to go and I just hoped for the best and tried to do my best.
Coming from your bedroom, you're a little less equipped to handle certain things than other girls might be.
You come from a very small town in Georgia, in an area where there are literally no gay bars. However, there's a philosophy that queens can come from anywhere and still do well in this competition if they have the necessary drive. Do you think coming from an isolated place put you at a disadvantage or do you think it all stemmed from confidence?
Well, one thing I wanted to prove with my time on the show is that you can definitely come from anywhere and be successful and make something of yourself. It doesn't matter who you are, what your background is — if you want it, fucking make it happen. So I definitely wanted to impart that message on the show. I don't know if it was conveyed in the right way that I wanted it to be necessarily, but what I tried to impart onto the other contestants while I was there was that, when you come from a bigger [town] and have bigger experiences, I feel like you're a little more equipped to handling these kind of situations. You're used to being on a stage. You're used to being in front of these audiences. You're used to doing these things. Whereas when you come from your bedroom, you're not used to that. It's a weird situation for any of the girls on the show because it's something new for all of us, but I definitely feel that coming from your bedroom, you're a little less equipped to handle certain things than other girls might be.
Drag Race is obviously a competition, but for many queens, the show can be as much a bonding experience as anything else. However, in your case, there's clearly been a sense of "me vs. them" mentality between you and the other queens (especially with last week's pile-on in Untucked). Do you feel you missed out on the bonding aspect or were you able to form some solid connections before leaving the show?
Well, I'm definitely an introvert. I'm an introvert who can play extrovert when I need to. So that's already something that makes that bonding experience tougher for me. But with the situation being what it was, I did leave the show without having really made any true, real connections with any of the other girls. It wasn't until after filming the show that a lot of us got to spend more time with each other and got to know each other more. Luckily, in this day and age, we're all friendly with each other, we all talk. But definitely while I was on the show, that didn't happen.
Chief among that drama was the beef between you and Brita, which had been ongoing for several weeks and came full-circle when you had to lip-sync against her. Did that moment feel like a showdown that was a long time coming?
Honestly, I never even thought about it like that. To really be honest, I didn't even consider it like, Oh, of course I'm going to lip-sync against Brita, of all people. Obviously, watching the show back you see that dynamic more. But all I remember is that I was in the bottom two and that was all I was thinking about. Just, oh shit, I'm in the bottom two and I've got to make this happen.
Your fellow queens had been underestimating you from the beginning, but I think the idea that you should go home really kicked into gear after you took a nap while preparing for The Ball Ball challenge. How do you think that one thing impacted your standing amongst the queens moving forward?
It spiraled out of control! In that challenge, specifically with the whole nap situation, I was the first girl done with my outfit, as you saw — and regardless of the way it was perceived by the other girls, it wasn't for a lack of trying or caring or effort. When you're in these situations...you know, this competition is made to be high stress and mess with your head. I remember looking at my outfit, racking my brain trying to figure out what way I could make it more because that was my fear, that it was going to be too simple. But in my head, at the time, all I was thinking was, If I add more stuff and I'm not sure of what I'm adding, am I going to be adding things just to add things and end up ruining what I already have? In my mind, I decided I would rather walk down the runway in something cute but simple rather than not cute at all. Looking back, there are things that I probably could have done to change it up and make it look even better. But you know what? It's a competition, and at the time, my mind was where it was and those things were not coming to me. So I took the last bit of our time that we had to make outfits and I decided, alright, this is what I'm doing and I feel confident in it and I quit this. So I took that damn nap!
Speaking of competitions, the general understanding for them is that if a competitor messes up one week and manages to stick around, they'll get to start with a clean slate the following week. However, it seems like your nap followed you, no matter what you did. You were safe the following week for "Gay's Anatomy" and yet...
Yeah, it was never about one specific challenge for [my competitors]. That was something that they could use at that moment because it was something that anchored them at that moment. But at the end of the day, it was an overall feeling of me not being on their level. I feel like a lot of girls didn't think I was on their level in general just based on the garments I brought with me to the show, or my experience level, or whatever it might be. I feel like that played a factor in all of that.
Drag Race doesn't only celebrate one type of drag, but they clearly favor some while denigrating others. What does it feel like to compete on a show with an outsider aesthetic amongst judges and fellow competitors who just might not "get" what you're offering?
Good question. [pauses] Being the outsider...while I was competing, it wasn't really something I thought about. Besides the fact that I was constantly picked out as the weak link by the other girls, and other than letting those things really get to me, I didn't really think about the fact that I was the outsider or that queen or whatever. All I knew was that I came to the show to show what I do — and regardless of what that is, I just wanted to stay true to that to the best of my ability.
Do you think you were able to successfully show the judges, the other queens, and the viewers watching at home what Aiden Zhane is all about?
Yeah. I mean, you don't go onto this show not wanting to win, obviously. So in retrospect, looking back, are there things that I would change or make better or done better or whatever? Sure. But at the end of the day, I think I left my mark, and I think I will leave this competition being remembered. I feel like I left my mark and imparted who I am as a drag queen.