Exit Interview: Denali On Getting Cut From 'RuPaul's Drag Race'
The season 13 queen on the ups and downs of her time on the show.
Every week, NYLON writer Michael Cuby will conduct an exit interview with the queen eliminated from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 13. This week, Denali was asked to sashay away.
Most queens sashay into the Werk Room. Denali, on the other hand, glided in. Chicago’s self-described “Ice Queen,” the competitive figure skater entered the Werk Room on ice skates and quickly branded herself with a catchy slogan: “I am icy, spicy, and a little bit dicey.”
From there, the Alaskan-born queen continued to impress. After kicking things off with a banger verse and an even better dance routine to a remix of RuPaul’s “Phenomenon,” Denali won her first challenge, solidifying herself as an early frontrunner. Even when she landed in the bottom the following week — for the first real episode of the season — Denali turned it around by delivering an all-time iconic lip-sync to “100% Pure Love” by Crystal Waters. Before anyone had even left the competition, Denali had already earned the title of this season’s lip-sync assassin.
For a while, her steady upward trajectory seemed to be heading towards an eventual second win. However, last week, when Denali was paired with Olivia Lux for the season’s token makeover challenge, their differences in aesthetics failed to mesh and both landed side-by-side in the bottom. In their lip-sync to “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary, Denali undoubtedly brought some of her trademark energy. But in the end, she was no match for the body-twirling, hair-flipping, attitude-giving Olivia Lux, who ultimately sent her packing.
Ahead of her elimination, NYLON hopped on the phone with Denali to talk about landing in the bottom for something that wasn’t entirely her fault, feeling underestimated and overshadowed by her fellow competitors, developing a new fan in Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, her flirty crush with Rosé, and why she’s proud to be an inspiration for other small-town kids from Alaska.
What would you say went wrong leading up to your elimination this week?
Let’s see. I would say adaptation. I think adapting to what is thrown at you is definitely one of the most difficult things about Drag Race. At the end of the day, we were working with a lot of moving factors, and this challenge really epitomized a lot of them. One big thing that a lot of girls maybe don't know about Drag Race is that it's really important to bring a lot of extra drag, because again, anything can happen while you're there. So it's really important to have backups.
Rewatching the season as I'm back home now, I definitely think I could have pushed the look game a little bit stronger — especially considering that [the makeover challenge] is such an important challenge that solely focuses on the look aspect. If you give me a dance challenge, a performance challenge, a challenge about something I’m rooted in or that’s who I am as a person, I know that I'll be able to slay that. But sometimes, drag is about elevating that look and really pushing it there, and I think I could've pushed it a little bit harder this season with my own personal looks. I think that's where I went a little bit wrong with this challenge.
It's interesting that you say that. First off, I think you've had some great looks this season. But also, I think a large part of you ending up in the bottom this episode was because of your partner. The judges lodged a lot more of their critiques against Olivia’s makeover of you than your makeover of her. Was it difficult to accept that you were going to be up for elimination for something that was slightly beyond your control?
It definitely was really heartbreaking. There was a real fire and light in my eyes when I was in the bottom for that first challenge, because when you feel like it's your own responsibility, there’s a sense of fight that you really have in you. For episode four, with “100% True Love,” I remember looking up in the lights right before I was about to lip-sync and saying, "You're going to give this your everything. You're going to slay this because you're in the bottom on the very first episode. Historically, this is not a good position, because the very next episode, you might be going home. So you have a lot more to prove than just winning this lip-sync. You have to prove to everybody in this room right now that you are a real competitor."
But when this episode happened, there were so many factors I felt really out of control of. It’s not that I was defeated or anything, but my mind was just a lot more blank because I was just really tired. I think it was just a really hard pill to swallow. There wasn't that same sense of presence as the first time. I'm not deflecting responsibility in any way — I know that my makeover also could have definitely been a lot stronger. But there is a sense of fight that could not really be attached to the responsibility, if that makes sense.
Well, that first lip-sync has gone down in Drag Race herstory as one of the best ever. It was an instantly iconic moment, which I know you're probably proud of. But you also had to compete against fellow Chicago queen Kahmora Hall, who I know was a close friend of yours prior to the competition. Was it hard to go against someone that you knew so well?
Yeah, it was devastating. I think there's a tiny, tiny clip right after I stand up from the end of the lip-sync. We're looking at each other and Ru announces that I'm safe. I give her a hug, and I remember walking to the back and there's a tiny clip in the actual episode where you can hear me begin to tear up. So many people online are like, "Oh, a boost of serotonin for me today! Yas! Work, queen!" And that's what I do. I can turn it out and put on a good show. But immediately after, I did get very emotional because, again, it was my good friend, Kahmora.
It’s never really a nice feeling sending girls home. Lip-syncing for your life and having to entertain to secure your position in a reality television-style format is actually a really difficult mental place to be in. You have to be a true professional to be able to set your feelings aside and put on a good show. Actually, what a lot of people don't know is that, right after [Kahmora] was sent home, we were all held for a moment and I just broke down. It was a lot of emotion all at one time and it was really difficult. I respect and love Kahmora Hall more than you can even imagine. One of the reasons I moved to Chicago was for that generation of drag that really inspired me. She’s forever an absolute legend and I'm so grateful to be able to call her a sister.
A few weeks ago in Untucked, you got frustrated because you felt like people weren't listening to you or giving you space to talk. In general, this cast is particularly expressive and opinionated, so I understand that. But why do you think you were the one being drowned out?
I'm an Aries, so I'm very sensitive to feeling overlooked. I love being on stage, I love being in the spotlight. But a huge thing that I was looking forward to [on Drag Race] was [finding] a sense of community, especially considering how tumultuous it has been with the pandemic. So I was really excited for this new experience to build these friendships and whatnot. But from the first episode on, considering how the structure of our season went, it was really difficult to gain the respect of the queens. So that episode, I was like, "I feel like I'm doing well in the competition. I don't really understand the judges' judging at times." I was so grateful to be safe, but I think that emotion came from still not feeling respected by the other queens, feeling talked over, and feeling overshadowed — even when I was in one of my favorite outfits, the chandelier.
And granted, girl, it was a lot of emotion for being safe. Watching it again, I was like, "You need to calm down." But when you feel something on RuPaul's Drag Race, you feel every fiber of it. You feel it so intensely because that environment is so intense. So I don't regret that moment of emotion because it truly showed my passion for what I was doing and how I wanted to feel like I was being noticed. But the fans have really replaced a lot of that pain and [healed] the wounds that were developed from Drag Race. The fans have just been incredible. After that episode, I was flooded with messages that were just saying things like, "Hey, Denali, we see you. We love you. We love your art. We appreciate who you are. We listen to your [Instagram] Lives." Things like that. The engagement from the fans has really helped a lot of that.
Speaking of the fans, you have a new one in Nicole Scherzinger. You lost your first episode lip-sync to Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up,” but you redid it — on actual ice, at that — and the video went viral. All of the Pussycat Dolls, including Nicole, reposted it.
That was an absolute gag. I mean, I’m a homosexual man — which doesn't totally mean that I'm a fan of Pussycat Dolls, but let's just say that I am a fan of Pussycat Dolls. So to not only be shouted out by every single member, but [also by lead singer Nicole Scherzinger]... No shade to the others, but when Nicole herself shouted it out on Twitter, that was a huge deal. It was really validating.
Those first few episodes of Drag Race really did make me feel a bit othered. I think the structure of our season was a tough one because it did “other” a portion of the cast from the beginning. We had an even tougher fight to really push through this narrative that we were “B-Squad” or that we were losers in some way. But I've been doing content-creation for a long time. So right when I got home, I was like, "Okay, we are not going to let this narrative continue." Some of the most positive reactions that I've gotten from fans is, "Wow, she's really taking control of her narrative." And that is exactly what my mission was after Drag Race. I was like, "You're not going to label me a loser. You're not going to label me a bad lip-syncer." The content is doing exactly what I intended for it to do: rewriting my narrative and taking control of my story.
I must ask about the relationship between you and Rosé. How did that develop? Was it nice to find someone who could be both a close friend and a playful, flirty crush?
Yeah. It was really, really nice. With Rosé, there was just something about her energy — right from the beginning, in the Porkchop Lounge, when we saw each other. I had already met her sisters, Jan and Lagoona [Bloo], and immediately got on with them. So I figured that once I met Rosé, I would probably get along with her too.
But that conversation that happened in Untucked, when Rosé grabbed my hand and was giving me a pep-talk before the lip-sync… Well, this is what I do love about RuPaul's Drag Race — as much of a pressure cooker of an environment as it is, it really does embody the human experience. So in that moment, it was so nice, with all these moving things around us and all of this craziness, to feel a sense of humanity from somebody. It was just so meaningful because I hadn't felt like somebody had looked into my eyes and said, "Hey, I believe in you." That meant the world to me and it set the precedent for our friendship. Then, anytime that we were both doing well, it was just really nice to share those moments with her. A lot of my significant moments on Drag Race happened with Rosé, and I hold her very near and dear to my heart. And yeah, thank god she's a cute boy too. I could be like, "Oh, not only are you a friend, but you're not too bad to look at either."
You're here representing both Chicago drag and Alaskan drag. Do you think you made your cities proud?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. A huge goal of mine was to give back to the community that raised me, so basically, there really wasn't an option. I think I spent enough time [on the show] and did some really great things to make them proud. Chicago knows me as a performer, and I think when they saw that lip-sync, they were like, "This is quintessential Denali, and we're really proud to see her doing this on the main stage of Drag Race, even though it was against a fellow Chicago queen.”
But I definitely feel like I've made both of my cities proud. Coming from a small town like Alaska, I've had multiple kids reach out to me, just being like, "Hey, we saw that you could do it too. I'm a little kid from Wasilla or from Anchorage, and I never thought that somebody could get out and really do something with their life." Sometimes, that small-town syndrome can really get to you as a kid. If you're a dreamer like me, it can feel really restrictive. So I'm really, really blessed and proud to have done what I've done, and then also to have touched other people that are feeling that same sort of sentiment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.