This past Friday, RuPaul’s Drag Race crowned its season 12 winner: Jaida Essence Hall. It was a long time coming for the Wisconsin, Milwaukee queen. After starting the competition off strong with a Maxi Challenge win in her first episode, Jaida consistently placed in the top or safe almost every week thereafter. She avoided the bottom for the majority of the season (landing there only once during the penultimate week), and by the time she made it to the top three, she had racked up a total of three wins, just one short of eventual runner-up, Gigi Goode.
At the finale, the competition was stiff, but Jaida had clearly come prepared. After slaying the up-close lip-sync, Jaida gave the most traditional drag show of the three for her at-home performance: a sexy, fishy rendition of Ciara’s “Get Up” that utilized her couch, her floor, and, of course, her gorgeous hair and mug. By the time she got through to the final segment, a three-way lip-sync to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” she seemed to have it all in the bag. Dressed in a striking orange ensemble, Jaida kept audiences entertained with theatrics, poise, and a mid-performance costume reveal. It was a proud moment when RuPaul announced Jaida’s name as America’s Next Drag Superstar, making her one of only five Black queens to win the competition (six if you count Monet X Change’s win for All Stars 4).
Just hours before Jaida Essence Hall received her (virtual) crown, NYLON hopped on the phone with the 32-year-old queen to talk about what it means to win the competition, how her rough upbringing has inspired her rich-girl drag aesthetic, the problems queens of color have encountered on the show, and how it’s felt to join something that really feels like a sisterhood.
You’ve made it to the finale. How does it feel?
It feels amazing. It’s crazy to have a dream and then the dream comes true, and then you make it all the way to the end of that dream. I just have one more step to go. Hopefully, I’ll get the crown.
Did you ever imagine making it this far?
Well, with anything I do, I always put my best foot forward. So even when I got the call that told me, “Hey girl, you’re going to be on Drag Race,” I was like, “Prepare hard because you want to make it to the end.” So I wasn’t really too surprised, but it was a lot of hard work.
Given how much you prepared, would you say the competition was harder or easier than expected?
I think the experience was a lot harder. I prepared for the worst, but somehow, it ended up being harder than I thought. It was still really difficult. The competition is something you can’t really prepare for. You can prepare as best as you can but you have to go in literally expecting almost anything to happen.
You did well throughout the entire competition, except for the one week when you landed in the bottom next to Heidi N Closet. What was going through your mind at that moment?
Me and Heidi had a real pow-wow about it. Heidi was like, “I’m really nervous. I’m going to go home.” And I was like, “Girl, look. If you have to send me home, then girl, that’s what you have to do. But be prepared because I’m ready to send you home.” I was so close to the end and felt like I had to do whatever it takes to stay there. In the moment, I was just thinking, whatever you have to do, make sure you are here until the end.
Do you think being in the bottom that close to the finish line added to the pressure?
Absolutely. I feel like the longer you’re in it, the more you have to lose. When you first get there, we’re all on an equal playing field, but the longer you last in the competition, the more excited you get for it, the sweeter the dream tastes, and the closer it feels. So if you end up in the bottom at that point, it’s like, Oh my God, all the hard work I’ve done is basically null and void if I end up going home.
I know you and Heidi were close. Do you think lip-syncing against a friend is harder?
Absolutely. I didn’t expect to go there and find friends or find sisters. I just thought of it as a competition, where everybody was going to be ready to win. But then you get close to the girls. For Heidi, she was becoming my baby sister in a way, so it was like, Oh my God, not this position. It’s like someone that you love, who you want to help nurture, but then you have to go up against them and that definitely made it more difficult.
You’ve developed a rapturous fan base since being on the show. What has that meant to you?
It’s crazy because I really didn’t expect it. I was like, “Hopefully I’ll find some people who love me from the show, just a cute base of people.” But it’s been so many people that have just been supporting me and loving me and showing up out of nowhere. It makes you feel really grateful — especially with Drag Race, because a lot of times, queens of color don’t always get so much love. But everybody has been showing me so much love. I think that speaks to the fact that maybe people are turning a tide and opening their eyes to different queens. Especially with the style of drag that I do, I think they’re being more open and loving of all styles of drag now.
A few months ago, it was discovered that only certain season 12 queens had been verified on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, the majority of queens who weren’t verified were queens of color, and eventually, several queens from past seasons stepped up to demand justice. How did it feel to get that support from your fellow Drag Race sisters?
The fans were the first ones to notice. They were like, “Oh, these queens are verified and these ones aren’t. Something’s not right.” And then came the Drag Race girls, who were like “Okay, this is not okay.” They spoke about it and then literally the next day we all woke up and were like, “Oh, we’re all verified! What the hell? How did this happen?” It feels so good to know that it really is a sisterhood and there are so many girls that really support all of us. When a new season is ushered in, you know that they’re there to embrace us and make sure that we feel as family as we can.
Due to the pandemic-induced quarantine, this entire season of Drag Race has felt different. Usually, competing queens are booking gigs and going on tours around the world.
I have been. I’ve been touring my living room!
Yes, give us a virtual show! But how has that felt? Does it feel like you’ve been missing out on a crucial part of the experience?
I think it’s a little bit disappointing. I say “a little bit” because I knew from the beginning that it would be important for me to be on the road because I think a lot of people usually attach to me and my personality in person more so than they do over social media because I’ve never really been a big social media person. But because of the way we’ve been having to connect with the fans over social media, I think it’s allowed us to not miss out on the way we would have been able to connect with them on the road. Which is kind of crazy because I would have never expected that from social media. Now, I feel like so much more of a social media...I guess guru? Something like that, even though I still have no idea what I’m doing.
How was it participating in a virtual finale?
Of course we’d want it to be the same [original] way. But at the end of the day, when we look back at all of this years from now, it’ll be like, “Oh my god, I remember when that happened.” There are so many things I remember from when I was a child that, even if they were bad things or good things, it’s almost nostalgic to remember what was happening. I remember that Michelle was making sure that they highlight and showcase the reality of what we’re living through right now. It’s important for people to know that this is really what happened, this is really what we went through, and this is what we’re going through currently. I think it also lets people know that they’re not alone in this. If we had this huge crazy production somewhere — I don’t know how — but if we did something like that, people might be like, “Well, that doesn’t feel genuine.”
I recently saw an Instagram Live video where you were crying about the success you’ve been able to see in your career, particularly as it relates to your “rich woman” drag aesthetic and how that’s a political statement about everything you weren’t able to have as a child. Could you elaborate on that?
The thing is that drag has always been about that. Valentina is the perfect example. She’s always talking about living the fantasy. I think drag literally is that, especially in gay culture. There are so many times when we’ve been forced to be somebody we’re not and hide who we are. But we’ve always found ways to be like, “If we can’t be who we are, we have to secretly find some way to embrace who we want to be.” It’s always been a political statement in that way.
I grew up in a place that was rough. I didn’t have many things. So, for me, it’s not even about a pretty gown. It’s about nice things in general, things that you see rich people on TV with. It’s like, “Well, why can’t I have those things? I wish that this could be my life.” So when I get in drag, my fantasy is of this really rich woman who drives around in a...Mercedes? I think that’s a very rich car! Maybe? But she’s driving around in a rich car surrounded by all these beautiful things. When I’m in drag, I imagine like, if this was my life, how amazing would it be? I don’t think it’s about being envious and wanting my whole life to be that, but it feels good sometimes to just play dress-up and play pretend. It makes me happy to escape and go somewhere else in drag.
What was your highest high in the competition and what was your lowest low?
Partially, my highest moment was when I went in the bottom two because, in my mind, I’d think it would be my lowest point and be scary to me, but being there showed them how much fight and drive I had to stay in the competition. I think that was really important for me to do.
My lowest point was definitely [my Snatch Game impersonation of] Cardi B. I owe her a lot more than that, but it was enough to get me by, so I’m glad about that!
What would it mean to you to win the competition — particularly as a Black queen competing on a show that, as we’ve mentioned, has not had the best track record supporting queens of color?
I think the show has done a great job in terms of diversity and that sort of thing. But I think that some people still do look at the show and feel that they don’t see themselves represented. I think I bring something different to the show. We all bring something completely different. But from me, coming from a really, really rough neighborhood with a really, really rough past, it will prove to people that, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you honestly can make something of yourself. I’ve taught myself how to sew and how to do makeup. Almost everything in drag that I do, I’ve taught myself from nothing. So I think it will send a message that, no matter who you are, if you work hard, you can make things a possibility for yourself. I think that’s a really positive message to send to people across the world.