Every week, NYLON writer Michael Cuby will conduct an exit interview with the queen eliminated from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 13. This week, LaLa Ri was asked to sashay away.
It didn’t take long for LaLa Ri to endear herself to the Drag Race fanbase. In confessionals, the “sensational and dynamic” Atlanta-based queen routinely cracked jokes in rapidfire succession, offering her witty remarks on the happenings of season 13 with a palpable charisma that felt neither rehearsed nor forced. In a season full of big personalities, LaLa managed to stand out amongst her peers. After all, how can you not love someone who proudly describes themself as “an Olive Garden pasta with, like, Popeyes chicken tenders on the top for the razzle-dazzle?”
This charisma frequently benefitted LaLa Ri. During the weekly critiques, she was no stranger to eliciting chuckles from the otherwise stern-faced judges’ panel. And in the Werk Room, it was no secret that she was one of the most beloved queens amongst her fellow contestants — a fact that was explicitly confirmed when the queen broke down in Untucked this week, only to be embraced and showered with words of empowering encouragement by all her competitors.
Unfortunately, when it came time to use that charm in challenges that required it, LaLa struggled. In the “RuPaulmark Channel” overacting challenge, she faded into the background next to her teammates, narrowly missing the bottom thanks to a brilliant runway. And this week, she was once again outshone by her teammates in the “Bossy Rossy: After Dark” improv challenge. Her fierce lip-sync capabilities saved her from elimination once, when her lack of sewing skills landed her in the bottom two next to fellow competitor Joey Jay following the Bag Ball challenge. But when she landed in that same spot again this week, a mere two episodes later, the beloved southern queen was ultimately sent packing by trained dancer Elliott With 2 Ts.
Ahead of her elimination, NYLON hopped on the phone with LaLa Ri to talk about staying prayed up, how the Drag Race fandom has changed their treatment of Black queens in the recent wake of protests against racial injustice, being a “natural fool,” Michelle Visage’s very keen eye, and why she always knew she’d end up in the bottom for a sewing challenge.
In your own words, what do you think went wrong leading up to your elimination this week?
I defeated myself. I got in my own head. I talked about it in Untucked. I feel like I got in my own way. I don't want to say that I gave up, but I did defeat my own self.
It’s funny because I think you quickly became one of the most entertaining queens this season, just in terms of your quick wit and the hilarious commentary you brought to your confessionals. But somehow, in both the overacting challenge and in this improv challenge, you found yourself being outshone by your competitors. Do you know why you failed to translate that natural charisma into the challenges themselves?
Because I felt like I wasn’t trying to be myself in those challenges. I was trying to be something else. I was trying to be perfect instead of just being like, Bitch, let go. Just be you. Have fun! Be the character that you always are, just like you are in the confessionals or in the Werk Room. In my mind, I would say, This is a challenge. I have to take this seriously. But I ended up taking it too seriously and I didn't have fun with it at all. And it just...well, you saw the episode.
Do you feel a certain pressure when you know that you're supposed to be funny?
Yeah. It was the pressure of “I have to be funny.” Like, I'm naturally a fool. But when I had to start thinking about it, it just messed up everything.
You mentioned your moment in Untucked earlier, where you were defeating yourself. But I also wanted to talk about the moment where you opened up about the frustration that came from the judges telling you you weren't giving enough energy. You said, “I’m giving all I can give” but “it’s still not enough.” How long had you been feeling that way?
I was feeling like that for a while. But particularly, in that challenge, I honestly thought that I was giving the energy that was needed for that particular character. But I haven't seen the episode yet, so I really don't know. But in that moment, I did feel like I was giving it the [necessary] energy and I was like, "Well, what are you guys talking about? Did y'all not see what I felt?" So in that particular challenge, I was a little frustrated from those comments.
You also mentioned feeling mentally and emotionally drained. When it comes to reality TV, especially in a competition format, many people reach a similar point of immense pressure. For you, was competing on Drag Race harder than you were initially expecting? Or did you come here expecting to reach a point where you were drained?
It's definitely hard. I expected it to be hard. But it was way harder than I expected. Just being away from home, from my family, [the fact that] we were in a pandemic and dealing with the whole racial injustice situation — all of that was playing in the back of my mind. I was concerned about my family because of the whole racial uprising things that happened near my home. There were just a lot of things in the back of my head.
Then, I’m being judged and critiqued every week. The judges never told me that I was a horrible person or a horrible queen. They always ended with something good. However, when you're being critiqued and feeling like you're less than what you thought you were before you got there, it’s just... Drag Race really will really open your eyes and show you what you really are.
This episode, you talk about “staying prayed up.” Given that you were feeling mentally and emotionally drained, was “staying prayed up” a coping mechanism for you during the competition?
Yes. Praying was my coping. I would pray a whole lot in my hotel room to deal with everything that was going on. I would have gone completely crazy if I wouldn't have prayed.
There’s a really bumpy history with the way queens of color have been treated within the Drag Race fandom. With the recent uprisings in response to racial injustice, however, I think some people have had a wake-up call. Season 13 is airing after a several-month period of racial reckonings across America. Do you think there’s been a change in the fandom? As a Black queen, have you felt embraced in a way you might not have been in the past?
Yeah, I do feel like a lot of people have embraced me. Of course, I still have my negative comments, but for the most part, I feel like a lot of the fandom really embraced me because I give them a personality. Maybe it was all those prayers that I prayed [while filming] the show that made them like me? Maybe it was the bag look? Who knows! But for the most part, they have been embracing me and I have really been enjoying the ride.
Speaking of being embraced, you had a very special moment in Untucked this week. While you were breaking down, all the queens gathered around you to tell you that they adored you and thought you lit up the room. What were you feeling in that moment?
Oh, don't make me cry! That was a really, really special moment. Those girls genuinely love me and I genuinely love those girls. At that moment, they really showed me that, "Girl, this is a competition. But bitch, we want you here. We still want you to be here." I really appreciate them for that.
So many queens talk about joining a sisterhood when they go on Drag Race, but we very rarely see real moments like this where it's undeniably clear that an individual person has had an impact on everyone around her. Do you feel like you've joined a sisterhood?
Oh my god. I'm going to cry because I do feel like that. I could definitely say that I’m a part of the sisterhood. Even outside of my particular cast, [there are] girls from previous seasons that are always inboxing me and telling me how much they love me and are happy that I'm a part of [the family]. Shangela, Nina West, and all those girls make me feel like I’m a part of this huge family.
In terms of family, you became the first queen to compete against your “drag mother.” Well, I know Tamisha Iman isn’t your drag mother in the traditional sense, but how did it feel to compete against the same queen who put you in drag for the very first time?
That was amazing. Actually, as I’ve said before, [Drag Race] was sort of a reunion for me and Tamisha because we had not spoken with each other for years prior. But out of all the people they could have picked from Atlanta, they picked us two, and that was amazing. Plus, Tamisha is a legend. Tamisha's an icon. So, if you're around Tamisha, it's like being around greatness. So to be able to compete in the same competition with a great person made me feel like I was also great because I'm in the same cast.
You established yourself as a lip-sync assassin very early on in the competition. Going into this week’s lip-sync, did you feel confident about your prospects of staying when you were taking the stage against Elliott With 2 Ts?
Well, I looked over at Elliott. I usually don't look over at the girls when I'm doing lip-syncs, but this time, I looked over at Elliott and said to myself, "Oh, she really wants this more than I do at this point. This girl is so hungry for it." I knew that I was going home because I wasn't giving as much. I haven't seen the episode, but I felt like I wasn't giving as much as Elliott. Elliott was fighting for it more than I was at that point. Because of what happened in Untucked, all those thoughts had been planted in the back of my head and it didn't allow me to give the performance that I'm known for giving.
Personally, I would disagree. I think you slayed.
Well, as I said, I haven’t seen the episode yet! [laughs]
Before we wrap up, I wanted to talk about your fashion sense. You’ve had some huge high points, like the Trains For Days runway, which is still one of my favorite looks of the entire season. What was the inspiration for that?
I went to my designer and I was like, "I want to be a snake with a train." The whole reveal was like the snake shedding — I’m a snake and I’m shedding, but it actually becomes another train.
Then, there have been some...less than high points. We have to talk about the bag look.
Do we have to? Can I end the call? [laughs]
I have to ask! Were you really satisfied with that look or was it a time constraint problem?
It was a matter of me not knowing what the hell I was doing. Even if I had a whole day, I would have probably come up with that same exact look because I’m not a sewing girl — and clearly, I wasn’t a good glue girl either! Even before I went to Drag Race, I had already prepared myself to be in the bottom for the sewing challenges. So I already was like, Girl, get ready to slay that lip-sync. Being on the bottom was no surprise. I think that's why I had so much fun with that lip-sync, because I had already been rehearsing for weeks prior.
Then, this week, I loved your look. But Michelle Visage pointed out that there was a rip in the garment. I don’t think you can see it on the TV, but did you know about the rip?
First and foremost, let's talk about Michelle's glasses. She can see everything with those glasses! Do you understand me? She could see the man on the moon with those glasses!
But yes, I did know about the rip. It actually happened right before I went onto the runway. The beads were so heavy, and once I put it on, I could feel it stretching. But as we were walking to the stage, it just couldn't take it anymore, and it ripped right before I went on the runway. I was like, Okay girl, what can you do at this point? Just go for it." So yeah, that was that.
Do you think you had a chance to adequately introduce the world to your drag?
Yes, I honestly think so. In the ball challenge alone, I feel like I showcased the person that LaLa Ri is overall — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I definitely feel like I was able to give people the real LaLa Ri experience before I left.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.