Raja Is So Much More Than A Look Queen
The ‘Drag Race’ season three winner talks ‘All Stars 7,’ her Gemini tendencies, and getting the chance to showcase a “whole other side” of herself.
Nowadays, it seems like every new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race produces at least one bona fide “Look Queen.” The likes of Violet Chachki, Aquaria, and Shea Coulée have all donned the title in the past. But before any of them, there was Raja Gemini — the original Fashion Goddess. While competing on season three of Drag Race, the 48-year-old quickly established herself as the most fashion-forward contestant the show had ever seen to that point. Her looks — the Marie Antoinette moment; the shredded money gown — have become legend in the hallowed halls of the Werk Room. But eleven years later, as she returns to compete in the first ever all-winners edition of All Stars, this former America’s Next Top Model makeup artist wants everyone to know that, yes, she can definitely turn a look, but also: She is so much more than that.
Look no further than her first win this season — which wasn’t for the traditional ball (though she did almost cinch another win there) nor for any other fashion-forward design challenge. Instead, Raja won for the hilariously weird “graduation speech” she gave as part of this season’s “Draguation” challenge. Morphing into a mystic figure who talked about the certainty of death and the importance of having copious amounts of sex with equal weight, Raja was able to show that she can also write well, speak publicly well, and be funny to boot. It’s what the original “Fashion Photo Ruview” hostess wanted to get most out of this experience. “I can dress myself and I can make things, yes, and people know that part about me,” she recently told NYLON. “But there's a whole other side of me that I knew I could definitely show off and excel at.”
Shortly after receiving her first Legendary Legend star, Raja hopped on Zoom with NYLON to talk about adapting to the new era of Drag Race, not giving a fuck, being a mentor figure, why she eventually stopped caring about getting a star (but was still happy when she did), how the frequent “boots” she got from Violet Chachki on “Fashion Photo Ruview” have paid off, and why she’d be more than happy to sell a Raja-branded boxed wine (or canned, or maybe even bagged).
It's been a long time since you were last on Drag Race, and back then, the whole system was different. How does it feel to now go through the experience in a modern landscape?
[laughing] Yeah, “modern” as opposed to the primitive days! Yeah! But no, I love it. I am enjoying every single waking and sleeping moment of it. As a performer, as an entertainer, as a person who's a bit of a narcissist, it's so nice to be in the public eye and to be a part of a really fun conversation about a really fun competition. So I'm glad to be in the place that I'm at right now and I'm having a blast.
So the experience has lived up to what you’d want after returning to a show 11 years later?
Yeah, for sure. You know, I've been watching so many of my friends go on All Stars or experience their first time on Drag Race, and just that exposure is so valuable and so much fun. To have people talk about you is what we sort of live for, and to have the conversation going in the direction that it's going right now is especially fun, because it's bringing a whole shit ton of support, and that just brings me joy every day. I'm like, Oh my gosh, this feels wonderful. I feel seen and appreciated and loved. So, yeah, it's been wonderful.
You went into last week’s challenge as one of only two queens without a Legendary Legend star. How did it feel to know that you were one of the last two who hadn’t won a challenge yet?
Well, it had gotten a little frustrating because I feel like I excelled at so many different things and the judges were always really, really complimentary. Even my other co-competitors were very supportive and loving, always saying, "Oh my god, Raja, you were amazing." So, at this point in the game, I probably kind of just let go of the ghost. I was like, You know what? I'm going to keep doing great. I also realized that, on the other side of this entire competition, on the other side of the story, there's going to be millions of people watching. So I don't necessarily need the physical star. I just knew that when people finally got to view this on television, they were going to be very confused and I would gain a bunch of followers and supporters because of it.
And everything has come to that exact truth! I'm on the other side of this and people have been very, very supportive. But again, by that time in the competition, I was like, Whatever! I don't even care if I ever get one of these. I just know that every episode and every time there's a camera around, that I'm going to just do me, you know?
You talked about feeling like the coolest girl in the room during your first season and now just feeling like a cool girl in a room full of them. Did you develop a complex around that?
Yeah, maybe I did. I'm a Gemini, so I have very real moments of both light and dark, and there may have been times where I was very intimidated, where I'm like, Oh my god, maybe I'm not as good or Maybe I'm too old for this or whatever. The doubt is always there. But there's also a whole other side of me that's super confident. I know what my abilities are and I'm confident in those abilities. So it was both. I had moments where I doubted myself and moments where I was like, No, no, no, what are you talking about? You're fucking Raja! Show that part. Both.
Either way, you eventually broke the spell and won a challenge. How did that feel?
Great! Wonderful! Finally! It was validating and it was especially cool because it was a challenge that was definitely part of my wheelhouse. It was something that I really truly, truly identified with — even more than fashion! You know, I can dress myself and I can make things, yes, and people know that part about me. I'm confident in that skill. But there's a whole other side of me that I knew I could definitely show off and excel at. I love writing. I love public speaking. I love inspiring people. I love making people laugh. And so this was like…it was sort of all wrapped into one package. I definitely put my all into it and it worked in my favor, finally.
As you just alluded to, most people know Raja as the fashion queen — not just because you always looked amazing during your initial run, but also because, back then, Drag Race was a lot more design-heavy. You didn’t have many challenges like this. Were you always excited about showing off the “whole other side” of Raja in All Stars 7?
Absolutely. Especially the writing part. I love writing. As much as I am an illustrator and a painter and a designer, there's a whole other side of me who really enjoys using words as expression. So this was definitely something that I looked forward to. To get to sprinkle in the comedy as part of that too was definitely something that I was excited about.
Your win actually came with two stars, though you’ll only get to keep one of them. We obviously won’t find out until the next episode, but can you let me know if you had any specific strategy for determining who you’d give your star to?
Well, to be honest, up to that point, I hadn't really involved myself in any sort of idea of strategy. At that point, my strategy was like, Well, you might not win a star, but you can shine in other ways. I wasn't really thinking about it as deeply as the other competitors were. So the only thing I can say about it is that I went with what I felt was fair, and that's all I wanted to do. That was the only strategy I had because it really wasn't so much about winning the stars or money for me. It was about always portraying myself as somebody who is fair, and yeah.
After hosting “Fashion Photo Ruview” for so long, I know you said it was kind of intimidating to come back onto the show, knowing you’d have to face some of your former victims. But I want to know how it’s been for you to actually have to sit back and watch as two other people judge your looks. Violet Chachki has been such a tough critic!
Well, you're assuming that I do sit back and watch it, which I don't, so… [laughs]
Okay. Well, there you go!
I think I saw one episode, only because everyone on social media had been talking about it. Everyone was screaming and hooting and hollering about how I was being unfairly treated. "How dare you boot Raja?!" I was like, Wait, what? What's going on? So I watched one episode and I had such a good chuckle. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I loved how brutal it was. And honestly, it has worked in my favor in a way that I never ever expected. People have been so supportive. Everyone's been like protective little dogs around me. It's so sweet and I find it to be really endearing. It makes me happy.
I even personally thanked Gottmik. I was like, "Hey, tell Violet that whatever you guys are doing, you're doing a fantastic job. I don't care. I haven't watched one, but whatever you're doing, keep doing it, because it's only created a magnet of love towards me." So yeah, it's fine. I think there's room for other queens. There's so many queens in the franchise other than myself and Raven that can add to this conversation. So I'm ready to hand the reins to everybody. I love seeing other queens doing “Fashion Photo Ruview.” To me, it's wonderful, you know?
Well, in the most recent episode, Violet and Gottmik both gave your look a shoot.
I saw that! I think that's as a result of that text — I think they're trying something new here. They're going in a whole other direction! I don't know. But no, the shoots were appreciated. I know that I don't always hand out the shoots very much, so I know for them, it was a big deal to do it. So thank you very much to the two of them.
In Untucked, you mentioned that you graduated from high school in 1992. Being older than all of the other contestants on this season, do you think that people ended up looking up to you or ended up looking towards you for advice at all?
Both. Jaida [Essence Hall] loves to call me her guru. We've had many, many moments of just deep conversation. I am that type of person. I love talking out and deciphering the meaning of life. I'm definitely that person. I'm also a person who doesn't believe in sweating the small stuff. Just enjoy life. Have fun. But that wisdom comes over time, and that ability, that fuck-it-all kind of attitude, that happens with age. It happens with wisdom. And I was happy and able to provide that side of myself and my time on this planet. I hope that that's the takeaway after the season ends: I may be an older queen, but that comes with the luxury of I don't give a fuck.
You talked about wanting to start a sauvignon blanc brand called “Wine and Complain.” First of all, brilliant. Second of all, it sounded like you were half-kidding — but is that something you would actually consider doing if you ever got the opportunity to do so?
Absolutely! There have definitely been conversations about all kinds of different merch and things that I want to sell, and wine is definitely at the top of my list. I do need my own's wine! And for mine, I wouldn't even be ashamed of doing a boxed one or even a canned one. In fact, fuck the box — just give me the bladder! I should just sell a bag of wine that you can kind of throw inside your purse. I don't know. I love wine. It is very much my brand, so don't be surprised if Wine and Complain actually happens and we will all be drinking it together.
I won't be surprised! I’d be lining up at the store to get some for myself!
There's a lot more to come from this season, but looking back, do you feel like you accomplished whatever it is that you would want to accomplish by going back? Do you think you got the chance to successfully introduce a new generation to Raja Gemini?
I think so, especially after getting to watch back the episodes. There was never a playback on set — you were just there and you kind of had to wait to see what was going to be presented. But from what I'm watching so far, I'm definitely pleased with the work that I did. The season's not finished yet. I know what I did and I know the fun I had. I also know that, coming home, I was completely wrecked from exhaustion, and I know all that exhaustion was definitely worth it.
New episodes of Drag Race: All Stars premiere every Friday on Paramount+.