Few queens on Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race made a stronger first impression than Symone. Sauntering into the Werk Room in a slinky dress made of Polaroids of herself, the self-proclaimed Ebony Enchantress oozed effortless style and palpable charisma. She was one of this season’s most obvious stars. When she said, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool you, baby,” and let off her infectious laugh, many of us immediately fell in love. A look queen who was also funny and a terrific actress, Symone dominated the competition, winning the most challenges (four) and consistently impressing the judges with her quick wit and tireless drive for perfection.
So it’s no real surprise that, after slaying two lip-syncs in last Friday’s finale, RuPaul announced her name as the Season 13 winner. It was a win that seemingly everyone could celebrate — even Rihanna, who memorably DMed the Arkansas-born, Los Angeles-based queen — and in our current cultural climate, seeing someone who kept her Blackness front and center of her drag was nothing short of inspirational. “Well, I told y’all not to let the smooth taste fool you,” she joked after receiving her crown and scepter, and I’m sure none of us could have said it better.
Ahead of last Friday’s finale, NYLON hopped on the phone with the freshly-crowned winner to talk about what it means to her to win, being a member of The House of Avalon, how she bounced back from a bad week in the competition, paying homage to iconic Black people and making political statements through her looks, and how dressing up in drag for her senior prom helped her find her inner-confidence and ultimately changed her life.
So, you’re in the top four. You made it to the finale. How does that feel?
It feels... correct. I’m just kidding! It feels just so amazing. I wish I could let everyone experience it. It's a beautiful thing. You know, I've watched the show since Season 1 and just to be in the top four is so overwhelmingly beautiful and amazing. I just can't express how much joy I have. I’ve worked so hard to get here, so now I just get to enjoy it and have fun.
Coming into the competition, did you always imagine yourself making it to the end?
Oh, baby. I went in there and said, If I'm going to do this, I'm going to make it to the end. There were no other options for me. I didn't see any other option in my head, so it just wasn’t going to happen. So, yes, I envisioned myself at the top and I envisioned myself making it here.
Was there ever a moment when you second-guessed yourself?
Oh, yeah. Going in, I knew my biggest thing was going to be staying out of my own way. I knew the challenges that weren't acting or branding or something that had to do with your personality [would be a struggle]. I knew that dancing and singing weren't my strongest suit. But I would come out on the end of it being like, You just have to give it your best in the moment. It's all you got because that's what they want. Of course, I faltered, but it's about how you overcome it and how you learn from it. I think that's the most important thing: not dwelling on the fact that you did it, but how much you can learn from it.
Going off that, it’s clear that you’re a perfectionist, but it was also clear that you sometimes were confronted with what RuPaul has coined the “inner saboteur.” In those moments when you faltered, did you have a process for getting over it and getting ready to fight again the next day? How did you get back to the top of your game after a bad week?
I think, for me, it was like, OK, I was in the bottom and the world saw me do this. How can I come back in a way that shows that I learned what I needed to learn and that I'm not going to let this bring me down? And yes, I did have bad thoughts. But I would switch and go, No, you came here to make it to the end, so there's really no other option for you. You have to get up, Symone. Let's pull yourself up. It was one bad thing. You survived, you won the lip-sync. So wipe clean for this new slate and show them why you deserve to still be here. Show them that Mother Ru didn't make a mistake in keeping you. That was my mindset, just not allowing myself to dwell on it. It's very easy to do, but I told myself, You're just not going to. You don't have time.
You’re a member of the The House of Avalon, which is a collective of queer creatives that met in your hometown of Arkansas and all moved to LA together. How would you say having that built-in support system and growing alongside other people from your hometown has impacted your overall approach to drag?
Because we are a creative collective of people, having them helped me bring out what was already there, if that makes sense. It helped me bring a point of view to my drag and be like, Hey, what are you wanting to say? What do you want to do, Symone? Before meeting them, I didn't really have that focus on it. It was just like, “Well, this is what the girls do back home.” But they gave me that thing, letting me know that I can do whatever I want with my drag. Like, “There's a way you can do drag that is a little bit more artistic and a little bit more thought-out.”
They helped me hone in on who I wanted to be and how I wanted to present myself. Going onto the show, it was very important to me to have a point of view and to say something with my runways and with everything I was doing on the show. They helped me realize that. They helped me become the best version of myself. They gave me the support I needed to explore different avenues of drag, because, you know, Southern drag is very pageant — you do it this way. But they showed me, “Oh, you don't have to do that. You can do whatever you want because it's your drag.” They gave me the confidence that I needed to explore different realms and go through the peaks and valleys to get where I am now.
You've had so many iconic fashion moments on the runway this season. But I think one of the most memorable was your fascinator look, which drew attention to the Black Lives Matter movement with the "Say Their Names" message on the back. Knowing that you were going to be on TV and that your looks would be seen by so many, how important was it for you to make these huge political statements?
When I found out that there was a chance that I could be on, I pulled all of my inspirations and created a folder with everything that I wanted to present. I knew going on that we were in a very unique time in our history and that I would have a particularly interesting platform to say something. So I knew I wanted one of my looks to say something — to actually say the words. I said, I know that this is a dicey moment, so it has to be done right. It can't veer too far in one direction.
It was very strategic. I knew what I wanted to say, but I wanted it done with grace and beauty and respect and honor. I still wanted there to be fashion in it. But I wanted it to say something and to bring attention to [the movement] in a way that wasn't disrespectful and that wouldn't turn people off, because at the end of day, I still wanted people to look at this. It was a fine line to dance, but I think I did it. We started filming right around the time of the protests, so I knew it would be a disservice to me and to everyone if there wasn't a moment like this on the show. I didn't know if anyone else was going to do it, so I was going to do it. That was very important to me.
Beyond that, so many of your looks paid homage to iconic Black people throughout history. From the BAPS look to the du-rag train to every single one of your hairstyles, it was all so Blackity Black. How has your identity as a queer Black person influenced your drag?
Well, I was a very shy kid. I hated myself. I didn't like myself growing up because I didn't think it was OK to be Black and queer. I'm from the South, so there's an extra layer to that — racism and homophobia. I didn't really have a lot of self-worth, but drag gave that to me in a way that I'd never really experienced before. So I wanted [my run on the show] to be a love letter to myself as a kid about embracing who I am and what I find beautiful. I wanted to go on the show and be who I didn't necessarily feel I could be growing up. We've come a long way.
It was a love letter to myself and to my community and the people that I love and the people that I know are watching the show. I knew that it was a platform that everyone watches. It's not just Black people and people of color — everyone watches the show. I wanted to make sure people saw it the way I do. Going back to the perfectionist thing, I had very clear visions of what I wanted each look to look like. I wanted people to see the beauty that I do. It was just a unique moment I had, so I took it and I ran. I ran fast.
If you were to hear your name announced as the winner, what would that mean to you?
It would mean everything. It would mean that you can come from wherever and you can feel some way about yourself growing up, but then persevere and fight and make it to the top. It would mean that there's hope, that there's a light. I think people who would see me be crowned would feel that and know that they can be and do whatever they want in the world. No matter where you’re from, no matter adversities or lack of resources, you can literally make what you want out of this life. It would mean the world to me, and I know it would mean the world to a whole bunch of people out there.
You’ve always been a fashion queen, but recently, I’ve seen that you’ve been a high fashion queen. You were wearing Roberto Cavalli in a recent LA Times spread, and Jeremy Scott dressed you for the finale. How does it feel — specifically, as a Black queen — to be embraced by the world of high fashion in the way that you have been?
It's been so amazing and surreal because, you know, I'm from Arkansas. You look to these things — you see these in fashion magazines and on the interwebs. So to actually be dressed by these people who are like, “I want to put my fashions on this beautiful Black queen” is just amazing. These people were falling in love with me and what I've done on the show, not just because of what I've worn, but because they’ve fallen in love with me as a person and as a queen. So again, it sends a message to people that it doesn't matter what your skin tone looks like; it matters what you put out into the world and the spirit that you have. I think it gives a lot of people — especially POC — a lot of hope.
There, of course, have been other queens on the show who've worn designer things. But I don't think there's been a lot of queens like me on the show. I think I've created a lane for a lot of people. I think I've opened the door. I think I broke through some boundaries on the show. Going forward, I think there's going to be a lot of surprises and a lot of pushing forward with other queens and even just people of color. I don't even think I realized until watching what I did on the show. So it's been great. It's been amazing.
Do you have a favorite and least favorite moment of the season? It could be a challenge, a runway, or even just a discussion with one of your fellow contestants.
My favorite moments were definitely seeing Ru light up at me, whether it was in a challenge or on the runway. And we don't get to hear the deliberations, so hearing some of the things that the judges said [in deliberations], those are my favorite things personally. Meeting sisters in the community and having camaraderie with the girls was also one of my favorite things.
But as far as what I would change? I don't think I would change anything. I think the whole thing was definitely something I needed to see about myself. It's a unique opportunity — so few girls get to see themselves on TV, working through the mental aspects of it. So I really wouldn't change anything. Even being in the bottom. It taught me what I needed to see and what I needed to know about myself. So I enjoyed my journey.
You went to your high school prom in drag, which I would imagine took a lot of guts in your Arkansas town. What inspired that decision? What was that experience like? And looking back, what do you think the Symone of today would say to that Symone?
Oh, my God. Looking back on it, I think I would say, “Baby, you don't even know what you're doing. You don't even know what you're going to be one day. This moment is going to change your life. It's going to be a lot of work. But this very thing that you're doing is changing your life and you don't even know.”
And if I'm going back to what inspired that decision, it was just simply that I wanted to go to prom in drag. I wanted to feel confident in myself and I wanted to do drag. At that time especially, I had such low self-esteem and was so shy, but drag helped me come out of that. I was like, I have this. I'm doing this. I know no one else is going to do it. It's going to be unexpected. Maybe someone's going to see me here at prom or hear about me being at prom in drag and be like, “Wow, everything is going to be OK. She did it, so I can be myself.” I think, in a way, I always had that in the back of my head. But I didn't fully understand until getting older that, as much as I was doing it for myself, I was also doing it for other people. I just hated how I felt. I just wanted to somehow make it better for someone else so that they didn't have to feel that way, you know? It was definitely a way for me to feel better about myself and a confidence booster. But also, I wanted to be that for somebody else. Yeah.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.