Every week, NYLON writer Michael Cuby will conduct an exit interview with the queen eliminated from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 13. This week, Tamisha Iman was asked to sashay away.
No queen had a more compelling story going into season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race than Tamisha Iman, who was originally cast for the show’s twelfth outing but had to pull out at the last minute after receiving a diagnosis for Stage 3 colon cancer. But desperate to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Tamisha fought tooth and nail to return, going through chemotherapy for a full recovery — all before they started production for the following season.
But even without the tragic backstory of overcoming cancer, Tamisha Iman would have been one of the most interesting queens to ever grace this show. At 49-years-old, the Atlanta-based queen was one of the oldest queens to ever compete (second only to Charlie Hides), but you’d never know it by the high energy she brought to every performance. The recipient of three national drag pageant titles and the proud mother of close to 100 drag daughters (as well as several biological children), Tamisha is a bona fide legend of the art — and during her time on the show, she was sure to command the respect someone of her stature deserves.
For the most part, this respect was given — from both fellow contestants and the judges. She was routinely praised on the runway for her self-designed garments and gushed over backstage by the competitors who gladly took her very useful life advice. Unfortunately, this goodwill didn’t last. During last week’s Disco-mentary challenge, the judges critiqued her for not being fully in the moment, claiming that she was outshined by her dancing partner Elliot With 2 Ts. In the end, she landed in the bottom next to her one-time nemesis Kandy Muse, and after a no-holds-barred battle to Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” the legendary queen was sent packing. But not before she offered one of the most gracious exits in Drag Race herstory.
Ahead of her elimination, NYLON hopped on the phone with the legendary Tamisha Iman to talk about her elimination, why she thinks her Untucked fight with Kandy Muse is Emmy-worthy, competing on a show months after recovering from cancer, how her biological children feel about her drag, and why she embraces the matriarch role — in her own life and on the show.
In your own words, what do you think went wrong leading up to your elimination this week?
Nothing went wrong! I don't know why they were picking on me. [laughs] Honestly, I really don't know. I know for a fact that I left my stones that were supposed to go on my black dress. But other than me putting out a naked dress, I don't know what went wrong. I can't say, Well, it was my dance. I'm a dancer, so...I’m gonna dance. That's what I do. So I can't really say.
One of the biggest complaints from the judges was that you looked like you were in your head during the performance, but no one seemed to mention the fact that you and Elliott had the additional burden of twirling hula-hoops. Do you think having to deal with that extra prop played any part in taking you out of the moment?
No, I think the judges were just picking on me because [they knew what I was capable of]. If you go back and look at Tamisha’s history, I’ve twirled batons, flags, streamers. I’ve even done hula-hoops before. That wasn’t out of my realm. It was just them knowing my capabilities. The one thing that the judges did not know — and I didn't tell anybody — was about my health situation. So the expectations of Tamisha Iman? I understand and I respect that whole-heartedly, because once you build your reputation, that's all people have to go on. If you don't show up like people have seen you show up, and you don't make it known what is going on or why you're not able to produce like that [anymore], then their assumptions are fair.
Speaking of your health things, you opened up on the very first episode about the fact that you had been cast on season 12 but had to pull out because you found out that you had cancer. How was your recovery process and did it scare you to be going into such a demanding environment so soon after recovering from such a life-altering condition?
This is the thing when it came to making those choices: this is what we do on the regular. I mean, yes, it's Drag Race and it's a competition. But as entertainers, we're up and down daily, traveling and making our living. There is so much stress on the body when performing in this city this night and that city,that night. I've reigned as the National Title holder so many times to the point that my body was conditioned. So mentally, I think I was on auto-pilot. Going into the competition and knowing that it was going to be a lot of stress, physically, I was handling it quite well. But the thing about it is that as long as I get my five hours of rest, I'm fine. However, the last couple of days of shooting, there were some long hours and it took a toll on me physically.
You opened up about the cancer, but you chose not to tell people about the ostomy bag you were carrying on your stomach. Why talk about one but not the other?
Well, the bag was such a personal decision. It was life and death. Had I not gotten the bag, I would’ve died. So, therefore, I looked at the ostomy bag as being a hindrance for me, personally. I didn't tell anybody about it because [though] I can be the most empathetic person in the world, I don't know how to handle it coming my way. I can love on you and support you, but I'm used to always being the matriarch. I've never wanted to be that mother that the kids carry. I wanted to always be the parent that’s carrying the kids.
That was my mindset, so I didn't want to make it public because I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I wanted to show the girls that I was up to par to still battle with them if I had to. The only reason I decided to make it known was that I knew that there are other people out there watching this who are in my situation. I understand that we are limited when we’re dealt a certain hand, but I’ve taken those limitations and completely thrown them out the window. [I wanted those people to see that] if I can do it, you can do it safely and still enjoy your life and accomplish anything that you have set your heart on.
Given your history as the drag mother of many, many drag children, did you always expect that you were going to fall into this mother figure role in the Werk Room?
Always! When you're dealing with drag girls that are younger than you, everybody needs guidance and I’ve always wanted to be that [figure from the] older generation that reaches back and has a conversation with you and tells you history. Everybody wants to be accepted by the older generation and the way the girls received me was amazing. Like, Kahmora Hall ended up becoming one of my daughters. She's an addition to my clan, only because she needs mentoring. I think Kahmora has a beautiful career in this industry and I'm so honored she reached out to me for mentoring, because everybody doesn't have the answers. Sometimes, you just need the right people to tell you, “Don't turn left. Turn right.”
In retrospect, how do you feel about the Untucked fight with Kandy Muse from last week?
I think it was Emmy-award winning! I can't wait to get mine! [laughs] But I stand by everything that happened because that's the real aesthetic of drag in the dressing room. You have those knockout fights, but they just fight for the moment. I mean, I processed it like that, and I'm sure Kandy processed it like that, too. It’s okay. When you’re in the dressing room, girls get into it all the time. It can go further. It definitely can. But nevertheless, it’s like, don't stay mad, you do drag. Everybody has an ego bigger than the next person, and oftentimes, it takes confrontations like that for someone to go, “You know what, girl, was I really acting like that? Did I have to go there?” Certain situations have to happen for people to develop and grow. That was just one of them.
Fast-forward to this week, how did it feel to be coming off that only to realize that you’d be lip-syncing against this person that you had just had this huge fight with?
As an entertainer, you do your job. I didn't take it personally. I guess because I'm older. I have confrontations with people all the time and we’ll be in the same pageant. Entertaining has never been [hard in those situations]. That's second nature to me. So Kandy and I having to battle, first of all, it was weird and it was going to be good TV. But at the end of the day, we knew somebody was going to stay and somebody had to go.
Coming onto Drag Race has allowed you to introduce your work, which is legendary, to a whole new generation. When the season first premiered, your Miss National 1996 number went viral on Twitter. Then, obviously, you got to talk about the legendary Wonder Woman number from your daughter, Tandi Iman Dupree. You’ve been given this incredible platform. How has it felt to be able to shine a light on these huge past numbers and introduce a new generation of drag fans to these legendary moments from decades ago?
For me, it feels amazing. I tell people all the time: drag wasn't a hobby. It wasn't a one time thing. I made this my career choice. I've had many jobs that I have enjoyed, but this is the one that I loved. To be able to be in it and do it for 30 years has been amazing, but it was a void. After building this body of work for 30 years, to only have my community be able to witness and experience my greatness, I didn't feel accomplished. I didn't feel complete.
Going on the show and being received by the world like I have has been amazing — like nothing that I would have ever expected in a million years. I just feel so appreciative. If the world got to see my work and enjoy it, even for just a moment, I feel like none of my work was in vain — whether it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or whatever the case may be. Even with my kids. Tandi was just one of the many stars of my dynasty. She happened to be at the right place at the right time and it shined for her. But all of my babies are talented like that. So Drag Race was an amazing journey for me. It solidified my legacy, so I'm humbly grateful.
You've been praised throughout the season for making all your gorgeous garments. But last episode, for the ball challenge, you landed near the bottom for something you created. After weeks of having RuPaul and the judges gag over everything you made, how did it feel to get to an actual design challenge and get the opposite of that praise?
It’s life. I try to live by [the idea that] I can't let your words affect my life because they're not going to always be good. I'm the best representation of myself at any time. So if you say something negative about me or something that I don't agree with, I have to accept that. I had to do that a long time ago. So it didn't bother me. In life, you have your moments — you have your breakout moments, you have your dull moments, you have your “I’m just existing” moments. That was just a moment. It didn’t define me as a designer, it didn’t define me as a drag person. That’s just what happened in that moment. We’re going to have many more moments together.
You have real children and even took your drag name from your daughter. How has the response been now that they get to see you compete on such a huge stage?
For my kids, when it came to drag, I've always separated Tamisha from their father. Therefore, I've never really put Tamisha in their face. So they’re pretty much gagging right now. They’re like, “You've got a whole other persona that we don't know anything about!” I wanted to respectfully introduce that part to them, but there never was a perfect time. So on this particular platform and at this scale, it just worked. They are so excited that everybody likes their daddy-mama.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.