From now on, when you think about the colors red, yellow, and orange, chances are you’ll immediately think about Tina Burner, who introduced herself to the world as the “turn it and burn it” queen, complete with a fiery wardrobe of flame-ready outfits to match. A New York City staple, known for her no-holds-barred comedy gigs, Tina had a lot riding on her going into season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race — especially since she’s auditioned many, many times.
While the queen certainly shined throughout her time on the show — she beat two queens in the first episode’s impromptu lip-sync and placed at the top for the Disco-Mentary challenge — her signature aesthetic failed to translate to the judges, and she always stopped short of an actual win. Last week, when tasked with creating a commercial for a brand-appropriate soft drink, the New York City comedy legend tried to do too many things at once and landed in the bottom two. While she was undeniably entertaining in her lip-sync to “My Humps” by Black Eyed Peas, she was ultimately sent packing by Utica, whose spooky take on the song got the edge.
Ahead of her elimination, NYLON hopped on the phone with Tina Burner to talk about not fully understanding the judges’ critiques, how the makeover challenge brought her closer to Rosé, how being raised by a mother who suffered with severe depression taught her the value of laughter, and whether or not she would stick to her signature aesthetic on an All Stars season.
What do you think went wrong that led to your elimination this episode?
Ummm...nothing. [laughs] But maybe I just over-thought it. I wanted to do a production. I had costume changes and wig changes and gave the Pit Crew lines and had this fully developed thing. So maybe I did too much. Sometimes, too much is too much. Maybe I should have just named my soda “Hell Yeah.” But I love a catchphrase! And it’s a catchphrase! I don’t know — I reach for the stars, and maybe, sometimes, I need to stay downtown for a little bit. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have cried in a giant bear costume?
In Untucked, you said you were confused about the judges’ critiques — that they seemed to be saying you did have a brand that could be seen in the commercial but, for some reason, it still didn’t work. Do you still feel that way after several months of reflection?
Yes! For me, it was the Rusical moment all over. It was like...what? Sometimes, you have to realize that maybe you’re just not meeting the requirements that they’re looking for. I think that, sometimes, I take things a little too literal. But I don’t know. I still think my commercial was great and I stand by that. I think it was fun. There were others that made me go, “Wait a minute. What?”
You bring up the Rusical, which I totally agree with. Given that you had the biggest part and nailed pretty much all of it, I was shocked when the judges put you in the bottom, especially since their only critique seemed to be that you gave up at the very end. Do you think the judges having somewhat inexplicable critiques has been a trend this season?
You know what it is? You get the chance to see things through a different set of eyes. I think you just sit there sometimes and say, “Wait a minute. Maybe it’ll make sense when I see it at home.” Then you watch it and you go, “No…” But in the words of Tatianna, I make choices — and sometimes, those choices are my choices and they don’t line up with what they see or what they want. You can’t get too mad about it. It’s more of a puzzle to me. It’s puzzling. But I’m always happy to see something from another point of view. But I will say that I thought it was pretty clear when you watch it that I made a choice to be funny — it’s like, you’re dying, so you stop lip-syncing and just mug for the camera. But I guess that one second really threw them over the edge.
You and Rosé came onto the show with some New York history and a little bit of a rivalry. How did it feel to go home on a challenge when she was securing her second win?
She’s really throwing salt in the wound, huh? I mean, listen, when Rosé and I were doing the makeover challenge, I said to her, “Baby, you’ve got to stop taking yourself so seriously. You’re talented. You’re a star. Don’t get in the way of yourself.” So it was more of a proud moment to see her make fun of herself in that challenge. I was just like, “Atta girl!” It was more like, good on you, you did it. I was proud of her. I wish I could tell you that I’m this horrible person that’s like, “Well, she did this and she did that!” But I celebrate people’s victories, especially when they’re warranted. Now, do I believe I should have been in the bottom? Once again, I don’t think I did. But we’re also our own biggest fans. But it’s a fucking branding challenge and I branded it!
Would you say that the makeover challenge actually brought you and Rosé closer?
We finally had a minute to make fun of each other and apply it. That was the thing. We finally had a minute to breathe. We had never had that. We don’t have those moments in New York because we run in different circles. But we had a moment to literally just take the piss out of each other and it was fun. I mean, clearly, if you saw me walking down the runway, I nailed her. I think she was making a little more fun of me, but I thought it was hysterical. And you know what? Who got the last laugh? Because I painted her face, bitch!
You have such remarkable stage presence. Do you think your boyband past played a role in helping you hone that element of your drag? Is that where you got used to entertaining an audience?
Oh, definitely. I remember we did Miami Airlines Arena and we opened for all these big acts. At the time, it was like Jessica Simpson and others. But I think it just prepares you. The world is a stage and it’s always been a stage for me. It was a great opportunity to travel and learn. Baby, I was in a boyband but that was just boy drag. This is girl drag.
You’re one of those queens that everyone knows has auditioned for years. Now that you’ve finally made it on, do you think the experience lived up to your expectations?
I mean, I think it superseded my expectations. It’s an unreal experience. And to do it during the times we’re in, it really showed me that I can do anything. And it’s like, now I know it. Now, I’m just ready to go back. I want to go back because now I know what’s there. We’re all friends now and we all know each other, and I want to go back and kiki and let them have it. That’s one thing about me: once I compete once in a competition... It took me a couple times to win National Miss Comedy Queen, it took me a couple times to win Fire Island. But once you get that taste, it’s like, now I see where we’re at. You just want more. A lot of people are like, “Oh my god, I can’t imagine wanting to do it again. I can’t handle it.” But I’m like, “Baby, sign me up tomorrow!”
I think there’s always a huge pressure on queens from New York to do well. And given how known you are in New York, the pressure could have been even more. Did you feel like you had a reputation to live up to?
I don’t think there was a pressure from New York. Baby, New York is New York, and if you know me from New York, it’s because I’ve fucking hustled and have worked and did nine shows a week. I built that career and it’s something I’m very proud of. I think I was more worried about, you know, if you’re an established person, you’re always going to be judged differently than people that aren’t. So they expect the most and the bar is set really high. It’s like, they’re going to expect 50% from these people but 150% from me. That pressure is there. I think, at times, that’s what got in my way. But after auditioning so much, I didn’t want to let the judges down because it was such a fight to get there. But I’m never going to let New York down. I’ve fallen off tables, I’ve done the most. I think everybody in New York was rooting for me because they know how much I wanted it.
In Untucked, your mom calls and you open up about how hard it was at times to be raised by someone suffering from severe depression and bipolar disorder. Given that you’ve grown up to be a comedy queen, would you say you developed a sense of humor as a response to all the sadness that was around you?
The thing is that, yes, my mom went through some stuff, and yes, it was very hard for her and hard growing up around it. But if there was one thing me and my mom always did at the end of the day, it was laugh. It just showed me that, no matter how hard the world is, no matter how hard things get, you can always laugh. And that’s what I try to do for everyone, especially at my show, because laughter is literally the most powerful thing. You can turn anybody’s day around. That’s so important to me. It’s laughter through tears and laughter through joy. That was also the one thing I took away from Drag Race — it’s that RuPaul’s laugh is so contagious and it would make me laugh so hard. RuPaul laughs at the weirdest things and that was just so funny to me.
I always love seeing queens develop these close relationships on the show. I know that you, Kandy Muse, and Gottmik got really close during filming, and I’m curious how the three of you came together. And since you and Kandy kind of knew each other from New York, what was it about Drag Race that actually brought you guys closer?
Actually, Kandy and I didn’t know each other that well before Drag Race. I just knew her from the House of Aja and it was like, oh, these girls are doing the most. It was not my scene at all. I think that when we got to the competition, right away, Kandy and Mik were not afraid to be themselves and that was the experience that I was looking for. I wanted to come in and be the most authentic version of myself that I could be. And we just clicked because of that. Yes, we were filming a show. But we just let our hair down and I clicked and gelled with them. I love people that can be raw and emotional and are there to tell their story without it being prepped. There was no script. That’s why it was so funny to me that we call ourselves The Mean Girls because it was just catty, bitchy, stupid gay fun. You’ve seen that movie and it’s just so stupid and that’s us — we’re just these funny little monsters.
You said that you’re already ready to go back. Especially considering that you went home on a branding challenge, do you think you’d come back with the same red/orange/yellow aesthetic that you’re known for?
Oh, baby, no. You best believe that I would flip the script and I would make people eat it. Then you’d be crying about why I didn’t do it. I’d want to walk in there and make people do a triple-take, like, “Wait...who is that? Hold up!” You know, full record scratch. I think that’s what’s beautiful about drag. It would be like I came back, took all that criticism, sat down, worked on my makeup, and everything. I’m excited to grow. That’s the one thing I can say, is that I’m in a great place to be able to do that. Let’s let them eat cake.
One of the things most queens expect during their season is to travel and host viewing parties, but that’s not as easy to do during the pandemic. And as you said earlier, you’re used to doing nine shows a week. How is it living through your big moment without that same access to the public and ability to be in front of large audiences?
Well, we can look at it that way, which is that what I do is human interaction. I’d love to be in front of people and talking to them. But what we also have to consider is that, with people being home, we’ve literally reached such a bigger demographic. We’ve given people hope and laughter, and I think that’s really important. It’s a cool thing to be a part of that during such a hard, horrible time. So that’s how I choose to look at it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.