Willow Pill On Winning 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Season 14
“I feel like I was a strong representation of a chronically ill person who can do just as much, if not more, than someone who is completely healthy and able-bodied.”
Throughout RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14, Willow Pill has consistently shown that there’s more than meets the eye. In the season’s premiere, the 27-year-old Denver native stomped into the Werk Room wearing a pair of white platform flip-flops. Styled with a bedazzled hat, a white skirt, and a matching spaghetti-strap tank-top emblazoned with a deliberately misspelled “Angle” graphic, Willow was perfectly unassuming as a queen whose fashion sense was equal parts Limited Too and Rainbow. Her fellow competitors underestimated her, but just as quickly, she showed them who was really boss, landing in the top for the season’s very first challenge: a talent show in which she capitalized on her deliciously off-kilter sense of humor with a performance that involved a bubble-filled bathtub, a rather large plate of spaghetti, and a toaster.
Now, four months later, Willow Pill can refer to herself as America’s Next Drag Superstar. In last Friday’s finale, Willow bottled up the same endearingly weird wit that made her such a hit with the judges on the show and brought it with her to Las Vegas, where she gagged audience members twice — first, with a solo performance involving multiple heads, and later, in a lip-sync against Lady Camden, where a giant suit playfully turned into an even larger pair of pants. After placing in the top throughout the entire season, Willow concluded her run on an expectantly high note. By the time RuPaul announced her name as the official winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 (and as the lucky recipient of the $150,000 prize money the title comes with), no one could feign surprise. The writing had been on the wall since the very first week.
After last week’s finale, NYLON hopped on the phone with Willow Pill to talk about the “pretty damn amazing” feeling of winning the crown, what she’s going to do (or not going to do) with her prize money, how the initial reaction to her entrance look temporarily shook her confidence, the cognitive dissonance of competing with a chronic illness, what it took for her to warm up and start forming bonds with her castmates, and why it felt so great to come out as a trans femme.
You are officially America's Next Drag Superstar. How does that feel to be able to say?
It feels pretty damn amazing. You know, it hasn't really hit me yet because I have just been sleeping all weekend, and I've barely been around anybody besides my cat. So I honestly don't really know how it feels yet. Hopefully, I'll find out soon.
Shortly before the final lip-sync, you were informed that the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 would receive $50,000 more than normal. How did that aspect feel?
I mean, it's a beautiful twist because, now, after taxes, I'll actually have $100,000. So that's fantastic. [laughs] But it was great. I think it made the lip-syncs even better because not only did me and Camden want it more, but we also had the safety-net of knowing that both of us would get a bunch of money. After that announcement, we were both happier and more driven at the same time. So that was just a little boost that really just made us both go, Alright, let's go for this shit because one of us is going to be a rich, rich woman.
Do you have any plans for what you want to do with the prize money yet?
You know, I was raised in a very frugal house, so I'm probably going to put it all in savings. But let's just tell the people that I'm going to buy a Lamborghini.
Every queen obviously comes to Drag Race hoping to make it to the end. But looking back to that first day, when you stepped into the Werk Room wearing your little “Angle” tank top and white platform flip-flops, were you already thinking, I’m going to win it all?
Preparing for Drag Race, I was like, Okay, I'm going to make it to the end. But I think that's just because you have to tell yourself that. If you don't tell yourself that, you're going to get snuffed out real quick. But then, when I walked in, I think I honestly was like, I think I'm going to go home somewhere in the middle. I think I got a little spooked. I was honestly surprised by how few of the girls got the outfit. I thought it'd be more like most of them got it and then there would maybe be one girl that was kind of like, "LOL, I don't get it." But it was everyone, aside from maybe Bosco. So I was a little like, Oh no, am I doing this wrong? But then, thankfully, it only took another day until the talent show for me to be like, Oh no, I'm doing something right. But yeah, after that reaction, I got a little scared. I was like, Maybe I’m not going to be right for this competition.
Yvie Oddly, who won this competition three seasons ago, is your drag mother of sorts. Have you gotten a chance to talk to her about the win and following in her footsteps?
No, I have not talked to her. I haven't even talked to my own mom. I've literally barely talked to anyone [since the win]. But I did talk to Yvie after we filmed the finale [ed. note — before a winner is actually crowned] and she was immensely proud. She was just like, "Get ready for life to get absolutely insane." And it already has!
You’ve talked about your struggle with cystinosis, which I think makes your win feel that much bigger. Competing with your condition would obviously be hard for anyone, but what stood out to many was how you refused to complain. You kind of had this steely demeanor where you just always grinned and bore it, no matter how tough it got. How do you think you managed to get through something this high-stakes and fast-paced in spite of those setbacks? And was it important for you to provide representation for people suffering from chronic illnesses by showing that it’s possible to fight through it anyway?
That's a hard question because part of the grin-and-bear-it mentality for people who are chronically ill or disabled is to appear strong and part of it is because you know you might get flak if you complain. Not that I expected to get flak from complaining [in this competition], but there was always that possibility. So, unfortunately, part of the reason I think I appeared so strong on the show is because I didn't want the judges or the fandom or anyone to be like, "Oh, look at her. She's kind of using excuses." And unfortunately, that's not really fair. So a lot of me being strong on the show is just because that's how I've had to learn to operate in life. We live in a very unforgiving and unaccommodating country when it comes to physical and mental illness, and so that's kind of how I've learned just to live life.
The good thing is that I feel like I was a strong representation of a chronically ill person who can do just as much, if not more, than someone who is completely healthy and able-bodied. But on the flip-side of the coin, sometimes I wish I maybe had…not complained a little more, but spoken up a little more to show that when you are chronically ill or disabled, you kind of actually do need some special accommodations, and it does need to not be seen as just “complaining.”
You made some very close friendships this season, especially with Kornbread and Angeria. Given how, earlier in the season, you spoke about your mental health struggles and how you weren’t feeling like you fit in with the other queens, what would you say ended up changing for you to be able to open up and form these lifelong friendships?
I mean, I was very blessed. Kornbread and Angie were certainly who I was closest to, but I also made really close friendships with Daya [Betty] and Bosco and June [Jambalaya] as well. And also Kerri [Colby]! Honestly, [I formed friendships with] the whole cast. I love the absolute shit out of them. They're my sisters, through and through. I’m sorry. What was the question?
How did you eventually find that common ground with your castmates?
I think I have a lot going on in my life. I've got a lot of baggage that you kind of have to get through to know me. So once I kind of unveiled that through the talent show, once I was able to open up on stage, I think that made it easier to begin those friendships. I also think that I'm someone who's so open that it begins to attract people because they want the same. That's why human beings are so attracted to vulnerabilities. It's almost like we feel attracted to vulnerability because we want that for ourselves. And I think Kornbread saw that. She saw how open I was and how absolutely insane I am and was like, "Okay, well, that's a good person to connect with because then that will allow me to do the same." And then Angie is absolutely mad in the head, so I was like, "I need to know her and be her friend." So, yeah, it was a match made in heaven.
You're one of five trans queens this season, which is obviously unprecedented in this franchise. Given that you came out after the season was already airing, how did it feel to essentially come out in the public eye? Also, do you think it was easier to do because so many of your fellow castmates were going through similar internal experiences?
It felt great to come out. I mean, I was already somewhat out to a lot of close friends and family. And me and Bosco had already talked a lot about our transness on the show, but behind the cameras because it wasn't something we were quite comfortable enough with yet to share publicly. But watching Bosco come out and [seeing] people's reactions to Jasmine's coming out and to Kornbread's coming out definitely made it feel like, Okay, this is the right time to say something because everyone's kind of ready for this shift to happen.
So coming out was interesting because it was more like a “half-coming out” — a coming out to the public, even though it had already happened with the people around me. But it felt really, really great. It felt like one of the last things to kind of say for people to get to know me. And I think it also makes my drag more understandable [in terms of] where it comes from.
This has obviously been a very long season. What would you say was your proudest moment and what is something you’d change if you had the opportunity to go back?
I think my proudest moment is between the bathtub [talent show number] and the DragCon panel, but I'm going to say the DragCon panel because that doesn't get talked about as much. That was a really proud moment for me to take all that I've learned in life and sum it up into this funny but also heartfelt panel. Actually, I didn't think much of it while I was filming it. Not that I wasn't proud of it, but when I watched it later, at the viewing party, I was like, Wow, I'm really happy with how I represented myself and hopefully with what this means to have someone be joking about really serious health issues on television. I got so many messages after that challenge from people being like, "I've never seen something like this. This means a lot to me."
Difficult? The hardest challenge for me was the final music video, and I think that's just because we'd been filming for seven weeks at that point and I was so exhausted — like, beyond my imagination. Just no juice left in the body to keep me going. So, yeah, I just kind of pooped out, and I would love, in some world, to go back and be rested and have energy and do that again.
Well, your life would have changed regardless simply from being on TV. But it’s especially going to change now that you’re the actual winner of Drag Race season 14. What are you most looking forward to in your new career as an official Ru-Girl?
I'm excited to just explore some other opportunities. We all get to perform in the bars and clubs, which I love so much because I love performing for people. But I also am excited to try a little bit of music, a little bit of modeling, and a little bit of acting. Yeah, I just want to explore some new things and see where the evolution of Willow goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.