From beauty queen to drag queen: Vanessa Williams transforms into Dolly Parton on ‘Celebrity Drag Race’

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·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·6 min read
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Vanessa Williams as Dolly Parton on 'Secret Celebrity Drag Race.' (Photo: VH1)
Vanessa Williams as Dolly Parton on 'Secret Celebrity Drag Race.' (Photo: VH1)

Last week, three men were transformed into glamazons on the series premiere of RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race. And this Friday, it was ladies’ night, proving that drag can be for everyone and anyone. “Drag doesn't change who you are. It actually reveals who you are,” proclaimed wise sage RuPaul at the start of the show. Can I get an amen up in here?

But while one of this week’s contestants was certainly no stranger to beating her face and sashaying down the runway, due to her beauty-pageant past, Secret Celebrity Drag Race was still an entirely new experience for her. After all, when Vanessa Williams “burst onto the scene” as the first black Miss America back in 1983, she probably didn’t have to impersonate LGBTQ icon Dolly Parton in a “Rusical” performance called Twerking 5 to 9.

“I do feel comfortable onstage, and I do perform all the time... but still, this is out of my comfort zone,” Williams said. She explained: “When I signed up for doing this, I was like, ‘OK, I always like to challenge myself.’ Because that's how you continue to learn, continue to grow — especially as I'm aging. That's what keeps you young. That's what keeps the fire going. It's that uncertainty that makes it special.”

“Oh my God… to know someone that has had her career for 30 years and is still seeking out new opportunities and finding new ways to fall in love with life, that's very inspiring,” said Williams’s mentor for the episode, Season 10 Drag Race finalist Asia O'Hara.

Williams has of course faced tougher challenges than having put on a platinum-bouffant wig and prosthetic chest and say hello to her inner Dolly. (Or ripping out her own hair extensions, which she did without hesitation during Friday’s drag-king mini-challenge) In 1984, she faced what at the time seemed like an insurmountable career challenge, when she was forced to return her Miss America crown and resign after nude photographs of her leaked. But Williams triumphantly rebounded from that “scandal” and made herstory, launching a hugely successful career in pop music (ironically, one of her albums was titled The Comfort Zone). And this week, she applied that sense of resilience to the Drag Race stage.

“We talk about surrendering, and also people perceiving us,” Williams mused. “When I was Miss America at 20 years old, my life completely changed, but also gave me the biggest kick in the ass of my life, with life lessons. You know, having hate mail, having death threats: ‘You're not black enough.’ ‘You're too black.’ That was the grueling part of my life. But it doesn't change your talent, your essence, your integrity. That just continues to grow and blossom. …The act of regaining your power comes slowly and with pivotal moments. And it's those little episodes that make you say, ‘I'm going to fight for what I feel is right.’”

Vanessa, now known by her drag alter ego “Vanquisha Da House,” probably derived an extra power boost from Parton herself — who sent a personal video message “direct from Dollywood” to Williams and the night’s other two “amazing, trail-blazing” competitors, comedienne Loni Love (a.k.a. “Mary J. Ross”) and Basketball Wives star Tami Roman (“Miss Shenita Cocktail”).

“Wish I could be in that dressing room. Lord, I can only imagine the makeup and the wigs flying around! You know I love you. You know if I hadn't been a girl, I'd have been a drag queen. I'm not so sure I'm not a drag queen! Anyway, whatever you're doing, keep it up — and don't muck it up,” giggled Parton.

Williams definitely did not muck it up, serving sexy-secretary realness and feeling her full Doralee Rhodes fantasy in Twerking 5 to 9. Judge Ross Matthews told her she was “100 percent Dolly,” and judge Michelle Visage said, “When it came to the challenge, the bar was set very high for you in my mind, knowing you're a Broadway diva. But when you turned around, it was so fun to watch you, because you made every single minute count.” Love was also a fierce ladyboss in the Lily Tomlin role while attitudinally rapping on top of some Neptunes-style beats, and Roman took some amusing liberties with her character, by donning neon Jane Fonda Workout athleisure and totally werking it.

But the show saved the best for last, so to speak, with a three-way lip-sync of the Sylvester disco club classic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” That’s when Vanquisha, in her fire-red wig and flame-jobbed eleganza, really turned it out and turned up the heat. And thus, Williams won another crown, and another pageant title: “America's Next Celebrity Drag Superstar.” She also won $30,000 for her charity of choice, the Trevor Project, while Love and Roman each picked up $10,000 for their respective charities, Dress for Success and the St. Jude Children's Hospital.

“I am so happy that I got a chance to be in drag for everybody tonight,” proclaimed Vanessa/Vanquisha. “Going beyond what people expect is always a challenge, but my whole career has been ‘I didn't know she could do that.’ ‘Vanessa Williams, drag?’ Oh, I didn't know she could do that.’ Thirty-six years later, still here.”

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