The judges of the new Paramount + competition series, Queen of the Universe, discuss why it's so important that the contestants are drag queens.
LYNDSEY PARKER: Congratulations, or condragulations on being part of this show. I mean, I couldn't be more of the target market for this-- I love "American Idol," I love "The X Factor," I love "RuPaul's Drag Race," so I'm like, how has this show not happened before?
LEONA LEWIS: Same. I'm exactly the same, I'm a fan of all of those shows. So when they told me it's a drag queen singing competition, I was like, sign me up. I want to do it.
MICHELLE VISAGE: For me, you know, this is a natural progression. Because there are so many singing competitions, and "Drag Race" has had massive success. But mind you, we didn't even get nominated for an Emmy until season nine. So "Drag Race" was always the little engine that could. And it was made by queer people, for queer people, on a queer network, and it's very much at the core who we still are, and we'll never change that.
I'm very proud of showcasing queer talent. So for me, we have a lot of queens through the years that have sang on "RuPaul's Drag Race" and can sing. But again, we've been saying in these interviews because it's true, I think people completely just brushed off drag queen music and call it-- "oh, that's just drag music." And they don't look at it like viable, real art.
TRIXIE MATTEL: I can't tell you how many-- there was a network we pitched to that said, "oh, we already tried the drag thing." This was last year. Meanwhile, "Drag Race" is sweeping Emmy's. So it's a weird thing as somebody who traveled with the guitar, and plays and drag all the time, we're constantly getting the-- "that was actually good."
It's like, "Queen of the Universe" is really going to show these are amazing singers, even if they were not in drag. They are incredible singers. People are going to lose their minds.
LYNDSEY PARKER: There's definitely a lot of drag queens who come from the "RuPaul's Drag Race" world who do sing really well-- like Jinkx, and Ginger, and Alaska, and Trixie Mattel, of course. We haven't really had a mainstream drag queen on pop radio since, actually, since RuPaul, and supermodel I guess. So do you feel like all the stars are aligning to make this happen with this show?
LEONA LEWIS: I think quite getting there-- obviously Ru is a phenomenon, and just so amazing what Ru has been able to do and achieve. And then, what I love about Ru is the fact that there's this platform, and Ru is just giving it to the queens to take as they will. You can give people this platform and then it's up to them to really take it and mold it and see where they can go.
And that's why I'm so excited about this show, because like, I came from a talent competition, and that catapulted me, and really just gave me so many opportunities from that show. So what I'm excited about is that we've created this platform for amazingly talented queens to now, hopefully, take that and really make a career out of it. Me going into the show, one of my hopes was that we found a drag queen that could be on mainstream radio, that could have a huge audience, and that could really, really do this. So I'm hoping that's what comes out of it.
MICHELLE VISAGE: Just being seen on this stage is massive for all of their careers.
VANESSA WILLIAMS: There are new songs that are going to be premiered on the show that could actually be hits. I mean we were stunned by the amount of talent that we saw, but by the new music that we heard. Not only is there established songs that the queens will be singing that we all know, that are big hits, but also new songs that I think can definitely be heard on the radio, as well.
LYNDSEY PARKER: Do you think the world is ready for that?
LEONA LEWIS: It's like the precipice-- we are so, like, almost there. And I feel like this show has come at the exact right time that it needs to. And just the representation on this show is incredible. And when you watch it and you see where all the queens are coming from, the International stories-- some queens that can't even perform in their own countries, but on this stage they get to do that and be celebrated, and be told that you're fantastic, and you're amazing, and we want to see you. I feel like we're getting there, and I think we're ready, for sure. I think we've been ready.
TRIXIE MATTEL: Yeah, it's just funny once you use the word drag, it's like-- when I'm up there doing, like, "Hello, Hello" I think I'm Nancy Sinatra. I don't think I'm a drag queen, I think I'm a woman. But then when you go-- oh, with Prince, or the B-52s-- once you start adding like fake mustaches, and wigs, and dresses, you're like-- well where do we draw the line of what's drag? And how do you call-- if we're going to call this drag music, how can we not call this drag music, too?
MICHELLE VISAGE: Prince was a drag queen, honey. I mean why is a person because they're in drag, not a performer? Hello, David Bowie? We can go back to Kiss-- I mean drag has been around since the dawn of day. So this is nothing different. I think people want to you know just negate it for some reason, it's really dirty.
So I'm really happy that this show showcases the talent of these people. And in the grand scheme of things, it's not a drag competition-- this is a singing competition. This is about the vocals, this is about the performance, and drag is key here, but it is not number one. Number one is the vocal. So I think the world is going to see a whole different point of view with drag music from this point on. It's pretty amazing.
TRIXIE MATTEL: The people who are like, well I'm not really a drag person. Really? Do you like Mrs. Doubtfire? Do you like White Chicks? Then you are a drag person, you just didn't call it drag. You know? It's like a terminology thing, really.
MICHELLE VISAGE: I think it depends on the performer. I think there are people who want to be known as drag singers, and are proud of it. And then there's some who are like, no. It's just like, you know, pronouns-- it's who they are. So if somebody wants to be known, or is a drag performer, and they want to be called a drag performer, then they should perform as a drag performer. Some of them just happen to be performers or singers that happen to be in drag. So I think everything is-- you start labeling at that point.
LYNDSEY PARKER: What do you think is the biggest misconception about drag queens that do music? As the show states, a lot of people think they just lip sync, or sing to track, or--
LEONA LEWIS: This is going to demystify all of that. All of the queens are using their real voices I love seeing the lips sync, I absolutely love it, but then seeing them use their real voices-- it's incredible. And let's remember, we're working with male voices that have transformed, and are singing in this female range.
And the work that goes into that, and the effort that goes into that, like-- as a vocalist, I'm constantly working with vocal teachers, and working on my vocals, but that's like a whole other level. And yeah, some of them are just so incredible. I can't wait for people to see some of these singers.
VANESSA WILLIAMS: And the drag component is really key though, because if you close your eyes for 80% of the contestants singing, some of the vocal ranges are incredible.
TRIXIE MATTEL: Original keys!
VANESSA WILLIAMS: Yeah. So it's impressive. But there's also some amazing moments that you'll see from the contestants that talk about their struggle, talk about being judged and not being accepted in different parts of the world. So that's something that-- we're not skirting around that. There are some heartfelt moments that you will see as an audience, which highlights exactly what we're talking about-- being accepted as who they are.
TRIXIE MATTEL: Yeah, and let's not forget-- I mean, I could be killed for walking down the street like this in a lot of countries. Some of these stories you will hear-- some of these performers can barely even comprehend that they're on stage in drag, let alone focus on the competition, focus on the number. It's a hard job.
LEONA LEWIS: I've been very inspired by drag for a long time, since I was a teenager, and I remember being so wowed by it. So yeah, from taking tips to hair and makeup, to stage performance, to the empowerment that comes from that-- a lot of the drag queens have faced so much adversity doing this. For the fact that they're doing this, they're sharing their art, and expressing themselves-- I just love it. I love the whole-- everything about it.
MICHELLE VISAGE: A lot of these things just aren't seen, again, as talent or viable. And it's kind of like, "no! We matter too!" So drag queens have mattered to me since I was 17 years old. So the fact that this kind of Renaissance, or this heyday, or this moment is happening over the past know 12, 13 years-- although like, I said, very slow to get to where we are-- is like, it's just music to my ears, quite literally.
Because of shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" there's now more conversation and more understanding. Parents understanding their queer child, maybe, hopefully, accepting them more. So the conversations are starting, so I'm not sure if the world is ready-- we are. But we are getting closer every day, and that's why we keep doing incredible shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Queens of the Universe." Because we are kind of testing the waters and preparing everybody for the future-- and the future is drag. So--
LEONA LEWIS: Every single episode, it gets better. Every single one we go deeper and deeper, we peel away more layers, there's more glitter, there's more like sparkly unicorns coming out. It's a lot, and it's amazing.