'RuPaul's Drag Race' winner Symone on her historic Black Lives Matter fashion statement: 'I just felt it in my spirit to do it'

Symone on 'RuPaul's Drag Race.' (Photo: VH1)
Symone on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (VH1)

Many iconic looks have sashayed down the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway in the past dozen years, from Violet Chachki’s reversible plaid jumpsuit to Sasha Velour’s internet-breaking rose-petal reveal. But none have been as important or impactful as the dress worn by newly crowned winner Symone during Season 13’s “Fascinating Fascinator” challenge.

Symone looked stunning and elegant, as always, as she glided across the stage in her sculptural column gown, designed by Howie B, and matching custom headpiece, designed by Lizzo stylist Marko Monroe. But then she pivoted, revealing two red-Swarovski-crystal bullet wounds on the garment’s otherwise stark white pleather back, as well as the words “Say Their Names” scrawled in ruby-rhinestone blood on her fascinator. As she slowly exited the stage with her arms held arms aloft in a “hands up, don’t shoot” pose, her voiceover hauntingly recited the names of Black citizens who have been killed, many of them trans, like Monika Diamond, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Brayla Stone, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Guest judge Ts Madison, a trans Black woman, audibly gasped, as did surely millions of viewers at home. This was not just a fashion statement. It was a political statement, the boldest in the history of the series.

That same week, Symone (aka 26-year-old Reggie Gavin of Conway, Ark.) also released a video short, “Say Their Names” (directed by Gilbert Trejo, son of Danny), in which she once again wore her bloodied, bullet-punctured couture and stated: “For so long, I was afraid. I was afraid to speak, to act, to live my truth. Growing up, I was praised for not being ‘that kind of Black person.’ Sometimes my Blackness was even questioned: ‘Oh, you ain’t Black! You’re so articulate for someone like you!’ Those kind of words made me so scared to speak, because what if the very people who tolerated me, praised me, finally realized that I was actually Black too? And not only am I Black, but I’m talented, smart, capable and angry? Angry that my skin threatens you. Angry that my skin terrifies you. Angry that I have to work twice as hard to get half as much in this life. Angry that my skin gives you permission to take away my life, and that even in death you still get to write how I lived to justify your sin. But I’m no longer afraid. I’m proud. Proud to be Black and proud of my ability to stand with those whose lives have been taken from them simply because they were born darker than white. This is for you. Y’all were Black and y’all were beautiful. But above all things, you were human. So say their names, say all of their names, not just to remember so that we never forget.”

Symone was declared the “Ebony Enchantress” by RuPaul long before she officially snatched the Season 13 crown (on a finale that aired just three days after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd). And she always made celebrating her Blackness and Black culture a key component of her drag — whether it was wearing a floor-sweeping do-rag for the show’s “Train” challenge, channeling Tina Turner and Josephine Baker during her final lip-sync performance, fashioning a cocktail dress out of Senegalese hair twists, or even daring to impersonate Harriet Tubman on the “Snatch Game.”

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment after her victory, Symone discussed the story behind her “Say Their Names” dress, her conflicted Arkansas childhood, how she learned to embrace the true voice and femininity she had suppressed for so long and how she plans to keep using her platform.

Yahoo Entertainment: Your “Fascinating Fascinator” outfit will most definitely go down in RuPaul’s Drag Race history. It’s a moment no one will ever forget. What was the thought process and inspiration behind it?

Symone: It was around the time of the George Floyd protests [RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13 was filmed in July/August 2020], and so I knew: “If I get on that show, I’m going to have to say something.” I just felt it in my spirit to do it. And I knew I wanted to be covered in all white, angelic and then turn around and have that striking moment. I knew that I wanted it to be a very covered-up moment. I didn’t want any type of sexuality with that outfit. And this designer I had seen [Mowalola] did it [for Naomi Campbell, in 2019]. There were bullet holes in it, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” It hit me. It was such a beautiful thing — not “beautiful,” but in the sense of what it was trying to say. And I was like, “I want to do that as well.” I just felt like it was necessary, and I felt it was such a unique opportunity to do it. This was before the [2020 presidential] election, so I was like, “Either way, I don’t want it to be George Floyd being in the news, and then we move on.” And I know the type of people that watch this show, so I just wanted to say something that I knew would be seen by millions of people. I’m glad that I was able to do that. It was an honor.

When you say “the type of people that watch this show,” are you referring to the racism within the Drag Race fandom itself?

Well, it’s those people, yes. But I don’t want to just give all of it to them. It’s also important to remind everyone that this is not a moment, it’s a movement. So of course I’m speaking to those people, that’s just a given, but it’s also people in the middle of the country and around the world. We need to understand that [Black Lives Matter] is not a fleeting thing. This is still happening. There are millions of people out there who we don’t even get to name or who we don’t even know. And it literally happens all the time. So it’s just really for people to understand that this is not just George Floyd. It happens to Black trans women all the time that we don’t talk about. It happens to all of us. I think that’s more of what I wanted to say.

I know it’s not just about George Floyd, but surely the timing of your finale was not lost on you with you winning just three days after the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict. What was it like to win Drag Race in such an emotional week?

Oh, God. It’s kind of like the universe was trying to give us a little bit of hope. I feel like that’s what we need now more than ever, especially after going through COVID and all these things that happened in the last year. It’s kind of a sigh of relief, in the sense of like, oh, God, there’s at least something. Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom. Maybe there’s light in the tunnel. There’s a reason to keep going. There’s always a reason to keep going, but this is just like, wow, there really is goodness in the world. And to think that [winning Drag Race] might kind of coincide with that…

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Tell me about the “Say Their Names” video piece you made with Gilbert Trejo.

Oh, my gosh. That was a very emotional experience, as you can probably guess. But it was something I felt like I needed to do. I really wanted to have a moment in that dress. … I really wanted to play with the fragility and then the anger, and then have the end of the video symbolize that there’s still hope out there.

In that video, you open up about how you were once afraid to speak out. Can you tell me about that journey?

When I was a very shy kid, I didn’t feel like I could say anything, or that anything I said would be used against me. Drag definitely helped me overcome that, because through Symone, I was able to find my voice, find out who I was and be able to really express myself. Drag gave me the confidence and strength to say things I otherwise couldn’t. And now Symone, in turn, on the other side of it, gives Reggie that same energy and that same strength.

In your “Say Their Names” video and its accompanying behind-the-scenes vignette, you explore the concept that Black men can be perceived as a threat if they are too “aggressive.” And one of this season’s Drag Race contestants, Elliott With Two T’s, caught flak for describing your style of drag as being “not too aggressive” which she apparently meant as a compliment, but it wasn’t.

It is such a strange balance that [Black men] have to walk. You know, we can’t be “too emotional,” but we can’t be “too aggressive.” I’ve had to battle both of those things in my life. And I’ve just come to the realization that my only obligation on this Earth is to be myself, whatever that means. I know that I’m a sweet, sensitive, beautiful person, and if I cry, that’s fine. And if I get angry, that’s OK too, because that’s just how I feel. I wanted to show that all of it is OK, all of our emotions. We are all human beings at the end of the day. We fall, we falter, we’re allowed to get angry, we’re allowed to cry, but that doesn’t make us any less human because of our skin color. That was one of the points of my [Drag Race] run, I think, and that was a major focal point in that video.

You’ve also talked about how when you were growing up in Conway, Ark., before you found drag, it was drilled into you that you couldn’t be Black and be feminine.

My parents never really said that to me, but going to school, of course you see all of these people and you don’t really see any other… well, I wasn’t the only gay Black kid, but it was very evident that that was not very accepted, especially within Black culture. And so I just shut down and didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I would just go to school, I had a few friends, and then I would go home. I thought being who I was was wrong, for a very long time. But drag helped me express what I felt I couldn’t as Reggie. Actually, for a long time I told myself that I couldn’t be Reggie; Symone was the only thing that mattered. Growing up and moving out of Arkansas and discovering myself, I have a lot more confidence outside of drag and a lot more self-love than I did when I first started — or even more than I did a year ago. It was really tough, but going through the competition, I had to let all of that go and leave it all behind, because it didn’t really serve me. And I wanted to win. So each week, I gained a new level of confidence and a new perspective on myself.

It’s interesting that on the same episode when you wore the “Say Their Names” dress, you played Harriet Tubman in the “Snatch Game” maxi-challenge. That was another big risk that paid off.

That was completely a coincidence! I had no idea [that those challenges would take place in the same week]. It just happened that way. I mean, the universe blessed me during my entire run. You couldn’t write that!

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What was the fan reaction to that episode overall?

I’ve gotten so much praise. If there was negativity, I didn’t see it, but even if I would have, I wouldn’t have focused on it. I wouldn’t have even given it a second thought. But I have been given so much love and support for the dress. At first when people heard I was going to do Harriet Tubman, they were like, “Ohhhhh no, Symone, don’t! Don’t do it!” But they don’t know me; they don’t know my brain. So, I think they were pleasantly surprised. And I was also completely thrown by some people not even knowing who Harriet Tubman was! That was and is still a crazy thing for me to even get my head around. Even in Arkansas, we learned about Harriet Tubman, come on now! So I’m glad I did that, because it was a learning moment as well, all the way around.

You wore a lot of amazing outfits on Drag Race, and the through line, week to week, was exemplifying Black excellence. What are some other looks that meant a lot to you?

The do-rag moment is my personal favorite. It reminds me so much of home and reminds me of my cousins and my uncles and my dad and all the things that I find beautiful, like sitting on my grandma’s front porch. All those beautiful feelings. It just warms my heart.

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Was your top two lip-sync look on the finale, with the swingy yellow fringe, at all Josephine Baker-inspired?

Oh, my God, yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Josephine Baker and also Tina Turner in the ’70s, all wrapped into one. Absolutely, I’m glad that you caught that. When I am in drag, that is definitely how I see my character. It’s who I am. I love my culture. I love Black women. I had three things I wanted to do. First, I wanted to be myself all the time. I never wanted to look like I was in a costume; I wanted it to always be, “Oh yeah, of course, that’s Symone!” Second, I wanted to have fun. And third, I wanted to say something with each look, very well-thought-out and with a point of view. I wanted to shine a light on everything that I love about a culture where sometimes we don’t get the credit.

You mentioned that the do-rag outfit conjured fond memories of home, but in your finale sit-down interview with RuPaul, you said you hadn’t been back to Arkansas in two years. And in your behind-the-scenes “Say Their Names” video, you said something like you once thought you’d never get out of Arkansas. Now you live in Los Angeles. Do you have mixed or bittersweet feelings about Conway?

At first I did. I left Arkansas at a really dark time. The [2016] election had just happened. My house [House of Avalon, a queer art collective co-founded by Marko Monroe that originated in Little Rock and has been based in L.A. since 2017] had just left. I felt very alone. I even stopped doing drag for a little bit after that. Arkansas was a very dark place for me, so I didn’t really want to go back for a while. I wanted to kind of be on my own. But now after coming through this whole thing, I miss it a lot. I miss my mom and seeing the people I love. I needed to not go back for a while because it was such a dark time for me, but I’m in a completely different phase and a completely different mindset now, so I don’t feel that way anymore. I do plan to go back. I’m going back this summer, actually!

Tell me more about the House of Avalon, especially how it provided a haven for you when you were coming up in Arkansas. Your Drag Race victory has really put the House of Avalon on the map like never before.

They saw me when I really didn’t see myself, honestly. They helped me develop my voice and my drag, because at first I was doing it just as a relief, and I really didn’t have a plan. And they showed me: “Hey, you are talented. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. You can make your own lane for yourself. There is no one like you, so you should hone in on that and figure out what you want to do and what you want to say. Because there’s something about you that we have never seen before.” And so, I listened. They definitely helped me become my authentic self, and in turn get our ideas and our voice out into the world. And that’s really our mission statement, just spreading that joy, especially in Arkansas where there wasn’t… I mean, there was gay culture there, but there wasn’t gayyyyyy culture there, you know? So ultimately, I wanted to win, and we all wanted it so badly, because we wanted to be able to give back to those little communities that don’t really have that. My ultimate goal is to travel, like with a party of all of us, and discover those small little towns where the little gay babies are and just have a night for them where they can feel free and be themselves. That would be my hope.

Well, congratulations, or condragulations, on your very deserved win. Bringing it all back to your famous “Say Their Names” gown, I know it was inspired by a Naomi Campbell dress. Some other Drag Race contestants like Bimini Bon Boulash, Miss Fame and Violet Chachki have become runway fashion models. Is that something you’d like to pursue?

Yes, honey, I will be there! I would love to model. I want to actually be the Naomi Campbell of drag. She models, she acts, she does activism and charity work, and I want to do it all. I want to rule the world. As much as I love drag, I’m not going to let the fact that I do drag limit me. I’m a talented person, and I’m not going to let people put me in a box. I want to do everything.

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