MICHELLE VISAGE – An Ally with An Attitude

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Michelle Visage, the Queen of Queens, is one of our favorite allies with an attitude.  The Mary Magdalene to RuPaul’s Son of Drag, she sits at his right hand and doles out the tough love.  We dote on her snappy one-liners, her latest looks, and her candid advice – she is the cool Mom we all want to have.  Untucked, the woman behind the makeup and under that hair is a fierce businesswoman, wife, and mother of two, who has been sticking up for our community long before it was cool.  During quarantine, she premiered her own show “How’s Your Head Hun” for BBC and World of Wonder Plus, where she digitally let us into her closet and into her family life, without a filter in sight.  The result?  Yes, we can see she is just a person like anyone else, the differences being that she has more shoes and looks better doing it.

We know and love her as a figurehead in the Drag Race family, but her entertainment career has been a grab bag of projects, each with their success.  This Emmy winning producer hit the scene after auditioning and becoming part of an R&B trio called Seduction.  The group had five singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100.  Visage then hit the top of the dance charts in 1993 as lead vocalist in The S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M..  She followed that up by working as a morning DJ on radio waves for over 17 years in NYC, Los Angeles, Miami, West Palm Beach, Ireland, and on afternoon radio at Sirius.

FUN FACT:  She opened for Milli Vanilli

Booking.com

She has been a patron saint to the LGBT community and her first experience with our community could be a scene out of a Pose episode, complete with a fake ID, a dark room and voguing – all at the behest of her mother:

“In 1986, I first moved to NYC from NJ to go to theatre school for college and I knew no one. We didn’t have cell phones yet or computers, so the only chance we had at getting “discovered” was going to a nightclub, and I was 17 years old. My mom sent me a fake ID and told me to “go get discovered” so I started going to nightclubs. There was a big club in New York City called The Underground and when I got there, I walked downstairs and this beautiful young man grabbed me by the arm and told me that I had the most beautiful face he had ever seen – I was speechless. The only person who had ever told me that was my mom. I couldn’t believe a stranger just came out of nowhere to simply compliment me. He asked me to come with him to meet his friends and brought me into a dark room where there were 30 of the craziest, weirdest looking, most beautiful people I had ever seen in my entire life and, I lie to you not, I had chills when I saw them all dancing. Not only were they doing something I had never seen before (voguing), but it was the first time I truly felt “home”. That was when I learned about ballroom culture and the rest is history!”

FUN FACT: Visage won a Madonna look-alike contest when she was 16.

Part of that dynamic era was the outlandish nightclub scene, usually at parties hosted by New York icon Susanne Bartsch.  Over the top looks, decadent behavior, and an overall sense of inclusivity of these events created a home to LGBT and beyond to express themselves – the party scene was thriving.  The New York ball scene gave Michelle the nickname “Cara” which means “face” in Spanish.  No one could pronounce it properly, so she changed it to “Visage”, the French version of “face” – Michelle Lynn Shupack became Michelle Visage.

It was at one of these parties that Michelle met RuPaul, and the two started a friendship that became part of drag history.  What makes their friendship a winning combo?

I think the bottom line is, we understand and respect each other and our space. We obviously love each other, but it’s more than that. Soulmates are NOT just lovers, there are friend soulmates too and that pretty much says it all.

Visage co-hosted VH1’s The RuPaul Show from 1996 to 1998 and the two co-hosted a morning show for WKTU until 2002.  Michelle was the first pick as a permanent judge for Drag Race but was tied up in a five-year contract with CBS Radio.  Speculation has been that her boss was not a fan of the relationship with the LGBT community and said no.  RuPaul asked again for Season 3 and Visage (at the suggestion of her friend Lea Remini) went directly to the CBS officials.  She was finally able to tell RuPaul “yas, queen!”

Fun Fact: From Drag Race Season 3, she has appeared in every episode of every season, including the All Stars spin-offs and the U.K. edition of the series.

Her looks on Drag Race rival those of the queens on stage, she is a chameleon of fashion.  But how does she put her look together on a daily basis?

I think it’s about how I am feeling – am I feeling good about my body? Am I feeling dark? Colorful? Do I want to be sporty? Fancy? Sometimes it’s simply about what is clean and nearby….

On “How’s Your Head, Hun” we literally get to hang out in her closet, a closet we might not want to come out of.  What are her three most prized closet possessions?

Heels, fitted blazer and trousers. I know I wear a lot of midi dresses and I love them, but I am such a fitted, flare leg trouser girl, they flatter everyone!

Her journey to the confident and curvaceous stature we see on TV hasn’t always been an easy one.  She has been incredibly open about her struggle with an eating disorder from the early age of 13 well until adult life.  Even her chest hasn’t been off topic as she had her signature breast implants removed in 2019.  She talks openly about her body issues to inspire body positivity within the LGBT community.  Has inclusivity of different body types gotten better in the gay world?

I can say that from my experience since I became involved as an ally, yes, it has gotten slightly better, but we fight louder and stronger than the past. With that said, it is FAR from being good or all-inclusive. It isn’t news to anyone who goes on a “dating” app and sees No Femmes, No Fats, No Asians, etc. THAT is unacceptable!  The thing I loved most about finding my chosen family all those years ago was that I was NEVER, EVER judged on appearances, then told I wasn’t welcome. Was there shade? ALWAYS. Was there shaming and hate? Not that I can remember. Even in competing houses in the ballroom scene, the shade was thick, but the love was deep. We need to go back to that mentality and steer away from cancel culture saying, “you can’t sit with us.” For the record? You can ALWAYS sit with me!

FUN FACT:  Michelle wanted to be a vet until she learned she might have to euthanize dogs. 

What I love about her show, “How’s Your Head, Hun?”, is that we do get to see the brassy personality we know from TV and hang out with her outside the Drag Race set.  The bonus is that we get to see her on a more personal and intimate level.  With no makeup, no glam crew, and no scripts, we see the work and reality that go into making Visage who we see on the screen.  Wasn’t she scared of being that naked?

We are NOT the Kardashians by any stretch of the imagination and that is crystal clear from the minute you enter my house! When we said we were on board to do this, I knew that I would be judged, but I didn’t care because it was my goal to make people who were home, scared, anxious, or just plain bored, laugh. We want people to have something silly to look forward to weekly to help them get through this quarantine a bit easier. We really are all in this together, I just may be doing it a little sillier.

What did she learn most from filming this show?

I learned that my husband David works his ass off. I mean, he has been a stay-at-home dad for the past 18 years whilst I was out there working, so I KNOW what he can do and make no mistake, he is the best dad I have ever seen, but he is GRAFTING! Hard! I know how hard I work, but it’s cool to see what he can do behind the scenes as well! He is going to start auditioning as an actor again after a 20-year hiatus once our daughter Lola goes off to college, and I am so proud of him for going back to follow his dream. He is a damn good actor too, went to Juilliard and all that, so I can’t wait to see him manifest it all.

We can all fantasize about having Michelle Visage as a mom.  But how can she really enforce being strict when her whole personality is a non-conforming, sexual beast?

I parent the same way I live. Bluntly, honestly, compassionately. My kids are my life and though I KNOW I have made many mistakes, every day I try my hardest to be the best that I can be as a mother first and friend second. My kids are feisty, smart, intelligent and they too live outside of the “norms” of society and that makes me proud. I learn from them daily.

FUN FACT: The first diva that inspired Michelle was Mae West, she was obsessed with having a body like hers. 

Michelle Visage – photo by Kathy Hutchins

While some reality shows have tarnished the image of pop culture personalities we love, “How’s Your Head, Hun?” has only increased my love for Visage and I have a bigger appreciation for what she goes through behind the scenes. How do fans see Michelle Visage?

For me, fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race see me as the “tough love” judge. The judge that tells them what they need to hear but not necessarily what they WANT to hear. I take my job as a judge VERY seriously as I am the number one fan of drag. I LOVE it so much and I take what I do VERY seriously! Most importantly, I respect it and I respect these queens. Because I’m so tough, I think the public only sees me one way. I want them to know who I am when I am not behind a judge’s table and who I am as a human.

She has not only been a role model for the LGBT community, she is a role model for businesswomen everywhere.  She has created her own brand, she has successfully dominated the radio waves, TV waves, Billboard charts, podcast arena, literary world (have you read The Diva Rules?), West End theatre, and the fashion world.  From a receptionist to Emmy winner, she’s done it, breaking the glass ceiling of what an entrepreneur looks like.

For many years we have fought the oppression being told we belong at home, in the kitchen, not in offices or running businesses. NEVER FORGET: No one will look out for you better than YOU! You are woman, let them hear you ROARRRRRR!

FUN FACT: She bought her dad a house from the proceeds earned from one of her songs with The S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M.  being included on the soundtrack for ‘The Bodyguard’.

And during this time stuck at home, she has this to say to her fans:

Do not give up hope. Although we did not get to celebrate pride month the way we would like to or the way we deserve, we still need to celebrate! I also want to tell younger LGBTQIA+ people that aren’t out quite yet that now is probably not the time to come out if you don’t feel safe. Please, above all, put your safety first. These are very lonely and isolating times for some LGBTQIA+ youth so please try to remember: YOU ARE LOVED. YOU ARE PERFECT. YOU MATTER.

Shantay, she slays.

 

Last modified: August 4, 2020