Media sensation and ally to the LGBTQ+ community, Michelle Visage is a vocal advocate for self-acceptance. She found fame as a musician, before progressing to radio and podcast roles, and the international phenomenon, ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. Whether appearing on the award-winning reality competition or promoting inclusion at conferences, her message remains the same: “reclaim your power”.
In this exclusive interview, we discovered exactly what “reclaim your power” means to Michelle, as well as why gay representation is important, now more than ever.
How important is gay representation particularly in mainstream media?
“For me, it is super important we have gay representation in mainstream media, because, when I was growing up, being gay in mainstream media was a parody, it was inauthentic and an over-the-top caricature of a gay man – it was always making fun of, instead of including.
“We need authentic gay representation in mainstream media right now, with gay actors actually performing gay-scripted roles, and trans actors actually performing trans-scripted roles. These things are super important to further society. Playing gay is not cool anymore, never really was cool, but it was way more accepted then, and it shouldn’t be accepted now.”
“I auditioned for a role recently and it was a drag queen role they wanted me to do. I went in and I said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable taking a role away from a drag performer’. So, I got a different role instead, and it’s kind of that simple. I mean, an actor can easily say this should go to a gay, non-binary or trans actor.
“I know it’s a challenge for the actor, but there are other challenges out there.”
In your book ‘the diva rules’ you give some invaluable life lessons; what is your most important life lesson?
“In life, I’m constantly learning. I’m 52 years old and I’m still learning life lessons because every day, especially with the way the world is right now, there’s something to be learned, even if it’s something small, I remember learning something last week and thinking ‘how could I have not known that!?’. Every day there’s something new to learn.
“My most valuable life lessons didn’t come to me until later in life, because if you told 20-year-old Michelle to stop taking life so seriously, stop worrying about the way you look and start worrying about the way you feel, and things like that, she wouldn’t have listened. If you would have told me not to get breast implants when I was 21, I still would have gotten breast implants. So, there’s many things along the way that I’ve learned.
“The saying with age comes wisdom is so true! I have two daughters. One is 18 and one is 20, and I say, ‘listen to me, I know what I’m talking about’, and they don’t give a damn! And when I think back to when I was 18, 20, I didn’t either, and my mother wasn’t as worldly as I am. I did not want to hear it because it’s my life, I have to live it and learn it and go through it.
“So, I think my most valuable life lesson is to loosen up, stop worrying so much about this person and what they think of you, or that gossip about you in school or at work. You know your truth and the truth always, I promise you, always reveals itself. Also, another big life lesson. Karma is a bitch and karma is real. You might not see it because a lot of people like. ‘I don’t think so, these good things are happening to this person and they’re not a good person’. But those people will be exposed, that is one thing I can guarantee. Sometimes you won’t see it immediately, but they always happen. It might not be in your lifetime, but trust me, karma is real.
“So, don’t take life so seriously – it’s a RuPaul thing, but it’s honestly the best lesson I’ve learned. And the better I get at listening to that, the better I feel about myself. And it’s really all about that: How do you feel about yourself at the end of the day? Are you putting pressure on yourself to lose weight? Are you putting pressure on yourself to have bigger lips? Mostly women do these horrible things to themselves to try to compete. The only person you should be competing with is yourself, so give yourself a break.
“We’re so hard on ourselves, especially women and young women at that. You can’t go on Instagram where there are filters aplenty and think you’re going to look like that because Mother Michelle is here to tell you right now, you’re not going to look like that. How many times have you turned the Snapchat filter on and thought, ‘if I can just take this to a doctor…’ but that’s not reality! And we shouldn’t have that reaction.
“Reality is we age, after 21 it all goes down and by that, I mean, your face, your boobs, your belly, your bum, it all goes down. But we’re still here and there’s so many people that haven’t been given that opportunity, my mom’s one of them she died really young. We are so lucky to be here. Give yourself a goal, even if the goal is just getting out of bed to go to the kitchen goal, give yourself one teeny goal every day before you start taking on the weight of the world. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
In the dark times, what kept you motivated, and what drives you?
“For me in the dark times, and there have been some and there will be some. My struggle is anxiety, not as much depression, but like panic attacks – gone to A&E panic attacks, not knowing what it was over the years.
“I am the sole provider for a family of four, my husband’s a stay-at-home dad, and now that the girls are out, we’re trying to find our way, what’s next? But I’m the one who pays the bills, so without me, there’s no food on the table. I always had the pressure of you have to get better, you have to get better, you have to get better. It was always about the way I treated myself, both mentally and physically.
“I think therapy is a big deal. I know Brits don’t look at therapy the same way Americans do, but they’re getting more and more in touch with it, and the NHS that’s helping it. I know there’s a backlog and that’s been a problem because the waiting list is so long, but there’s a lot of online options for help now.
“I think meditation is great. I have some good apps on my phone that I listen to when I’m feeling stressed or anxious and that really does help. It could be anywhere from 60 seconds to a full hour, whatever you need to calm yourself down. What gets me through is that I love life, I love people, and my community pulls me through.
“I know that I have friends I can call on. My family is very small, it’s just my husband and my girls. I have an Auntie, a dad and a brother, but we’re not really a close communicative family, so sometimes it’s up to us to pull ourselves through, and it’s OK to lean on others we know are a solid resource that will be there for you through thick and thin.
“Don’t be afraid to call on others and don’t be afraid to get some help online. Don’t think of it as a failure. If you go get help like therapy or a counsellor, not only is it not weakness, it’s strength, because you’re owning control of your mental health. That’s what I do and that’s what gets me through. I was just talking to my doctor yesterday and she gave me a number for a good new therapist because I left my last one and I haven’t found a good one. So, I’m really excited about starting again, because in each phase of life we work through certain things and other things creep up. One day at work is great, the next day isn’t, and that’s just life.
“The same way you’d go to a doctor if you were poorly, is the same attitude you should have towards your mental health. If your mental health is not right, then see a therapist, they are a doctor for your mental health. There is no shame in it. It’s so important to talk and get it out because if you don’t, it can manifest in other ways.”
If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?
“If I was to give myself one piece of the start of my career, it would be, reclaim your power.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I have always been the person who follows the rules. I was never really a rule breaker. If the boss said this is what you have to do, I would follow that so the boss would go, ‘great job’, instead of pushing myself and then the boss going, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that’.
“I didn’t start doing that until later in my career. I was in radio for 17 years presenting in a few different states and I was really good, the top female on a morning drive in New York City, and that’s not easy. But instead of pushing the boundaries in the beginning, I just followed the rules. I made the base salary, whatever they offered, I was like, ‘OK, yeah, thank you for having me’. Instead of going, ‘no, I am good at what I do’.
“I wish I was more aggressive when I started out and was more of a rule breaker and less of a rule follower, within reason – I’m not an anarchist! But I am here to push the boundaries. When I started, I was never thatgirl, I only got to be that girl in my thirties.
“So, when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to push back, don’t be afraid to go, ‘well, that’s great, but what if we tried it this way?’ because that’s how history is made!”