The now cult-like, Rupaul’s Drag Race is known for plucking talent from obscurity and hurling small town heroes into drag queen super stardom. The eighth season of the reality TV show was no exception. The most recent season showcased ChiChi Devayne from Shreveport, Louisiana, a self-confessed “cheap queen” with a lot of talent and little to show for it. While the other contestants flounced into the work room clad in designer drag, Chichi arrived in her own hand-made trash bag couture topped with her “good wig”. Over the course of the season we learned of Chichi’s struggles growing up in the ghettos of Shreveport, being in and out of gangs and struggling to get out of a place from which people usually don’t leave. As seasoned and celebrated queens fell under the pressures of the exhausting competition, Devayne never seemed to run out of steam, constructing looks for the runway in her hotel room the night before their presentation and upstaging her fellow queens with acrobatic lipsyncs that saved her from elimination on multiple occasions. What was perhaps most relatable about Chichi Devayne wasn’t her southern charm or her undeniable talent, it was how over the course of the season we watched her come to terms with her past and her present to excel in the competition.
Chichi Devayne was routinely pegged for being a country queen by both the judges and the other contestants. Although she often tried to escape that brand and carve out a new niche, she was criticized for not being true to herself and was instead advised to “own that bayou charm”. Chichi’s narrative is all too familiar to me. As someone who was raised in a small rural community in Canada and now lives in an Asian metropolis, I am far flung from selling gourds on the side of a gravel road and waking up early to catch leopard frogs in the long grass. Sewing my polarized identities together has always posed a problem for me. A lot of my interests, skills and perspectives were informed by the rural culture that was once all I knew and as I accumulate life experience the distance between me and the green hills of the valley increases.
My first response was to resent the place that I was born into because of the strife it caused me. This too, was Chichi’s tactic. With the struggles of Shreveport behind her she hoped to reinvent herself. She pushed against being labeled “ghetto” or “country” because those identities represent a Chichi who wasn’t fulfilled. Both Chichi and myself saw our humble pasts as an obstacle that we overcame or as a chapter that had closed. During the judges’ critiques Chichi mentioned how “its damn hard to get out of the ghetto” and that she doesn’t want to be “ghetto”. I too, thought that having graduated to life in the city my rural roots were irrelevant. However, the always harsh Michelle Visage provided some illuminating critiques. “Just be you,” she said. “We dont need you to be somebody else”. These simple words were what allowed Chichi to really channel her energy and elevate herself as a contender for the crown.
I think what Chichi Devayne and I both realized was that in order to be a fully-realized version of ourselves we need to acknowledge both our present and our past as being parts of that harmony. Chichi needed to embrace her bayou charm and humble reference points to further herself in the present. I am not a rural bumpkin, nor am I still traumatized by my small town youth, but my regional accent, my encyclopedic knowledge of poultry breeds, and my ability to split wood are just a few of the qualities that contribute to my charm and allow others to relate to me in a unique way. Present Michael isn’t up for re-invention because there is a life-long narrative that leads up to this point. A tree cannot stand without its roots and although to me, they often don’t seem very nice, to others the narrative that traces back to my roots is full of rich sounds, vibrant colours, and beautiful originality. Roots are almost entirely hidden underground, but the parts that are visible only serve to compliment the tree itself, or in some cases the queen herself.