Interview: Drag Queen Raja Talks About His Start In Drag, Coming Out To His Family and His Favorite Beauty Tip
It’s been a whirlwind at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts this week as the museum has initiated Reset, their new arts programming that has introduced a diverse lineup of pop culture and avant-garde oriented programing, such as last evening’s stunning U.S. premiere of John Cage’s “Thirty Pieces for 5 Orchestras,” that had all 80 plus musicians from the St. Louis Symphony positioned throughout the award-winning building.
But perhaps nothing has pushed the envelope as much as the upcoming event in collaboration with Glitterbomb Productions, which will include local drag queen Siren and other artists from St. Louis’ vibrant drag scene in an event that explores the emotion in universally evident facial expressions. Makeup by local artists and manicures by Vanity Projects will also be available for attendees. But without a doubt the headline act is a performance by renowned Los Angeles-based performance artist Raja.
ALIVE caught up with Raja and discussed his beginnings in drag, how his family accepts his career and sexuality, and just about everything else, including what makeup he uses and his number one beauty tip.
ALIVE: You have achieved some renown today, but it must have been quite different when you were starting out. Tell us about your beginning in drag?
Raja: I’m going to be 40 this year. I started doing drag when I was about 16 years old. It was a different when I first started. I started very early by sneaking out of my parents’ house waking up my friends and going to nightclubs in LA. It was during another time, with the Club Kids and house music. Drag, up to that point, had been mostly about sequins and shoulder pads and queens looking like Dynasty characters, and they were part of a new crop of kids who were inspired from the goth and the punk scene. I’m definitely from the early 90s club scene, part of that little group of misfits. Especially in high school. We didn’t have things like Will and Grace. We didn’t have a lot of gay figures to look up to other than RuPaul. It was a very rebellious time, being in school and being these colorful kids; it was our statement. I experimented a lot with fashion and clothing—using my resources. I was a broke kid in high school. I used my allowance money to go to thrift shops and invented a look. That’s what we did at that time. We didn’t have the Internet. We just did our own exploration. And that’s how I started.
ALIVE: When people come to see you at the Pulitzer, what can they expect from your show?
Raja: What I’m realizing is people have an expectation of what drag is supposed to look like. There’s definitely a certain style, a certain genre of performance that people continually do and it usually involves lip-synching. Actually, I don’t know what I’m going to perform yet. I’m just gauging it according to mood and that’s how I pick what I do. I think when people experience my performance, it’s drag, but I try to do it in my own personal signature—my own fingerprint, if you will. I love the idea of femininity and I explore a lot of sexual ideas. I like the idea of being sultry and mysterious. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I know what my mission is; I like to leave people with an emotion.
ALIVE: What is a typical day like for you? Is it a regular-person-in-show-business day?
Raja: You know, I would imagine it to be. I think I’ve really customized my life with whatever it is I’m doing at the moment. I don’t know if people do it the same way I do.
I live in Southern California so my days are usually quite sunny and pretty. I am a pot smoker (laughs). It’s virtually legal here so it’s definitely part of my life. I am an advocate for legalizing marijuana. It doesn’t take up my entire day, but I live a very enchanted life. It’s lovely here and I’m constantly creating. I have a sewing machine going at all times, and I’m constantly working on my social networking.
It’s a very creative environment here, you know? I often call my house “Villa Villekulla,” which is the house that Pippi Longstocking lived in. I like to surround myself with all these magical things I collect during my travels. My apartment looks very much like a giant walk-in closet. It has paintings and artwork everywhere. I try to keep my normal day surrounded by creativity. I loved Pippi as a kid and I always wanted to live in that sort of place with constant play and I can escape from whatever else I do and strategize my next step in a pretty cool, comfortable, magical environment.
ALIVE: What famous personalities do you admire?
Raja: I admire freaks, people with amazing personal style and people who go against the grain. I love artists like Leigh Bowery and fashion icons like Anna Piaggi, Karl Lagerfeld and Diana Vreeland, and the Olsen twins, and Dita Von Teese. And Selena; I love Selena. I could listen to Selena over and over again. I love people who really leave an imprint and a legacy in their own personal style and their own bravery.
ALIVE: What brand of makeup do you use? Is it professional or over-the-counter?
Raja: I use a number of brands. You have to, even as a makeup artist. Each brand offers its own special products. I use a lot of MAC. I use a lot of Kryolan and a lot of Make-up Forever. I use just a number of things. There are things I get in drug stores that are just as wonderful as things you get in expensive department stores, so I just mix that. That’s the way you get the best results in anything you do; just mix it up a little bit.
ALIVE: You mentioned you always have a sewing machine going. Is that where you get your clothing?
Raja: I make a lot of my things. The things that are a little more elaborate, that I conjure up in my mind, I have to make it myself. Sometimes I ask a friend who sews well, but it’s just something I have to do. I’m really a big believer of vintage shopping. I love going through dumpsters and just finding things. I love hunting for treasure and I get the same emotional lift as when I go shopping. I can shop at beautiful boutiques and I can also go to the Goodwill; it’s the same thing to me. It’s exciting to get to wear the ideas that you conjured up in your head.
ALIVE: How does your family react to Raja?
Raja: It’s taken a few years. My father was a minister and he passed away a few years ago. You know, I sort of hid from them for a very long time. I think that the dialogue that’s happening in society right now—the exposure of LGBT people and drag queens—really helped bring my parents to understand. It sort of just helped us have more honest dialogue about it. My father got to see me win RuPaul’s Drag Race before he died. It was an amazing thing, you know? My family loves it. It’s just part of our life. It’s who I am and they love me. It’s been great. My family has been very, very supportive of me. It really has noting to do with this. We love each other and this is how it works.
ALIVE: It’s great that increased exposure helped your parents come to understand you more clearly.
Raja: Yeah, my parents have never really expressed any sort of homophobia. It was really more my worry about the reaction to my coming out and being that among their peers and their reaction to it. I worried about that and I kept it secret for my family’s sake, but they always knew. I just never really shared. Over the 20 years I’ve been doing this, our relationship now is very open and they’re very supportive of it. And they love it. There’s a lot of perks to being related to Raja. (laughs)
ALIVE: Like what?
Raja: Well, you know, if we’re at a local mall or in Orange County, people recognize me and give us special favors; we get through the line quicker at Cheesecake Factory and we get that little extra, or that little extra gift with purchase when we’re at a makeup counter (laughs). They think it’s great. My niece just turned 12 this year and I just started to talk to her more about it. I showed her some pictures of me and I showed her some Google images. She thinks it’s fantastic—her uncle is a beautiful woman. My nieces are awesome. It’s nice to be able to share it with them.
ALIVE: Do you have a beauty tip to share?
Raja: Um, moisturize. I was watching the Golden Globes the other night and Jacqueline Bisset was up there accepting an award, and she was just doing this weird rambling and sounded sort of like this crazy person. But she had this one bit of great advice—a beauty tip—that I’m applying to my life; she said that forgiveness was the best beauty tip that she could give. To stay young and beautiful is to forgive.
The drag events happen Saturday evening from 7pm until midnight. For more information and the complete schedule of events throughout ‘Reset,” visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts website.