To attempt to describe the energy on the blocks surrounding Upper East Side hotels like The Mark and The Carlyle on the day of Anna Wintour's Met Gala is to attempt to describe the feeling of teeth biting down torturously slow onto already-chipped nails. Anticipation and anxiety is palpable among every fan, passerby, assistant, publicist, reporter, photographer, and hotel staff member that encounters even a slip of celebrity under the pressure of the evening's festivities.
Despite being called "Fashion's Biggest Night," the Gala had yet, up until this year, to invite the kind of celebrity that would not only embody such a weighty night accurately, but would also touch every spectator, in-person or globally: a drag queen.
Related | PAPER People: Aquaria
Like some perfectly crafted punchline, Aquaria, the young starlet of Big Apple nightlife and now winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, became the first drag queen to ever walk the red carpet at yesterday's Met Gala. Fellow Drag Race winner Violet Chachki and RuPaul herself were also in attendance, representing the tidal wave-sized source of fashion and cultural commentary, derivations, and parody at the event.
Aquaria's beginnings in New York City included performances at bars and clubs around the city, but patrons be damned if she every showed up to a party like she wasn't invited to a gala every evening. She shined nightly in avant garde looks from designers like BCALLA and Hanaquist, and made appearances regularly in magazines and on runways.
Aquaria was New York's favorite talent, and upon winning the 10th season of Drag Race, she became the world's favorite talent. It didn't take long for mainstream culture to catch up, and she was soon flying all over the world on tours and even becoming one of the faces of MAC's Viva Glam 25th Anniversary Campaign. Suddenly, Aquaria was put on the A-List — a level of celebrity that the art of drag tends to parody, and a level that events like the Met Gala tend to require of attendees. This intersection is perhaps no more perfect to introduce than at this year's Gala, where the theme is Camp. It's a theme that fully envelopes this type of irony and embraces it lovingly — Camp encourages stars like Aquaria to shimmer and stun like never before.
While she was getting ready for the Met Gala, PAPER caught up with Aquaria in her hotel room to talk about the theme of this year's Gala, her journey to the red carpet, and what this full-circle moment means to her.
The biggest thing I wanted to talk about is how this is a full circle moment, so let's go back. You were Miss FIT 2015, and now here we are at fashion's biggest night. What does that path mean to you?
Pretty good for a dropout. Dropping out is not such a negative thing, especially when you're choosing to pursue your dreams. It sure has been quite the "Haha" to the whole school system. I was back there about a month ago or so hosting the Miss FIT thing, making almost enough to pay back my student loans. I'm like, "Look at how the tables have turned!" I'm not laughing at the people who are still working at their jobs and the things that they wanted to do and the things they went to school for, but I'm at the Met Gala not doing any of that. It seems more exciting, fun, and festive.
School's just not for everybody, especially for the creative arts. It's not always the best option.
There's a very collegiate way to go about art. I'm a huge fan of school and higher education in general, but I just realized that I could be making so many more people happy doing what I wanted to do, which is a little more fun to do, so it was kind of a win-win. I don't have to be stuck behind a sewing machine or drawing nine-head-tall women every day for just a couple people to enjoy. I can do what I enjoy and have tons and tons of people enjoy that.
Fast forward a couple of years, you see drag as a form of expression?
Do you see drag as completely intertwined with Camp, this year's theme?
I think 99% of the time, yes. Maybe not 99% of the time, but if you are present in your creative process when it comes to fashion choices and styling, and choices of what to perform and how to go about your makeup, I think there's always a level of Camp that's inherently attached to drag and the queer performative lifestyle in general. I think some people turn up the volume in some specific areas or show Camp more obviously through their art, but just name any drag queen, and you can definitely pinpoint areas of their choices that would certainly fall under the heading of "Camp."
"I think there's always a level of Camp that's inherently attached to drag and the queer performative lifestyle in general."
So when you were preparing for this, what was the process like?
I was just very excited and honored that people were interested. To this day, I can't believe that I perform for people and people enjoy it. Getting recognized in this regard is just really fantastic. It's a cool achievement for me and a cool achievement for drag queens in general, and LGBTQ visibility. From there, it's game on. "What are we wearing, how quick can we get a wig?"
What are you wearing tonight?
Tonight I'll be wearing a look from Galliano's first collection for Margiela, so I'm very excited for that. It's a black, cascading ruffles, big silk boa moment. It's a more downplayed color story, but the decadence and the flamboyance in the detail that goes into something to be categorized as "Camp."
It's an understated drag look, because you drag is in conversation with Camp?
Obviously, I'm a drag queen. I don't have to prove anything to anyone, but I also don't have to prove that what I'm doing is drag-y, camp, or whatever. I think instead of going the hyper-Liberace, fun ostrich route that I would normally lean towards for something so obvious, we went a little understated because we'll leave the dressing like a clown to the straight people. I'm sure whenever this is published it'll be a lot funnier.
Who are you most excited to see?
I mean, I'm sure a lot of people are really excited to see me.
I'm very sure about that. I was sitting in The Mark lobby and it was just icon after icon. It sets in that these are huge celebrities — this really is fashion's biggest night. The fact that a queer person, and a drag queen, is going and representing, it's...
It's really cool. There's a million other different drag queens that could have been invited, so to be one of the few is very cool.
Are you performing at all tonight?
Not tonight, I feel like they've got that covered for tonight. I did have a blast performing at Sally Singer's pre-Met party at The Stonewall the other night. It was just as fabulous of a crowd, really great vibes and really got everyone excited for today. As far as today, I'm just excited to see some people I know, some people I don't know. I'm not big into actors. I like to see things, I don't really always know them, so I'm sure there's plenty of people I don't know. I'm just excited to strut around.
Have you seen on social media that a lot of people aren't expecting this? I've seen posts that are like, "If you don't invite a drag queen to the Met Gala and the theme is Camp, you're not doing it right." What do you think the reaction will be like?
It'll just be very exciting. It almost levels the playing field, because I feel like the drag queens have a lot more creativity than maybe some of the other celebrities and maybe some of the other celebrities have a lot more of the fashion influence and they know people. We all kind of even out tonight and we're all playing the same game, so it just elevates drag in general and I'm happy to do it for them.
Are you planning a wig change?
The first look is a polyurethane and acrylic masterpiece by Joey George and that's for the Gala. The look on the right is by a Parisian wig stylist and that will be for the afterparty. Because it's Camp to switch your wigs!
This whole process must have felt surreal. What was the timeframe like, getting the Galliano piece and everything together?
That was a lot quicker than later. I've been on tour in Europe for the past month or so, so it's been tricky to get me anywhere on a couple of off days, or if I have to skip a show and whatnot. After our show in Berlin one night, I flew the next morning straight to Paris. I did the fitting, and the look that we ended up going with was the one that just felt the most suited for me. I flew back to Cologne, Germany, later that night and got in drag for the show. Everything's been very crammed, but everything's all fallen in line. I feel like I do a lot of my best work at the last minute. Not at the last minute, but under a time crunch that I can actually feel. I'm excited to see how everything comes together tonight.
I mean, that's drag. Getting ready on the fly. The first time I ever saw you perform, I was in the crowd at a Charli XCX concert a Le Poisson Rouge downtown, and you were dancing for Brooke Candy. It feels like we're moving uptown.
I haven't been this uptown in quite awhile, I haven't been here for this long, in New York City, for quite awhile as well.
Do you live here still?
I mean, I float, but I still live here in the city. I have a New York, New York address, but I'm just always touring, always traveling, experiencing, and performing, so it's very rare that I get to drop in, but what better reason?
I was gonna say, this is the best party booking of all time, and you get to just enjoy it.
Yeah, it's a shame because unfortunately I'm missing a couple dates right now for the Werq the World tour, but I don't normally miss stuff like that unless it's filming obligations with Drag Race or whatever, or an event like this that I don't think any fan or enjoyer of drag, or mine, would really be too burnt up about.
"To be doing the highest level of drag and then come back to New York and do the highest level of fashion is pretty cool."
If they're a fan, they'd be excited.
Especially because it's a whole group show, so it's not like I'm the show. It sucks, but with this, hopefully I'll be just as famous enough next year to come back to those cities that I had to miss.
Is performing still your passion?
Oh, yeah. I love performing, I definitely light up on the stage and with this year on Werq the World, my numbers are super exciting, the costumes are really crazy and over-the-top. I'm literally flying in my number. I have a Madonna EMA-bedtime-story hair moment with all these fans and stuff. It's all just very the highest level of drag that tours around, that I know of. To be doing the highest level of drag and then come back to New York and do the highest level of fashion is pretty cool.
Would you ever do a solo tour?
I've had quite a couple one woman shows, and those are really fun and enjoyable, some of the most fun that I've had performing have been in those shows. It's really cool to connect with the crowd and be all crazy and all over the stage. It's nine or so numbers every night and it's very draining because I'm very athletic on stage. Even the little things that I do, I put a lot of muscle movement into them. That type of touring is always really fun. It's just a little bit of both. You don't have to choose one or the other, you can kind of make everything work.
Pulling all the threads together, would you see yourself re-entering a New York nightlife space again? Or would you want to keep entering the heteronormative spaces and continue to queer them?
I mean, fucking with the straights is always fun and easy. I totally enjoy coming back to New York, every time I come back I try to go to whatever party any of my friends are throwing. I try to see some of the local drag here in the city because it's all so fantastic.
When are you wearing this bodysuit?
This will be for the after party. I don't know if I'm looking forward to taking my makeup off, but I'm very excited to completely transform myself into this sequin facekini moment and just fuck with everyone.
Do you know what to expect from the after party or the structure of the night?
Girl, I didn't even know you were coming to interview me.
No I did, I'm fucking with you. I'm just going with the flow, I'm just happy to be here.
Last question, and it might be a cheesy one — but if we could contextualize it all under the bright lights, the flashes of the cameras, the red carpet underneath you — if you could say anything to baby queens, fans of drags, people aspiring to make it in the entertainment world, what would that be?
Just follow your dreams, don't let people tell you otherwise. Convince someone that you're decent, and dreams come true. It could happen to you. Oh, and also, "Haha-haha-ha. Look at how cool I look!"
Photos via BFA