Eureka O'Hara: Redemption For the Elephant Queen

Eureka O'Hara: Redemption For the Elephant Queen

Story by Jennifer Hussein / Illustration by Austin Call

For this past season of RuPaul's Drag Race, redemption was the name of the game for Eureka O'Hara. The now-iconic Elephant Queen — who's stay on season 9 was cut short due to a torn ACL — shocked everyone with not only her return to Mama Ru's catwalk, but her swift skyrocket to the finale. While many assumed the multi-hyphenate comeback kid would sashay away early in the race, she proved herself to be more than just a drag superstar: she's hit international status through her "Southern belle gone bad" charisma and couture-meets-LSD stage concoctions.

Now, over two months have passed since the grand finale of the show's most watched season. Since then, O'Hara has had more than enough on her plate — a global tour with her Drag Race class, a body positivity anthem titled "The Big Girl," and a surprising cameo appearance in country star Brandon Stansell's music video for his song, "For You," are just a few of the projects rolling out of her sleeves.

PAPER sat down with Eureka O'Hara to talk everything body positivity, post-Drag Race life, and her thoughts on drag hitting the heteronormative mainstream.

How is your drag persona evolved from the beginning of your career until now?

I started drag really just for the fun of it and to be as feminine as possible. Now, through the progression of my art, it's grown to more of a character. It's all about being big and glam, as well as costumes and also having a purpose. When I started drag I did it for fun. But now, I do it to teach and to have a platform for body positivity, as well as a way to teach self-worth and to spread some general positivity.

Why is body positivity so important for you to focus on?

Everyone deals with insecurities. I have not met a single person who does not deal with some sort of body dysmorphia or issue with a part of themselves. But, the problem is that we're all so focused on that negative image, and really we should be focused on loving and accepting ourselves. That's where body positivity stems from. You should be celebrating your body and everything that you are, and that's how you can transform and spread it around to other people.

How were you able to overcome your self-criticism?

Honestly, I still fight my inner demons everyday. It's something you'll never get over completely, and you just have to remind yourself to work on it every single day. I literally look in the mirror every morning and I tell myself that I'm beautiful, I'm perfect, and that I look like Linda Evangelista, and I remind myself that I'm talented and that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

Even when you feel low or depressed, my motto is to push through and own up to your strengths. It completely changes your mood, and it will push yourself to be happy and confident even if you're feeling a little down on yourself. Whenever you feel down on yourself and you want to just stop and give up, just tell yourself, "No, keep going, let's change this feeling," and it truly works. We have to be our own motivators.

"My motto is to push through and own up to your strengths [...] We have to be our own motivators."

You're a role model now, basically an influencer of sorts. How does that feel to have that kind of responsibility?

In some ways it can be intimidating, but not necessarily for me. At this point in my life, I'm doing well and I'm ready and excited to be a role model. I've been through a lot to get to where I am, but I pride myself on the level of success and organization that I keep my life in, so now I'm in a position to be a role model or someone for people to look up to. And I love helping people, so for me it's just very flattering and it gives me purpose to keep fighting. And sometimes, to help lift yourself and keep the confidence, you need to have something that inspires you. Now, I'm lucky to have the people who look up to me, who really inspire me to keep things going stronger and harder than ever before. I want to become even more successful to inspire everyone even more and to help them lead a better life.

Do you have any moment with a fan that made you realize your influence on people?

The craziest thing is that it happens all of the time. I have people come up to me and tell me how I've helped them with their self-acceptance or helped them learn how to love themselves. I was literally walking down the street yesterday with Kameron Michaels in Australia, and two girls randomly came up to us and they immediately knew it was me. One of them came up to me and just hugged me and we talked for a good minute, and she said, "Thank you. I went through a really bad divorce and you made me understand that what my husband made me think of myself was wrong and that I was strong enough to get through it." She told me that she was talking to a guy for about a month that made her feel like a queen, and she just said thank you to me and that I helped her gain her confidence back.

That was different and very special to me, because that's something we don't talk about a lot in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, especially since we've only had gay marriage around for a couple of years now. So, it's great to see that positive change not only in our community, but in the heteronormative culture as well. And it's great to know that I'm helping to push this message of self-worth into the mainstream. It really was so beautiful to me to see that even people in our heteronormative society are looking up to us. And through the show, we've had so much more representation and a bigger platform to spread our message of love, and it's really cool to see everyone from all different types of background accept it and live by it

Drag culture has become full-blown mainstream. How does it feel to witness its evolution?

It's definitely grown, especially within the last 2 to 3 years. Weirdly, It's insane to see the reach that the show had, especially with the last season, as well as to see how diverse the fan base has grown to be. We have, obviously, the social media fan base. A lot of shows do, and it can be very verbal and a lot of attention can be built from that. But the thing is that we're not only social media-based, there are families and people working everyday lives that don't focus on social media but still tune into the show all over the world. We've tapped into the working class, which is our leading class in society, and that's how this whole drag phenomenon occured. It's insane to see — I've met families who watch the show together. Husbands and boyfriends are finding the humor and excitement and can enjoy the show with their spouses without looking like they have a different sexual orientation than they intend to have. There's always been so much risk, but now socially with media and entertainment, we're moving to a place where people aren't riddled in such fear now because there's a better level of exposure though the show. We've changed people's lives and their opinions on not just the drag community but the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Now people understand it and gained a form of love and trust for it, and it's remarkable.

"It's great to know that I'm helping to push this message of self-worth into the mainstream."

Do you find that more people are joining the drag community now?

Absolutely, I think that anyone who's a fan of the show or drag in general is somehow a part of the community now. Like Mama Ru always says, "You're born naked and the rest is drag." People are really starting to live like that. They're finding their own fierceness, men or women, no matter what their orientation is, and they're finding their place. It's the biggest phenomenon, drag is moving into all types of media, socials, and entertainment. Barriers are being broken, and it's amazing to see. I get excited just thinking about it.

You were one of the only people who were ever in RPDR twice, back-to-back. How does that feel to have that redemption?

You know, the thing is that RuPaul is a very fair person and so is the show. And I know that people have their own opinions, but I went home in season 9 over something I couldn't control and she gave me an opportunity to come back. She left it up to me to do whatever I wanted with that opportunity, and she made it very clear early in season 10, when I was going through a lot of emotions and trying to figure out my own post-traumatic, self-induced stress that was really messing me up. She made it really clear that she brought me back, but she could easily send me home, so I needed to show her I deserved to be there. And I did do that — ever since that second episode, I gave it my all. I was there to compete, and I was going to fight to the end.

And you definitely made it far.

Yeah, I did, but it was hard, for sure. Drag Race is the hardest thing that anyone who performs the way that we do could do, because people forget that we're one of the few people in the entertainment industry to do everything ourselves. We do our own makeup, our own hair, our own costuming and designing, our own preparation for the runway and challenges and things like that. Everything we do, we do it all. We don't have a team of people helping us with makeup or wardrobe or making creative decisions, this show is literally everything on your own. It's a race to the end, and it's one of the hardest things anyone can do. It would be really interesting to see a kind of experiment of people from different realms of social society trying to do what we do. That would be a fun little spoof, maybe one day that will happen. It's a hard game to play.

"Like Mama Ru always says, 'You're born naked and the rest is drag.' People are really starting to live like that."

What does it take for someone to become a drag superstar?

The thing about drag queens is that we are, in a sense, social leaders. We're representation of over-femininity, but also of rebellious people who go against conformity. We push the edge with diversity and art, we show that being different can be celebrated. You have to be all of those things, all while being confident and strong. And it doesn't mean that everyone is going to love you, and no one is adored by everyone. You have to have just as much hate to truly be successful, and that's what I try to remind people. To be a superstar, you have to be hated and loved. You have to be happy, you have to fight for who you are, and you have to be able to put yourself out there without any regret.

Who influences you, in and out of the drag community, to be the drag queen you are today?

My mother has always been the fiercest diva I've ever known. Her name is Ulrike, and she's from Germany. That's where I got my name, and I put an American spin on her name. She's where I got my drag name, she's the one who inspires me the most.

How does she feel about your drag career?

At first she did have her reservations. When I first started doing drag it wasn't really something that shined with success, but as my success grew she became more and more supportive. And she's my biggest fan now, she watches my Instagram stories everyday, and she waits to see what I post so she's caught up with everything I'm doing. And since season 9 aired, she's been diagnosed with throat cancer, and she has not let it hold her down or stop her in any way.

Honestly, that's what made season 10 so much harder too, but her perseverance is what motivated me to go forward. I have a family now to support, my mom can't take care of my sister's kids like she used to, and she has three kids that my mom took care of. My twin sister moved in with my mom to take care of her and her three children, so I have this small group of family that needs me to be there not only financially but emotionally as well. That's what drives me out of bed every day: I have my family that needs me, and I have kids looking up to me because I'm successful. It doesn't matter to them that I'm doing drag, they look up to me because they see that I'm successful while being responsible and doing well. They adore my job because of it. I'm surrounded by all of these amazing women, that's probably why my character is so amazing and strong. It's all I know.

"To be a superstar, you have to be hated and loved. You have to be happy, you have to fight for who you are, and you have to be able to put yourself out there without any regret."

During seasons 9 and 10, we really got to see your confidence build. How does it feel to be able to watch yourself go through that transition?

It's really different to see yourself in that element on TV. But it teaches you a lot about yourself, it's helped me grow and become a larger, more promising person. It helps you learn about yourself more than you realized you needed to. Seeing yourself in that third-person imagery and vulnerable, and how you interact with others and certain situations, and how you reacted, it teaches you about things you might need to change or focus on. It shows you a little bit more of who you are, in the positive and negative ways. It's definitely an interesting wake-up call, and not just personality-wise. You see what your makeup looks like to other people, what your body looks like, things like that. And for me, it really helped. I saw myself on season 9, and I was like, "Oh my god." I'm tall, I'm in good shape, I looked good. For me, it made me realize that I should feel better about myself because I do look good. Getting to see myself, all I could think of was, "Oh bitch, you betta werk!" It's nice to see yourself like that, because you should be confident because you do look good.

What was your inspiration for some of your favorite looks on the show?

I think you can find inspiration from anything you enjoy and love. My final look, the Eureka definition gown, for me was very important and personal. I left season 9 and I left saying, "Eureka, you found it once, and you can find it again." The fans were like, "Eureka, you found it, what does that mean?" And I was inspired by my exit and people's responses to it, so I did a definition gown to spell it out for people and as a funny homage to that moment. And I walked out with the lightbulb on my head, the definition on my dress, and it all felt right.

What's the most engaging part of drag for you?

The moment where your performance number ends and you get the loud muffled screaming from the entire audience. It's just a reassurance that you've done your job and you've entertained. For me, that's my favorite part to get that verification. I have a very close tie to a particular part of drag, I've really grown to love it, and it's being in a studio. There's something about being in front of a camera and in that setting that lights up my heart and my life. It's something I've always wanted to do, to work in TV or film. And to be able to do it in drag too, I feel so free and comfortable. And now I'm getting to live that dream, so I think it's a close tie between the two experiences. But the camera is my favorite place to be, I literally light up in that atmosphere.

"The camera is my favorite place to be, I literally light up in that atmosphere."

Do you have any other plans to do more film or TV work? Is there a Eureka show that we should be crossing our fingers for?

Honestly, I have several goals right now. One would be to host my own show at some point. I also desperately want to be a guest on Saturday Night Live, I'm hoping and wishing for that. And I also have a one-woman show coming out, I'm working on some new music to continue on my song, "The Big Girl." I like to do music in a comedy genre, but I really want to explore TV and film more. So, hopefully I'll end up on another series, or my own show. Maybe even a film or musical. I'm just working on my career, really, but I'm also trying to enjoy my work and also trying to make time to relax. And who knows, maybe you'll see me in All Stars 5.

Are you hinting at a Drag Race comeback?

Next season is All Stars 4, but I definitely need so time, but maybe I'm hinting at something a little bit. But honey, I need at least a year off, so probably not All Stars 4. All Stars 5 might be a maybe, though.