PAPER People: Aquaria
PAPER People 2018

PAPER People: Aquaria

Story by Hilton Dresden / Photography by Ben Hassett

PAPER has always been a place of opportunity, a place that spotlights new talent and people who are doing tremendous things. We've spent over 20 years bringing you the Beautiful People issue, which identified amazing people who were doing things differently and using their creativity, ideas and success to transform culture and create new opportunities for artists, audiences and fans. This year, we have decided to rename the portfolio and call it exactly what it is: PAPER People. — Drew Elliott, Editor-in-Chief

For many of us, Aquaria was already an Insta-famous name before the queen won the latest season of RuPaulʼs Drag Race in June. No surprise, really: week after week, our collective jaw had been left dragging on the floor as she obliterated her competition through her spot-on impersonation of Melania Trump, her skeleton-masked evil twin, and runway silhouettes ranging from oil-slicked mermaids to high-fashion bunnies with floating top hats.

But her most memorable achievement on television lies beneath the surface: "Coming out of the show a happier person, a better drag queen, and a nicer human makes me proud," she explains to us. Aquaria entered the competition with a reputation that preceded her: a queen with hundreds of thousands of followers that had barely reached the legal drinking age. Many quickly pegged her as the bitchy, unfeeling glam bitch archetype and, perhaps for a moment, that was the description she fit. But something shifted over the course of the competition. Perhaps itʼs when she apologized to the group for wishing her sister had been sent home. Perhaps itʼs when she shocked us all with "Any hole is a goal" — proving, against all odds, that sheʼs just as quick-witted as she is beat for the gods.

Unlike many other mainstream queens, who see their respective drag personae as separate characters from themselves, Aquaria (whose real name is Giovanni Palandrani) says, "A lot of times Aquaria is just an extension of what Iʼve got going on inside of me." That comes through in Aquariaʼs breathtaking runway looks, which often fall more in the middle-zone of the gender spectrum than in the classic high-femme looks so many other drag performers are known for.

Expensive as she may look, Aquariaʼs story is one of hard work — of a boy from a typical middle-class family who moved to the Big Apple to pursue dreams of fashion design. And thatʼs what we really wanted to know more about when we sat down with Americaʼs Reigning Drag Superstar for a chat: who is the person living behind the looks?

I want to hear more about the Giovanni side of things. Do you remember the first time you got into a dress and decided you wanted to create this character?

I was always very into Halloween and costumes as a young child. I would dress up as characters from movies. I would always watch Cats, and my mom put me in a Power Rangers outfit, and Iʼd tie on a tail to make it look like a cat costume... I loved Annie when I was little. The costuming and theatricality of these movies always stayed with me. It was a natural progression — it wasnʼt a moment of putting on a dress and saying, 'Now Iʼm going to be Aquaria.ʼ

Is Giovanni similar to Aquaria? In terms of personality and gender understanding?

Thereʼs definitely a side of Aquaria thatʼs not super girly, and also not too masculine, but living in a more neutral gray area, compared to a super binary queen. I think Aquaria is not necessarily a totally different character for me, like some queens do. There are many elements of Aquaria that mirror, or are at least amplifications of, what goes on in Giovanniʼs head. But my expression of myself, of the things I see going on in the world... Iʼve never been someone who likes labels. That sounds corny, but Iʼve never found a need to label or identify things. I donʼt define drag, drag is defined by me. So in regards to that, gender has never been something I thought about too hard. Itʼs always just been whatever the fuck I want. The world is mine. I love to play with gender constructs, but I donʼt necessarily feel like I need to define it.

You came in with this reputation that maybe you were colder, and not connecting with people in an easy way. But you seemed super friendly the whole time, and you have this team of artists that Iʼm assuming are your friends. Do you feel like thereʼs any truth to that reputation in real life?

Personally, Iʼm not very social to begin with. I donʼt have a lot of friends. And I donʼt work well in large groups of loud personalities where you canʼt get a word in. When I found myself in that situation on the show I took a backseat and tried not to really communicate much. As people were leaving I began to get more comfortable, and then here we were back at the reunion, and I didnʼt have much to say. There was too much shit going on.

In New York I mind my own business unless Iʼm out working. Iʼm not used to having friends. I donʼt think theyʼre necessarily the most important to have for me all the time, just because I also donʼt have the time to enjoy friendships. People can think Iʼm unfriendly and unwelcoming, but I think itʼs just the opposite — it just takes a little more time for me.

But you have these collaborators who work with you, and thatʼs a skill in and of itself. So looking at the team of design people you have, it almost seems like making friends is one of your strengths. Do you consider these artists friends?

It depends. I like to work with a bunch of new designers. For me, I wanted the body of work I brought to the show to not only be an example of my ideas but also wanted to give some air time to friends and people whose work I like in the city. I donʼt think that I necessarily have lots of friends but I have lots of great connections from living in New York and working in the club scene. I definitely have made a lot of connections in the fashion industry. Iʼve always been involved in fashion to begin with. I think a lot of my strength comes from my surroundings. For someone like Monique, living in Kansas City, youʼre not going to have all these fashion friends. I certainly donʼt have an upper hand on a financial level — it has more to do with where I live.

In regards to other peopleʼs perception of you, specifically over social media, Iʼm assuming you get a lot of backlash online, as any famous person does. How do you maintain sanity with having a social media presence and knowing when to put the phone down?

I donʼt mind reading comments and stuff because I like to see what people think about me. In the same way that I like to learn from my mistakes, reading a comment might not be the nicest, but might have an element of truth or be something worth hearing. Iʼm already online because Iʼm vain as hell. I think you just have to be very smart about it, and know yourself, and know that people write mean things because thereʼs something wrong with their life…Iʼm generally receptive to any critique, as long as itʼs valid. If itʼs bullshit, you get blocked. They say not to waste your time blocking, but bitch, sometimes the three extra seconds to block will relieve you better than writing a nasty comment back. Once you appreciate the block itʼs over for these hoes. I donʼt want to deal with negativity when it comes to me or the people on this show.

Do you find the fame you have found on this show to be a positive thing? How are you doing as a person?

I donʼt think itʼs actually too overwhelming, necessarily. I really enjoy a lot of elements of it. There are definitely some things that are annoying about it — I canʼt go out for a drink in the city and expect it not to be a meet and greet. If I go into any store, or am just walking down the street, thereʼs always a chance of getting recognized, which you donʼt always want. I think itʼs cool, and it gives me a really big audience to share my art, and my looks, and my performances with. Itʼs exciting and motivating. I have a lot of good ideas in my head, and always struggled in the earlier years of my career to see things to fruition, whether it was for financial reasons or me not having the proper connections or the ability to do such things. But now that I have this level of fame, those things are easier, and itʼs more possible for me to create.

What was your proudest moment as a drag queen yourself, and what was your favorite look from another queen this season?

Well, as far as myself, I really enjoyed winning Snatch Game, and I know thatʼs a big deal. I think seeing how well people received my win made me very proud. I wanted to do well in that but didnʼt realize how much people would grow to appreciate me through that, which was nice because I felt like I needed to still prove myself to a lot of people. This is their first impression of me, and just because I say Iʼm here to do something doesnʼt mean I necessarily can. Coming out of the show a happier person, a better drag queen, and a nicer person makes me proud. My favorite fashion moment from the season has to be Asiaʼs Patti LaBelle Tweety Bird look. All the choices were fantastic, and the hair just set it off. I think Asiaʼs really a stunning designer and visionary. She knows how to put really cool and different things together and make a very unique image.

What would be your favorite fashion moment from your own looks?

My mermaid look — I didnʼt realize I was taking such a dramatic departure from everyone else. A lot of people donʼt realize the level of thought in the details, and the political message in the look. The commentary about beauty — my makeup was completely not there, I hardly wore any. Thereʼs commentary about global warming, and conservation, and damage to the earth.

Youʼve been talking about your growth, and evolution — what do you see as your next steps? Five year plan, ten year plan, will you always want to be doing drag?

Iʼm a 22-year-old, and like most people my age I donʼt have a final plan in life. And thatʼs totally fine. I love what I do with drag, and at this point in my life would love to keep doing that. To have such a positive reception from fans and the public as I have recently, I think I have so much in my head that I can keep giving, so if there are ways that I can continue to keep giving that forever, and it makes me happy, then Iʼll feel very blessed to do that. But also I have many other interests, a lot of them drag-related. I went to fashion school for a year and a week. Thatʼs not so long, but maybe down the road I'll find my love for fashion again, and expand that out a little and go into a fashion realm. I donʼt necessarily see that happening for me right now, but 22-year-olds are very ever-changing people, I think. But I also want to be in control of a lot more elements of my drag, if possible. Iʼm very detail-oriented, and like to micromanage my art. So as far as music, for example, I want to be more involved. I feel like a have a lot of paths I could take with my drag, because Iʼve given myself ample opportunity and proven Iʼm at least moderately decent at several aspects of the art. Iʼm excited to see where I can push myself.

Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Grooming by Penelope Vazquez
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen
2nd Photo Assistants: Eric Hobbs and Chris Moore