Sapphira Cristál Wants You To Know You're More Than 'Enough'

Sapphira Cristál Wants You To Know You're More Than 'Enough'

By Joan SummersMay 31, 2024

Sapphira Cristál is all set to debut a new album and a headlining tour, "The Cristál Ball." But first, she has to get a few things off her chest. (Seriously, drag is heavy!)

The self-proclaimed bad bitch of Philadelphia needs no introduction. But just in case, the queen tells me, pantomiming speaking a crowd: “I think I’m a bad bitch. But do you think I’m a bad bitch? You do too? You do too? Okay cool. We are all on the same page.” Fresh off a monumental run on RuPaul’s Drag Race, runner-up to Nymphia Wind but first in Philly, Cristál joins me on Zoom to talk about her new single, “Enough.”

On her upcoming album, for which “Enough” is the first single, Cristál sought to combine her burgeoning love for funk music and the opera she’s become known for. “It's something that my voice does really, really well,” she tells PAPER. “I wanted to write funk music and just go modern disco, modern funk, something that not only the kids can get into, but the adults as well.” She worked with Ocean Kelly for the single, who produced and co-wrote the track with Cristál alongside fellow writers Ashley Gordon and James Blaszko. “It is amazing what you can do with a musician who just opens themselves up to all possibilities. And Ocean was basically like, ‘Send me some ideas.’ I sent them some singing. They sent me back some musical ideas, and we just grew from there,” she says.

Like on television, talent and execution are unparalleled in Cristál’s music. She knows this too. A veteran of pageantry, Cristál cut her teeth in a gladiatorial drag arena that’s also produced legends such as Sasha Colby, or recognizable Miss'd America winners like Honey Davenport, Mimi Imfurtst, Victoria “Porkchop” Parker. “I’m a girl who likes to check my dress. I like to check it in any pageant system. I check in on the street. I like to check it in the bar. I like to check it on a stage, in a club. I like to check it on the pageant stage”

As for what fans can expect from the upcoming tour, Cristál tells PAPER: “I've been doing drag for 15 years, so you're gonna see a veteran on the stage. I've been doing drag for 15 years, but I've been performing since I was six years old. Thirty years I've been performing on stage, and you're gonna see a veteran do exactly what I was born to do. Sit back, relax and have a good time.” There will be humor with all that talent too, of course. An alchemy that, as Cristál says, has come to define the drag scene in Philadelphia. “It’s always a little tongue-in-cheek when it comes to Philadelphia drag. It’s hilarious. Even the most serious thing, at some point, you’re going to laugh. I think that is distinctly Philadelphia: make them laugh, honey. If you can’t make them laugh, what are you doing here?”

Tickets for “The Cristál Ball” tour are on sale now. Check out our conversation below.

You’re on this new journey with your music career. What can we expect from this project?

The new era is like the old era, I just got more people seeing it now. I am here to spread love, kindness, acceptance and compassion, and self love, self kindness and self compassion. “Enough” is my love song to that exact sentiment. We live in a world where we're all on social media. We're all super connected, and we can all see each other succeed, which is amazing. But unfortunately, that doesn't breed this feeling of, “Oh, you can do it. And I can do it too.” It happens to be the feeling of, “Oh, they can do this, but I can't or I'm not good enough. Because of this. Or, I wish I had that.” It’s a feeling of jealousy and self-doubt, when baby, you're enough, you're way more than enough. And once you get to that point in your mind, you'll be able to do exactly what those other people can do. Maybe even more, but you have to really understand that you are uniquely positioned to be who you are. Nobody else can do you.

Was there anyone that you worked with for the song or the album that you can tell us about?

I really love the artist Ocean Kelly. I love my management. They said, “Who do you want to work with?” And I just threw out the names and they're like, “Well, we actually can have some of that happen.” And so Ocean Kelly, an amazing producer, was able to truly collaborate on this music. It is amazing what you can do with a musician who just opens themselves up to all possibilities. And Ocean was basically like, “Send me some ideas.” I sent them some singing. They sent me back some musical ideas, and we just grew from there.

I was going down to the South anyway, so I drove to Ocean Kelly's house, and got on Zoom with my director for Soundcake at Lincoln Center. The director is also a really good friend of mine, and he helped me focus on the call. Two of the big things that I wanted to do were funk, and some early modern sounds. I also wanted to influence a lot of the music with opera and my love of classical music. There's a lot of that crossover in this entire project.

Photo by Joe Mac

I want to talk about Soundcake. How does it feel to be in this moment, as a drag performer, watching this work that performers have done to build out what people think is possible for drag performers, or the art of drag? To be able to showcase opera with another queen?

Monét and I are doing this, and we’ve invited Thorgy to join in with us. Thorgy is the original classical girl on Drag Race. And then Monét finally stepped into her power, as I call it, because every time she was on Drag Race, she decided to do something else. But it was like, girl, you’ve got this amazing talent that you have just been putting to the side. Who knows why. I love that she’s stepped into her power, and it’s done nothing but open so many doors for her. It made it so much easier when I did it. As I said, when you see someone do something that you wish you could do, you could have two reactions. One of the reactions could be jealousy, the other one could be — and the one I always prefer is — “Oh, well, if she can do it, then that means it’s possible.” If I’ve seen that it’s possible that means it’s that much easier for me to figure out how to do it for myself.

I’m curious: even before Drag Race, when you were at pageants, or performing early in your career — was it just, “I’m a fantastic opera singer, and I should sing opera and do drag at the same time.” Was there an a-ha moment?

I would probably say when I was in high school, I did drag as Leontyne Price” and then in college, I did drag as Leontyne Price my freshman year. I walked into my voice lesson that day, because I had a lesson that was on Halloween day. I just started making my teachers teach me how to sing as a sopranista. It was something that I planned on doing at some point, and knew I had the talent. When drag came along, I was like, “Oh, well, clearly I’m going to sing and do drag.” It wasn’t even a thought. But at some point, in the beginning, queens didn’t didn’t sing in drag. That’s what they told me. But then I sang, and getting into the pageant system, the queens were like, “You can sing, why don’t you just do that?”

I’ve always placed, if I didn’t win, very high. Because of singing. Singing, always. Every single time, the score is higher than anything else.

Pageantry is one of my favorite things as a lover of drag. For all the sameness of the pageant world, the girls you see rise above the system, or transform it, are people like you, or Sasha Colby, where you have something about you that breaks the mold.

I like pageantry because I’m a girl who likes to check my dress. I like to check it in any pageant system. I check in on the street. I like to check it in the bar. I like to check it on a stage, in a club. I like to check it on the pageant stage, I like to check it out. I think that it’s very important to be a person who meets people where they are. And so I have been able to become the queen I am because I like to be in all communities and check it to make sure that… I think I’m a bad bitch. But do you think I’m a bad bitch? You do, too? You do, too? Okay, cool. We are all on the same page. Oh, you don’t think I’m a bad bitch? Why? Okay, I’ll figure it out, I’ll come back, and I’ll say,“Now am I a bad bitch? And then they say, “Yes, you are a bad bitch.”

That work has paid off. I caught your homecoming show, for lack of a better word, at Fabrika. I think I’m saying it correctly, I can never tell. It’s “Fab-reeka,” right?

It’s whatever you say, nobody knows! You see, it’s Russian, so you can call it whatever you want. We’re in America, who knows!

Not only did you bring the house down, but that show, and brunch specifically, is such a fabulous showcase of Philly drag, and what is so exciting about the scene here in our city. Has it been fulfilling to see that style of drag our city has become known for showcased on the world stage?

This drag, and Philadelphia, has grown to where it is today, and I am very happy to have been a part of that growth. Philadelphia drag, in comparison to some other cities, is much younger. I feel like there are no mistakes, and the right time is exactly when things happen. When I got to finally be on the world stage, everyone else in Philadelphia was also ready to show up in that way.

Are there any elements of Philly drag that you would be able to pick out and say are distinctly Philadelphia?

It’s always a little tongue-in-cheek when it comes to Philadelphia drag. It’s hilarious. Even the most serious thing, at some point, you’re going to laugh. I think that is distinctly Philadelphia: make them laugh, honey. If you can’t make them laugh, what are you doing here?

Our city definitely doesn’t take itself so seriously.

We barely take ourselves seriously, and honestly, I love it. It really gives you some levity, really helps you take everything so wholeheartedly. But on the other hand, you know, you don’t fuck with us.

I would say that you also changed the game in a big way, by having a resolution passed in your honor. The first of its kind for Philly, and the world of Drag Race. When that happened, and when it came about, did it feel surreal for you?

I didn’t even know what it was! I was like, what’s that? Okay, cool, that sounds fun. But to be there, and be present with all these council people. The actual floor of City Hall where we were was so full, it was at capacity. So they had to open up the second floor, and there were lots of people up there. I was like, “What are we here for right now?” It was very surreal, but I cried internally, because I had makeup on. It was really interesting to be there in that space. I feel so honored, and I felt so much love in that room from my council people, from the people who were there, but also just from the city. I felt so much love being in Philadelphia.

Dude, I was at Home Depot the other day, and this wonderful woman walked up to me, and she just screamed “RuPaul!” I was like, “I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race!” She was like, “Yes, I don’t think you’re RuPaul. Clearly. She said very nice things, and two minutes later, I walked away, and then we crossed each other again and she goes “Sapphira Cristál! That’s your name. I got it, I know your name, I remember now.” It’s just wonderful to be able to affect people you don’t know. They don’t know you, but they do know that you are a sweet, loving, fierce competitor, and you represented their city in a way that made them very proud.

I was on assignment the day that you got the resolution, and my roommate texted me: “Sapphira was just made the mayor of Philadelphia.” And sent me a photo. There was a moment where my brain just read that and accepted it. Like, oh yeah, that makes sense. They made her mayor. My brain didn’t even question that.

You were like, “Because that’s how that works!”

It was electric to see the whole city unite around — rather than a sports team — a drag queen. I think it was probably the first time in the city’s history that’s happened.

I mean, people who have never watched Drag Race before in their life, straight men, women, kids. This woman walked up to me at some event, and she said “My kids are Sapphira Cristál fans. Usually they’re Eagles fans, but we have gotten the entire house on the Sapphira train, and they are watching you every week.” I was like, your kids? How old are your kids? And they were like, five, six, seven years old.

We’re battling, even in this state, people trying to take away our rights, and trying to say that we are evil, that we are perverse. There are people who are saying my children support you, and they are inspired by you. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not perverse, I’m just bad! I’m everything that people want in a queen, and I know that, and I’m very proud of it. I’ve worked for that, and I work at that, I work at being a good influence on people. I work at being a good influence for kids. I work at being a person who has integrity. I think that it’s very important to be there for each other, and be examples to each other for what we want to see in this world.

I’ve found conversations like this are a way to hold out hope for humanity in this moment, when so much of drag and queer life is politicized. We can see a state like Pennsylvania, that has frequently been hateful to trans people, queer people, gay people, all kinds of people, and we have people in our city, politicians, trying to shut down drag. And the city will still show up. Ultimately, it seems like your message is that we can all still connect with one another.

I think it’s very unfortunate that those people are the loudest. They’re just loud. They scream and shout and make their voices heard. Well, the people who don’t feel that way, they sit back and say, “I don’t believe that! They’re just being stupid.” And I think we need a lot more people being loud in support of love, in support of drag, in support of letting our trans siblings just be who they are.

Photography: Jacob Ritts