It's Symone For Me!
Story by Jonathan Borge / Photography by Pol Kurucz / Styling by Marko Monroe / Hair by Gigi Goode / Nails by Juan AlvearJun 24, 2021
This article is a sponsored collaboration between SKYY® Vodka and PAPER
Symone is that girl. If it were possible to bottle the essence of her delectable personality into a product — a mystical formula named something like, say, Ebony Enchantress — it'd likely retail for $190 yet somehow retain a perpetually long waiting list. In other words, she's e-x-p-e-n-s-i-v-e and in demand — every single person, regardless of their creed or income or honest thoughts about Santino Rice, wants a piece of the Symone experience. Yes, Symone already introduced us to Sweet Toof. But she's a winner, baby. Things have changed.
From day one in the Season 13 werkroom of RuPaul's Drag Race, she distinctively possessed the one quality so many contestants fail to hold onto throughout the competition: a point of view. Symone, who undeniably earned the title of America's Next Drag Superstar, became immediately relatable not by trying to adopt some froufrou persona, but instead by looking within and drawing inspiration from all that gives her life: the beauty of being unapologetically Black and queer; bombastic divas in music; her House of Avalon chosen family; high fashion; foxes.
Symone's ridiculously silly skits garnered praise and her glamorous runway looks left fans tweeting things like, "It's the du-rag for me." At one point in the competition, the judges were rendered speechless after she honored Black Lives Matter and the victims of police killings such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor with a white blood-stained look that read, "Say Their Names."
"My path on the show was very much a kind of love letter to my Blackness, and to the kid that I was," she tells me on the phone, reflecting on her childhood in Arkansas, where, as Reggie Gavin, she often struggled to accept the complexities of her Black and LGBTQ+ identity. "I was a very shy, very quiet, very self-loathing kid. Going on the show, for me, was a way of showing love to myself."
Ultimately, honing that self-love (and the confidence that comes with it) is what helped her score the Drag Race golden ticket; it's the reason she comes across as really rich, bitch, despite just recently getting her financial bearings in order. Like so many of us, Symone was broke not long ago, and she's now relishing in the fruits of her labor (ahem: that $100,000 prize). She's also standing up for her community, and starring in SKYY® Vodka's Coming Out (Again) campaign, which supports LGBTQ+ nightlife venues hit hard by the pandemic.
When I ask Symone to list some of the female stars she looks up to (Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and Madonna), I don't hear the magnetism of a queen made for TV, one unafraid to drop lines like, "Don't let the smooth taste fool ya, baby!" Instead, her octave softens into a warm demeanor, a wide-eyed inner Reggie, a sweet-as-humble-pie optimist with big dreams and — finally — a big chance.
That duality — half diva, half inner child — is what separates Symone from winners before her and what makes her so freakin' likeable.
Just before New York City Pride, PAPER caught up with Symone to reflect on her win, the weight of the crown and the boundaries she intends to push.
The one and only Ebony Enchantress. How are you today?
That's me, baby! The one and only! Today I'm good. I'm very good. I'm excited. I'm going to New York tomorrow or actually, I'm leaving tonight on a red-eye. I'm coming up there to celebrate Pride with the East Coast divas. So I'm excited, honey.
Obviously, you just won Drag Race, major congratulations. How has your life changed? What's been different in the past two months?
Oh my God. I've been able to travel. I've been able to see fans. Before the race, I was living paycheck to paycheck, so now I have a sense of stability. I get to invest in my art much more freely. I don't have to worry about where the money's going to come from. And I get to express myself even more now. It's been the fans — getting to meet everyone, and actually getting to see people. It's one thing to get and receive it online — that's beautiful. But being able to actually go out and have people say that you changed their lives or that they're able to see themselves in you? It's just been really great. It's been a beautiful time.
I'm so happy for you saying that you don't have to stress about the finances, because I think so many viewers of Drag Race, especially young LGBTQ+ viewers, know that feeling, right? Where's my next meal gonna come from?
Oh, God. Before, I was a concierge, and I didn't work normal days a week. I would get called in if someone chose to not go to work or they couldn't find anyone. It was very temperamental. I never knew what days I was going to work. And then I would also go and do gigs and drag in West Hollywood. When my money would come in, sometimes I would make a lot of money in one month and sometimes I wouldn't. Sometimes I would make just enough to pay rent and maybe get a new wig, you know? It was a lot of work, the first year I came here, having to improve on my drag and having to scrape for money to invest in myself.
Because I came from Arkansas, and I was a little fish in a big pond. I had to, not reinvent myself, but "set my game up," so to speak. It was hard. It was really, really hard and getting ready for the race was hard, because I didn't have a lot of money. It was a lot of IOUs and people being generous with their time and their talent. But it all worked out! I was not rolling in dough when I went to the show. Look at that, I rhymed!
You did rhyme!
Yeah, I did. So, that's the truth. It's nice, not just to have money but just the peace of mind I did not have before. It's a weight lifted off. And you don't really know unless you know.
100%, and I think that's such a good message to send to people.
Yeah. I never want people to think that I went in just raking in things or just rolling in it. It was very hard. It's a very hard process.
You now are Drag Race royalty. You're living the life in LA, you're coming to New York Pride, but you're from Arkansas! What elements of being a small-town girl still stick with you even as you're becoming more and more recognized?
I think the genuineness, or my authenticity. I'm from the South and we're known for being sweet. We're also known for being real people, for better or for worse! That has, for sure, stayed with me — my genuineness and my humbleness. I know where I come from, so it allows me to stay more grounded and it allows [me] to be more appreciative of what's coming my way. It could have very easily been someone else, so I'm grateful for all of this stuff. I think of all of these things that are happening to me, but the things that I get — the accolades, the opportunities, this interview — it could have easily been somebody else.
So [I'm] just staying grounded and [remembering] where I come from, and knowing that anytime anything can change — I think that's what being from Arkansas has taught me. And it also keeps me in perspective of what I want to do and the message I'm trying to send and the trajectory I want my career to go on, you know?
Totally. So as America's Next Drag Superstar, this is a title and a crown you have for a year. What is your top priority? What is your biggest goal for the coming months?
There're so many things that I want to do and already have kind of accomplished, but I would really love to act. That's one thing that I think I really want to get my foot into. I did not realize how much I liked it, and I kind of dabbled in it when I was in high school, but I really enjoyed it. I really did. So I really want to step my foot into that.
I really want to go into fashion as well. I'd love to walk and be in campaigns and magazines. This is the first of many, I hope. I want to do everything. My goal is to do everything and not be limited by what people think a drag queen can do. That's my main goal. It's to not be limited by other people's perception of what a drag queen is. I want to do what I want to do.
What are some genres that you want to get into? What's your dream role?
I watch TV. That was always my escape, so I would love to do a drama. I think that's always really fun. I would love to do what Naomi Campbell did, like very that. And I would love [to do] comedies as well. I would love to do it in and out of drag. I just really would love to explore it. I think it's a really fun art, and it's one of the ones I was better at. I was singing and dancing and all that stuff.
I just would love to be able to get a character and really get into their brain and their psyche and bring their character to life. I think that is kind of how I've always looked at drag, as a way of bringing myself to life, if that makes sense. So I would really love to do that with a character and be on the television. I think that'll be really fun.
I can see you doing that. You have the charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent for it.
Of course. Exactly.
With a lot of power comes a lot of responsibility. Do you feel the weight of the crown?
Yeah, I wanna make everyone proud. I wanna make the fans of RuPaul and the people who've raised me, my family, proud. In that sense, yes, I do. So the weight of it is that I want to do well and keep the legacy going as anyone would. But also no, in the sense that I know that I earned it and that it is mine to do kind of whatever I want to do with.
It's a very delicate balance. What I've tried to learn is not to get too much in my head. Keep my head up high and know that I earned this and that everything that is possible and that's coming my way, I earned and I deserve.
Has that inner saboteur come out?
I have a much better handle on the saboteur, I do! Well, you always have the like, "Can you do it? Are you sure? Are you sure this is what you do want to do? Is that the right decision?" Of course! That's just human nature. But I'm much more confident than the day I walked into the show. So, I'm able to make decisions now with a greater sense of confidence and a better sense of self. So of course [the saboteur] comes back every now and then, but we joke that we're far away.
Earrings and ring: Jean Paul Gaultier (Vintage)
Shifting gears a little bit, the world fell in love with you, not only because you're so fun to watch, but because you have something to say and you say it so well. Your Black Lives Matter and Say Their Names-inspired look was obviously moving, but also iconic in terms of Drag Race history. How does it feel today to reflect on that runway moment and think back to the message that you were looking to evoke?
It makes me feel good. That look was so important to me, it was one of the looks that I was most excited to wear. It was one of the looks I was most excited to show the judges, and it makes me feel good that I have done that. I got to showcase that art on the show for people around the world to see because — I've said it before — I know who watches the show. I know how to reach the audience. I know the power that the show has. So for me to go on and to wear that dress and to have that message, it's an honor and it makes me feel happy and it makes me happy that people received it like it should have been received. People saw the beauty in it. You know what I mean? It was aligned to walk in a sense that it could have gone anyway, but I knew the message was more important than my fear of what could have happened. I feel amazing having done that outfit and people receiving it and doing the piece that I did on it. Everything about that whole entire week, that whole entire moment was beautiful. And I'm happy I got to do it.
How has your relationship with Blackness and queerness since doing that changed?
Let me say it this way. My path on the show was very much a kind of a love letter to my Blackness and to the kid that I was. I was a very shy, very quiet, very self-loathing kid. Going on the show, for me, was a way of showing love to myself. And so in turn, people could l] could see me and then love themselves too, if that makes sense. So my relationship with it is that I am in love with it and that it is a beautiful thing. Something that I've learned is, not that I necessarily hated being Black, but that I've become okay with being Black and gay, that there's nothing wrong with me. I realized that both can exist and that it's more than okay and it's beautiful to exist. There's nothing wrong with me, nothing wrong with any of it. We're human beings! We're allowed to be. My relationship is that I fucking love it.
I love that. Drag is innately a political form of art and form of expression. That runway was such a statement and one that not many queens make. What other topics are you looking forward to addressing? What else is on Symone's mind in terms of politics and the world that we live in today?
Black issues and Black queer people specifically will always be in the forefront of my mind and my art. It's just very important to me and I know that, as much as we've gone, we still have some ways to go. I definitely want to touch on the whole LGBTQ+ experience in general. Especially trans women. And Black trans women. Black trans people period. That's very important to me. With as much light as it's been given, it's not being given enough. That's at the forefront of my mind right now, because we wouldn't have any of this without them. We need the world to uplift and see them, know what's going on, and fight against it.
It's been crazy out there. Especially after this last cycle of the election and everything. The legislation that's been passed is ridiculous. So that's at the forefront of my mind right now.
You're now a public figure, and it's fantastic that you prioritize queerness and Blackness in your work, but I know that for some public figures, it can often feel like you're being tokenized for talking about that specifically. What is it like for you to have to represent. intersectional communities all the time — are you inspired by it? Is it exhausting?
The way that I advocate is through my drag. I'm able to speak better through my art than I am in person.That goes into me just being myself. Allowing me to be in certain spaces, that is a form of protest in a way. Even a lot of opportunities that are being afforded to me now, have kind of never really happened to a winner before. People doing that helps tremendously. So, I'm inspired by it, but I don't ever want to be put into, "Oh, that's just all she does." I want to work. I want to continue to work. I want to continue to do other things. You know what I mean? But advocacy is part of who I am and it's part of my art, but it's not all of who I am. I don't want people to just put me in that box, if that makes sense.
Totally. And that's something you do so well. And that is certainly what separates you from other queens. That's why you were crowned. It's something that I look forward to watching you continue to explore.
I look forward to just being — and I keep harping on this because this is important — just being in certain spaces, going to certain events, doing certain things, being in certain publications. That all is a form of advocacy. Because if it's never been done before then, there you go. The best way to help is just to open doors for people. And let people walk through and let people live and exist. That helps push a lot of things forward.
So on the flip side of that, one of the things I love is that you are so joyful and you make people laugh and you have a huge smile. What makes you happy on a normal day, what are the things that make you happy?
Oh my God. I love music. So I love dancing. Those things make me happy. I love being around people that I love. That makes me happy. I love being around my family, chosen and biological. I love television. I love my shows. I love coming home and being on the couch and watching movies with my friends and my family. I love drag. I love being able to express myself. Those things give me joy. When you see me on stage, and I'm performing a song, you know I'm doing it because I love that song.
You get to see me move. When I get to interact with the fans, you know, people coming up and giving me love and I can give it and receive it, you know, that makes me happy. But I love to dance. I think that that's what really makes me the happiest. I'm not someone who is classically trained or anything. I can't give you a "1, 2, 3," but when I hear a song, I'm ready to go.That, I love. So those are things that make me happy.
I think as a queen, you have to be on top of your pop culture game and get the references and give them to the community. So what are some summer 2021 songs you can't get enough of right now?
I love "Thot Shit" by Megan Thee Stallion. She's giving me that. But I'm going to be real, my soul is old. I love the old school stuff. Give me some Diana Ross, give me some Tina Turner. Give me some Madonna. That's the shit I like personally. I'll listen to the newer stuff, but my spirit is old. I'm gonna have to say it.
All of the ones that you mentioned are like huge divas. I love that.
Huge! Yes they are. That's what I love. That's what I love about drag is the diva-dom of it all. Diva can be kind of a bad term, but I look at it as you know, like these strong women who just have broken barriers through living their lives or their art, and have changed the world. That's what I consider a diva, so I don't look at it as a bad thing.
If you could pick one dream collaborator in any form of art, dead or alive, who would it be?
Oh my God. That's a fabulous question. Only one? Someone I would have loved to talk to is Whitney. I would have loved to get inside of her brain, because the way that she was able to just sing a song and make you believe it at any time, that is a true gift and a true artist. I would love to pick her brain about just life and what she went through and like all her hardships and all that stuff. I think her story is — it's hard, but it's also inspiring in a lot of ways.
I don't remember exactly when it was, but I was stalking your Twitter and you tweeted saying, "Yo, I'm literally an old person when it comes to social media." And then it was like a SpongeBob meme. I thought that was so funny.
I am the worst at social media. I'm the worst! I'll go on there, and do my best. I really do. I'll try and post a little caption on there, you know, and then I'll go and tag the wrong person. Like I'll misspell someone on Twitter. I'll put the wrong emoji or @ the wrong person. I'm just a mess.
It's so weird because I grew up with social media. But I enjoy people. When I like to be on, I'm on. So I enjoy being in person more-so. Social media has always been a little bit more difficult.
We all know the story about Rihanna in your DMs. Who else is up in there?
Oh you're nosy, huh!
There has to be someone!
Let me take a look. Cara Delevingne, Maddie Ziegler, she recently messaged me saying that she watched the show and was so happy that I won. That was insane because she's the dancer. Just amazing. Lynn Whitfield was in there. She's a major actress I've looked up to for so long. She congratulated me on the day that I won, which was insane to me because I was like "I watched you on TV and you know who I am?" I'm from Arkansas, honey. All of it is crazy to me.
You've been wearing Gaultier, Jeremy Scott and some other high fashion designers. I'm curious how that has inspired and changed your drag, if at all.
Oh, it's made me think. All of these fabulous people are wanting me to wear their clothes, so I just got to keep doing what I'm doing. Keeping the light and the joy and the love. Keep being myself. It's inspired me to keep being myself and not let the mess come in and take over. You know what I mean? Don't let the fame take over. People love you for being the person you are, so I'm going to stay that way, and keep growing in that direction and [not] get crazy. Don't get crazy sis!
Photography and 3D direction: Pol Kurucz
Styling: Marko Monroe
Hair: Gigi Goode
Nails: Juan Alvear
3D environment: Bearboxcg
Digital artist: Elian Sanchez
Props: Martinez Upholstery
Lighting and tech: Ram Gibson
Producer: Michael Leland
Production assistant: Varga Virág
Sketch artist: Koichi Sonoda
Creative agency: Early Morning Riot