Raja from Rupaul’s Drag Race: Part 1 of The Faster Times’ Exclusive Interview with Sutan Amrull
On a recent cloudy Friday in Brooklyn, Sutan Amrull, the performance and make up artist behind the drag persona Raja sat down with The Faster Times news and politics staff writer Jacki Lacey and discussed the experience of competing on the third season of Rupaul’s Drag Race. The season finale, broadcast on the LGBT television network LOGO, airs this Monday at 9 PM EST. Raja is one of the three finalists competing for a $75,000 cash prize, a lifetime supply of Krylon cosmetics and a prime slot on the upcoming Absolut Vodka Tour.
My first thought when Sutan Amrull walked into the Roebling Tea Room was that he was perhaps a little shorter than I had expected. It struck me that the camera adds five inches, especially when that person on television has added those five inches by donning a pair of stilettos. Sutan has been in the art and business of being a drag queen for over 20 years, all the more impressive when one reflects upon the fact that he is only 36 years old. Sutan has that inimitable glow of confidence some has when it seems they are doing precisely what one was born to do. The Raja of Rupaul’s Drag Race practices the same art of catty verbal laceration—albeit with a sharper wit and a better grasp of pop culture history—for which the show has become immensely popular. The Sutan of real life, however, spoke from gratitude, introspection, and a hunger for what will unfold in the next chapter of his life:
“I love being feminine. I think, you know, I can say this now because I’m 36, I’ll be 37 in June. You know, I’ve had a lot of time to experiment with this stuff. I started out being a club kid. You know, Saran wrap, duct tape, hot glue, all of that. Big old stacked shoes. And eventually, I kind of left that a little bit behind, and I started experimenting with being more feminine, and I started hanging out with tranny hookers….Best time. I learned all about that and about behind the scenes. And at the same time, I really studied up. I really love Leigh Bowery and Sylvester, and I just love all that stuff. I’m so hungry for things that are visual and beautiful and amazing. I’m voracious for it.”
Rather than seeming like a conflict in personas between the reflective and the reactive, my conversation with Sutan provided insight into how Raja was created and that the complexity of the character which has arrested so many viewers this season is a complexity that is all Amrull’s own. And one that is refreshing at that. While some might argue that there are drag personas out there that repackage antiquated conceptions of femininity with a glossy veneer of ‘I am a fabulous diva because I am telling you that I am a fabulous diva,’ I am not sure anyone would dare come to that conclusion about the about the genderbending and radical Raja:
“I think people need to see that drag isn’t just about impersonating a woman. I think that young kids today who are interested in doing drag really need to dig in deep and start doing the research. And not just try to fit yourself into one mold. I mean, I’m glad there is a drag mold, first of all, because when I was a kid, you know, we made it all up. And the people before me made it all up. And now there actually is a mold, and that is very cool. But I think that we should break away from the mold. I think we should try to go and try something new, you know? That’s all I really ask, nothing else.”
Sutan’s particular—dare I say post-modern –definition of ‘drag queen’ has attracted a great deal of criticism, but rather than recoiling from the negativity, it seems to fuel Amrull and underscore the importance sharing his artistic vision with the world. While he has on the rare occasion responded to ‘haters’ on Twitter with wishes of a bright future and a tap of the “block” button,” for the most part, he has been reluctant to engage in too much of the rapid-fire “love me/hate me” social networking machinery that seems to be the obligation of anyone gaining some level of fame in the 21st century.
“I don’t read any of the blogs. Delta does and Manila does and they tell me all about it. They’re like, ‘Girl, this is what they’re saying about you.’ And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” Understandably. If people don’t understand, they’re going to want to lash out. That’s been the case my entire life. I don’t really want to read it. And I get the occasional twitter, or people rush my fan page, which is really kind of ironic because you have to push the “Like” button before you cuss me out, you know? And they continually write there, so you can keep writing there; you can write over and over again, keep it up [Laughs]. “
Amrull has been lambasted by fellow contestants through this season for not using as much feminizing padding, not affecting a higher voice when in drag, or not using synthetic rubber breasts plates that have become all the rage in the drag community in recent years. And when these accusations have been levied, it seems as though these contestants have missed the point altogether about what Amrull has spent 20 years constructing. It is the difference, to put it bluntly, between art and imitation. Amrull is not a female impersonator or illusionist, but a performance artist who uses the vocabulary of gender presentation to great effect. There is something new and fresh to this take on drag artistry that clearly Rupaul has seen, because Raja’s success this season has been meteoric.
“…What I think I’ve done in the time that I’ve been on Drag Race is really kind of baffled people, so they really don’t know how to comment on it, all they can really say is, ‘Oh, he looks like a guy” That’s not an issue for me. That’s not a problem. That’s like a compliment to me.”
It shouldn’t all be about how people feel about his look, however. There have been vivid performances from Raja throughout the season as well, including an electrifying punk rock interpretation of Rupaul’s song, “Superstar” that secured Raja the win for that week. Amrull reflected upon his performance style and sensibility:
“As far as performance… I really enjoy performing to music that I am emotionally connected to. And it’s not really always about lip synching. Lip synching is definitely part of it and I definitely do club gigs where I do a Rihanna number, and I’m not ashamed of it. But if I get to do what I really love to do, I love doing music like Nina Simone and Gladys Knight, and Florence and the Machine. Or Sia. Music that has emotion. Maybe you shed a tear to it, maybe you laugh, or maybe you feel…you just need to feel it. You make your own music video in front of people and that’s what I love.”
It is not fair to say that Amrull has been unaffected by this increasing fame, but rather than engender a sense of aloofness, Sutan seems genuinely happy for the increased opportunity to discuss his unconventional brand of drag—both how it came to be and where it might go after the show finale ends on Monday night. One important revelation from our conversation was that even if it seems obvious now how much the camera loves Raja, Sutan’s experience has not been without effort, struggle, and challenge:
“People can say whatever they want. There’s this big group of haters that really hate me. I don’t think any of what they have to say is really that valid or artistic. They’re just…trying to come up with something.”
‘I just want to empower all the sissies and all the little freaks’
One on Amrull’s clear and undeniable advanteges this season has been his decades of experience. In a pool of contestants where the average age is in the mid 20s, Sutan, the oldest contestant, is also the most seasoned, with over 20 years of artistic cultivation under his belt. Amrull was candid about the early experimentations that paved the road to the runway:
“When I was in high school, I was always that feminine kid. And I was made fun of. I even started to experiment in drag while I was in high school. During Halloween, I went as Madonna. I was probably 16 or 17 years old, and it was really, really badly done. It was a cheap, blonde Halloween wig out of a bag. My friend helped me make the cone bra and stuff.”
Several times, our conversation turned to gender and sexuality-based bullying. It would be hard not to talk about what has become one of the most-discussed issues in the LGBT community over the past year. This has been the year of the It Gets Better video project in order to try to reduce the rate of queer teen suicide. The finale of Drag Race is following just one short week on the heels of The National Day of Silence, a day in which LGBT youth and allies take a vow of silence to draw attention to the harassment and bullying that queer youths must endure in silence on a daily basis.
The aesthetics of his art aside, Amrull made it clear that one of the aspects of his experience in catapulting to national fame, particularly within the queer community has been his ability to inspire the next generation and to give them the confidence to unabashedly follow their passion. The night before we spoke, Amrull had donated some of his artwork to a fundraiser to benefit homeless LGBT youth. It is an issue about which he is passionate and to which he can speak from some personal experience:
“I have gotten a lot of great compliments from a lot of people. And I love it. One of the greatest compliments to me is when a sixteen or seventeen year old junior in high school tells me that watching me or listening to me on TV has allowed him to not only start his gay student alliance in his community but also to come out to his parents. You know?
I can’t tell you what that feels like. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up. It is such an amazing feeling. You asked about leaving a legacy—that’s really the only thing I want to do—to leave a legacy of art and drag to kids who are going through this bullying. How severe is that? I never had to go through that. I mean, I got bullied in school, but not like that, not to that point. It’s such a sad thing for kids these days. So sad.
I just want to empower all the sissies and all the little freaks. Dare I say, the little monsters? [laughs] All the little kids growing up, the young people. You don’t even need to be a kid. If you have something that you want to express, you should do it. We only get one moment. It’s a really quick moment in life. And you should just grasp it. Fucking do it!”
And very much in the spirit of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better video series, it got better for Amrull as well, with several high profile successes unfolding before he even set foot in front of Rupaul when the series was filmed last summer. Aside from his six season stint as the principal make up artist on American’s Next Top Model, he was Adam Lambert’s make up artist on Lambert’s international Glam Nation Live Tour through 2010. That has been a friendship that endured, with Lambert accompanying Amrull to the season premiere of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Before hitting that red carpet, however, Sutan spoke about another moment in his life where things came full circle, the experience of going to his ten year reunion in drag:
“So I was always that sissy kid in high school., you know? And when it was 10 years later, I wanted people to know that I had progressed, that I had done something new. I remember being in high school thinking ‘People are treating me like I am a freak, one day I am going to show these people, I am going to show every single one of these people that I am the best freak there is. There is no other freak that is better than me.’ So that was my motivation, and I showed up, and I went with two girlfriends of mine who I went to high school with and I was like “I’m going to go in drag” and they were like, “You should!” And it was a blast, you know? We had all evolved. Over ten years, we had all grown up. And it was okay. No one was making fun of me. They were all having a blast with me. It was great. I partied down with them. Actually, we had to take a group picture where the boys had to be on the top row and the girls had to be in the bottom row and they let me sit with the girls. [Laughs].”
‘It’s not about doing a back flip’
It is infrequent within the domain of reality television to see a contestant so heavily favored by fellow contestants, the host and the judging panel. Amrull is no stranger to the reality show environment, having worked as a key make up artist through six seasons of Tyra Bank’s show, America’s Next Top Model. It sometimes feels that the show editors have to struggle to introduce an element of doubt regarding Raja’s magnetism, but in that effort, they have failed. I was compelled to contact Amrull to discuss what seemed so self-evident on television every Monday—the simultaneously expanding celebrity of Raja and Sutan Amrull. He knew going into it that he would be a divisive figure.
“I knew there was a possibility of me going on Drag Race and I talked to a few friends about it and I was like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. There are people who are probably not going to like me.’ And they were like, ‘Girl, people are going to hate you. And they’re going to love you. It’s probably going to be about 50/50. You know, you’re kind of that person. You’re either this or you’re that. You can’t expect everyone to love you. That’s been hard for me. It’s been really hard for me.”
In the next installment of my conversation with Amrull, we talk a whole lot more about his experience living in New York and a lot more dish on filming the show and what is in store for future:
“The trouble of when I was living in New York, I didn’t really have that way of getting that drag out. The drag that I do doesn’t really exist here. There aren’t a lot of drag shows. There are a lot of contests. You can go to Escuelita and see Latina trannies there, but there wasn’t a lot of drag to be done, and it’s sad. It’s New York City! Where is the drag? Where is the fucking drag? There are queens here, and I have met a lot of them, and I love all of them.”
The short answer to Sutan’s question is, at least for this weekend, that the drag is all over New York, with fellow Drag Race “Heather,” Carmen Carrera’s birthday party tonight at Escuelita and on Monday, with a huge finale party at Providence, open to the public. And as for performing with Carmen? Fans have already gotten a taste of what that looks like, with the nudity-loving Carmen stripping down to her tuck and getting a big, red lipstick kiss from Raja on her shoulder during the “Lip Synch for Your Life” to Paula Abdul’s “Straught Up” that send Carrera home for the second time this season:
“I was excited to lip synch with Carmen, because that’s how I perform. Carmen and I have a very similar way of performing. You know, pooching and side glances, and touching the body. You know, moving slowly. It’s not about doing a back flip or that death drop that queens are doing. I don’t need to do that. I don’t want to break any limbs. It doesn’t need to be death-defying. Why can’t it just be beautiful and soft and sexy and sensual?”
Why not indeed? Raja competes against fellow queens Manila Luzon and Alexis Mateo in the Rupaul’s DragRace Season 3 Finale Monday night on Logo at 10 PM EST.
Stay tuned to The Faster Times for ongoing coverage, including exclusive interviews and photos of all the Drag Race Finale extravaganza overtaking New York City this weekend. Tomorrow we’ll be posting photos and interviews from Jersey’ own Drag Race contestant, Carmen Carrera, who will be celebrating her 26th birthday this evening at Escuelita, with special performances from Raja and Manila Luzon.
The second part of our extensive profile with Raja will go live on Monday night after the finale. Jacki will be covering the finale live from Providence, where all of this season’s contestants, past seasons’ favorites and NYC’s favorite queer entertainers will be partying the night away. Who will be told to walk away? Shantay, who will stay? The Faster Times will tell you all about the fabulous times.
You can follow Jacki on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates on the Finale Weekend in New York. Jacki will be posting some behind-the-scenes thoughts, observations and interview outtakes on her usually-neglected Tumblr.
Photo credit for the first image to Jose Guzman Colon. The third photo was taken on the day of this interview in Brooklyn.
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