Comedian Eli Matthewson Meets 'Drag Race' Co-Host Michelle Visage
As the Antipodean version of RuPaul’s 'Drag Race' debuts this weekend, a Kiwi comedian catches up with the show's effervescent American co-host
EM: Hi Michelle. I’m not a journalist, but Viva knew that I was obsessed with Drag Race. Are you as obsessed with the show as we all are after almost 20 seasons?
MV: I am indeed. I don’t like watching myself on camera. I feel awkward and weird but I watch every single episode.
It’s phenomenal television. Do you still get surprised by the things the queens pull out on the mainstage?
Of course! I mean, there’s not much I haven’t seen at this point in the game. So when they do surprise me and I don’t see it coming — you get the biggest reaction. A new twist or turn can make me so happy. I’m kind of easy to please — just do it right.
With Drag Race Down Under starting this weekend, there’s a very different drag sensibility here. How does the Australasian drag scene compare to the US or UK?
Drag is different in every country. In Australia, the drag in Perth is different to the drag in Melbourne and it’s different to the drag in Brizzy and Sydney.
So everywhere you go, the drag is regional. I’m not saying regional as a diss — I’m saying regional as matter of fact — that’s the beauty of it. The drag in New Zealand is different to the drag in Australia. The drag in Auckland is going to be different to Christchurch drag. It’s just the way it is.
You’re the judge who critiques the contestants the hardest — but that means your praise is so rewarding. Do you find it hard to balance those relationships?
I consider myself a cross between Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell. I don’t find it hard to balance it because my job is my job. I think these queens know that I love them; they know who I am and that everything I do comes from a place of love.
WATCH: The Roast of Michelle Visage
It definitely hurts the tummy a bit — like the situation I had with the Adore Delano (fan favourite who was the first contestant to voluntarily leave the competition in 2016) — because I love them so much and I know what they can do.
That’s where it can be tricky — when I have a tight relationship and I have to tell them this wasn’t what I expected or this wasn’t good enough. But apart from that, it’s my job. It’s separate to my friendship with them.
You always turn out an amazing outfit on the show. Do you feel pressure to look the part? What’s your relationship with style?
Building a house from scratch is work. Curing cancer is work. For me, it’s pure joy to think about what I’m going to wear each week, in connection with my hair and makeup team and my stylist. I work very closely with my stylists — because my style is very much me.
For a lot of celebrities, a stylist will dress them and tell them how to look. My style has always been a part of my life and so has fashion. I have a huge say in what I wear. So is it work? No — but I find so much joy creating a look.
Have you managed to check out any clothing shops while you’ve been filming in Auckland?
I did go to Sylvia Park and Dressmart. So don’t be jealous. I’ve walked up and down Ponsonby Rd. The style here tends to be more conservative than I would wear. We’re on an island in beautiful weather, so there’s a lot of linen in Auckland, which I would never wear.
Oh, wow. What do you have against linen?
Um, it wrinkles. I’m American and I tumble dry everything. So it would go in as an outfit and come out as a tissue. So in fairness, you know, linen and I don’t get along. But it is beautiful to look at and envision lying in a hammock and having that gorgeous Auckland breeze passing through your clothing.
Did you consider that Sylvia Park is actually quite a good name for a drag queen?
It’s a fabulous drag name for a Kiwi queen. It’s wonderful. That’s where you have to take the signals the universe gives you and there are loads of them and that’s definitely one. I’m obsessed with Tia Kofi (tea or coffee) on UK Drag Race.
I think it is 80 per cent because her name makes me laugh. Do you have a favourite drag name? There are so many good ones. The funny ones like Bag of Chips and Tia Kofi. They make me laugh so much. I love those names.
Have you managed to get out of Auckland or have you been busy filming?
Mostly work and city life. But I get my nails done in Papatoetoe. I get my acupuncture in Windsor Park. I get my dance lessons in Albany. I went to Kohi Beach. So I’ve been out and about.
Who tipped you off about Philly’s Nail Bar in Papatoetoe?
Listen, I go where the talent is and my girl Philly is amazing. South Auckland reminds me of where I grew up, so I felt right at home.
We’ve been watching both the UK season of Drag Race along with the US version. The other week you were wearing the same leopard print dress on both episodes. Was that planned?
It was a combination of both. I knew I had worn it, but I don’t know when they’re going to air. We don’t have air dates, we just film. I am so sick of everything that’s happening to this planet. My daughter Lillie is an activist and is trying to be off the grid. She’s a horticulture major and gets so upset with waste and packaging. I’m learning from her. When I saw the dress I loved it. I was like, you know what, I’m going to wear this again. I’m just going to take a risk.
So it was a bit of a joyous accident, but at the same time, a statement about recycling fashion. The old Hollywood mentality of wear something once then get rid of it is disturbing. Jane Fonda was the first to say she’s never buying another dress again. I think that’s a beautiful statement.
What do you like to see in a live drag show?
I just want to be entertained. I don’t care what they do. Just be entertaining.
Viva recently featured local ballroom house House of Iman on a landmark cover. The ball scene here has really picked up since 2010 with groups performing and taking over non-queer spaces. How has the ballroom scene evolved over the years?
Ballroom is still at the core the same thing it was then — the only thing that’s changed is voguing. It’s evolved. Nothing’s better — it’s just different. So we celebrate all of it.
I loved reading about the House of Iman. Ballroom culture is thriving and booming here in Auckland. I think it’s fantastic. It’s how I entered the LGBTQ community. It’s everything to me. My house was my family.
It’s amazing you and Ru [Paul] have had a long fruitful relationship as friends and colleagues. Is it still a thrill to be working with your best friend every day?
There’s nothing better. Imagine — you go to work, you get to laugh, and you get to enjoy each other’s company. If everybody had the opportunity to do that, I can guarantee everybody would.
RuPaul’s 'Drag Race Down Under' premieres May 1 featuring guest judges Taika Waititi and Kylie Minogue.