IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Native American Barbie': Drag Performer Fuses Pop Culture, Indigenous Roots

For burgeoning drag artist VIZIN, it's been a long journey from North Dakota to West Hollywood, but she's ready for her closeup.
VIZIN. Photo courtesy of Lee Runchey
VIZIN. Photo courtesy of Lee RuncheyLee Runchey

During a recent phone conversation, Native American drag queen and burgeoning pop vocalist VIZIN, who asked to be identified by her stage name, spoke about what it was like growing up gay in Newtown, North Dakota, where her graduating high school class totaled 33 people.

“Where I’m from, the indigenous term for [being gay] basically means ‘witch,’” she said in an interview with NBC News during Native American Heritage Month. “It’s a witch person who lives out in the forest and will come get you if you misbehave.”

VIZIN said she stood out from an early age in her small community, playing with Barbies and turning her T-shirts into skirts. She’s come into her powers since then, starring in music videos alongside some of the drag world’s biggest names and showing off her considerable pipes.

But it’s been a long road from North Dakota to West Hollywood.

VIZIN is a member of the Arikara Tribe, a member of the Three Affiliate Tribes. “Have you ever seen ‘The Revenant?’” VIZIN asked, referencing the Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar vehicle. “That one.” A shy kid raised by a single mother, VIZIN was also ostracized for her weight, which maxed out at 700 pounds.

She said drag helped her incorporate herself into the gay community.

“Coming out as a 700-pound drag queen, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said. “But it was a key, a gateway for me to be acknowledged or to be able to talk to people, I guess, because I was always a kind of quiet boy who sat in the corner with my mother.”

It was VIZIN’s mother who encouraged her to get gastric bypass surgery. More accurately, she arranged an appointment with a doctor without VIZIN’s knowledge. VIZIN agreed to the surgery and lost her first 200 pounds afterwards.

“I figured I could die on the table or on the couch,” she said.

VIZIN continued to lose weight, whittling herself down to 200 pounds after a brief post-surgery plateau. But what really transformed her life was the passing of her mother.

"My mom was diagnosed with an unknown cancer in 2006, and she suffered from Evan's Syndrome, a disease that affects red blood cells and their ability to transport oxygen effectively," VIZIN said, adding that her mother kept her disease a secret at first. "I took care of her until she passed away in 2013."

VIZIN said she took that time when she was staying with her mother to say goodbye.

"That time, it was kind of her way of letting go of me and letting me have a new life," she said. "She taught me how to be true to myself. She also left me with one sick sense of humor."

After her mother passed, VIZIN packed up and headed to West Hollywood with her powerhouse voice, her wigs and her unique style.

"I consider myself the Native American Barbie doll," she said, adding that she also incorporates tribal sounds into her music. "I try to fuse the worlds of pop art with the culture and traditions of indigenous art."

But she draws influences from other divas, too.

“When I’m in drag, I like to be as feminine as I can be,” VIZIN said. “VIZIN is like Mariah Carey, and I’ve been called the Mariah Carey of drag. My inspirations are Barbie, Marilyn Monroe and Mariah.”

I asked about another famous Native American drag queen, Trixie Mattel, a "RuPaul’s Drag Race" alum who has claimed heritage from the Ojibwe Tribe and who also plays off the Barbie aesthetic for effect. Mattel is slated to participate in the third season of "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" and currently has a show coming out on VICELAND.

“I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet, but I’m a fan,” VIZIN said. “But it’s funny, whenever I meet famous people ... I get gagged and never know what to say.”

Among those famous people is Manila Luzon, a “Drag Race” fan favorite who appeared in VIZIN’s recent music video for “You Make Me Feel,” a cover of Sylvester’s iconic disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

“I’ve been getting my feet wet with doing covers,” VIZIN said. “There was ‘I Was Born This Way,’ and that’s a cover of a song from the '70s by Carl Bean. This new song, 'Mighty Real’ is a cover of Sylvester.”

For now, VIZIN plans to hit the studio and work on new music. When asked about what else was in her future: “The Grammys,” she said. “Let’s just say that.”