“RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 14 may have just started a few weeks ago, but already a handful of divas have won the hearts of fans. So much so, hundreds of requests are pouring in for Cameos from them priced around $60 a pop.
“It’s crazy,” Kerri Colby, 25, said. “They’re always guys that are cheating on their girlfriends and the girlfriend broke up with them. Then they’re like, ‘Can you please send a message to make her like me again?’”
Colby, Willow Pill and Kornbread Jeté spoke to Today.com via Zoom to chat about their catapult to stardom in the first few weeks of the new season and the upcoming competition of the VH1 reality hit.
‘Definable titans of who we are’
Premiering in 2009, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” quickly became not only one of the most successful pieces of queer pop culture in the 21st century, but it has also captivated the heterosexual zeitgeist as well. Snatching 24 Emmy awards after 48 nominations, host and producer RuPaul broke a record in 2021 for the most Emmy wins by a person of color with 11 wins. The franchise has spawned countless successful international iterations as well, including the United Kingdom, Thailand, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada.
The American version is the OG, and RuPaul will never let the fandom forget that. That collective even includes pop star Ariana Grande, who slid into the DMs of Colby and Pill after the season 14 premiere episode.
“I thought I might have a small cult-like following after the first episode,” Pill, 26, told TODAY. “I thought it’d be like a smaller following, not the surge of fans that has happened. I didn’t realize I would go viral and create a pretty large fandom.”
While contestants are vying for the top prize on the hit competition show, just entering the workroom is itself a huge feat and something queens are able to convert into lasting star power. Some of the most successful queens don’t ever actually win the show. Of course, the longer they’re on the series to demonstrate who they are the better, but already this season these three queens have become leaders of the pack.
“I’m not really surprised that the three of us have stuck out so far,” Pill said. “We stick out as sore thumb individuals. All three of us are a little bit mentally whack and are very real on the show. So something resonates.”
“We all really are just very definable titans of who we are,” Colby added. “It makes it very easy for people to be like, ‘Oh, the crazy person is Willow. Kornbread is larger than life. Kerri, can’t stand her but obsessed. (Laughs) It just makes it pretty easy to define us and it definitely paid off.”
Originally from Dallas but now based in Los Angeles, Colby is one of the first transgender women to compete on a regular season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a topic that has been controversial in years past.
“It’s been so surreal,’ she said of the experience. “Firstly, because I have been a fan of ‘Drag Race’ for a long time and before I even started my transition, I did observe the stigma and was always like, once upon a time if I ever go I don’t know if I can ever be myself.”
Colby follows in the footsteps of Gottmik, the first transgender man to compete on the show, in 2021. Other queens — like Gia Gunn and Kylie Sonique Love — competed on the “All Stars” iteration of the series with Love even winning her season last year. At the forefront of all this was Peppermint who revealed she was transitioning while on season nine of the show that taped in 2016 and aired a year later.
“The audience has been hungry for it,” Colby said of trans inclusion on the show. “We’ve been ready. We’ve been thirsty for it. We’ve seen it brought back on the ‘All Stars’ spectrum, but to be able to just walk in completely myself and to hopefully be influential to people if you’re not living your life authentically, we don’t have a lot of time you might as well just do it. And if you are living your life authentically, well now you have a voice, a face, a name that you can relate to so you don’t feel so alienated.”
Unlike Colby, Jeté was cast on the show at the very beginning of her transition. The Los Angeles-based queen had started her transition only a few months prior to filming “Drag Race,” but because she wasn’t out to her family about her decision, she was more guarded on sharing her experience on the show.
“I kept everything to myself,” the 30 year-old said. “I wanted to go in and just deliver everything that I had, but I also did not want to have that conversation too much out loud until I sat down and talked to family about it because it was more of a personal thing. Kerri was out living her best fantasy before we even went to the show. Everything was new for me and it was a very fresh kind of situation.”
“But it also goes to show, too, there’s this whole thing of being trans looks a specific way and being trans means I want to wake up the next day and look like the image that’s in my head. I’m glad that I wasn’t fully what I wanted to look like on the show just to demonstrate that there’s different levels to the process. There’s also different visuals of what being trans is. It’s not just one thing and it doesn’t just look one ‘particular way.’”
Jeté said watching the season back — especially her confessional interviews out of drag — can be a little triggering since she’s not happy with how she looks. But after some conversations with fellow castmates and loved ones, she has learned to value the visibility she is giving.
“It’s a journey and there’s not one way to be trans,” Jeté said, with Colby adding, “Inclusivity of everyone is key.”
‘Sometimes it is just sort of tragic and unfair’
Another way season 14 of “Drag Race” is even more inclusive than ever before is with the introduction of Pill, who suffers from an illness that majorly affects and informs her drag art.
“I knew going into it that there’s no way I can do all my drag and not sure that because my drug is so informed by my body and my health,” Pill — who is originally from Denver, Colorado, but now lives in Chicago — explained.
“We thought about what if we hold off until later in the competition and that just wouldn’t work. I mean, my name is Willow Pill. It’s already in the name what is going on in my life. So it was a pretty immediate spill of what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Pill suffers from a rare disease knowns as cystinosis that is caused by an abnormal buildup of a certain amino acid called cystine, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Diagnosed at birth, Pill’s older sister also had the disease so their parents were on the look out when she was born.
The disease can cause kidney failure, something Pill experienced when she was just 14 years old. She had a kidney transplant at the time and went through dialysis, and will likely have to do that again at some point in her lifetime.
“I wanted to be completely honest because we don’t always see people who are disabled and ill on TV but I wanted it to be a super honest reflection of how that actually feels,” Pill — who identifies as genderfluid — said. “It’s not always an inspiring and fun story. Sometimes it is just sort of tragic and unfair and we’ll definitely get to see that throughout the season.”
“I do talk about on the show that you know drag is not going to be something that lasts forever because it’s a very temporary thing for me, because it just won’t be fun for that much longer. I just didn’t want to be afraid to get into the nitty gritty on the show, because there’s no reason to put a polish on what’s happening.”
Manifestations and vulnerability
For all three of these queens — no matter how far they go in the competition — one thing is for certain: they’re not afraid to be themselves and share their own truths, as raw or real as that may be.
“I’m a very tough human being, soft face but very hard exterior,” Jeté said. “I’ve learned through this process that vulnerability is a thing and I’m pretty sure we’ll see very soon in the season that emotions are a thing and that you’re allowed to have those. I don’t want the world to make a mistake. I’m still a thug, don’t try me ... but I do have emotions and I do have feelings.”
“I was pretty close to quitting drag,” Pill explained. “If I hadn’t gotten on this season, I would have started to end pretty soon. Being on the show honestly helped me fall back in love with drag, especially doing it with other people. That’s been 1,000% the best part of the show is doing it with the other girls and especially these two (Colby and Jeté). It’s just made me fall back in love with drag and fall back in love with getting to be Willow.”
Colby may be the most starstruck with her own appearance on the show. After seeing a photo of herself on NBC News, she tweeted, “You all… I’m in shock I made headliner on @NBCNews.”
It’s wins like this that make her already feel like a winner even though the competition just started this month.
“I come from being that person who was always told, ‘You imagine too much. You’re never going to be able to do that. You’re delusional.’ I would get beat up mentally, especially through my childhood from not only peers or colleagues but my parents as well,” she revealed.
“So when I actually got to see things like that article, I was like, OK, this is actually happening and it’s real. It made me very emotional because I really manifested and believed in myself even though I was told not to. Look at what came out of it. It’s really such a blessing.”