“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Star Jackie Cox Spills The Tea On Life Since Season 12, And The Importance Of Being Open About Mental Health
Salaam! The Persian princess of drag is here to make sure young people don't feel so alone when it comes to personal struggles.
It goes without saying that 2020 was a dumpster fire of year, but it did have a few highlights, and one of those highlights was Season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Along with definitely going down in herstory as one of the series’ BEST seasons, it also introduced us to some iconic queens, like Jaida Essence Hall, Gigi Goode, Heidi N Closet, Crystal Methyd, and, of course, Jackie Cox.
In December, Jackie teamed up with It Gets Better for their 2020 Global Summit, where she and her BFF Chelsea Piers talked about mental health issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. And recently, BuzzFeed got the chance to talk with Jackie about everything, from how she got involved with It Gets Better, to what it was like watching Season 12 from home — oh, and, yes, we also asked her what her mom’s reaction was to learning about "Jackie Cox."
I want to start with a question that I know you talked about in your video — I'm going to basically set the scene: It's January 2020, you're kicking off the start of the year with the huge news that you're competing on one of the most popular shows on TV, RuPaul's Drag Race. That also means that you're getting costumes made and starting to book yourself at bars and clubs across the country far in advance, to support the show and to promote yourself. And within the first three to four episodes of Season 12, COVID hits, everything shuts down almost overnight. What was your initial reaction to that? And was it a moment of panic? Or was it just disappointment?
Jackie Cox: Well, I think all of us can kind of relate, but especially in the early months, I think there was just so much unknown. Obviously, the big hope was that it would be over much more quickly than it has been. So I think every step of the way, I've just kind of tried to be honest, realistic, and, of course, it's been a little disappointing that we didn't get our year — where normally a season of queens gets the year that their season airs to tour the world. But, you know, I do believe that the audience that connected with us in Season 12 will still have that connection with us long after this year is over. So I have to just kind of focus on that, and my own belief in myself, rather than what could've, should’ve.
And how was it for you watching the season at home? Did it make it easier to watch it? Or was it more of a difficult experience to sort of have to sit there and watch it without having the distraction of being at a bar at a club?
JC: It's totally more stressful [laughs]. I think what's tough is that it's so easy for all of us to kind of get in our heads when we're alone. And certainly, when you're watching a representation of something that happened many months ago — parts of which you forgot — you're like, "Oh, gosh, I didn't think this was gonna happen that way!" or "I forgot this happened!" and you don't have other people around you to kind of balance out your own perspective of maybe what you're seeing. And especially in the echo chamber that is social media.
It's for sure stressful to see what people are reacting to in the moment, or at least what they're reacting to the most vocally online, which isn't, I don't think, necessarily a true representation of how everyone is reacting to things in real life. What I find is the only people who make their opinions known online are people who have very strong opinions good or bad, right? So in real life, maybe if I was at a viewing party, it would have been like, "Hey, that was a fun episode!" But unfortunately, watching the season at home, social media was really the only audience reaction I had to gauge anything of off. So it definitely can feel a little bit emotionally intense.
You actually touched a little bit upon what I was going to ask next, which is that Season 12 was a ratings hit — it got eyes! And I think it was really more than just appointment TV. For many, many people it actually ended up being a reason to reunite weekly with your friends over Zoom and have a socially distanced happy hour viewing party. Did you hear from fans of the show about how it helped them get through the quarantine during the early months?
JC: I still hear about it almost every day, either in DMs or if I happen to run into people now here on the street in New York, they'll say, "Oh my god, you were the saving grace of some of the darkest moments of my life." Which is amazing to hear and certainly, again, it's kind of what I'm trying to remember as we go into this next phase of whatever 2021 brings us. I think Season 12 really had an emotional impact that no other season will probably ever have. And it's very cool that we had that moment with our audience.
I think something about Season 12 that resonated a lot with the fans of the show is that — and I don't mean this in a negative way — is that it was very much RuPaul's Best Friend Race, because everyone got along so well on the show. I got a chance to ask Heidi N Closet this question last year, and now I wanted to ask you the same thing: Did you go in expecting to get along so well with your fellow queens?
JC: Nooo [laughs]. Here's the thing, I'm not a specifically dramatic person and I've never been able to really stay in a fight with anyone in my personal life for any length of time (because I'm the first one to admit my own faults in a fight and kind of move on). But I also have never been under the gauntlet of RuPaul’s Drag Race; it's a very emotionally stressful experience to be competing at that level, and to be competing amongst the best people in this country. So I didn't anticipate it to be as lovely as it ended up being, but I also definitely didn't expect it to be horrible either. I think we found in each other as a cast respect more than anything. And while there were a couple disagreements our season, the disagreements, I think, were really more about how we did on challenges and really what we were bringing to the show, and less some of the petty arguments you may have seen in seasons past. So I was really happy with us as a group. And I think even still through this we've stayed pretty close, all 12 of us.
Obviously, your heritage was something you both celebrated and spoke about on the show a lot. And I wanted to know what the feedback was from the Persian community.
JC: Oh my god, it's been overwhelming to be completely honest with you. I was actually pretty scared to kind of come forward as a Persian drag queen because being gay in the Persian community already comes with a lot of stigma, and playing with gender, I think, is something that is still really frowned upon for most Persian people in this country and outside of this country. But that response has been so overwhelmingly positive, especially from younger Persian kids who've said things like, "Oh, I showed this to my dad," or "I showed this to my mom and show them what you did on the show, and how maybe what their preconceived notions are of drag maybe weren't true." So it's been really incredible.
Speaking of parents, how did your mom handle finding out you're a drag queen and what did she think of your impersonation of her?
JC: You know what? I give my mom a lot of credit because this was obviously very difficult for her. She didn't have a great reaction to me coming out and being gay in my teens and twenties. And so I knew this was going to be a big deal for her. Obviously, it's something I was scared talking to her about, but she's handled the whole thing with as much grace and sanity as I think she can muster.
The first thing I ever showed her of me in drag was the Ruveal of me in the green headscarf, representing the Iranian Green Movement. I guess I was a little strategic in that I knew that that was a movement and a cause that she was really passionate about, so I knew I kind of was tipping the scales in my favor. But her first reaction was simply, maybe, "I should have had a daughter, 'cause you're so pretty." And then after watching the show, which, I think was kind of hard for her, she did say like, "Hey, in the future, maybe don't share as much of your personal life on TV." Which is fair, you know. But I am proud of her for being even as accepting as she was, knowing her upbringing and the point of view that she was coming from.
You recently got involved with It Gets Better to shoot a video talking about mental health. And I wanted to ask you is: A.) How did that come about? and B.) What drew you to being part of the project?
JC: So my first experience with It Gets Better was during the season. I got to live-tweet a couple times from their Twitter account — which the great thing about that account is that it reaches a lot of young people. And on RuPaul's Drag Race, no matter what season, I think the best thing about the show, beyond the drag itself, is that you see a dozen queer people being honest and open about their experiences and their lives. This season had some really meaningful moments in the Werkroom, with Widow and the other queens who shared a lot about their personal lives and backgrounds, and I think that's really important kids to see. So I was happy to live-tweet along with the show and share with the kids what my thoughts were.
For this event, in specific, my good drag sister here in New York City, Chelsea Piers, who's helped me through so many things — in fact she designed half of my wigs that I wore on RuPaul's Drag Race and has been a collaborator and co-writer with me on lots of projects — said, "Hey, I have this project from It Gets Better if you want to do it with me," and I said, "Of course, let's do it!" Let's talk about mental health with young people, because I think it just helps just talking about your own experience and what that's been like. For both of us being young, queer people of different backgrounds, who ultimately found success in what we chose to do, and all while being publicly queer people, is something that I hope is inspiring to kids or at least gives them the space to feel like they can do those things as well. And then also being open about our struggles, Chelsea and I talked a lot about our own struggles and how we deal with that.
Actually, that leads me to my next couple of questions. I did want to ask you, what advice would you give to young LGBTQ+ kids who are stuck at home right now and maybe struggling with anxiety or feelings of extreme isolation?
JC: Yeah, it's very isolating right now and I struggle with this too. I think a big thing is to do what you can to put yourself out there, in whatever safe way you can. If there are friends that you can DM, if there are friends that you can FaceTime — I think that's toughest for some kids who can't even FaceTime, so it's even harder for them to have that human connection. I know that there are big discussions around how difficult this quarantine has been for the mental health of so many young people. Luckily, we live in a world where most kids have access to each other and support resources [like It Gets Better] to help them to not feel so alone.
What techniques did you use in 2020 to help keep your mental health well?
JC: Well I'll say this: it was difficult. One of the hardest things to do for me in isolation was drag, because I'd always associated drag with that feeling of joy of making an audience laugh or smile, or emotionally connecting to me on stage. And that's the first thing that was really stripped away from us (queens) and it's just not the same performing to a camera on Zoom. But, I think I learned to find that joy through reading comments, so when I'm on Instagram Live or on a Zoom performance, I am actually trying to connect with the folks watching over comments that they're leaving me. Just trying different ways to rewire my brain where it's like, even though I can't hear their laughter when I see the laughter emoji, I can kind of get the rush I get from performing. And then a lot of positive self-talk, reminding myself how lucky I was to even able to do drag during this time, how lucky I was that people even wanted to see what I had to do on Instagram or on a Zoom video show. Remembering that I was lucky in 2020 and that RuPaul's Drag Race gave me that platform to reach people all over the world.
Other than realizing that you're able to get millions of views on Insta by dancing to "WAP," what did you learn about yourself and Jackie Cox the most in 2020?
JC: [Laughs] Oh, well, I learned that people respond to me in and out of drag, which is cool. I thought, you know, maybe they wouldn't care about the person underneath the creation that is "Jackie Cox." But I found that they really do connect to me in all of my forms and those things can kind of coexist in my performances and in my online presence. So that's been really cool because as much as I love Jackie Cox, I'm glad that I get to share kinda all sides of myself with my audience. And they seem to respond well to that, which has been amazing.
What's next for Jackie Cox in 2021?
JC: Well, hopefully some kinds of tours and/or live performances. Currently, the plan is for me to tour the UK with Canada's Drag Race's Lemon, and to tour Australia with Jan from Season 12 later on. These are all things that we're taking day by day. We're really doing everything we can to make 2021 as safe and productive as it can be until the vaccine happens. And then, honey, once this vaccine is distributed to everyone, and we're no longer required a social distance, it's all out. I'm going to be in every gay bar.
Okay, final question, and I think we can all agree on this: You should have won the Snatch Game episode, right?
JC: [laughs] Well, I'll tell you this: If the game of Snatch Game is who makes RuPaul laugh the most, I will say Gigi had me beat. She really had RuPaul in stitches during the entire game. Sadly it's not Jackie Cox's Drag Race, nor is it Michelle Visage's Drag Race, it is still RuPaul's Drag Race and so I understand why Gigi won. RuPaul was laughing, and that laugh is so infectious!