After one Snap gamea few twists and turns and enough gag-worthy lip syncs to rip even the tightest wig off your head, RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race is finally coming to an end on Friday (September 30).
The show’s revitalized format — borrows a bit from both the main series as well as disguise-heavy takedown shows like The Masked Singer — has allowed viewers to get to know each celebrity through the lens of their new drag personas, including glamorous divas Electra Owl (pop singer Taylor Dayne), the avant-garde Milli Von Sunshine (Glee alum Jenna Ushkowitz), the gendered one Chic-Li-Fay (another Glee alum Kevin McHale) and the brassy Donna Bellissima (Wild girls star Daniel Franzese).
Two weeks ago, all the remaining contestants were revealed, including stars like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s Tatyana Ali and HacksMark Indelicato. But the biggest shock came when fan favorite Poppy Love was un-wigged by none other than Backstreet Boys old AJ McLean.
Now, heading into the finals episode, McLean is set to face Ali and Indelicato for $100,000 for the charity of his choice. Billboard caught up with McLean just before the finale to talk about his drag transformation, what his kids thought of some of his riskier acts, and what advice he’d give the members of BTS.
You made it to the finals. Congratulations! How do you feel about joining the show?
It’s been so amazing. I mean, first of all, I want to give a huge thank you to such an amazing cast, the incredible crew, to Mama Ru for having me on, for being able to play for charity, the most boring f-king wig department and makeup department I ever been a part of. Honestly, it was a dream come true. If they called me tomorrow and said, “We want you to come and do DragCon,” I’d say, “F–k yeah, let’s go.” I’d be there with bells on…probably literal bells.
In terms of getting to the finals, it’s amazing to me because there was a lot of competition. It’s me, Kevin [McHale] was the one I was keeping an eye on. He was phenomenal. I was a fan of Glee, I’ve seen the seasons and he was in a wheelchair! You had no idea what that boy could do with that booty! That guy could tear it up on the dance floor and I was like “Oh, s–t, I’m in trouble.” But everyone on the show was phenomenal to work with and I loved doing a show where we all had this mutual respect for each other and we just had fun. I have a newfound respect for the drag community, man, it’s a whole different beast.
With all the other projects you have going on right now, what about this show stood out to you as something you wanted to be a part of?
When I was approached to actually do it, I honestly didn’t have to think about it. And the fact that I got to play for charity is even more enticing to me! Drag is not new to me; I had drag on my wedding. I cut my cake in six-inch Louboutins, so this isn’t necessarily new. Now, dance in heels? It’s a little different. I wasn’t completely tucked in, thank God, but I was wearing nine layers of pantyhose. I got to keep my padded a– and my breasts, which still have glitter on them.
It was so liberating, honestly – yes, I’ve been doing what I’m doing for over 30 years. But living through this new character, through Poppy Love, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The moment the makeup and the wig and the outfit and the heels go on, it’s like, “Who is AJ?” You really just embody your drag queen.
You consistently wowed the judges with your lip-sync performances – did you have a particular favourite?
Oh, it’s a vomit. That Gaga episode was pretty nice, though Burlesque number was amazing. Here’s the funny thing about it: I pick up my five-year-old from school and she says, “Dad, I saw yours Burlesque RuPaul’s performance.” And I’m like, “Oh no, that’s one of those I didn’t want you to see.” But she says, “That was great.” And then, with a straight face, deadpan, says her: “Dad, we need to have a conversation… why were your breasts out? What were those things on your breasts? I don’t understand why your breasts were out.” So I had to explain it all to a five-year-old. That’s the thing, my kids love it! For a hot second, though, they turned on me and were rooting for Chic-Li-Fay and Thirsty Von Trapp. I was like, “What about Daddy?” Like Daddy, their favorite is Backstreet Boy, but Brian is a close second, and so is Uncle Kevin. I get it.
Speaking of the boys, you’re all heading out on your own European tour next month, along with a myriad of other projects – what’s it like performing these massive shows nearly 30 years after the group’s debut?
I leave on Saturday for our six week run in Europe and right after that we’ll be promoting our first ever Christmas album. It’s a busy time, we’re going on this tour until May or June next year. In addition, I have my solo album released at the end of January. The sky is the limit right now.
I don’t know, it’s an absolute dream. We have always strived for one thing which is longevity. We are ultimately a touring act, but also all 10 of our albums have entered the top 10 [of the Billboard 200]. Of course, when the pandemic hit, we were a little worried about pushing the trip back. Ticket sales dropped, people were scared and they wanted their money back. But as soon as we hit our first show in June, it was sold out, the rest of the tour sold out, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. It’s crazy to me, we’re so lucky we can still do this after almost three decades – and still going! We’re not stopping now.
It certainly helps that the concept of the boy band is still very relevant today, especially when you look at a group like BTS dominating the pop space, even though they pursue solo album so far. From one boy to another, what advice would you give them that you wish you had been given?
Well, first of all, get a good lawyer. Have a really good manager [laughs]. No, but honestly, I’d say… stay in your lane. And what I mean by that is don’t try to conform to what other acts are doing or styles of music. Be who you are, be true to yourself. Although ours Never away the album was a bit out of the way for us, it still did well because it was still the same concept, the same sound. As long as groups like BTS maintain their sound, they will be around as long as they want to be.
It’s interesting, though, because the K-pop world is almost a completely different beast. I’ve seen it, I’ve learned it’s a very well-oiled machine. I don’t know how it all works, but I hope one day they’re well into their 40s and still doing it, because they’re very, very talented.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway from Drag race experience?
People find it very shocking that I’m actually very insecure – of course I’ve battled my demons with drugs and alcohol quite publicly for the past 25 years and I’ve just celebrated a year sober. So for me the takeaway was to love the body you are in, with or without the makeup, with heels or sneakers, just love yourself. That has been my big thing.