Strutting into the "RuPaul’s Drag Race" workroom in ice skates had not something ever done before but from the moment we saw Denali on this season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," it was fairly clear that she was here to slice through any idea of a drag queen “could do.”
After only doing drag for a couple of years, this Chicago stunner has become one of the darlings of season 13. Between her competitive focus and her stunning and eclectic runway looks, Denali is showing baby queens all over that you don’t have to be a drag veteran to make it into the biggest stage in the world for drag. I sat down with Denali to talk about her Drag Race experience, unleashing the first winner of Canada’s Drag Race onto the world, and how her competitive spirit has shaped the performer that she has become.
Michael Cook: You have had an amazing and very strong showing on this season of "RuPaul's Drag Race." Now that this part of the journey has ended, what is it like to look back?
Denali: I am utterly proud of myself. I was a part-time drag queen of two and a half years that made it onto the show and my whole life has been changed from it. I competed in 10 competitive episodes of "RuPaul's Drag Race;" I am so incredibly grateful and so blessed. Yes I would have liked to have made it to the Top 4, but I look back on the whole experience and I am so proud of everything that I was able to show. I am so proud of the lip syncs, the memes, the viral moments, everything; I am very happy.
MC: Team challenges are always challenging. Your final challenge was a team challenge with Olivia Lux and you ended up having to lip-sync against her after a difficult challenge. What was it like ending up in the bottom against someone who moments before, you had been on a team with?
D: I take full responsibility for my performance in that challenge as well, I won't fully blame it on Olivia in any way. We did our very best in that challenge, we had to adapt to a lot of changes in everything going on with COVID and with that specific challenge; it was really hard. Olivia got the harshest runway critiques, but I understood that both of us were the weakest in that challenge. Regardless of whether she did better or worse than me, I understood why we were both at the bottom.
MC: You have made herstory as the first queen to ever enter the "RuPaul's Drag Race" workroom in ice skates, and you have lip-synced in them. You are also a third-degree black belt. Ice skating and the martial arts are both areas that require a great deal of discipline; was that discipline helpful to you coming into Drag Race?
D: One hundred percent. In a sense it was almost what held me back. When I get into a competition zone, I kind of put up blinders, I have a one-track mind, I see one goal and I have to accomplish it. In a television environment, sometimes it is better to have that one-track mind and be focused, but also to have fun. I think that that is a little bit as to why that attitude was to be a detriment at times. I thought that I was being overlooked because I didn't really have a chance to showcase my personality to the judges in a lot of ways. In part, that might have been due to the structure of our season and that really intense first day, and things like that. It set a precedence that you could really be out of here in a second. At the same time, it was definitely a feeling of "Denali relax, have fun. Yes it is intense and it is a competition, but chill girl." I definitely think that my training helped me and benefit me as well. Challenges that I was afraid of like Snatch Game, it was like you have a goal, you have to accomplish it, here you go. I am really proud of myself for being able to apply it in areas like the challenges.
MC: Chicago is known as an extremely tough drag scene and the competition is very tough there. How did you not just find a way to carve out a name for yourself in Chicago, but elevate yourself enough to land a spot on "RuPaul's Drag Race" this season?
D: What is kind of crazy about my ride is that I have not been doing drag for a long time. By the time I got on the show, I had only been doing it for about two and a half years, I was very much a baby queen. My drag was designed for high-energy club performances. I also think that is what helped me carve out my space in the Chicago scene. In Chicago, there is a lot of SAIC Arts students in drag, a big comedy scene that has turned to drag, but there had not been an athlete turned performance artist in drag quite yet as I had. There are some high-energy performers in Chicago, but I think I made a statement being from the performance world and being able to be that high-energy girl. When a lot of bookers and club owners were looking to fill that spot with the high-energy girl, I became the go-to pretty quickly.
MC: What many people don't know is that you are the queen who ended up unleashing Canada's Drag Race Season 1 winner Priyanka onto the world. What is it like seeing everything that she has accomplished as a performer?
D: I am so proud of her; when all of the stars align and you are meant to be right where you are in your life, that is how it was for Pri and I am really proud of her. I was actually visiting an ice skating friend of mine in Toronto and we went to a gay dodgeball night and we played a game. I met Mark Suknanan at the time and we all went for drinks. I remembered that it was the season 9 finale of "RuPaul's Drag Race" and I remember saying that and Priyanka looked at me and asked "What's Drag Race?" I took her to her friends' house, turned on the television and said "This is Drag Race." I showed her the season 9 finale which I think is a great place to start for drag and getting excited about it. She was so into it and she was instantly hooked. I left Toronto and she just took the whole world by storm. She won even amateur local competition after that and then went onto Canada's Drag Race and she won. She comes from a television background and she was just so perfect for the show. I was so proud to see all of her success and I was so glad to "birth" Priyanka! It's such a small world and I am so proud of her.
MC: What is next for Denali?
D: Once the world opens back up, you are going to see me on every stage possible. I want to travel, I want to meet the fans, I want to put on shows all over the world while I can. I am also going to be putting out a lot more video content, I really realized how much the fans attached themselves to it and they have been loving my content, so I am going to lean into that a lot more. A lot more ice skating videos and I have some brand partnerships coming up and some really exciting things. Tomorrow I am going to be releasing probably the biggest video from this whole experience and I am really excited about that. It is a love letter to the fans and to the show.
MC: How have you stayed inspired and creatively fueled during the past year when finding that inspiration has been so hard?
D: It was really hard, it was really hard to not be doing drag for four, five, or six months and then get the call to do the Olympics. It is almost like if you were a figure skater for five months and then got called to the biggest show. There is also a training aspect of drag as well, including your makeup, putting on heels, and wearing pads that you get used to and I just felt so out of practice. We got the call and it was like "Well, it doesn't matter when Ru calls you go." We also auditioned at a time when there was no semblance of a pandemic anywhere; we had no idea. It was really hard, but I am so proud of my cast for adapting and putting together such an incredible season through it all. I am just really proud of our resilience; you can probably see that even now, we are reaching a point in the show where we are really tired. it is because we truly were, it was a big challenge. I think the motivation came from the fact that at the end of the day, we got on Drag Race. To me, it was a huge blessing to get on during the pandemic, because truly no one in our industry is working right now. I feel very lucky and very blessed to be working during one of the craziest times.
Follow Denali on Instagram.
Check out the other interviews on the "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 13 homepage.