Part big sister, part den mother, Michelle Visage is back at the judges table of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to give this year’s crop of contestants her best (and most honest) critiques, with a dash of tough love sprinkled throughout. One of our most outspoken allies, Michelle sat down with me to talk about the latest season of “Drag Race”, what is was like having Lady Gaga join the judges panel on the first episode, and what a blast she and RuPaul are having on their “What’s the Tee” podcast. We also spoke at length about the current political climate and what our community can do to ensure that we are building each other up, as opposed to tearing each other down.

(SFGN) You are back where it all started; VH1! How does it feel to be “home again” in a way?                                                                 

(MV) Can you believe it? It’s our twenty-year anniversary, back to our roots!

Are you happy to be on back VH1 or are you missing where “RuPaul’s Drag Race” itself started, on Logo? 

Well, we are happy to that we’re still on the air with Season Nine! The fact that we are back to VH1 is just extra. I don’t know what it will mean to everyone else, but to Ru and I, it’s where we began on television together. The fact that we are back there is kind of surreal and amazing.

The first episode with Lady Gaga has a different vibe and maybe a larger feel of sorts? 

Yeah. I think you will find going forward that the show has the same feel, but it’s just bigger and grander. I think the first episode was different because Lady Gaga was there, so it was a special event.

What was the experience like spending the day with Lady Gaga judging the ladies at the judges table? 

She was amazing. I think at first she didn’t know what to make of me, because she didn’t know me and I didn’t know her, we had never met. We sat there next to each other talking about life, and I would ask her questions that I think that maybe the average person would not be ballsy enough to ask. I think after a while she realized “this chick is just a regular East Coast chick” and from then on, she was amazing.

What do you think, now that you have seen the girls on the main stage, what do you think is different this time around? 

You know, people ask me that every season, “what’s different about this season”? What’s different is that you have a whole new crop of girls that are hopefully bringing their A-game to the stage. That’s all you need to be different. It doesn’t need to be a theme, or a catch of any kind. The magic of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is that everyone gets excited about the new girls every season. It’s different than any other competition show out there. On other competition shows, you know they’re going to sew clothes, they’re going to do this or that. With us, it’s more about the contestant than it is the piece of work or the article that they are putting out. Each one is a total package. Each season is different because we have different queens that bring something unique every season. Because they are fans of the show, some of the girls have tried nine years to get on, while others have gotten cast on their first try at auditioning. They have watched eight seasons of “Drag Race’ plus two “All Stars” seasons, so they know what they are going to have to do-hopefully-and they also know what has already been done. I am the first one to say “no, I’ve seen this ten times, don’t try it”. They know that they are going to have to step it up.

You have sat at the judges table at RuPaul’s side since Season Three. Knowing you are a Jersey girl through and through, some have found your judging to be a little tighter and harsher recently. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? 

I think with “All Stars” when I gave my first critique to Adore (Delano), I told all the girls that “this is All Stars 2, I am not holding back”. Also, I know what each of those girls can do. I have worked with them, I’ve watched them grow, and I know their abilities. Do I think I am harsh and tough on the girls? -yeah. That’s my job. If we all sat there like Paula Abdul and just praised them, what fun would that be? I am there to push them. This show is amazing, and it can go on another ten seasons, but it’s not going to go on forever. They have to make what they have got count in this moment, because what we only have is right now. I want them to leave the show and for the next five to ten years’ work, and get top dollar and hopefully parlay it into something. I try to give them the tools that they need and they do with it what they're going to do with it. It’s my job to be the tough love mom or the tough love aunt.

You and Ru seem to be having a blast doing the “What’s the Tee” podcast together. It seems to be almost like your old days at KTU without the music. 

It’s so much fun to do it. We love being together, we love talking about things. There is a safety zone between Ru and I where he knows he is never going to be judged and vice versa. I think that I am proud of what he has brought to “What’s the Tee” and being so honest and not holding back about things. I think it’s a beautiful piece of work and I love doing it. 

You have even turned him into a full-fledged Broadway fan now! 

I know! It only took thirty years, right? (laughs). The truth is, he has always loved Broadway, he just didn’t want to admit it.

Speaking of Broadway, with the political climate the way it is, we need the arts and specifically, shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” now more than ever, wouldn’t you say? You speak very openly about politics in a very refreshing way. What do you think we can do as a community to pull together? 

I mean, what is there not to talk about? It’s 2017 and we are getting lied to left and right and our President got in on a lie. Why would we not talk about it? I have lost friends over this election and I don’t give a shit whether they are back in my life or not, because fundamentally we disagree on major issues. You are allowed to vote for whoever you want. I have friends that voted for him. You can have a debate on certain things, and we can agree on some things and disagree on others. It’s the things that we disagree on where you can see my point of view that makes all the difference. One of my closest friends voted for him because she thought she was going to get a break on taxes and get better healthcare. As we knew, that was never going to happen. She has the same beliefs for the LGBT community, but the difference is, it doesn’t affect her. I represent a community; I am a big mouthed ally because that’s what I am here to do. That’s not her job so she’s not looking at it that way. She’s look at it as, “I can barely pay my bills and I have to pay for my own insurance”. If you can have a regular discussion and speak about it, then I think that friendships don’t need to be lost. Unfortunately, this election was so polarizing that anger on both sides has destroyed not only friendships and families, but our community. Now more than ever, our community needs to stop ripping each other down and pull each other up; we need to stand by each other no matter what, now more than ever.

I just wrote a piece with a very similar tone referencing Logo’s “Fire Island” show. It seemed like many people are more concerned about tearing both the show and the participants to shreds rather than simply embracing it for what it is. 

Oh, c’mon, it looks like fun, everybody goes to Fire Island! Everyone is going to have a problem and they always do. Unfortunately, when we do it against our own kind within the community, everyone on the outside says “see this is what we don’t want to give them equality, they can’t even get along with themselves”. You can have your own opinion, but tearing it down and saying things that are not true or saying horrible things that are not true? -keep it within your circle and don’t put it on social media.

Ok, let’s have a quick lightning round on a couple of the new girls on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” this season;                                  

Alexis Michelle-she’s our show tunes queen!

Peppermint-I love Peppermint. She IS New York City!

Shea Coulee’-she’s from Chicago honey. She’s also kind of a theater queen also.

It seems like from the judges table, you are able to give the girls some great advice when they’re on the main stage. What advice would you give to the girls who have auditioned for the show either one time or eight times?