When I was 18, a group of my friends took me to my first gay club, Ozz. We lined up outside, paid our cover, and proceeded to get a big black X on the back of our hands indicating to everyone that we were not of drinking age. But we didn’t care, and for me especially, it was a brand new experience where I was about to step into a world I had never seen before. The Orange County dance club and lounge is long gone, but many remember it as a popular watering hole where some of the most epic nights of their lives happened. Before reality television made its mark on the world, gay clubs and bars served as a point of connection where the queer community could meet, exchange looks, dance, and experience the counterculture of art that was DRAG.
That summer night when I stepped foot into Ozz, I had no idea that I would also be introduced to my first drag queen. At this point in my life, I had no interest in drag queens nor did I know what they historically represented for the LGBTQ community. But when crowds gathered on the dance floor and I Don’t Give a F*ck! by Peaches started playing, Raja Gemini stepped out onto floor and blew my mind–giving me a “welcome home” party I never dreamed of. Today, we all know her as Raja (Sutan Amrull), winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 3 and talented makeup artist who has worked on shows like America’s Next Top Model, but in that moment I could not keep my eyes off of her medusa-like snake hair, vibrant body suit, and shiny makeup. She was an anomaly before my eyes and I dare to say that today after drag culture and LGBTQ media have shifted immensely, Raja continues to amaze–and for Southern California queens like me, she will always be our homegrown darling.
Since winning RuPaul’s Drag Race, Raja remains actively engaged in the drag scene, performing shows around the world, forging her way further into makeup artistry, and being one of the faces of World of Wonder’s Fashion Photo RUview.
Raja has risen to fame as one of the most iconic and creative queens to ever grace the Drag Race stage. As part of the original Drag Race clique “The Heathers”–which included Delta Work, Manila Luzon, and Carmen Carrera–Raja proved week after week that her tenacity for creating set her apart from the competition which ultimately got her the crown.
If you follow Raja on social media, you’ll appreciate her regular feed of musings and inspiration. Raja’s sense of humor also shows that she never takes herself too seriously and allows her true self to shine.
Also–did I mention Raja appeared on an episode of The Simpsons?! Watch it–your wig will go into orbit.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Raja and talking about the trajectory of her career. We laughed, we cried (well, I cried), and she gave me some great insight on how she is living her best life by constantly re-inventing herself.
DAVID LOPEZ FOR INSTINCT: In your opinion, how has drag culture changed since your win on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Oh, dramatically! When I went on RuPaul’s Drag Race I went on with the intention that I was going to win $50,000 and when we were on Season 3, it was still the early stages of Drag Race so I didn’t know the potential of what drag could become in the last nine years since I’ve been on. It’s an industry now whereas when I was on I was still doing drag the way I did drag which felt very provocative and it had a rawness and freedom to it. Anybody could do it the way they wanted to—and it still is that way—but now because it has become so huge, there’s something that’s lost to it over time. And that’s only me saying this because I’m older and I started doing drag in the ‘90s. I’m glad for what it has become because of the visibility, but I think it’s changed—it doesn’t have the same POWER that it did once upon a time.
DL: Do you think that there’s TOO much access to drag?
Well, now it’s become such a huge trend and everyone is on board with it—which I’m very happy about. It’s a wonderful idea that everyone gets to love drag, but for someone like me who started before there was even internet and with Instagram it feels differently than when I started.
DL: Has drag helped you in any personal struggles?
Absolutely, yes! I am somewhat of an introvert and drag has allowed me to find confidence—well pulled out my confidence. It has allowed me to conquer a lot of ideas and fears and that’s what I’m working on now. That fear that stifles you and keeps you from doing what you want to do. Especially with this project with Peaches because I’m not a theater queen. I’ve just this entire career out of just being beautiful and lazy now I feel like I want to step it up for myself. And it’s all for myself.
DL: How often do you get to see “The Heathers”?
Not as often as I’d like. We all have separate lives. We keep busy and when we do get a chance to see each other we do because nine years later we’re still friends. Manila and I are the closest, we spend a lot of time together because she lives in L.A. She and I spend time together to re-inspire ourselves and she’ll come over to my place and we’ll smoke weed and drink wine and draw pictures all day. She’s really great at talking me off a ledge.
DL: Would you be on board to come back for a RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars Winners’ Circle?
You know, that’s been tossed around. The idea has been mentioned and people have talked about it. I think about it all the time because I would love to go back on T.V. and have that opportunity. So yes, I would definitely do it. It would be interesting to see how it would play out because now it’s nine years later and I’m 45 years old. So I don’t know if I have the same energy as I had before. I think it’s a good idea—I think the fans would love it! If there was any question on who would participate I would certainly be one of them, I just don’t know how long I would last—I’m quite grumpy now.
DL: Do you think that Fashion Photo RUview has opened up the floodgates for viewers to want to give their unsolicited opinions about drag?
Yes, I think so. But we’re not doing anything that’s unusual. Every viewer of Drag Race has their own of what’s happening on their T.V. screen so we’re just doing our version of it. We got a lot of inspiration from Fashion Police on E! and I always loved that show. That’s what we do—we sit there and judge and talk about it and it’s completely harmless. Just silly opinions, but yes I do think that it adds to the unsolicited part.
I think it makes drag performers step it up because it makes you realize that people are watching. People are forming opinions—you can do whatever you want with that opinion—but it’s an opinion. Ultimately it’s fun. It’s not meant to be harmful. It’s no different than how others would be watching Drag Race—we’re just hanging out in outfits.
DL: If you weren’t a makeup artist or a drag queen, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would always be doing something creative, that’s for sure. I think one of the reasons why I won RuPaul’s Drag Race is because I am a fabricator, I’m a designer, I make things, I constantly create. So it would probably be a version of that. I’d be doing costume design or something. I’m one of those people who constantly has projects going.
DL: Who or what inspires you to create?
There’s a lot really. Time makes me want to create. I don’t think we have a lot of time on this planet or in this realm. One of my biggest concerns or worries is that I’ll leave this realm one day and no one will remember anything of me or won’t even remember that I existed. But I’m inspired by everything around me. I just feel like I have to continually work and do something that is creative or else I will lose my mind and die. I’m inspired by fashion, music, friends—there’s just so many things.
You may have also noticed that Raja has decided venture into acting–something the artist has always thought about doing, but never brought herself to do. After some motivation from the legendary Peaches Christ, Raja has decided to step into a stage role in the Peaches Christ and Varla Jean Merman production of First Wives Fight Club, a musical parody mash-up of the classic films “The First Wives Club” and “Fight Club”. Starring next to Ginger Minj (RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7; Dumplin’), Brooke Lynn Hytes (RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11), Peaches Christ, and more, Raja puts her spin on a memorable Diane Keaton role.
DL: So is acting something that you want to start doing more of?
Once upon a time before Drag Race was around, drag in Los Angeles meant that the only way you had exposure is if you got roles in film or television. And typically those roles were the drag queen prostitute and they were all cliché and predictable roles and we all wanted them. I’ve wanted a piece of that pie and acting has always been in my mind, but I’ve never had the confidence to do it. So when Peaches asked me to do this I was definitely up for the challenge. It’s been difficult, but fun.
Peaches and I became close and had conversations while we were working together in Provincetown on our separate shows and I expressed to her how much I admired her work and always wanted to be a part of it. Both she and Varla Jean (Merman) became my mentors during my summer stint in Provincetown so I think that’s how it happened. I was very flattered and honored to be asked to do it, but I didn’t realize the amount of work that it entails.
We got to do the show in San Francisco and it was a blast! We did two shows in a row, but I’m excited to do it in L.A. because it’s my home and I know there’s gonna be a lot of fun people there and I know that we’re gonna pack that house.
DL: How has it been working with Brooke Lynn Hytes and Ginger Minj?
Ugh—a pleasure! Brooke Lynn and I are quite close. We’ve had a working relationship for over two years now, but never get to spend much time together so it was nice. And Ginger I’ve admired since her season of Drag Race. The time was invaluable—it was wonderful! Mostly for me it was a learning experience because these are two people who are very very good at what they do. Ginger is a theater MASTER and Brooke Lynn having her experience in ballet has really great ideas and movement and learning. And then there was me. So I really got to learn from them and laugh a lot.
DL: So what have you done to channel Diane Keaton?
When Peaches approached me for the part she said, “I just figured you’d be so good at it because you’re so stoned and nice.” So that was the perfect role for me. I do have to take a little bit of the glamour, but my favorite thing about Diane Keaton has always been her boyish style, her ability to throw in menswear—so that’s been fun. I’ve been able to use my own wardrobe.
DL: Shifting gears a bit—who are you rooting for on Drag Race Season 11?
Brooke Lynn is at the top of my list. I like Yvie Oddly because she’s just that character on the show. And Vanjie—she’s become a very good friend of mine. So yeah, those are probably my top three.
If you’re in L.A. this weekend, check out Raja, Ginger Minj, Brooke Lynn Hytes, and Peaches Christ in First Wives Fight Club at The Montalbán. Tickets are available online at https://www.themontalban.com/shows