As a longtime outspoken ally of the LGBTQ community, stepping into the pumps of Poppy Love on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race was almost natural for AJ McLean. After snagging the crown this season, McLean is now spreading the word of love, acceptance, and how he “walked right into the LGBTQ community”. This unflinchingly outspoken ally recently spoke with me about his Drag Race experience, when he knew that he was a patented LGBTQ icon, and what his family thought about Daddy inhabiting Poppy Love (and when we may see her again)!
Michael Cook: Poppy Love is the official winner of RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race. Tell me about your experience.
AJ McLean: It is hands down, one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve been doing what I do for a living for almost three decades, and don’t get me wrong, it has been a dream come true to get to do something you love and bring a lot of joy to a lot of people. For example. I just did FanX its a Con in Salt Lake City, it’s one of the biggest cons in the world. I;m signing autographs, it’s very pop culture. So many people were asking “why don’t you have a Poppy Love picture to sign”. Really, when we went through the pictures, the world didn’t know that I was Poppy Love yet. Rest assured though, moving forward Poppy Love will be a part of my photos. I even have a whole autograph for her and everything.
MC: You were so passionate about your Drag Race experience. What was it about being a part of the show that brought forth such a passion for the art of drag as well as the experience as a whole?
AJM: For someone like me, I’ve been very in tune with my sexuality, being a massive advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and will continue to be. When I got asked to do this, I was floored, and it was like “where do I sign, I’m ready”?! I wore drag at my wedding, I’m not stranger to makeup, painting my nails, and wearing dresses. It’s just another form of expressing yourself. To get to do all of that in full makeup, wig, heels, pads, boobs, all of it and to get to create this character, this amazing drag queen Poppy Love, was so liberating, it was freeing.
I was never nervous..well I shouldn’t say “never” nervous, the heels at first were a bitch, but once I got that, I was off to the races. You could put me in six inch, platforms now & whatever you want, I got it. The first couple weeks though, I brought my heels home, walked around my house, and my daughters had absolutely no idea what was going on. They are massive fans of the show too now, no just because Daddy was on it, but Mommy and Daddy explained to them what it is to be a drag queen as best we understand it from me doing the show. And they think it’s the coolest thing in the world.
MC: For as long as fans can remember, you’ve always been comfortable in your sexuality. You were doing “meterosexuality” before it was a thing and wearing nail polish. Where does such an ease with playing with gender come from for you?
AJM: I think for me, being raised by such an amazing woman, my mom, who was a single mom. Also my grandparents come who come from a different generation, were very open minded, like “people are people”, it didn’t matter their sexual preferences or the color of their skin. My whole family are vey open minded people. I’m not dissing “all” Republicans, but we’re not fucking Republican, I’ll tell you that right now. I also grew up in musical theater; my stage moms were gay, directors of our shows were gay, my first acting teacher, I saw her holding hands with her partner since I was five years old. I just looked at it as “it’s no big deal”. They love each other, cool”. I was introduced to the world of the LGBTQ+ community at a very young age. Instead of it confusing me or turning the other cheek, I walked right into it. I’ve embraced it, accepted it, and supported; that’s just me, I will always be that person. I love everybody.
MC: Experiencing the competition of RuPaul’s Drag Race can be daunting for so many reasons, and many get into the competition and cannot believe how challenging certain aspects can be, What is one part of the competition that surprised you once you experienced it?
AJM: The whole thing, nine layers of panty hose. I still have my tits, they’re in my office, I freak my kids out every once in a while in the morning when I make coffee and those things are heavy! A lot of my outfits from the middle of the season to the finale were more latex driven, the first few were a little less. The one thing that I didn’t need to do because of my figure was corset a lot. I did it twice because the outfit I had on I wanted to do it, but man that is a whole other ball game right there, corseting and cinching that waist. Since the show, I’ve lost thirty pounds, I am in the best shape of my life and I’m sober one year and two days.
Hats off to Gloria, our amazing wig department, and makeup. Up until I was revealed, I sat in that chair for three hours to have all of my tattoos covered and the patience that this amazing makeup team had with me, because obviously I have sleeves no one else had that much. Down to production, stage manager, Mama Ru, Michelle Visage, wardrobe department, everyone involved; it was one big family. And such an amazing fucking cast, I have stayed friends with everybody and it was such a great experience that I would do again in a heartbeat. If they called me and said “we’re going to DragCon…”. Im gonna do it, I think DragCon is in July, my tour is done next year, and I am going next year as Poppy.
MC: You spoke about your sobriety struggles and hearing your personal experiences truly can help so many people. What made it so crucial from your perspective to make that very personal part of you part of your Drag Race journey?
AJM: It is a huge part of my story and my life, I battle with it daily. When you are given a platform and you are using it poorly, you shouldn’t be given that platform anymore. If you are given a platform and you are using it for good, and use it the right way you can help people and you can change people’s lives. We have changed people’s lives with our music; if I can change an addict or an alcoholic’s perception and be of service-which is what the whole program of AA is about-through a different art form, then sign me up. If me telling my story through drag and through that performance and then talking about it on the show helped anyone, even one person, I did my job and I will continue to do that.
Now mental health is no longer shoved under the rug, it is talked about openly because a lot of addicts were misunderstood. Mental health was not talked about and people thought addicts “chose” drugs and alcohol. You don’t always choose, there is not always a choice; sometimes the drugs choose you and its a matter of whether you stop or you don’t or you can or can’t stop and that is all tied into mental health. I’ve talked about it on my podcast and with press and media and I will continue to do so.
MC: When did you know that AJ McLean was officially an LGBTQ icon and a true ally?
AJM: I think really for me, it was when we did Pride in San Francisco and we were the Grand Marshall on the main stage, and we were part of the parade. Just the response that I got then, as well as having a ton of gay friends, my publicist is gay and I got ordained as a minster to marry my two gay best friends. I’ve always had a feeling and Ive always known, and I have always been attracted to that community. It is so much fun, its so freeing, and there is just so much love.
In any community of any kind there will be highs and lows, ups and downs, but the one thing about the LGBTQ community that has always been so inviting is that it is always love based. Love yourself, love the body you are in; period. I’m learning now, at forty-four, I am finally coming into my own and dealing with my demons and finding out who I am and learning to love the body that I am in. That is what all of this is for. Evne the show, it is showcasing loving yourself, whether you are in heels or sneakers it should not matter.
MC: I am sure your Backstreet Boys members were cheering you on during your Drag Race journey. Which of your band members do you think would slay on the main stage if they had the chance?
AJM: I think that Kevin (Richardson) would slay actually. Nick (Carter) I think would be too predictable, he has that baby face. The fact that I had to shave, the three ladies in this house were not okay with that, they do not like Daddy without a beard. I truly think Kevin would kill it and Howie (Dorough) could doo. He could be a total boriqua! Both of us are Puerto Rican, but Poppy Love is kind of a little bit of everyone, she has a little bit of everybody in her.
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