After letting America fall in love with him as Artie on Glee, Kevin McHale has moved on to publicly come out, and has taken a recent turn on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race as the equally lovable Chic-Li-Fay. Li-Fay may not have snagged the Season 2 title but she most definitely grabbed the hearts of viewers everywhere. I sat down with McHale to chat about stepping into the shoes of Chic-Li-Fay, his own public coming out journey, and which one of his own Glee co-stars would slay the game on Secret Celebrity Drag Race.
Michael Cook: RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race was quite a journey for you, and it was wonderful journey watching you truly come into the character of Chic-Li-Fay throughout the process.
Kevin McHale: That is actually really good to hear because I think when you are actually in it, it is hard to recognize what is changing week by week. Michelle and the judges do such a good job of seeing right through all of us, especially me! When she was saying that I was doing comedy as part of my act, I wasn’t even realizing that it was happening, but I was just living all of their words. I was feeling more free and liberated as each week went by and I felt like my life outside of the show felt like that as well. I think it was from being in drag, being around the Queen Supremes and the crew behind the scenes. They were the most diverse and queer group of people I’ve ever worked with. That whole family, it was such a joy to be around those people and that helped all of us feel more comfortable in this new skin that we were inhabiting. I didn’t think I would feel super free and liberated dressed as a peanut, but here we are and I loved it!
MC: A large part of being in drag is truly being in on the joke, and the sparkle in your eye every week truly showed that you quickly realized that. Did you quickly find yourself simply surrendering to the process?
KMH: I literally said, whatever you guys wanna do, I’m down. Renee, who worked on the show, is an incredible comedian and she would help come up with some of these insane concepts. I was the last one to sign onto the show, so we didn’t have a lot of time to get it together. We were brainstorming and when she would ask a question like “if there was a week about money what would you want to do”? I immediately responded with “Bitch Better Have My Money”. I’m in, whatever. Whatever your craziest idea is, do it. She got to work out a lot of ideas that she has been sitting on for years. Like you said, I was super in on the joke and that is my sense of humor, so it made a lot of sense to me. If we’re going to do this, let’s go crazy. I also watch Drag Race, so I sort of knew in that sense what to expect and my boyfriend was sort of coaching me, he wasn’t going to let me fail.
MC: As a fan, you probably go in thinking you have cracked the Drag Race code, but quickly find out you have plenty to learn is that fair to say?
KMH: Oh completely. It is absolutely different. The structure of the show is very different from regular Drag Race also. It definitely was a hand holding experience in a lot of ways. They made us look great, gave us great outfits and incredible stage production, and we really just sort of had to show up. They really made it as easy and seamless as possible. Being a drag queen is so hard, you have to be good at so many things. You have to be a stand up comedian in addition to all of these other things. That is terrifying when your feet are turning blue, you can’t see out of your eyelashes, your head hurts, & the corset is just a little too tight. But there are worse jobs (laughs).
Day one, I said “everyone needs to do this”. All those queens in random small bars all over America doing this for a crowd of a handful of people are still putting in the work and jumping into the splits. They do it and they’re good at it and I think a lot of it is a thankless job because they are masters at so many jobs. Yes, I think everyone should do drag.
MC: Your boyfriend was probably living when you received this opportunity, was he thrilled for you each and every week?
KMH: We were in Vegas when I was asked and we had just seen RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! the night before. He turned to me and said “I will break up with you if you don’t do this” (laughs). I ended up taking so long to answer that they filled the slot, then they came back to me a week before production and I was like “yes please”! My boyfriend has been great, he is obsessed with the show but we didn’t know what the format was going to be. He made YouTube playlists of queens to watch for me, I would rehearse numbers in front of him when I would get home. He knew how nervous I was for ‘Snatch Game’ and he even wrote jokes for me!
MC: What was it like doing it with your Glee co-star Jenna Ushkowitz? Was it easier having someone there that you knew to go through the process with?
KMH: I felt like we were lucky to have each other. Being thrown into any of these experiences is being throwing into the deep end, so having a home base, foundational person is really great. I was so proud of her, I have been around her for a big portion of my life and I know how her mind works. You put her in front of a crowd and she doesn’t know anything else than one hundred percent. Even when she was doubting herself the most, she would go so hard, I was just so so happy; she was so good and born to do this!
MC: If we had said five years ago that we would be having discussion after you performed on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, it would seem completely impossible. Your own coming out was surrounded with so much publicity surrounding it, and you’re now fully embracing simply living your life. How does it all feel now?
KMH: I feel like I should have been doing this for a lot longer; I took too long! I was shocked and surprised by the response. It just feels great. It feels great to be able to do shows like this and get to work with other gay or queer people have have that camaraderie and unspoken bond that we all have, It has been nice. I know, for example, that it was hard for Chris Colfer when Glee was on because he was so young. It is so nice to see yourself reflected on screen or someone that is even adjacent to how you feel, and his character meant so much to so many people. And I know how hard that was for him at times because he was so young. The small fraction of that that I have gotten to experience from people coming up to me or on social media is overwhelming and very nice.
A friend of mine who is very smart and a producer on a big news show has been texting me weekly with beautiful words, speaking about how it is to see someone come into themselves like I am on Drag Race. I have had a few close people tell me those things and it is always shocking and really wonderful to hear. Not necessarily something I was expecting either, but I also felt that way unexpectedly going into Drag Race. Once you get there, you realize the show is made for a community, by a community, and I am a member of that community. To be able to feel supported and have that come off on screen and be able to see myself enjoy it that way has been the best feedback. It has been unreal and the “gayest” I have ever felt (laughs)! I have done some pretty gay things, this is the gayest!
MC: Next season of Secret Celebrity Drag Race, if your former Glee co-stars Amber Riley and Chris Colfer were to be cast, who would go further in the competition?
KMH: I think Amber does. I love Chris, if there were more reading challenges, a roast or ‘Snatch Game’, Chris would murder it. If we’re just talking about performance, Amber has won Dancing With The Stars; she’s undefeated! She barely needs to rehearse, just put her out there!
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