Getting to know our favorite girl from this season’s Drag Race
How Peppermint Learned to Camp
When asked to lip-sync for her life on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Peppermint’s weapon of choice was always camp.
The New York entertainer – who came a close second to Sasha Velour – kept her coup de grâce hidden beneath the folds of fabric flowing from her corsets, ready to brandish it when going in for the kill. There was, perhaps, no better example of this than in her lip sync to Madonna’s “Music” against Cynthia Lee Fontaine, in which she mimed cocking a shotgun and Old Yeller’ing her opponent in time to the drop. There were also smaller moments thrown into her tightly choreographed routines like tacks onto asphalt: her limp-wristed prancing to “Macho Man,” the unshakeable sincerity she brought to “Stronger,” the literal glitter bomb midway through “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay,” the probably Sontag-approved “dress made of three million feathers” she wore in that Whitney number. The way Peppermint invoked camp on the show always felt so natural, so it surprised me to learn that this wasn’t always the case.
“Camp used to be something I was afraid of,” Peppermint told me over the phone. “I was afraid to venture too far into the more heightened style of campy drag when I first started out. Drag, for me, meant creating the most beautiful and maybe even believable female version of myself that I could. It wasn’t until I came to terms with myself [as a transgender woman] that I stopped being afraid of all that makeup and hair.”
I recently had the chance to speak with Peppermint about camp, drag, and how she learned to stop worrying and love the quintuple lash. We also talked about what it’s like to not be sure which camp you belong to and where she hopes conversations around drag and gender expression go next.
I was listening to your new album, Black Pepper, and noticed you’ve got covers of songs by George Michael and Queen on there. Why George? Why Freddie?
Those are two songs by artists who happen to be queer, who deserve to be highlighted in death just as in life. We lost George Michael this year, of course, so that’s a little more timely. I recorded that song, “Too Funky,” as part of a video project I did with Ari Gold and some of the girls from season nine. The video was a love letter to George Michael, a thank you for everything he contributed to pop culture and music.
Was he or Freddie Mercury an early queer root for you?
Not so much in terms of my own gender expression, but George Michael was definitely the first person I can ever remember hearing was bisexual. I’d never even heard of that. There he was, being really famous and bisexual and covered in tight clothes. And then Queen, obviously. They were the first superstars I saw being celebrated for being so fabulous and queer and even campy at times, and they were completely unapologetic about it.
Speaking of campy, what does the word “camp” mean to you?
Camp, to me, is the ultra heightened, almost ridiculous caricature of any gender expression. The highest hair, the most outrageous makeup – it’s a wink and a nod from one of the characters to the audience member watching at home. Camp is all about the conversation those two are having, not the conversations the character is having with other characters in the movie.
Who are some of your camp icons?
The first person that comes to mind when I think of camp would be Divine.
How could I not mention Divine? Also, pretty much any male rock star from the ‘80s. They’re totally camp in a really played-down way. Like Prince: It’s not drag, but it’s totally camp. He walked around in heels, wore makeup, and had really tight pants with no butt in them, and he still got to be the object of so many women’s desire – men’s desire, too – and hit the top of the charts. It never seemed like he was the butt of the joke. He always seemed to be the one in control.
“Camp” also has another meaning, like the camp you belong to. Is that something you’ve had to navigate, feeling pressured to belong to one camp or another?
I’ve never felt the pressure to choose one camp over another, but I’ve certainly felt the pressure of being in between different camps and not knowing what to do. Growing up was really difficult for me, as someone who was assigned male at birth with a body perceived to be male but with a female brain and spirit – and as someone who is clearly African-American, to take it one step further. There were lots of reasons why kids picked on me and ostracized me. I’d always have to ask myself: “How are you moving? How are you acting? Is it too feminine? Is how you’re moving going to get you beat up?” I wasn’t able to embrace those parts of myself until much later.
When I was in my late teens, I moved to New York. I thought moving out of Delaware, where I grew up, would allow me to be with my people and feel free, but I still ended up feeling like a misfit in the gay community here. I couldn’t find a romantic partner who was interested in someone as feminine-acting as I am. I had trouble finding people with similar experiences as me, as a queer person of color. This was about 15, 20 years ago. “Twink” was the word on everybody’s lips, and I was not one! [laughs] The other one was “Chelsea boy,” which described something more muscular. We’d probably call him a “daddy” today, but he was more clean shaven. I wasn’t a twink or a Chelsea boy daddy. I was neither of those things. I didn’t want to be either of those things, but I felt pressure to relate to them. Eventually, I found a way to relate to them: as a woman entertaining them and taking their money. [laughs]
Even before I fully adopted the idea of being a transgender woman, I had a hard time in pretty much every facet of my life. Romance, employment… I was discriminated against as much as any gay man was, probably more. Years ago, I worked in a bank. It was my first real job out of high school. I was 18 and totally in awe of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. I had a curly, red weave just like her hair on the cover, acrylic nails, and burgundy lipstick, because that was the color of the year, I guess. I thought I was so fly, walking into my new bank job. I was immediately called into HR and told my look was a “distraction” and that I was fired. Of course, that’s illegal today [in some states]. But what that told me was that I couldn’t even try to look that way during the daytime. I wasn’t a criminal. I was always on time. But who I was made it acceptable to discriminate against me.
Switching gears a little, where do you hope to see drag go from here?
Drag is obviously an art form, but I really do think it’s used more as a tool these days. I’d like to see it continue to be a tool that communicates the power and strength that exists in everybody: transgender women, cisgender women, queer people, and gay men. For so long, people have assumed that drag is just this one thing, so I’m happy to be able to remind them that gender non-conforming people and trans people, particularly trans women, have always contributed to the art of drag and always will. And it’s not just drag. It’s everything! We’ve been here, and we always will be here. Kind of like gremlins, always watching... [laughs] I would also like to see other forms of drag be acknowledged in the mainstream. I would like to see drag kings on national television. For so long, our conversation about gender expression has been about men in dresses, whether we’re talking about drag queens or trans women in bathrooms. Drag queens are more than just men in dresses, and trans women trying to use public bathrooms are anything but. The conversation also needs to be extended to people who were assigned female at birth and are now wearing men’s clothes and to trans men. There are so many sides of this conversation that are not being heard. If we open all those windows and doors, I think we’ll shed some light.
Any advice for trans women and trans men who might want to audition for Drag Race?
Do it, and do it big. Focus on your drag. Focus on your talent. Being trans is just as important as being a gay man is for somebody else, but the gay men who audition don’t necessarily highlight the fact that they’re gay or male when they do drag. They just get in drag and do their audition. So, you just have to kill that audition. Make your drag funny, relatable, and straightforward. Good luck, and take that crown. It was almost in my hands, but it slipped away.
Watch the trailer for Project Peppermint — a documentary about the her life: