If you had to name the world’s most famous drag queen, you’d probably say “RuPaul”. But you’d be wrong. In terms of sheer follower numbers on Instagram, 26-year-old Brazilian drag queen and pop star Pabllo Vittar vastly outshines RuPaul, with 11.3 million followers compared to Ru’s 4.2 million.
Pabllo’s rise to fame began in 2014 when she uploaded a video performance of the Whitney Houston classic “I Have Nothing” to Youtube. The video went viral and was seen by over 2.3 million people, gaining her an invitation to present the same performance on national TV in Brazil. Then, in 2018, Pabllo became the first drag queen to be nominated for a Grammy, before she became the first drag to ever perform at the United Nations Headquarters in 2020. Last year, Pabllo was also nominated by TIME as one of the top influential leaders of the next generation.
From the outside, this rise to the top seems to have occurred effortlessly and without pause. But the real story is more interesting. Born as Phabullo Rodrigues da Silva, and raised in the largely rural northern state of Pará, Vittar was surrounded by poverty. The artist never knew her father, who left when her mother was pregnant. Additionally was the challenge of growing up in Brazil, which is one of the most dangerous countries for LGBTQIA+ people globally, and getting worse.
According to a report published by the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals of Brazil (ANTRA), the country saw 43 more murders involving transgender victims in 2020 than in 2019. That makes Brazil—for 13 years in a row—the world’s single most dangerous country to be trans.
As a fellow Brazilian and member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I’ve long looked up to Pabllo Vittar as a hero. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, which we conducted over two phone calls. We talked about her childhood, her experience of becoming famous, and how she’s trying to use that fame to leverage change. She also sent a message to RuPaul: “please, invite me to your show!”
VICE: Hey, Pabllo, let’s start with your childhood. Were you a happy kid?
Pabllo Vittar: I was a truly happy kid. Not every school supports LGBTQAI+ students, but I got lucky. I lived in Santa Isabel, a tiny town in the countryside, with my family. Ours was a simple house, but one full of love and candidness. It was me, my mother, and my two sisters. I used to play with them on the street all the time. We were very close. It was a time of freedom and innocence.
Do you still maintain that close relationship with your family?
Yeah, for sure. I tell them everything. I have a twin sister named Phamella, and she is one of the best people I know. She used to be my guinea pig, because I loved to make her up and style her hair when we were little. We both started taking ballet lessons together when we earned a scholarship. She eventually gave up, but I kept on going. My other sister is Pollyana. She works with me as a part of my team and she is in every show I perform.
I presume you have a lot to say about your mother.
Yes, definitely. If there’s someone in this world who inspires me, it is her, Ms. Verônica. She raised me and my sisters all by herself. And for that, she had to work on lots of jobs so she could give us a better life. It wasn’t easy, because we were very energetic kids. Mum is my number one fan. She calls me everyday just to know if I have had lunch or if I got to the hotel safely. She was a real lioness when it came to defend me and to teach me how life worked. She is the base of our family and it’s because of her that Pabllo is here today.
I think it is extremely important for us to always remember where we came from so that our essence remains intact. Much of the strength the artist Pabllo has today comes from that little dreamer boy from the countryside.
I heard that you’ve never met your father?
Yeah, that's right. Nowadays, a family is not about a man and a woman. Instead, what keeps us united is love and respect. In my family, we have always loved, respected and supported each other. Family is something we build, not something resulting from a blood link.
Did you ever experience bullying as a child?
Yes, I was 10 and I was attending fifth grade. I was chubby and fem. I was happy because another school year was about to begin and I was sure I’d make some new friends, but I actually got beat up on my first day. I had no one to turn to, except my sisters. I remember going back home crying and telling my mother that I no longer wanted to go to school, but she said: “Oh, you are going. Life is full of challenges and it’s no use if you hide”. I’m really grateful today for those who encouraged me, especially for those who said “no” to me, because they challenged me to search for a “yes”.
What was it like to come out in your city?
As I said, I had an amazing family that supported me right from the start. The problems were things from outside my home. I was a fem kid, very scared, and that’s something the bullies would feast on. So it took me a while to gain the confidence to wear what I feel like, to behave the way I do and tell myself “screw it, be happy!”
It’s important to highlight that everyone’s journey is unique and the coming out experience is different to each one of us. Gay relationships are still criminalised in over 70 countries and I cannot imagine how hard it must be to live a life like this. My advice for those who are going about the come out experience is always respect your own time. And, of course, try to be surrounded by people who love and respect you.
Let’s talk about your career. Tell me about the dreams you had when you were young.
I remember that every time I was in the shower, I’d take a shampoo bottle and rehearse my speech for when I was receiving an award!
I heard that your first performance in front of an audience was at a church. Is that right?
Yes, that’s true. I started singing at the Presbyterian Church choir close to my house when I was four or five. I remember asking my mother to take me along and let me sing. I used to sing in every church party, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter or Christmas. Eventually, I realised I preferred the musical part of mass.
Do you consider yourself a religious or a spiritual person nowadays?
I believe in God. I am a Christian, but I don’t go to churches or temples as I believe we don’t need to go to the church to be connected with God. Nowadays, I’m very grateful for what I have accomplished. I talk to God everyday at home, at my hotel room or before my shows. I’m always carrying my faith with me and towards others. I think we live under God’s eyes and we have to do good to inspire people so they can do good too.
When was the first time you realised you were becoming famous?
I think the first time I thought “wow, I’m famous” was when I went to the cinema with my friends and people suddenly stopped watching the movie to look back and check if it was me there. It was super funny! After the movie session, I took a photo with at least 30 people. All of this in the city where I lived—so how amazing was that?
That’s great. Let’s talk about how your fame will translate into a legacy. What are you hoping your legacy for future drag artists will be?
I want all of them to dream, to study, to work, and to conquer all the spaces they want. I also want to inspire them to support each other. I am the result of a legacy of drag artists, and I want to perpetuate this artistic expression and to take it even further. I am here to say “you can do it, girl!” A very important part of our work is to open doors for new artists to emerge and break more barriers. Without Mamma Ru, I don’t think there would be a global drag scene as there is today.
Would you like to be a judge on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Yes! Please, RuPaul, invite me to your show! I’m a big fan of RPDR! It was one of the reasons why I started doing drag. My dream is that, one day, I could be on that judges panel having one of my songs in the lip sync battle!
Can you name three other drag artists you admire?
Actually, instead of pointing out three drags that I admire, I’ll suggest three drag artists we should pay attention to, okay? Enme Paixão, Kaya Conky and Electra McKlein. They are all Brazilian drags with different characteristics and styles. That’s what fascinates me: how Brazil is diverse and multicultural. In a certain way, I try to bring it together in my music, that plurality from Brazil.
You said once in an interview that people “must learn that the ‘g’ is not the only letter in LGBTQ”. Could you elaborate?
When I say that, I think of all the letters of the LGBTQIA+ community. We all must learn that the G isn’t the only letter in LGBTQIA+. We have to acknowledge and embrace the full spectrum. For a long time, it’s been said that everyone is the same, but in fact we are all different. We need to celebrate the difference and the pride of being who we want to be. When we talk about the LGBTQIA+ community, we must not fit them all inside the same perspective. There are countless layers of privilege that separate each letter and we cannot ignore that.
You have been a vocal critic of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro for a long time. One of your Instagram posts on the matter achieved over half billion likes. Why don’t you like him?
One just has to have a little bit of empathy and common sense to know that he is no good. He not only lacks the capability to run this country, but he doesn’t respect the differences, the diversity. He doesn’t govern for the people, only for a selfish elite. He disseminates disinformation and spreads fake news, manipulating an already broken society that lacks basic needs. Countless are the points that highlight how important it is for us to say something and change our country’s future.
Why do you want your voice to be heard?
I am a gay boy from the northeast of Brazil who got some attention, so I want to tell everyone how far we can go. Brazil is a highly diverse mixture of races and cultures, but we’re still living by standards that no longer fit reality. It’s very important to show the new generation that they can be everywhere, without having to subject themselves to toxic standards imposed by our society.
What has the pandemic taught you?
The pandemic impacted me in a sudden way. I used to be home for no more than five days and suddenly I had to be inside for ten months. It’s quite a shock. I remember I was touring Australia, then I had to come back to Brazil and start a lockdown right off the bat. I had to postpone a world tour and change my entire routine.
At the same time, I was able to learn more about myself, about empathy and how we have to help each other always, even more in hard times like these. Also, the pandemic taught us that we have to listen to science and to the experts. We have to applaud the health workers, not only during the pandemic, but always. I have an example at home, as my mother works as a nursing technician.
And tell me Pabllo, what do you believe, in general, is the key to a better world?
I believe that education and enlightenment are the basis of a more empathic society. When we have knowledge, we make more conscious choices and learn to deal better with diversity.
Interview by Felippe Canale. Follow him on Instagram