Michelle Visage Did My Make-Up and Sorted My Life Out
Michelle Visage was born in faux fur and PVC. As she pried open her eyes for the first time they became immediately stacked with five sets of false lashes. Some people call her the "Simon Cowell of drag", but she's more iconic than that. She is Jersey's answer to Peggy Mitchell, although she will later tell me, "Honey, I was Snooki before there was Snooki."
Every week on RuPaul's Drag Race her personality fills the screen more than the competing queens and her cascading breasts combined. Her sense of humour is bone dry and a little bit filthy. Every laugh sounds like an evil stepmother drowning a bag of kittens. There are at least four variations on it – "haaa-ha-ha-ha-ha", "pa-hahahaha" and of course "HAAA!", but my favourite is "Ha HA!". It's a delight to watch and hear. I want her to laugh in my face. That is what I think every time I see her on Drag Race, and the first thing I think when I find out I can interview her. I want her to laugh aggressively in my stupid face.
Michelle grew up voguing at balls in New York and, in the early 90s, ended up in a girl group called Seduction. When her pop career never took off as she'd hoped she built a successful brand as a radio host and started working on projects with her best friend, Ru. In the last few years, Drag Race has gone mainstream, she's been on a series of Celebrity Big Brother, recorded a weekly podcast with Ru and released a book, The Diva Rules – a memoir that's mostly a self-help manual.
Because that's the greatest thing about Michelle Visage. She is a hard-as-nails shellac pink doughnut with a gooey centre. She serves brutal criticism on the show from "a place of love"; she desperately wants people to succeed. She replies to every single person who might have been helped by her on social media. She can crack a dick joke and return to sincerity in the time it takes to elevate a severe brow.
Today she's in London – her second favourite city in the world after New York – to promote her new Illamasqua fake eyelashes. When she walks into the room to do my make-up, a suggestion I made to the PR half as a joke, a scream involuntarily leaves my mouth. I tell her she looks fantastic in real life and she calls me baby and I exhale.
"There are different types of people in this world and I am the type of person who loves to give. I'm not really a receiver, and I'm working on that," she says, doing my lip-liner. "There are a lot of kids out there that look at me as their mother, and I have my two biological children and there are so many queens that look at me as an aunt or some sort of confidante, and I can absorb it really well. I also like to try to find an end. I'll try to get help or advice for these people and not leave it dangling. That also helps me bring closure, knowing I've let them go into this life with some leg up in this world."
She half-directs a question about social media, work and identity back at me, and I'm about to say that I sometimes write disgusting things on the internet, before she interrupts.
"You do know you're not disgusting in any way?" she says, leaning in to look deeper into my eyes. "You're absolutely beautiful and perfect in every way." I don't know what to say to that. She carries on for quite a while talking about the way we drag our own self-esteem down.
She invites intimacy in the way she directs all her attention at you. It feels, for the hour-and-a-half we're together, that I am truly cared for; that her light is shining on me. Everyone else in the room – I don't know who any of them are – wants it too, grinning intensely at her from behind the studio lights. I wonder whether being someone who creates that space for people allows them to cross a line.
"People never do," says Michelle. "They're afraid of me, I scare people. It's an intimidation vs Jack the Ripper. It's that, 'Oh my god, I'm scared she's going to judge me' feeling. Actually, I am the opposite person." Men are particularly intimidated, she says, laughing loudly. "I'm too much of a broad; I make men shake in their boots because I have a male dominance in my make-up that makes them feel emasculated."
All of the advice she has for me is very good. How to move forward with people in your industry who refused to make space for you and tried to discredit you?
"You carry the grudge inside of you, not them, and it will grow into a cancer of some form or another at some point in your life," she offers. "Let them in – who cares? You're not going to let them into your inner sanctum." At this point she touches her heart with her very long leopard-print nails. "You can keep it superficial and they know that you're succeeding; that's the win."
What to do when you lose old friendships or feel the need to draw away from them? "If it's worth holding onto it'll be fine; if it's not then it wasn't meant to happen. It was just supposed to be yours for the time that you had it."
On spirituality: "It has to resonate with you. Just reject the bits that get you down and take what you can and use it – that's what it's there for."
On coffee: "Ugh, it's up to you to get yourself going, substances aren't going to do it."
She's particularly good on dating and relationships, which – if you've read her book or listened to her on the podcast – you'll know comes from experience. "The minute I lost my virginity I was a whore, so I started sleeping with anybody and everything – gay men, straight men, women, whoever wanted to experiment with me and have fun," she says. "I was so down for that." She bids me to go forth into grottiness until ready to settle down, to use protection and go on dates with people who aren't my type, because her husband wasn't her type up until that point.
"We push away the ones that really want to love us, and that's when they become our teacher and we have to say, 'What am I doing wrong here? Why am I repeating this situation?'" she says, filling in one of her signature cat's eye flicks on my face.
Coming around onto the other side, she talks about the two-year itch in relationships. "If two years doesn't work, then they're not the one, because when I met my husband in Central Park in New York City, I'd cheated on every single one of my boyfriends and I had been in three long-term relationships and I had been engaged twice before. I cheated on every. Single. One. Of. Them. When you're with the one, instinctively you'll know something is different."
When I tell her I'm 25, she howls my answer back at me. "You're a foetus! You're a baby! Women get stuck in their head that they need to be married and pregnant by a certain time. It's not this world. Your parents would Love. It. If the time comes, the time comes. What kind of mother would you be if you had a kid when you weren't ready?" Michelle herself was adopted at nine months old and raised by a Jewish family. "As an adopted kid, it means a lot when I hear women say, 'I don't want kids.' I have a lot of respect for them."
Every single thing Michelle Visage says is true and frank, but delivered with heightened drama. There are different voices. There is staccato. There are a lot of things that, when written down, would be in caps and italics. "Oh my GOD." "Ye-he-eeees!" The juxtaposition of these two things is everything I love about her: she's "fake" and real, she's hard and soft, she seems terrifying but she's a sweetheart, she could eat you alive but not really because she's vegan.
As she finishes the final touches on my face – which, to be frank, now looks great – we come to the topic of British culture. A British Drag Race has been on the cards for ages, and line-up-wise Michelle wants to include Alan Carr, Rylan Clark-Neal, Dawn French, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders. Obviously Michelle and Ru would remain the star judges – "It wouldn't succeed, otherwise." And no: it really wouldn't.
Her favourite British-isms are slag ("of course"), "bloody hell" and "banging on about it". She adores TOWIE but had to stop watching because she misses her Gemma Collins and Chloe Sims. Similarly, she loved Geordie Shore – "I love Vicky, I love Charlotte, even Jay with his fucked up eyebrows" – but the show peaked.
Meanwhile, Drag Race is only getting more impressive and far-reaching. This season has had guest stars like Lady Gaga and Kesha; the queens are getting more hilarious; straight white men are getting hooked on the show.
"Anybody in the LGBT scene who says the show mainstreaming will take away from drag isn't looking at it the right way," says Michelle. "It's shed light onto one of the most beautiful art forms there is. If I had Drag Race as a kid, maybe I wouldn't have felt so alone, maybe I wouldn't have had that eating disorder, maybe I wouldn't have been in my room listening to my musical theatre music crying alone at night."
Before leaving, Michelle tells me to get Marianne Williams' book, A Return to Love, to sort out any ego or relationship problems. We take selfies and then, after nearly chickening out, I ask her the question. "I know this is quite weird, but it's a dream of mine for you to laugh in my face."
She half turns, and cocks her head: "ha-HA!"