In an exclusive interview, Rupaul Drag Race Finalist Jujubee talks self, sobriety and the power of the Alter Ego.
In 2009, the sizzling world of drag performance unleashed itself onto the masses with the spectacular debut of reality television competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. The brainchild of iconic drag queen and doyenne of high camp himself, RuPaul, the ten season television series has since launched a shimmering litany of drag queens to the forefront of mainstream culture. For aficionados of the cult series, many would recognise American drag queen and Season 2 finalist Jujubee, (real name Airline Inthyrath) whose playful wit and unique brand of personality has propelled her to the echelons of Drag Race fame. Now, several years after the show’s finale, we take a look beyond the artifice and glamour, to share an honest conversation with the legendary Boston-based performer. In a candid interview with both creator and performer, we talk sobriety, self-image, and the radical courage it takes to find oneself.
I was always trying to search for whoever I was, and it took a really long time.
The Bod Edit: How long have you worked with the persona of Jujubee?
Jujubee: It’s still happening and still growing, but it’s been a really long time. I would say, it’s been since I was about 21. I’m 34 now, so it’s been awhile.
Could you just share a little about your background?
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, but my family are from Laos. I’m a first generation US American, but my parents came to the United States after the Vietnam War. Alot of countries in Southeast Asia were dispersed because of the war. Laos wasn’t even a part of it, but we were one of the people who were affected the most. Even today there are millions of bombs that haven’t gone off yet. But from what I was told as a child, they were the first to enter the United States, and there was a beautiful family in Albuquerque, New Mexico who sponsored them as part of a refugee programme. It basically help saved their lives from this awful war. And soon after, I believe my grandma and my aunts came.
Given the difficult circumstances in which your family arrived in America, what was your first exposure to beauty growing up?
For me, beauty was really difficult for me to understand. As a gay male who’s feminine, and who’s also considered a foreigner in America, I was always trying to search for whoever I was, and it took a really long time. As an Asian, I never found myself to be that beautiful because my skin’s so dark, so it took me a really long time. It was hard for me to find specifically Asian beauty, because we weren’t exposed to much of it. So every time I saw anybody that looked like me, I like latched on.
I listened to a lot of music, and Whitney Houston was somebody that I always found to be the biggest goddess because of her voice, her beauty, and her elegance. I really admired the whole package, and that for me, was where glamour came from. I think that kind of exposure really helps people like me see that beauty is more than just a westernised version. I don’t want to take away from the beauty of a white person, but there’s more to beauty than just that.
It’s like when anybody gets invited to a fancy party, they dress up, and have an excuse to be a better version of themselves. That’s how I look at drag.
When you were just starting out, Asian drag references must have been even harder to come by as well.
Definitely. But I was lucky, because being in Boston, we’re so diverse. There are so many black, Puerto Rican and obviously white drag queens, it’s like this really crazy melting pot. One of my best friends is Cambodian and she’s a drag queen, and another mentor of mine is a Cambodian trans woman, so I’ve had all this exposure to all this.
Within the drag scene itself, was it difficult finding your place when you first started?
Definitely, because my drag never fell into the category of what was expected of drag per-se. I wasn’t as exaggerated as most other drag queens, and I almost feel like my drag is really an extension of who I am. I’ve gathered the strength and stability from the really strong women in my life to create this character, and although it’s a character, it’s still a part of who I am. It’s like when anybody gets invited to a fancy party, they dress up, and have an excuse to be a better version of themselves. That’s how I look at drag.
Where did the persona of Jujubee come from?
It was the strong women in my life that helped me create Jujubee. Specifically, my aunt, who took me in when my father passed. She was this strong woman who worked her butt off, but she was a firecracker. She was one of the reasons why I have such a sassiness to me, and she still has that sassiness.
I guess you don’t find the truth in yourself until you try to cover it up.
What’s the difference between your everyday self and Jujubee?
I would never have the confidence to do and say the things that I do unless I were in drag. And I don’t even understand what the magic is but it just happens for some reason.
Do you find a sense of liberation in drag?
Oh, completely. There’s strength in the superficialness of it. I know it looks superficial, but with the mask we reveal ourselves. It’s such a funny way to look at it. But in order for any of us to really find ourselves, we really need to put on a mask first. And then, as you peel away that mask, your true self even comes out even more. I guess you don’t find the truth in yourself until you try to cover it up. It’s pretty interesting to kind of think of it in that way but I, wholeheartedly believe in that, because that’s how it happened to me.
What were the struggles you faced in finding your identity as Jujubee?
I think that being taken seriously is really hard. I can’t speak for every gay community in the world, but from my experience here in Boston, before RuPaul’s Drag Race, it wasn’t taken seriously. It was something that felt unattractive for a lot of the gay men that were around us. Maybe they saw feminine beings as something as weak, but I think that RuPaul’s Drag Race has elevated the idea of the feminine power. As a female, you have to prove yourself over and over again, but a man doesn’t have to, he just has to be a man you know? I believe that femininity is strong. I’ve spent this whole time trying to show people that being feminine isn’t a weakness at all, it’s a strength.
I really believe that feminine energy is a strength and fragility is really a beautiful thing. To be able to feel, express and to cry is one of the strongest things.
Did you experience vulnerability on your path to where you are now?
Oh yeah, learning how to cry and how to be honest with my tears was a very powerful thing for me because I used to just shut it down. Whenever I would want to cry, I would shut it down, but as everybody saw, I was quite emotional on television. I taught myself to do that because I thought it was important to show people that drag queens are people and that we have everyday struggles, desires and dreams like everybody else.
I feel like in the community sometimes we turn to drag because it’s an outlet for us, because a lot of people don’t know how to feel.
How did being on RuPaul’s drag race change the game for you?
It changed my life. I didn’t even go in thinking that any of this would happen, from season two. None of us knew what was going on.
What made you want to sign up?
Well, you know what the funny story is? I was ready to stop doing drag, I didn’t feel like it was something that I loved anymore. I don’t know if it was me not finding the fun in it. My friends told me about RuPaul’s drag race and they said, “Hey, maybe before you decide to stop, you should audition for this show and see if you get on. If you get on, maybe you can see if you can find something?”, so I got on.
After the show did you feel like a reinvigorated sense of connectedness to your craft?
Oh, completely. It opened my eyes to versions of drag that I’d never experienced, and it brought me so close to other people. I’ve always idolised RuPaul, so to be able to work with RuPaul was so incredible for me.
You have mentioned people that you have admired, how important is it to have a mentor in the drag experience?
I think having a mentor being in drag is necessary, I really do. I have a drag mother and her name is Charisma. She’s always been somebody who’s been there for me and we’re great friends. We met at a nightclub, she came up to me and said, “Hey, I wanna see you more.” This was like, my third time in drag. And from that day on, she’s been my mentor this whole time. The mentorship has extended even outside of drag, or the gay community. She’s one of my best friends. I didn’t have parents, so this person has really taken on this role of being like, my mother, father, aunt and uncle. When I’ve needed to shut up she tells me, if I’m in a rut and I need to pick myself up, this person’s there for me. Not only are they there to support my drag and my art, but they’re there to support my life. I feel like in the community sometimes we turn to drag because it’s an outlet for us, because a lot of people don’t know how to feel. We feel through our art, no matter what kind of art it is. So to have a mentor, it gives us kind of that extra push to be able to feel. I never imagined a relationship like that, but it just all fell into place. I feel like it happened because it was supposed to.
I wanted control of myself. I wanted complete control. I wanted a clear mind. I didn’t want my feelings to be anything but my feelings.
You’ve been working with Jujubee’s persona for more than a decade now, do you feel that has influenced your personal or private self as well?
Oh completely. Jujubee has given me so much more confidence. It’s funny because whenever I’m in a situation, or if I want to do something, or buy something, I ask myself. “what would Jujubee do?”. I’ll take a second and ask, “would she do this? Is this feasible? Is this logical?”. Because I find that Jujubee is a little bit more logical than I am. I myself am a little bit more, “oh let me just do it”, you know. So definitely. Jujubee, because of the time spent in creating this person, now I’ve found that I can take a step back and wait a few minutes. I even meditate now.
How long have you been meditating for?
I’ve been meditating for about a year. But I’m on a 129 day streak. I can’t believe it, I quit drinking, I quit using drugs last June, and I’ve just been meditating and meditating. Like, I stopped smoking marijuana, I can’t even believe it, that was one of my favourite things. And I stopped smoking cigarettes.
What made you want to embark on this self-revolution?
I wanted control of myself. I wanted complete control. I wanted a clear mind. I didn’t want my feelings to be anything but my feelings. With drag, there was alot of drinking because it really helped me working in those spaces.
I just found myself drinking because there were parts of the job that was alot. But then I said to myself, “you know, this is something that you really love doing. So if you want to keep doing this, then you need to step away from all the horrible demons.”
When you were drinking, how did that inform your performance as Jujubee compared to now, when you’re going in with a clear head?
Before, I was using drinking as a crutch for my performances because I would tell myself that I was nervous so I would do a shot and be like, “I feel great”. But after meditating, I deciphered it. I was like, “ wait, these feelings come and go. Just feel nervous, it’s okay to feel like you’re going to fail, but you never know you’re going to fail unless you go out there and do it.” It’s all a learning process ,and when you learn, you grow. I go into performances now without any substances. I go in, I know what I’m doing, and I still feel the same love and the same energy that I felt before for the art that I do, without any substances. I’m so happy and grateful for that.
Do you think Jujubee is better and stronger without all of that?
Oh completely. Quicker. Definitely, she’s still as sassy. But now my sassiness is more honest. We’re all on our own journey, and we’re all in charge of just ourselves nobody else.
Jujubee, born Airline Inthyrath, is an American drag queen and reality television personality from Boston, Massachusetts. She is best known as a contestant on Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars.