'Drag Race' Star Naomi Smalls Talks Surviving Social Media Backlash: 'I Have the Thickest Skin Ever'
Naomi Smalls exudes confidence. Even over the phone, the 25-year-old drag artist speaks with a cool conviction. That self assurance came in handy when she entered the workroom for RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4. With one of the most stacked groups of queens the series has seen, Smalls was unphased.
“I definitely went in with the mindset that I could really win this,” she tells Billboard. “And I think that's the only mindset you should walk into this competition with. I realized on season eight that it's not gonna do me any good to compare myself to the other girls and feel like one of them was a bigger threat than I was.”
Smalls may not have won the competition -- she made it to the top four before being cut with Monique Heart -- but her unflappable confidence came in handy earlier this season. After choosing to eliminate the season frontrunner, Manila Luzon, from the competition, her social media accounts were barraged with hate-filled comments. Smalls insists she was able to ignore them, but struggled knowing her mother saw the messages: “It's a weird thought for her to have the realization that people have these thoughts about her son, you know?”
Billboard caught up with the drag queen on Friday (Feb. 16) ahead of the season finale to talk about her time on All Stars 4, her advice to the queens of season eleven and her relationship with Luzon: “I don't know if we were necessarily ever friends.”
I know. And I remember when she told me that, I thought she was just being really sweet because I wrote some lyrics about my dick and my legs. The fact that she liked that and now she won that Grammy gives me a little pat on the back. I'm like, "Damn, I really should've been in the top two for that one, huh?"
One of the most defining moments this season was your decision to send Manila Luzon home. Was it always your strategy to send home the stronger competitor?
It wasn't necessarily my strategy to send home the stronger competitor, but my goal for All Stars 4 was to get to the crown. As much as I looked up to Manila Luzon as a kid and I was very impressed by her body of work, I didn't necessarily have the same relationship with her that I had with Latrice Royale, who saved me the week prior. I didn't know if maybe I bombed the next week, if Manila was in the top, that she would keep me. I definitely had a better alliance with Latrice Royale.
It’s funny. This was not part of the episode, obviously, but when I sat down with Latrice, I said to her, "If I win, I'm saving you," because I already had made my decision.
I'm sure you anticipated some backlash, but was there anything particularly shocking or hurtful that you read on social media?
You know, I have the thickest skin ever and it doesn't really affect me. I assumed I would have some hate since I was saved instead of Valentina the week prior and I know Valentina's fans were crazy. I didn't know Manila's fans were gonna be crazy.
I have very thick skin, but it makes me a little sad that my mom is so invested in some of my drag that she does read the comments and there are some things like, "Your biological family was right to abandon you," and, "I'm so happy that your brother died so he didn't have to see you become such a hypocrite." That wasn't necessarily something I wanted my mom to read. Because it's just crazy. It's a weird thought for her to have the realization that people have these thoughts about her son, you know? But besides that, I'm pretty fine with it.
Are you and Manila still friends? I know fans pointed out that you unfollowed her.
I don't know if we were necessarily ever friends. I thought we had a very good working relationship, but I think some of her tweets have been very unprofessional and I didn't necessarily want that on my timeline anymore.
On the topic of social media, you are one of the first black queens to hit a million followers on Instagram. Do you think the fandom is starting to change or do you think it was just a matter of time before black queens caught up to the skinny, white girls?
[Laughs] I didn't ever really care about followers, but because Bob and I are such best friends and we have such a competitive relationship, I really wanted to beat him. I was so mad I didn't beat him. After that, I kind of started losing count. But my example of how to handle your social media has never really been to look up to the skinny white girls. I was always looking up to Kim Chi because I think that the way that she handles social media is just so amazing. It's so funny -- these girls will start freaking out over their followers because now they do bot cleanups, and they'll just swipe out half of your followers. But Kim has never been affected by that because her following is just so strong and I think that that's been a really good example to have because that's how I'd like to present my content. I don't really have an issue with the bots either.
Who are you rooting for out of the top two?
I mean, I am super, super close with Monét. I think that she is an amazing person and definitely the best friend I made at All Stars. But I think that Trinity is exactly what RuPaul was looking for from day one. Every single time we would go on that runway, she would get the best critiques and even if I didn't necessarily agree with it every single time, this is RuPaul's Drag Race and if she's gonna be the one to make the decision then I think Trinity is the apple of his eye.
I saw that your song “Pose” soundtracked a New York Fashion Week runway -- congrats!
I think it was featured in a couple, but the main one was the Christian Cohen runway.
Will you be working on more music?
When I first started Drag Race, music was one of those things I swore I would never do because I just never saw myself as a musical person. But I started realizing that you can present a whole other level of your imagination to an audience through music and through visuals and videos. I definitely will be working on more music.
What other projects do you have on the horizon?
I'm just now starting with Werk the World tour and I'm going to be touring with my own show called Smalls World. I'm really, really excited about that. I've been relying on other productions and tours for a long time and I'm excited to go in with my own project that I really want to present on stage.
Do you and Valentina have any plans to do a Club 96 tour?
[Laughs] Oh my god, a Club 96 needs to at least be a monthly pop-up. I feel like that should be our baby and see where it goes because managing a nightclub sounds awful. I would love to work with Valentina again.
With season eleven starting in two weeks, do you have any advice for new girls?
I think a lot of the queens would say to not read the comments, don't read Reddit, don't look at your Twitter -- but I never really understood that advice. I have a very healthy relationship with constructive criticism, so instead of necessarily reading all those things as insults, think of how you can apply that to how you present yourself.
Watch Naomi Smalls' music video for "Pose" below.