More than most veterans of the late ’80s/early ’90s pop scene, Michelle Visage has enjoyed an eclectic and unpredictable career. After notching several hits with New York freestyle trio Seductive and then leading S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. (who have one of the few non-Whitney Houston songs on The Bodyguard soundtrack), Visage stepped back from recording and into the realm of radio deejaying. In 2011, after years of off-an-on collaborating with her pal RuPaul on wax and TV, Visage became a permanent judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where her no b.s., blunt critiques helped turn the show from a niche delight into a culture-shifting force in the LGBTQ community.
This year, Visage lends her voice to the drag queens-do-Christmas collection Christmas Queens 2. Of all the songs on an album of dirty, joke-laden seasonal offerings, hers might be the most shocking: It’s a (gasp) reverent rendition of a religious Christmas classic.
Ahead of hosting and performing with the Christmas Queens Tour, Visage chatted with Billboard about teaming up with Thorgy Thor for “O Holy Night,” why Lady Gaga is “so fucking underrated as an artist,” and how people can prepare for a Donald Trump presidency.
She also spilled details about what you will and won’t hear on her upcoming album of Broadway covers — which, oddly, is her proper solo debut after a lifetime in the entertainment industry. “I’m not trying to resurrect a pop career,” Visage promises. “I want to sing music that I really like to sing [for] weirdos and nerds and theater geeks like me.”
So you’re on the Christmas Queens 2 album (out now) and you’re part of the Christmas Queens Tour (check out tour dates here; U.S. leg includes Visage, Detox, Ginger Minj, Jiggly Caliente, Katya, Manila Luzon, Sharon Needles and Thorgy Thor). How did that come about?
I wasn’t part of the first Christmas Queens album, but it was such a success, I guess they thought, “Let’s do number two” and asked me to be a part of it. Last year I didn’t do it because I was singing on RuPaul’s Christmas album [Slay Belles] and I thought, “I don’t need to be singing on everybody’s Christmas album.” But when number two came about, I thought “I’ll do it if I can sing my favorite Christmas song of all time.”
I was expecting your version of “O Holy Night” to take a jokey turn at some point, but it doesn’t. It’s actually quite moving and your voice sounds beautiful.
It was almost surreal singing that song because I grew up singing in choir and “O Holy Night” was always, 100 percent, my favorite song. It’s such a pure song. I was raised in a Jewish family but since I was adopted, my parents sent me to Hebrew school and Bible chapel, so I got the best of both worlds — singing in both a choir in Bible chapel and a chorus in Hebrew school. It shaped me and my voice.
[For Christmas Queens 2] my stipulation was, “The only way I’ll do this record is if you let me do this song and do it my way. I want it to be traditional. There’s not going to be any jokes to this. I want it to be beautiful and pure.” And I went full Jesus. I didn’t change it — I wanted it to be what it was meant to be. I am not Mariah, I am not Josh Groban — I’m me. So I’m going to do it and do it the way I want to sing it.
The idea of Thorgy [Thor] being on violin made it that much sweeter of a sound. I did it all originally in one take. He said, “I think we got it” and I said, “Hold on, no, I’m not Patti Labelle, we will not be doing this in one take.” There were things I wanted to sweeten and ways I wanted to sing it differently. At the end of the day, I think it came out really pretty, although I’m picky so I’ll say there are things I would have switched. I think it’s a song people did not expect to be as pure and pretty on a jokey album, so I’m glad I stuck to my guns and delivered it the way I wanted. And that’s the way I’ll deliver it live.
And you’re hosting, in addition to performing, on the Christmas Queens Tour?
Yes, I’m hosting, I sing group numbers and I’ll be singing “O Holy Night,” and the [tour dates] in the States I’ll have Thorgy there to play violin live, so it’ll be really spectacular. The choreography is so cute. There are a lot of drag queen productions going around, and I support our sisters, but ours actually has a full production value. Opening numbers, closing numbers, etc. If you want to see a Christmas production — let’s call it The Gay Nutcracker; we’re the Slutcrackers — come on over and see us.
I noticed Phi Phi O’Hara is joining the Christmas Queens Tour for the European dates, but she skipped the Drag Race All Stars reunion episode — has everything been smoothed over since that drama?
Phi Phi is living her life for herself. I don’t think it was the smartest move to do what she did, but I absolutely would not condemn her for it because it’s her journey. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do. I don’t have any personal beef with her at all. That’s her mission. It has nothing to do with me or RuPaul; her life is her life. If that’s what she wants to do, then go on girl, do your thing.
As a fan, what other songs stand out to you on the Christmas Queens 2 album?
I love Detox, Phi Phi’s voice is beautiful, Ginger’s voice is beautiful, and Alaska is Alaska. I think if you buy the Christmas Queens 2 album there will be songs you love and songs you hate, just like every other album. When I buy a Madonna album or the new Gaga album or whatever, you click to the songs you love straight away. For me, my favorite Mariah Carey songs were never the singles, ever. My favorite Mariah song of all time is “Sent From Up Above” from her first album, or “Vanishing,” songs no one talks about. On Hamilton, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll sing ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ or ‘Satisfied'”; it’s not as easy to sing “Your Obedient Servant.” I’m a musichead. My favorite Gaga song of all time is “You & I” — it might not be the popular vote in terms of charts or sales, but it’s my favorite.
What songs on Gaga’s new album, Joanne, are your favorites?
It’s a very different album for her. For me it’s her Carole King moment. It’s her folk music, gritty moment, and the reason people aren’t as warm to it is they’re not understanding it. I loved “Perfect Illusion” and I loved “Angel Down” — not just what it represents [the murder of Trayvon Martin], but you can tell she’s singing with heart and passion. “A-YO” is really fun too. I think it’s a great record but also a different record for her. I think the kids, some of her Little Monsters, who were here for “Paparazzi” and “Poker Face” don’t understand it enough to appreciate it. But a bunch of them do, and that’s what matters. She’s so fucking underrated as an artist. People understandably got caught up in the brand and her look but they’re forgetting that underneath all that stuff there’s an incredibly sensitive, beyond talented soul. Cheek to Cheek showed people that dammit, this bitch can really sing, especially in this world of [most singers] getting out there and having a track playing under you. And the biggest names still do it. We did it in Seduction, we sang live to track, but people still do it honey, and I’m not going to name names, but the biggest artists — even the ones who are great singers — still use tracks beneath them. She’s out there playing piano with her foot up in her air and singing her ass off and I don’t want that to ever go unrecognized. You can tell I stan for Gaga big time. She gives so much of her soul.
What other new albums or songs are you into?
RuPaul and I do a podcast, What’s the Tee, which is free on iTunes, and you’ll hear us talk about a lot of music. A lot of people don’t know this, but Ru is the biggest musichead you’ll find. He can talk about almost any genre at any given time. He’s got a collection that can rival Billboard. His knowledge of country music, pop music, disco music, rap music, is unbelievable. I only know more about two categories, and that would be Broadway and old school hip-hop, and he could go toe-to-toe on old school hip-hop. But these days my iPad is 98 percent show tunes. I haven’t been in radio for five years; I spent 17 years doing morning radio, so I had to be on top. I’m no longer on top of what’s happening with music. I take myself out of that running. I have two teenage daughters. One is into music from 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and knows nothing about current music, and my 14 year old is really into urban music and Beyonce is her favorite thing on the planet. But new stuff, I got excited for the Gaga, any new Madonna, I love Beyonce, I love Katy Perry’s voice, Rihanna I love, I loved Kiesza, Adele, of course. I like voices. Elle King, Rob Schneider’s daughter, her voice is amazing.
I know it’s more than a year old now, but what were your thoughts on Madonna’s latest, Rebel Heart?
I thought Rebel Heart was fantastic and the tour was one of her best. I’ve only missed two Madonna tours ever, MDNA and Sticky & Sweet, those I didn’t get to see for whatever reason. The Rebel Heart Tour was the best I’ve seen in years. She didn’t go too political. And I don’t mind, that’s her prerogative, but things like American Life, she focused more on [politics], and I think that chased a lot of people away. It freaked people out. People weren’t ready for it. Not that Madonna ever gave a shit. But this Rebel Heart Tour got back to her roots of “I’m gonna be me and put on a kickass show.”
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a show tunes album right now because I want to. That’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time. For 20 years people have been saying, “When are you going to come out with your solo stuff?” It’s almost like because of the shit I went through with Seduction and S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. and not making money off it, it became negative [for me]. I didn’t want to do anything. I got into radio and liked being on the other side of entertaining people. But now I’m out performing and entertaining and the reception is always so grand, so great. You forget that there are weirdos and nerds and theater geeks like me. They’re asking for it, and I’m going to do it. I’m not trying to resurrect a pop career; I want to sing music that I really like to sing. And if there’s a market for it, which there seems to be, then why not?
Do you have any songs picked out?
I started compiling a list, so it’s a matter of orchestration. And it’s actually going to be on a label, too, which I didn’t think I was going to do. I’m not going to announce it yet but it’s a real thing that’s coming to fruition. RuPaul and I talk about it on the podcast, we talk about manifestation and the power of the thoughts. You never know what’s going to happen when you say, “Okay, the universe is taking orders, here’s what I want: I want to do a show tunes album, I want real orchestration,” and it magically happened. I’m really excited to be honest. When I was a teenager, people were like “nobody wants to hear that shit, they want pop music, they don’t care about show tunes.” But I buy soundtracks all the time and I can’t be the only one. Of course I am not Barbra, I’m not Bernadette or Patti, I’m just me singing the songs I love to sing and can sing well. Because what’s the point if you can’t sing them well? I can’t sing “Glitter and Be Gay,” I’ll leave that to Kristin Chenoweth.
Will it mostly be classics, or will you include any newer Broadway songs?
Maybe, most of it is classic. I like weird stuff. It’s easy for me to say, “I’ll sing ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade,'” which it’s one of the best songs ever written, but it doesn’t talk to me that way. I like Sondheim, I like Irving Berlin. So there’s a lot maybe people haven’t heard of [I’m doing] but that’s the beauty of doing a show tunes album, because yes, there will be favorites people like, and I guess there could be maybe two modern things put in there, but for me to try to fuck with something like Hamilton would be stupid. I just want to do songs that I really love. Like “Losing My Mind” and “Unusual Way” — songs people forget about, but I don’t forget. I can’t wait to get in the studio and start singing it and be part of the orchestration from beginning to end. I don’t think I’ve ever done an album where I’m able to have my say through the full thing.
It’s like a solo debut, in a way.
It is. Thirty years later. Bizarre. But that’s the way the world works. And I don’t have to worry about getting on Billboard’s Hot 100; I’m doing it because I want to do it. It takes all the pressure off from trying to have a pop career. It’s exciting to be back behind a microphone.
I have to ask, because these days it’s weighing on most people’s minds. What do you think about Trump as our next president?
Everybody knows what our thoughts are. It’s surreal, and I don’t even feel like I’m living on this planet. It seems so suspect. You sit back and go, “But how?” The popular vote says it all. But at the end of the day, this is something we have to deal with. There are a lot of scared people walking on this planet and all I can say is love always quite literally trumps hate. We need to make that statement truer now than ever; there can’t be darkness in the face of light. Sometimes you have to go through the darkness to get to the light. We have to stick together, all of us that are devastated and scared and ruined and don’t know how to pick up. We have to look forward to standing together and standing tall and praying for the best. And hoping for the best, even though it looks grim. There’s no hope in choosing negativity or the darkness, because you’ll never get out of it that way. We have to choose love. We’ve been through worse than this, we can deal with this. Our only hope is that he’ll surprise us. What are our choices? Realistically, what are our choices? None — there are no choices, honey. We need to learn our lesson, lick our wounds and get up and say, “Do the right thing dude. You’re here, do the right thing.” We need to speak up, be vocal, don’t be walked over and shit upon.
Check out the Christmas Queens Tour dates below.
December 3, 2016 – Glasgow, Scotland – O2 Academy
December 5, 2016 – Manchester, England – Manchester Academy
December 6, 2016 – East London, England – Troxy Theater
December 7, 2016 – Birmingham, England – O2 Institute
December 8, 2016 – Cardiff, Wales – Tramshed
December 10, 2016 – Toronto, ON – The Danforth Music Hall
December 15, 2016 – Austin, TX – Ironwood Hall
December 11, 2016 – New York, NY – PlayStation Theater Square
December 16, 2016 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
December 17, 2016 – Los Angeles, CA – The Novo