While recording tracks for their new album, Aja listened to the drums in the studio and a sense of calm washed over them for the first time in months. It was the summer of 2019, and the then-25-year-old former drag queen and two-time contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race had just struggled through one of the hardest years of their life. Crippling self-doubt, toxic relationships, and hordes of racist fans had brought Aja, who uses the pronouns they/them, to the edge of self-harm. But in the studio that day, Aja was hoping to channel all the difficulties of the past year into new art that would showcase their creative power. The rich, full drums, played by Aja’s Oba, the person who initiated them into the Lucumí faith (an African diasporic tradition sometimes known in America as Santería), drew on the power of Aja’s ancestors and history. When the musicians sang in Yoruba, it felt like Aja might finally be able to tell their story, on their terms.
It had been nearly 10 years since Aja stormed the gay clubs of Manhattan and Brooklyn with a fierce performance style, outsize personality, and elevated fashion sense. As drag’s mainstream popularity surged during the ensuing decade, Aja stumbled into fame and money when they were barely old enough to legally drink—and then found themselves depressed and dejected, aching to be seen as more than just a reality TV star. Now, hearing their Oba drumming in the recording studio, Aja could glimpse something beyond despair.
Aja lives in a strange and often baffling world of “sub-lebrity.” These pseudo-celebs are known to millions thanks to reality TV and social media platforms, yet they’re relatively anonymous—hustling to turn that following into a career, cobbling together gigs and sponsorships, and chasing the dream of a stable and fulfilling creative life. One of the most surprising examples of this very 21st century flavor of fame is the transformation of over 100 drag queens from local nightlife figures to mainstream queer icons. As RuPaul’s Drag Race has won Emmy Awards and drawn hundreds of thousands of viewers during its decade-plus run, the queens who appeared on the show received unprecedented opportunity and exposure. However, for some, this recognition has come with profound drawbacks.
For Aja, drag was—at first—a path to a better life. Aja says that as a kid, “I was wild. I knew I was queer as fuck. I was bullied a lot and I learned to fight for myself.” Raised in Brooklyn by their adoptive Puerto Rican mother in a house where an order of pork fried rice from the Chinese takeout sometimes had to last two days, Aja found solace voguing and listening to music with other queer Black and brown kids on the Williamsburg piers overlooking the East River. It was the trans girls on the piers who suggested Aja could make money at the bars in drag. At 16, they stormed a Manhattan drag competition and got read to filth by older, more experienced drag queens. But they kept entering contests and performing at open sets and, late at night, they discovered an avant-garde, punk, hedonistic drag scene in the dive bars just blocks from their Brooklyn home. Unlike the scene across the river, here the point wasn’t to be glamorous, but to shock and delight crowds with looks repurposed from thrift store finds and (often literal) garbage and performances full of nudity, food, and pop culture references. It wasn’t easy—Aja was underage and always ready to fight or argue—but slowly they made a mark as a fierce dancer who gave thrilling shows.
Still, money was scarce and, like many driven queer performers, Aja longed to break out of the local scene. Five years after they first sneaked into a gay bar, they landed an opportunity to do just that on Drag Race. Though the show had begun as a scrappy operation on Logo TV in 2009, by the time the world watched Aja walk into the fabled workroom in a babydoll dress covered with squishy black spikes in early 2017, Drag Race was airing on VH1, the prize had risen to $100,000, and nearly a million people were watching. For ambitious drag queens, the show has become the one reliable route to fame and sometimes fortune. Even for the competition’s “losers,” just appearing on RuPaul’s main stage means international tours, sponsorship deals, hundreds of thousands of social media followers, and higher performance fees, sometimes back in the same bars where they started working for little more than drink tickets.
On the show, Aja gave stunning lip sync performances and charming off-the-cuff commentary. But a bigger platform brought more fans and more scrutiny. At one point, early in the season, judge Michelle Visage told Aja, “Your makeup is very dark and it’s been kinda dark this whole journey.” Publicly called out for their style and self-expression, Aja realized that Drag Race was a competition complete with judgment and criticism, winners and losers. As the season aired, throngs of Drag Race fans reacted online to Aja’s antics. Some gleefully circulated a video of Aja complaining on the show about Valentina, a Mexican American queen who compared herself to the Tejana pop star Selena and seemed to be the judges’ favorite. When the rant became a meme, Aja embraced it and turned it into merch.
Harder to stomach was the firehose of online hostility. “Looks like someone held up a window screen to her face and threw dog shit through it,” someone commented on one of Aja’s makeup tutorials. “She had the worst makeup the whole time she was there, the worst hair, the worst style,” said another viewer. “The stereotypical Drag Race fan is no fucking walk in the park,” Aja told me. “People are angry, I don’t know at what. You could just be like, ‘Oh, that’s not my thing.’ It doesn’t have to be ‘Fuck you, you dumb bitch, I hope you die.’ ”
While pretty much every contestant on the show receives some amount of abuse on social media, queens of color bear the brunt of the nastiness. In the years since Aja first appeared on the show, the problem has gotten worse. Fans leave monkey emoji on Black queens’ Instagram posts and urge queens they don’t like to commit suicide, and someone reportedly threatened to set one contestant on fire because she’s Black. This kind of anonymized cruelty is present across the internet in every subculture organized around consumable media. However, at the end of each Drag Race episode, RuPaul shouts, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Many performers and fans gravitate to drag and Drag Race as a refuge from bullying and an antidote to self-loathing, and this makes the level of hostility directed at contestants even more jarring.
The online pushback intensified when Aja started releasing music in 2018 after appearing on a special “All Stars” season of Drag Race. The EP In My Feelings was a chance to build a career independent of the show and to explore other creative outlets. In the song “Finish Her!” Aja referenced criticisms over their makeup, acting, and Season 9 rant about Valentina. “If this melanin means that I’m really a villain/ Then bull’s-eye bitch ’cause I’mma keep killing,” they rapped over a sophisticated trap beat. While plenty of Drag Race fans either supported or were indifferent to Aja’s new venture, some criticized the shift in focus. “Youre an amazing drag queen but i dont know if music is the way for you,” someone tweeted. Just as Aja fought bullies on the streets as a kid, they clapped back at haters online. “What is draggy about my music……?” Aja responded on Twitter. “This EP was my heart and soul. It had nothing to do with drag.”
Around the same time Aja released In My Feelings, they began to publicly identify as transfeminine. They’d known they were trans for years, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile their life as a drag performer with their gender identity. Plenty of trans women and nonbinary performers do hyperfeminine drag, but for Aja, “feminizing the hell out of my drag” was causing feelings of gender dysphoria. Drag now felt like a job rather than a joyous act of self-expression. “I did not want to be performing my gender, I wanted to live it,” they said. In interviews with the press, Aja tried to explain this distinction and their desire to move away from the label of drag queen. “I don’t look at myself as a drag queen who does music,” they told Mic. “I look at myself as a musical artist who just happens to do drag.”
The career shift had consequences. While Aja’s previous club gigs had been packed, tickets for an Australian tour sold poorly, and promoters wanted assurance that they would be “in drag” for their appearances. To Aja, it felt like all any interviewer or fan wanted to do was gossip about the show. Was she tucked? What kind of eyelashes did she have on? Who made her outfits? Aja craved rebirth, or at least a second act, but shedding the label of drag queen proved elusive. They were trapped in the gravitational pull of the show. By the time they released their full-length album Box Office and went on tour in early 2019, “I was lost,” Aja said. “I wanted to be true to what I was, but I was being told even by people in my own life that I was stupid for giving up drag.” Aja would sometimes stay up for days at a time. The feelings of helplessness got so bad they called a suicide hotline. The only way out, they realized, was to make more art that felt authentic and honest.
In the summer of 2019, Aja began to lay the groundwork for another full-length album. At Brooklyn’s legendary Bushwig drag festival, they told the crowd, “When you get put on a platform, people think they can dictate your life. I don’t give a fuck about being commercial, and I respect my integrity too much to sell my soul,” and launched into a performance of a song called “Brujería,” an homage to the often-maligned Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices that had gotten Aja through these difficult years. They crouched down and twerked, then stomped up and down the stage. “Y cada día hago brujería (Every day I do witchcraft),” Aja rapped, referencing their power as an artist and their dedication to the spiritual journey.
While all art-making involves some kind of faith, it often also requires a robust side hustle. “I need to pay my bills and I can’t support myself with just music. I guess I’m doing drag,” Aja said in February 2020, and a month later they stood in the doorway of a small theater on the New York University campus waiting to judge a drag contest hosted by the school’s fraternity for gay, bisexual, transgender, and progressive men. To these younger performers, Aja was drag royalty. During the competition, the contestants dipped, split, and jumped off and then back on the stage in sequins, tulle, and lots of spandex. After each number, Aja offered encouragement and gentle critique. “I was like, this bitch is banjee, you have such a bad attitude and I love it,” Aja told a pretty queen in a pink sequin bodysuit who had included a clip of Aja’s Drag Race Season 9 rant about Valentina in her performance.
When the contest was over, Aja performed two songs from a Halloween-themed EP they’d released the previous year and “Brujería.” The lights in the theater went up and a crowd gathered around them onstage, waiting to take selfies and firing off questions about—what else?—Drag Race audition tapes, favorite looks, and whether the drama on the show was real. Aja was in their element, candidly and patiently answering the fans’ questions. “I always say, ‘Whatever you see, it happened.’ You cannot blame the edit,” Aja replied.
Two days later, on March 9, 2020, Aja flew to Australia to perform at the Wagga Wagga Mardi Gras festival. By the time they got home, most of the United States was in quarantine. Bars across the country were closed, live performances canceled, and COVID-19 had spread to almost every state.
Like the rest of the drag world, Aja was out of work and locked down. No tours, no international flights, no nightclubs. For many drag performers, this has been the worst year of their careers. For Aja, however, the experience of being lost and frustrated in 2019 gave them a unique perspective on the shock, dysfunction, and grief of 2020. Though terrified of getting sick and worried about their mother’s financial stability, they finished their album, focused on their spiritual awakening, learned how to bead instruments and make appliques, and started an OnlyFans account offering NSFW videos and photos for a small subscription fee. They largely avoided digital drag shows that brought many in the community coin and a sense of connection during the early months of the pandemic. Doing drag on Instagram Live or the streaming platform Twitch felt forced, and the OnlyFans account was keeping the bills paid.
“A lot more people during the pandemic engaged in sex work whether they realized it or not, and I think that’s a cool thing about the year,” Aja said, acknowledging that it felt strange to say 2020 was “personally great for me.” With no tours or gigs, the pressure to do drag was gone. In its place was a pile of beads, a successful porn site, and a queer performer who, for the first time since their dream came true, could actually imagine a future as an artist.
“Open my closet. Been a while since I made a deposit. Disappear, went away for a year … then get crowned,” Aja rapped over those drums they’d recorded back in the summer of 2019. The song became “21 Roads,” the first single off their new album Crown. For the album’s cover, they posed in their “gala outfit,” inspired by the garments worn when someone becomes a priest in the Lucumí religion. The gold crown was decorated with puka shells and beads, every inch of the garment stoned and sparkling. When Aja moved in the look, strands of gold fringe covered their face and swayed as they nodded their head. Not a queen, or a king, but the ruler of their own life and art, all the same.