RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK’s Lawrence Chaney Couldn’t Pay Rent During the Pandemic. Now He’s a Winner, Baby.
The newly crowned queen of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK” on surviving the dramatic pandemic shutdown, battling online trolls, learning to love himself—and burning all his H&M.
Warning: Spoilers for the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK follow.
There’s nothing that, for better or worse, producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race like more than a mid-season twist. But no one involved in the just-wrapped season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK could have planned the game-changing event that made for what might go down as the most dramatic Drag Race outing in herstory.
“Don't you love that the coronavirus has now become the biggest Drag Race plot twist?” says Lawrence Chaney, speaking over Zoom from Britain where he had just watched himself crowned the winner of the second edition of the show’s UK spinoff.
Chaney isn’t making light of the global pandemic; to quote his competition who nearly beat him for the title, runner-up Bimini Bon Boulash, “Not a joke. Just a fact.”
Instead, he’s speaking the same way he did on the show about everything from his struggles with self-esteem and childhood bullying to his insecurities about his subpar dancing skills: a mixture of brash, cheeky Scottish humor and an emotional candor that had viewers tearfully relating to his poignant journey.
No one was prepared when, halfway through the season, the legendary werkroom’s famous siren blared, announcing that because of lockdown measures put in place last spring at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the queens were being sent home immediately, and indefinitely. It was seven long months before they returned to the show, during which Chaney said he couldn’t work or pay his rent.
The stakes, then, were understandably high when production resumed. In what may rank among the franchise’s most iconic moments, RuPaul went scorched earth during the judging of the first episode back, enraged to have spent two weeks in quarantine in order to film after so much time away only for the queens to present subpar, store-bought looks on the runway. May we never forget the quote: “I don’t want to see any fucking H&M!”
Add into the drama of the lockdown and the meltdown a bonafide hit, earworm song—a Eurovision parody track “UK, Hun?” went to the top of the British iTunes chart—and you have a season of Drag Race that fans won’t soon forget. And not just because the words “bing, bang, bong” may never leave their heads.
Fresh off his historic win—he is the first plus-sized queen RuPaul has ever crowned—Chaney talks us through the highs and lows of a turbulent season.
Lawrence! How are you?
I'm alive! My mind is blown still that I've won the season. It's not sunk in yet. You'd think after people asking you all day, 'Oh, how does it feel to win?” it would. It does not feel real. I feel like I’m living this fairytale life. I'll probably wake up and be back in Glasgow.
I imagine it’s also extra surreal because of everything else that happened this year: the pandemic stopping production, spending that time at home, and all that drama. Just the craziest year.
Imagine you get the phone call for Drag Race. You go, “Oh my god! My dream's coming true!” Then another news report: There's a worldwide pandemic. “This is sounding a lot like a dream…” As it progressed, I'm like, is this real life? Like, how many times do I need to pinch myself to prove it? But apparently the pinches are working. It is real life. I can't believe it.
I can only speak for myself and my friends who I talk with about the show, but it seemed from early on that you were a strong frontrunner to win. How much of that confidence did you feel yourself about where you would end up?
I knew when I auditioned for the show that I was going to be one of those queens where people either really like me or they really don't like me. If RuPaul is one of those people that just doesn't like me, then it's like, “Oh God, I'll see ya. I'm out first. I'm off.”
But from the first episode, RuPaul went on and on—in a way he doesn’t usually—about how charmed he was by you.
When the episodes were going on and the other queens would go, “RuPaul really likes you…” I just found it really weird to take that onboard. I was in such a competition headspace that I was like, “No, you've tried to throw me off my game.” Like every week, genuinely, I thought I was in the bottom. I use humor as a way to chill me out. So if I can make someone laugh, even if I did bad in a dancing challenge or whatever, if I can make you laugh, I'm like, OK, I'm still a good queen.
You definitely had the strongest start of any of the other queens.
To get halfway through the shooting with two badges and then go for a coronavirus break... Don't you love that the coronavirus has now become the biggest drag is plot twist? Then coming back after not performing for seven months and not holding a mic in my hand for seven months, trying to get back into that mindset is hard. Really, really hard. It was a struggle. There were so many ups and downs, but I wanted to consciously show the ups and downs. I didn't just want to be, like, crying in the corner hiding myself and my feelings. For people that are talented but maybe not as confident, I think it's important to show that.
I wanted to ask you to more about the experience during that lockdown break during the pandemic. This has been a period of time for me here in the US of just feeling beaten down and depressed and anxious and scared. It's just been blanketed in darkness and negativity, and I can't imagine what it was like to feel that, but then also be thinking about strategy for coming back to the show. Did it feel healing at all to come back and be doing the show again?
Totally. I'm the same as you. When I arrived at Drag Race, the world was lovely, as we remember it. Leaving Drag Race, the airports were empty. Everyone's wearing masks. It was like you're in some sort of Hollywood film that no one wants to go and see. That was really, really scary. And to go home and just sit when you are sitting on like the biggest secret of your life...because you don't like to tell anyone!
I didn’t even think about that part. You couldn’t even talk about being on the show!
You're not allowed to have that moment where you're bragging and going, “Can you believe I'm on Drag Race?!” So it's such a weird situation where you're sitting in your room and you're trying to make it work. I couldn't pay my rent for half of the months that we were away. So, for me it was more than coming back and winning or strategy. For me, it was escapism from the real world.
Then you come back, and you're met with RuPaul having that meltdown about how dissatisfied he was with the work that some of the queens brought back, that they didn't use the time away wisely. After all the build up of coming back and wanting that escapism, what was it like to be met by “I don't want to see any fucking H&M!"? I've never seen RuPaul act like that before.
Well, it was a total fear. It was really scary. I personally took a lot of time in lockdown and I would stone a few more outfits, or leave a costume in a bag outside my friend's house and say, “Could you stone that? Could you help me with this?” So we were always working on something.
So you used your time away wisely.
I don't understand how some of the other queens didn't do that. Do you know what I mean? With all that added time. You normally get three weeks or something to prepare for Drag Race and you've got seven months! You're absolutely betting that I'm coming with a new gown, costumes, and all that kind of stuff. It was weird because I do remember a lot of the queens had to just use the same things. We all unpacked in front of each other, so it was like, oh, you're still wearing that outfit? These girls did have seven months to throw rhinestones on it that you can get on Amazon and have sent anywhere.
Instead of bringing back H&M.
Don't get me wrong. I burned all my H&M shirts I had. Just forget about those. But I didn't take it too personally. It was really weird seeing RuPaul angry. Because RuPaul said to me and Tia Kofi after Snatch Game, “I'm not disappointed,” and, “These things happen. You're allowed a bad day.” She said the complete opposite of the week before. She was like, “I am disgusted!”
I tell you, though. It was great TV.
Oh it was juicy. It was so good. But you know, when she said, “I am disappointed that this is what you brought back.” Wouldn't have been me [she was talking about]! Wouldn't have been me!
There's also the monumental thing that, after all these years, you're the first queen that RuPaul has crowned who is not a sample size. I find it poignant because you spent so much of the season being really open about your self-esteem, your insecurity over your looks, and your experience in the past of being bullied. What does that distinction mean to you?
It's that glossy page at the end of the book that says, “The End,” in nice glossy, writing.
I just “aww’d.”
And for me, as we all do as queer people, I had so much left over baggage and trauma from school. At school people just laugh at you when you walk in a room. It was weird because when I didn't want to take my makeup off [in the first episode of the show], when I was nervous about it, some of the comments that people made on Twitter and Instagram were like, “Yeah! Because you're ugly.” These are exactly the people that bullied me in school. But all it took was me realizing that, well, they're just going to stay in the comments. Do you know their names? Do you know who they are? They don't actually care. They don't want you to lose weight, or actually change the way you brush your hair or change the way you do your eyebrows. They'll find anything to just slag you off about. Just any reason to just drag you. It's been a journey, but it's allowing me to kind of disassociate from the public perception of me and still be me. So I'm actually feeling a lot more confident in what I can do versus what I can't do. So it's a nice moment.
At the end of every episode you hear Ru say, “If you can't love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” When you watch Drag Race for so long, you hear that line every week and it just becomes routine. Like, a thing you just recite. But then I watched you on this season of the show, and you're a person who really embodies that phrase and lends it meaning. It was really nice to see.
Yeah, I think it is really, really nice. I love Bianca Del Rio so much. Icon. But my mom told me, “Don't just go on there and be funny, and don't just hide away in a shell. You've got a good heart. Show it. And it will be hard to show it, but it will not backfire.” And I'm glad I did. Very glad.
I am sure you have already been stalked by the words "bing, bang, bong" in the last month. Are you prepared for that to never go away? The song became a legitimate, real-world hit.
Can we discuss this? I cannot wait to listen to that song in the club. Cannot wait. They're already doing it in Australia, lucky bastards. I cannot believe the success.When you work on something yourself, you go, oh, it's just that thing I’m doing. Whereas other people were like, “This is really catchy. This is really fun. This is stupid. Let's do that TikTok dance to it.” And for us, we were just having fun. So it's nice that people have seen us have fun and that started this domino effect of people just enjoying the song. And it was number one in the UK on iTunes!
I know! It's wild!
Clap for the UK, hun!
Finally, I wanted to ask you about RuPaul and Michelle Visage's surprise when you said that you didn't have plans to move to London after the show, that you wanted to stay in Scotland. I'm curious how you felt about their shock in response to that.
I never wanted to be one of those people that said, “Thank you Scottish drag scene for being the reason I am who I am! But now I'm famous, so I'm just gonna go!' That's not me. I just want to keep uplifting Scottish voices. We see so many people imitate Scottish voices. I just want to keep seeing the Susan Boyles and me and all these people from Scotland stay as Scottish voices. Susan Boyle has stayed where she lives in Scotland. She's not moved to London. Again, if people really want me so badly that they want me booked at a party in London, they're gonna pay for a train or a flight. It's not a deal breaker. I love my life and my family up here, I'm gonna stay here.