Michelle Visage is the first to say it. “I’m an intimidating figure,” she tells me. “I’m loud and hard and in your face and I tell the truth, and I think a lot of people fear the truth.”
Visage has been a pop star, a radio personality, and co-host of The RuPaul Show, but she’s best known for serving no-bull realness as a judge on Logo’s award-winning reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. Think Simon Cowell but with better taste, a better wardrobe, and a roomful of men dressed as women vying for her attention.
“I think what people fear is the character they see on television, because I am strong and I am commanding,” she goes on. “It’s not fear like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’ll beat me up.’ It’s fear like, ‘I have to face my truths.’”
The harsh task of facing those truths—whether you’re a man who sews his own ball gowns, a young gay person searching for acceptance, or simply a person who can’t find self-confidence—is at the crux of Visage’s new book, The Diva Rules, in which she promises to help readers “ditch the drama, find your strength, and sparkle your way to the top.”
At face level, it sounds like someone glued a few too many sequins to a self-help book, yielding some beglittered platitudes about the journey to the better you. But like Visage herself, there are deeper layers beneath the flashy, campy veneer. Gay TV’s Fairy Godmother is here, and she’s spilling the tea about her own life—and with sly poignancy, a mission, and a megaphone—in the hopes that by doing so she’ll help you work the magic to change yours.
The Michelle Visage who meets me on a rainy November afternoon is not the one you see on Drag Race, who rocks hair teased to the heavens, a face painted for the back row, boobs to the chin, and X-ray vision side-eye that can see through any façade or falsity. The hair is down. The face is soft. The look: sweater-weather chic.
This “strong” and “intimidating figure” is downright warm, within an instant radiating that motherly energy that’s accompanied her decades as a fierce LGBT ally. That Michelle Visage on TV is a character, her own version of drag. This real Michelle Visage is just as fabulous, and she’s armed with maternal wisdom.
The Diva Rules is being billed as a guide to finding “the diva in you.” But in a way, that’s a drag version of an ultimately warmer message, too.
“People are like, ‘Oh my god, I thought this was going to be about how to be a drag queen. How to put lashes on and do your makeup,’” she says. “But when they read it they realize it has nothing to do with that and all to do with self-empowerment and finding yourself and getting what you want out of life.”
Through personal essays recounting her own shames, struggles, and missteps—as well as owning her successes, talents, and ambition—you learn more about Visage, too: a mom who fought tooth and nail to build a career in entertainment that now sees her minting the careers of drag queens, a community she’s long championed.
“I get tons of emails every day from a lot of gays and young girls asking for help with their self-confidence and to heal and to feel,” she says. “Even though I’m not an equipped social worker, I think the mom presence that I have makes them feel safe.”
Visage’s kinship with the LGBT and drag community extends back to the ’80s, when she was a member of the underground ballroom culture.
She was there when her friends had bottles and slurs hurled at them while walking the streets of New York. She was there as shame, self-doubt, ignorance, shunning, and bigotry defined the lives of some of those friends, and she was there when those same friends found the confidence to own their identities—and finally see a wave of mainstream acceptance sweep the nation in recent years, too.
“I’d never thought I’d see it in my lifetime,” Visage says about a society that, in baby steps, is embracing the same people that were othered for so long, and that’s turned RuPaul’s Drag Race into one of the most popular and most respected reality TV shows airing today.
“The show has such heart and dignity and class,” she says. “It’s not just ’bout boys dressing as girls, but about their struggles and what they’ve had to go through. Maybe they had no relationship with their family. Maybe they’ve been on their own since they were 15 years old. How they overcame diversity and stayed dedicated to their art and craft.”
In other words, they’ve embraced their inner divas.
The Diva Rules at first seem rather innocuous, but become deceptively profound in Visage’s telling of how she came to realize each instruction’s worth. There’s Rule #4: Get off your ass, girl. And Rule #19: Project positivity, even when you feel like shit. Rule #14 is cheekier: Keep it real, except for your tits. And Rule #10—Celebrate your competition—is accompanied by the juiciest story.
You know that iconic “Vogue” video by Madonna? That style? That choreography? That indelibility? Visage did it first.
Visage was among the performers at 1989’s now legendary Love Ball—a scene-and-be-scene event that was one of the biggest spotlights of the dance craze of “Vogueing” at that point. Visage had her platinum blonde ponytail snatched high and tight, and was wearing her usual bra, leggings, and boots. As the story goes—and has been confirmed by multiple “I was there” sources—Madonna was there that night.
Ten months later, she released the “Vogue” video.
“When I saw the video for the first time, I was absolutely gutted,” Visage writes. “Everyone in my inner circle…called me up, all, ‘Girl! That hair, that bra, those moves, your everything.’” She began working with two of Visage’s rival dancers. “Once they teamed up, Madonna started doing everything I’d already been doing for years in the clubs. To say she was actually copying might be presumptuous, but the coincidences were beyond.”
Visage lets out an enthusiastic shriek when I bring up the story. “Interesting, isn’t it,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s fact. I’m saying it’s really coincidental.” Then she lets out a gleeful giggle. But then comes the lesson, the reason why this all helped her find her best version of her own diva all these years later. Celebrate the competition.
“If those people who you love out there can’t inspire you to do something, then you’re doing the wrong thing,” she says. “Am I envious of what these people have because I don’t have it? Yeah. But there’s nothing wrong with envy. Jealousy and envy are two different things.”
The envy comes because Visage was so close to becoming huge. She was a member of two pop groups, S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. and Seduction, both of which seemed like they were going to launch her into the stratosphere, and both of which fizzled just as quickly. She found herself touring the world. One of S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M.’s songs was featured on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. And then it all went away.
“After Seduction failed, I had nothing,” she says. She worked as an announcer at a strip club, a thankless, sometimes demeaning gig that ultimately led to a big break on radio—and then her sidekick gig on The RuPaul Show, and a friendship that led to her tenure on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s why she’s constantly reminding the show’s queens to be humble, to check their egos.
“I think a lot of these queens think this moment is going to last forever,” she says. “And when it doesn’t there’s going to be a rude awakening. That’s part of the Diva Rules: Helping these kids know that these moments don’t last forever, so to make sure that this is something they love to do, so that they’ll be happy doing it no matter what.”
For Visage, at least, that’s where RuPaul comes in.
“When I met Ru, from the day I saw him, I knew there was something,” she remembers. “I couldn’t explain it. I saw him, he saw me: ‘Hey girl, hey girl.’ But I knew something was going to happen.”
Ru first saw Visage at that Love Ball. (Truly, everybody was there.) Soon after, he’d see her again on the dance floor at the club Red Zone in Midtown. “Watching Michelle tiptoe across that dance floor became one of those mental GIFs that my mind collected for no apparent reason at the time, but would later prove to be a valuable piece of information,” RuPaul writes in the introduction to The Diva Rules.
In 1992, they met again at a music expo in New York, when she was part of S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M., and got on like old friends. Then it’s 1996 and RuPaul shows up for a radio interview, and there’s Michelle behind the microphone. “He said, ‘Of course you’re sitting there. This is it. This is why we met, all those years ago. For this moment,’” Visage remembers.
Their chemistry led to them getting their own morning drive radio show. When VH1 launched The RuPaul Show, Ru brought Michelle with him as his sidekick. When RuPaul’s Drag Race began, Visage couldn’t get out of her own radio contract to host the first two seasons. But by Season 3, all was right in the world. Michelle Visage was next to RuPaul again.
“We have soul mates in this world, and soul mates aren’t always lovers,” Visage says. “My husband’s my soul mate. At the same time, RuPaul’s my soul mate.”
She remembers back during the years of the VH1 show, being in a car with RuPaul on the way to the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards. With tears in her eyes, she thanked him for giving her so many breaks and chances. “He said, ‘Bitch, I bring you with me because you make me look good.’” She laughs. “He knows I can deliver him like nobody else can.”
Diva Rule #24: Make your boss look good. It’s the penultimate rule in her book.
Ultimately, “I’m trying to give solid help to people,” she says. “I want people knowing that I tried to help humanity and I wanted people to be the best they can be.”
Ah, Rule #25: Build your legacy.