Alyssa Edwards is one of – if not the – most legendary performers in Drag Race history.
The Texan dancer, choreographer and acclaimed vocalist (we all witnessed her verse in Can I Get An Amen) appeared on the show’s fifth season and All Stars 2, and left us all snatched with killer lip syncs such as Cold Hearted Snake, Whip My Hair and Shut Up and Drive, the latter of which is arguably the most gag-worthy lip sync on the Emmy Award winning series.
Because Alyssa – real name Justin Johnson – is so sick’ning, she’s received her own eight-part docu-series which will follow her as she attempts to juggle her career as a dance coach and a world-famous drag queen, as well as finding time for her family and love life.
We caught up with Alyssa earlier this week to discuss the series – aptly titled Dancing Queen – opening up as Justin on the show, her five favourite lip sync performances from Drag Race, and her future career as a drag minister.
Hi Sam how are you?
I’m great thank you, how are you?
I’m fabulous! You are the final wrap for this press tour for Dancing Queen!
Are you tired? You must be tired.
Actually, I can have a Red Bull and kick it up in high gear in a matter of seconds.
Have you got some of your Alyssa gogo juice?
Oh you know I do! This is all so exciting too because I’m very hyped. We’re now just days away, and it seemed like a million years two weeks ago, and now I just can’t believe it’s about to be here.
I watched the first episode earlier this week, and it was absolutely incredible. I haven’t laughed like that in such a long time.
[Laughs] I hope it was a good laugh though! I hope it was one of those good good giggles.
Well my stomach hurt, so yeah it was a good good giggle.
Hopefully that continues throughout the other seven episodes.
What was it like having a camera crew following you for, I assume months?
Longer than that! It’s actually a little easier, because this isn’t a produced series. It’s shot docu-style. So, in a competition like Drag Race, the setting is, ‘You’re being judged, you have these challenges, you’re taken out of your comfort zone.’ That can be intense, and not to say Dancing Queen isn’t, but it’s a different intensity, and you forget the cameras are there. You think, ‘It’s Sunday, I’ve gotta go teach dance, let me put on a t-shirt.’ You see me with my business, my family life, my dating life, it’s just my day-to-day. Now let me ask you, after watching the first episode, you probably thought you knew who I was, were you surprised?
I was. On Drag Race, we see Justin but we don’t know too much about your life. Seeing you talking so openly about your dating life, and seeing your everyday routine, it feels like we’re really starting to see more of Justin. Seeing what you actually do for a living is definitely going to make people connect with you more, 100%.
I just want to be my authentic, genuine, unapologetic self, and I wanted to take people on this… I don’t wanna say tour, but I want them to see behind the curtain, you know? The man under the mask and under the drag. There is so much to love for what I do, and not just with Alyssa Edwards, but I believe my true purpose in life is to be there at the studio at Beyond Belief.
Watching it, you can tell how passionate you are about it. Seeing you with these kids and hearing their stories, it feels like you are the Mama Ru of Beyond Belief.
I think that’s definitely a compliment! [Laughs] There at the studio, I feel that I am more than just a mentor, choreographer and a teacher and the director, the business owner. I’m also a huge part of these kids lives. We spend holidays together, I’ve been to their school functions… It definitely is a family environment, even with the dysfunction that makes it functioning.
I feel like that’s the main difference with Dance Moms – because the comparisons will be inevitable – as you’re much more involved in their lives.
I definitely think so. Dance Moms is a produced reality, and that’s not what I do. It’s just not. There’s obviously a place for that, it’s just not in this studio.
Speaking of RuPaul, he’s an executive producer on the show. How much involvement does he have with the series?
I think Ru is probably one of the people who really championed this in the beginning. He found it very interesting. We talked about this on Drag Race quite a lot, more than I would talk about Alyssa almost! They just found this, like, ‘Okay, this can be an interesting story. You have this dance school.’ It was very intriguing to them. I look at Ru as a mentor to me. He’s definitely someone that has been an inspiration, that I’ve always looked up to. He was one of my very first introductions to the art form known as drag, and I just hope that he is pleased with this.
How could he not? The whole episode was fantastic, but I have to say that the wedding was probably one of the best scenes in television that I have ever witnessed. Your bedazzled bible gave me life!
[Laughs whilst hitting her leg/table] Wasn’t it crazy?!
I’ve never wanted to get married, but after watching that, I’ve already got plans with you officiating my wedding.
[Laughs] I am an ordained minister! Look at that.
What was it like marrying Robbie and Neil on the show?
When they asked me, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ They’re just like, ‘You’re the closest thing we can get to a preacher. You know, we have you praying over here at dinner and stuff!’ I’m like, ‘Okay…’, and they’re like, ‘But we want you to do it in drag.’ I was like, ‘That’s going to be a mockery!’ I said, “You guys are my friends, but I need to think about this. I don’t know how that’s going to be portrayed.” But I’m so glad I did it! They rhinestoned the bible for me, and it was sparkly and it was flashy. The family was there… Did you see the family? The family and the kids?
Yes! The montage of you performing was so much fun.
Ya’ll know! It was a good ol’ gay gig! Shindig! I’m so glad I did it.
Watching it was one of the moments when you think, ‘I love being gay because of things like this.’
[Laughs] Well I love that! See, we inspired someone!
In ten years time when I want to get married, I’ll be calling you.
Okay, well you just let me know?
Oh I will! A bit more of a serious question: You live in Texas, which is quite a conservative area. How has it been, being a drag queen with a dance studio?
It was a little tricky at first because honestly, I think it was internally more me. I was so afraid and intimidated and I felt like I would be judged. I thought my work and my artistry would be judged, and that people would not allow their children to study underneath me. And so I kept it very privately. It was like I lived a Hannah Montana life. Y’know? It was like, “Okay, I’m gonna bring this out at night, and then when I got on Drag Race I was so scared. I didn’t think everybody would find out, and then I realised, ‘Okay, well this is a TV show.’ I thought, ‘What are the chances of these people and these moms and these families having Logo? They’re not gonna see this.’ Well… Surprise surprise, the promo came out. Everywhere. And the response was… Oh my gosh, it caught me off guard. But it took me to a place… I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock a little. Everyone was so supportive, and they were so like, proud of me. If my own father couldn’t be, how could these strangers be? I was very grateful.
One of the most touching moments on the show for me, was how you reflected on how you became a dancer. That moment was something we’ve not seen from Alyssa.
When I started doing this, I was like, ‘Okay, are you ready to be open about your whole life?’ I’ve always put up walls and barricades and protected myself. I had that moment on All Stars, and a moment on season five… I think this is going to reintroduce a whole other person. I haven’t got to see the series, but I will tell you this: when it was done, when we wrapped, I was very emotional because I was proud. I was proud that I finally opened up about things that I have ran from, and I didn’t tiptoe through anything, I didn’t feel timid, so I’m eager to see.
Are you gonna watch it in its entirety when its released?
I’m sure. Oh my gosh I’m sure. I’m so… I’m so sure! I’m going to get right up, and I’m going to make me some soup, sit on my couch, and just binge.
Me too, I can’t wait. We also see a majority of female dancers in your studio. How do you feel like we can encourage young boys to feel like they can enrol in dance?
Just stop teaching boys at a young age that they should wear blue and play sports. And that they should wear a certain attire. When we start seeing past that, I think that we’ll see… We have seen a big shift. When people think of a boy, they think of a hip-hop dancer. They wanna categorise them. Shows like Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, The World of Dance, more boys are getting involved. Instead of waiting on the world to change, I’m seeing it. It’s happening. But there’s still a long way to go.
And we’ve just seen Laganja on So You Think You Can Dance. What did you think of her appearance?
Yeah, I mean… I think that was seen more of a novelty, in my opinion. I wish she would’ve been seen as a technically trained, well studied modern dancer. What I saw was a drag queen doing a drag show, and I wish they would’ve showcased him more. Not only was he a presidential scholar from high school, but went on to do so much that I don’t think we got to see. I get that’s what he does and that’s what we’ve seen, and I hope it inspired someone. Be yourself.
It feels like a majority of the straight community still see drag as a novelty or a bit of fun, but they’re not seen as serious artists.
Yeah, in that area. It showed the judges laughing, it was a novelty.
On Dancing Queen, there are quite a few passionate mothers. How do you deal with that?
The sign when you pull up to the studio, it says “Beyond Belief dance studio and family of champions.” And every family has that little bit of dysfunction that keeps it functioning. I enjoy the competitive dance moms because it lets me know that they’re passionate, that they’re really serious, that they’re involved in their child’s lives. My parents weren’t nearly as involved. Do I like all the craziness and seriousness? Well no! But I’m not afraid to tell them that, and I have a love – I don’t wanna say hate – but I have a love/you get on my nerves relationship. I was just on Watch What Happens Live last night, and there’s a scene of one rhine-stoning my wig! Those women, and even the dance dads, they build me up. They celebrate me. They’ve given me the opportunity to mentor their children. Do they work my nerves? They do. But they also pay on the 1st.
How do the dance competitions in the real world compare to the challenges of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
The dance competitions…. You know at Beyond Belief, we do what we do. We do what’s magical and powerful for us, in hopes of inspiring maybe another Justin sitting in the audience. I am a teacher that doesn’t just go after the win. I mean, we do have a competitive mind, we’re in a competition. The camera dress for example, I wore that because I loved that. Was it necessarily a two-in-one? I got critiques for it, but they loved it, and it made people smile and giggle, and it’s still one of the most memorable dresses on that series. If you say the camera dress, people will know.
Oh yeah, it took fucking pictures. How could people not love that?
You know what? Thank you! [Laughs] I don’t care what nobody says! It to me, is the campiest, the silliest, the funniest… That is what drag is about! That is what drag is about! Have fun with it. And that’s what I do with my work, with my art, with my dance. It’s a story. I’m shaping these kids, not just to be great dancers, but to be great humans, be good people.
I’m gonna throw this out there: the dress you wore on season five was not the worst in Drag Race history.
Thaaaaaank you! Thank you! Please can you write an email?
It’s already written, I’m just waiting on an email address.
[Laughs, whilst slapping hip/table]
My final question for you: What are your five favourite lip syncs in Drag Race history?
Well Shut Up and Drive has got to be first. Then, for me, personally my second favourite is Cold Hearted Snake. It was so passionate, it was a fight. There was a story behind it. One of my thirds is, I love Latrice Royale and was it Dida Ritz? It was Dida Ritz. It was fierce! They were taking me to church! That’s drag I like. That’s drag I’m about! I wanna feel something. You know, the lip sync for your life is my favourite part of the whole series. I wanna be entertained. But then you have moments like Raven and Jujubee. I remember watching that and I felt something. Dancing on My Own. So that’s four? I would say my fifth favourite lip sync, well, I’m gonna choose something with me, because I loved me in Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent. I opened my blazer… I loved that one, I loved it!
I loved when Alaska said in her confessional: “She’s dressed like a businesswoman from the 80s who doesn’t want romance without finance.”
[Laughs] That was a good one! That was a good one! I love lip syncs, I love standing up there and looking Ru in the eyes. The lights go down. Oh my gosh, that spotlight. The music turns on. You’re like, ‘This is it. This is the moment we long for as performers.’
All eight episodes of Alyssa’s highly-anticipated docu-series, Dancing Queen, are available to stream now on Netflix.