Before she even stomped into the werkroom, RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers were already enamoured and well-acquainted with Karen from Finance. UNHhhh hosts and previous All Stars alum Trixie Mattel and Katya fawned over her unique (and hilarious) drag name, and the former, who won her season, referenced the Melbourne-based entertainer during the Andy Warhol-inspired Ball. So, unlike other contestants this season (apart from perhaps Art Simone), Karen was heavily expected to ‘dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s’. Thankfully, she delivered as she won the Australasian version’s first ever maxi-challenge, triumphed over Anita Wigl’it in a lip-sync showdown and advanced to the final four.
Karen’s appearance on Drag Race Down Under, however, has been mired with controversy. Prior to the premiere, the star issued an apology to her supporters for her previously-owned collection of golliwogs, and for her (now covered up) tattoo of the racist symbol, in which she committed to a journey of “accountability, activism and education and to “uncover and unlearn any and all racial bias”. This, paired with Scarlet Adams’ use of blackface in the past – which was addressed on the series – has ignited a conversation on Australia’s on-going problem with race.
Ahead of the Drag Race Down Under finale, which airs this Sunday on BBC iPlayer, we caught up with Karen to discuss the “twists and turns and gags and goops” of the tumultuous first season, how she plans to be ‘responsible and accountable’ for her past actions and why she deserves to win the title of Down Under’s First Drag Superstar over Art Simone, Kita Mean and Scarlet Adams.
Hi Karen! You look absolutely gorgeous, I’m loving this look.
Thank you! I’m all dolled up, ready for a day in the office.
I’ve really enjoyed your looks this season, you’ve stomped the runway with some polished, whimsical ensembles and last week, you gave us some sex!
I tell you what, sex isn’t all skin and G-strings. Sexy is confidence and I like to think I ooze that at all times.
So, it’s finale week… How are you doing?
It’s finale week! It’s a huge week. The entire journey has been a rollercoaster, but the feelings that we’ve been going through over the last few days is just… It’s almost inexplicable. We turned this season of Drag Race around so fast. We’ve done it in the middle of a pandemic and now we are about to find out who the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under is, I mean… I feel like we’ve barely even filmed the show! It’s been so quick and it’s so overwhelming. It’s a wild, wild rollercoaster.
Is this the top four you imagined? And don’t hold back!
I’m not surprised to see anyone that’s in the top four there. Certainly after losing Art Simone in week two, I am surprised that she is there in the finale after having been eliminated already. But, if it wasn’t for that elimination, I expected to see her in the top anyway. So, I’m not surprised at the final four but to be honest, it was such a strong cast. I don’t know if there’s anyone that I would have been surprised to see in the top four. Really, it was anyone’s game.
Absolutely. It was one of those seasons of Drag Race where anything can happen. Some of these eliminations… shocker.
It truly was the case. It felt like, every week when someone went home, the audience reaction was like, ‘Oh my god, no! They were my favourite.’ I think that is the way the game works with everybody. Everybody is such a fierce competitor and such an amazing talent. It’s a really cool cast and it honestly could be anyone.
You were already well known within the fandom due to Trixie and Katya mentioning you on UNHhhh, and you even made an appearance on All Stars 3 for Trixie’s soup can. It already felt like you were a Ru Girl! Did that add pressure for you, going into the season?
Yeah. I felt a lot of pressure. Art Simone touched upon it in the show as well, going in with any kind of reputation is just added pressure on your shoulders. I’ve been lucky enough to have toured to lots of different countries and I’ve done lots of different shows, which means I’ve performed to a pretty big audience before Drag Race, which I was really lucky to do. So, it just means that I felt like I had an even bigger audience watching with high expectations and hopes for me on the show. I’m really grateful to have made it to the end, and I did some really really great things on Drag Race that I’m so proud of, but I did some dodgy things too! I certainly felt the pressure.
There are two moments of yours that stand out to me in particular: the dab before your lip-sync and when you tried to high-five Anita Wigl’it after… Both made me scream.
That episode was my favourite episode to film. It was episode four and I’m presuming it’s because I got the full Drag Race experience. I’d already won, I’d been in the bottom, I’d been safe and now I was lip-syncing, so I felt like I was getting the full Drag Race experience that episode. There was every chance that I could go home, but the thing that got me through, and it made me so delirious, was that I had clocked how bad my costume was so early on; it meant I had so much time to mentally prepare for that lip-sync. By the time it came around, I wasn’t surprised I was in the bottom. Whereas, I think Anita was and she was sad to have been there. I was having a little song and dance and party in my own head. I thought, ‘You want me to perform? You want me to lip-sync? I’m gonna do it.’ I was crazy. It was the very first day that they gave us a drink on set and I hadn’t had a drink for three or four weeks. I was one Martini in and I was ready to rock and roll! So, having RuPaul say to me for the first time, ‘I’m sorry my dear, you’re up for elimination,’ it was almost… fun to hear it? I was just in my own little world! I really enjoyed it, it was fun.
I can’t even imagine how it feels for RuPaul to say those words…
It’s so daunting! I’ve been watching Drag Race since the beginning and every single episode, when the girls get told they’re doing it, I was like, ‘How?’ I could never fathom being in that position, and to actually make it, I was delirious.
This season has been controversial amongst fans. Of course, we have to talk about Art Simone’s return, which wasn’t give much of an explanation. Obviously, that’s not her fault in any way, but what did you make of it?
I mean, I knew going into this competition that there were going to be twists and turns and gags and goops. At that moment, that was the confirmation that we were making television. I would’ve liked an explanation, but we didn’t need it because there’s no rulebook for Drag Race. There’s no, ‘You can do this, you can’t do that. This works, this doesn’t work.’ There are no rules. RuPaul can do what she wants. If that’s the circumstance, then bring it on. We love this show. It’s crazy and often it doesn’t make sense, but that’s part of the fun and that’s part of the frustration. You’ve just got to be ready for whatever RuPaul wants to throw at you, and if it’s a fierce competitor coming back for no reason, so be it.
Earlier this year, you issued an apology for your golliwog tattoo, saying you’ve committed to a journey of “accountability, activism and education”. What have you learned from the experience and how have you committed yourself to anti-racism through your work and in your personal life?
Yeah of course. Thank you for asking. It was an interesting moment to make that statement because when I mentioned that I had committed to a journey of self-reflection and improvement and doing better, that’s a journey that didn’t begin this year. It’s a journey that began a long, long time ago. And so, what I think I’ve learned through the experience of my journey now being in the public eye, is that I am a representation of my community, of my people and I’m an example of the drag community and queer community. It’s not enough for me to just simply work on myself in my own time, I’m now committed to a journey of doing it publicly, being responsible for my actions and being accountable for it at the same time.
With a controversy like this, and being on reality TV in general, there can be a lot of discourse online. How are you navigating this newfound fame on social media?
Well, the number one way is to stay off of social media! There is a lot of love to be given on social media, and there’s a lot of hate on social media. The way I see it, is that I don’t need the hate but I also don’t need the love. For me to proud of the work I do and find the passion in the work I do, I don’t need to be told that people love it, I don’t need to be told that people hate it. I just need to do what makes me happy and what makes my supporters happy and continue to work at that.
What can you offer as the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under that your fellow finalists can’t?
I have such a unique brand of drag and such a unique, stupid and loveable character to offer the world. While sometimes that character prohibits me, as we saw on Drag Race, outside of the television show it just opens so many doors and creates so many ridiculously stupid but enjoyable and hilarious opportunities. I can’t wait to present those to the world on the biggest platform that I could ever be offered. With or without the crown, you better trust and believe that I’m gonna deliver!
The final episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under season one airs this Sunday on BBC iPlayer.