“I’m here to showcase a more genuine representation of myself, because what everyone has seen of me has only equated to about 25 minutes,” says Naomi Smalls. The global drag superstar, model and bonafide fashion icon is discussing The Smalls World Show, a one-of-a-kind virtual extravaganza that invites viewers into the Naomi Smalls multiverse. Although the star was catapulted into the pop culture zeitgeist almost four years ago on the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Smalls World Show will be her first ever solo production. Since her stint on the Emmy-winning series, Naomi has sashayed around the world alongside other legendary alumni as part of the franchise’s flagship tour, launched a solo assault on the charts with the 90s-inspired dance anthem Pose, and slain the Las Vegas Strip with RuPaul’s Drag Race Live. She also returned for All Stars 4 and blessed audiences with some of the most iconic moments in Drag Race’s 11-year history. So yeah, she’s been busy – which is why the COVID-19 pandemic was the perfect time for her solo debut.
“Travelling after television, it was like a cycle over and over again,” Naomi tells GAY TIMES. “I love being on stage, I love performing, I love conceptualising, and I always felt a little bit of guilt when I’d show up to do a booking and I would be at the end of the show, and there were 20 performances before me and I would only be on stage for four to five minutes. I always felt guilty for my fans that came out and bought a ticket and stood in the snow. I always wanted to push myself to be able to deliver a full show. During quarantine, it finally got to have my full attention.” For Naomi, it was also important to show fans that she’s not the stereotypical “young, good-looking queen” from Drag Race who’s “over it and think they’re better than everyone else.” While The Smalls World Show continues to showcase the star’s talents from the series, such as her high-fashion ensembles and captivating lip-sync numbers, it delves much deeper into her personal life. Alongside fierce tributes to Kanye West and Lady Gaga, there’s a message from Naomi’s mother, June, a heartfelt family slideshow and vulnerable storytelling about the loss of her father in 2016.
Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors really inspired me to make something really custom to the Naomi Smalls brand.
“I hope that fans, when they’re watching this show, can definitely come to terms with appreciating the ones that are not with us today,” continues Naomi. “It would’ve been really easy for me to cry everyday and say, ‘fuck drag!’ but I’m hoping this show can help people realise that that’s the super easy way to go about it. Don’t sit there and wait for something to happen – it’s the miserable way out. It does not sound fun or how I want to live my life, and I know that the ones I was close to that aren’t here today would not want me to live my life like that either.” To celebrate the release of Naomi’s long-awaited solo production, we spoke with the leg-end about The Smalls World Show and how she’s finally reclaiming her narrative.
How has lockdown been for you so far? Are you enjoying time to yourself or are you ready to get back out there?
I’m definitely missing my old life, for sure. It’s been kind of nice though, as far as being able to take on a creative project. The Smalls World Show has really been in the works for the past year and a half. I’ve just never really had the chance to tackle it, since I’m always either on tour or signed up for something else, so it’s always been put to the side. During quarantine, it finally got to have my full attention.
What inspired you to create The Smalls World Show?
Travelling after television, it was like a cycle over and over again. I love being on stage, I love performing, I love conceptualising, and I always felt a little bit of guilt when I’d show up to do a booking and I would be at the end of the show, and there were 20 performances before me and I would only be on stage for four to five minutes. I always felt guilty for my fans that came out and bought a ticket and stood in the snow. I always wanted to push myself to be able to deliver a full show. I remember seeing a couple of drag queens start their own solo shows, but the one that really stood out to me was Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors, which really inspired me to make something really custom to the Naomi Smalls brand.
I watched the opening number and if Beyoncé is smart, she’ll allow you to release that as her official music video because… fuck. That was brilliant.
[Laughs] Awh, thank you so much! Thank you thank you. That was the only number I got to do on stage, so it was really fun to adapt that to the whole digital drag approach.
The visuals are absolutely outstanding. What inspired the overall aesthetic?
I feel like there’s always a huge visual pressure when it comes to anything I try and put my name on. I’m just a very visual person, and conceptualising is my favourite part of drag. I love being on stage, I love makeup and I love hair, but the fact that we get to become whatever the hell we were dreaming of the night before… there’s so much power in that. I think that’s really my true passion with drag – art direction. It’s always at the root of everything. I just love to transport someone to a different world during my performances. You can have someone doing something really amazing in front of your eyes, but if it’s not visually pleasing, you’re just going to be a little bit disconnected. I always try to have everything very aesthetically pleasing.
What have you been able to achieve with this format that you couldn’t on stage?
The thing about the stage performances, there is definitely less control. I am the proof of that. I’ve had my music stop, I’ve had my wig fly back, I’ve had my privates exposed… But with digital, you just don’t have that fear, and I’m a huge control freak already. I think that’s why I have a little bit of reservation with reality television or signing up to do anything that I don’t have the final edit in. But with this, I love having that control. I felt like I really got to present exactly what I want to an audience, in a more genuine approach and view.
It feels really nice to have genuine feelings in my art, where the attention isn’t just going to be on someone going home or a shady rattlesnake.
Because it’s you, we can expect some fantastic looks and jaw-dropping lip-syncs, but it’s also got a lot of heart to it. How did it feel to share some intimate parts of yourself throughout the show?
That’s something that I’ve been escaping from when it comes to being in someone else’s production, because it doesn’t necessarily feel super authentic to divulge a lot of my emotions. It’s going to be on someone else’s terms and it can be spun in any way possible. It felt really refreshing to sit in quarantine and reflect on my emotions and the past. That’s definitely something that I’ve been running away from, because I’ve always been distracting myself with work. It feels really nice to have genuine feelings in my art, where the attention isn’t just going to be on someone going home or a shady rattlesnake. It seems a lot more genuine and authentic.
On the Drag Race tours, you kinda just have to showcase what you did on the series, right?
Yeah, and I was always getting into, I wouldn’t say ‘fights’, but I was one of the few queens that had a voice. Even on Werq the World. I always think if you’re going to be the one on stage, then you have to be 100% comfortable with what you’re doing. It’s really nice for a producer to say they want this and that from you, but if you’re not going to feel it when you’re on stage, then what’s the point agreeing to it? I definitely think your drag should have some heart in it and some of your own input, otherwise it will just take the fun out of it.
So is the most fun you’ve had in your career?
Before this, I had a lot of fun doing the whole music video route with Pose. I really got to work with all my friends and that was the last time I felt… It’s just different when it’s a labour of love and you get to work with the people that you’re close to. That is what The Smalls World Show reminds me of. I get really nervous because I just want to impress my peers, always – the ones I’m inspired by or really close to. I always know that with that, my fans are going to love it regardless.
The show delves into your personal struggles during and after season eight of RuPaul’s Drag Race, such as losing your father, Malcolm, and your brother, Dylan. What was it like channelling that grief into art such as The Smalls World Show?
I think that the grief really came after I took a break for a second, because I lost my brother before season eight aired. I lost my dad a year later when I was in the thick of touring. I was definitely distracting myself with work and trying not to feel because it would affect me on stage. I realised that taking a step back to process and talk to people would help me come to terms with it. I think that loss is something that everyone experiences, and at 22, it was my first time. Everything I do, I always have my dad and brother in the back of my head. I’m always trying to make them proud… Honestly, they were my biggest fans.
How did those experiences influence where you’re at in your drag career now?
I definitely realised that you just have to make the most of every day. I know it’s corny to say, but you really have to embrace everyday because you never know when it’s going to be the last. There’s just so many other things that are more important than the little things that I’ve always beat myself up about. Someone could always have it worse, or there’s always someone out there that feels completely different than you. You doing what you do best can inspire someone to have a better outlook on their day, or a better outlook on life. That’s something I take very seriously, because that’s what I was looking for when I was a kid, watching these Glamazons on television.
I hope that fans, when they’re watching this show, can definitely come to terms with appreciating the ones that are not with us today
Art can be a powerful tool to help people through loss. Are you hoping this show will do the same for fans who have experienced something similar?
I hope that fans, when they’re watching this show, can definitely come to terms with appreciating the ones that are not with us today. It would’ve been really easy for me to cry everyday and say, ‘fuck drag!’ but I’m hoping this show can help people realise that that’s the super easy way to go about it. Don’t sit there and wait for something to happen – it’s the miserable way out. It does not sound fun or how I want to live my life, and I know that the ones I was close to that aren’t here today would not want me to live my life like that either.
The show includes a message from your mother June – has she seen the show yet?
She hasn’t seen the show yet! She’s going to watch, surprised like everyone else. I did get to do a legacy video with my mom that’s going to be included in the show. I’m my mom’s biggest fan and I used to think that I was so much like her. I used to tell myself, ‘We’re like… the exact same person,’ when I was just such a huge fan of her. I don’t know if that sounds above me, but I really realised I just couldn’t come close to her because she is just such an angel and I think she’s the most progressive woman I’ve ever met in my entire life. I wish that more people were like her… or she was president.
Is she much of a crier? How do you think she’s going to react?
[Laughs] I don’t know! She’s a pretty strong woman. She definitely cried when I was crying on Drag Race, so maybe this will make her cry, but I hope that she watches it and it makes her happy. I want her to see that her son who avoided academia and going to nursing school is living their dream and having fun and inspiring others to do the same.
In the press release, it says The Smalls World Show is about Naomi Smalls “breaking free from the constraints of reality television”. Is this something that you’ve faced in your career, being solely associated with RuPaul’s Drag Race?
When I hear that back, I hope it doesn’t come across as I’m entitled or I have bitter feelings towards RuPaul’s Drag Race or reality television. I am so grateful for RuPaul’s Drag Race. I know that nobody would know my name like they know my name today without the show and the competition. But, I definitely do think that if you let yourself just be represented by somebody else’s hands for the rest of your life and not produce the content that you originally saw for yourself before auditioning, then it’s really easy to get pigeonholed into the character that the show or edit portrays you as. I’m one of the lucky ones. I never had to cry in front of a mirror. I did deal with some hate, but it never really affected me too bad, and I’m here to showcase a more genuine representation of myself, because what everyone has seen of me only equates to about 25 minutes. It’s just nice to show a more authentic side.
I think that there’s a stigma about young, dare I say, good-looking queens on Drag Race. Like, there’s this bratty entitlement where they’re over it and think they’re better than everyone else. I’ve just really resented that, because I treat people exactly how I want to be treated.
What do you think fans will learn about you from The Smalls World Show, that they didn’t know before?
I think that there’s a stigma about young, dare I say, good-looking queens on Drag Race. Like, there’s this bratty entitlement where they’re over it and think they’re better than everyone else. I’ve just really resented that, because I treat people exactly how I want to be treated. Growing up in a huge family, I definitely never had an opportunity to feel spoiled or bratty. I’m really just a dork! I think I’m a very authentic person and I want to inspire people to be a lot more authentic, and to stand up for themselves.
You pay tribute to some of your heroes in this show, and I’m going to mention Lady Gaga specifically because you have a fantastic tribute to Dance In The Dark – #JusticeForDanceInTheDark.
I know! I feel like everyone’s been saying that for the past 10 years?! It’s literally a full circle moment. It was concocted from me during school, sneaking out of my house and dancing to it and practicing – not even for drag – but just getting those fierce mannerisms out. It’s so cool to have it be fully realised. I love Gaga forever.
Can we expect #JusticeForScheiße in a potential sequel?
Oh my gosh. Honestly… If it was my way, there would be a full Gaga show, so maybe that’s going to have to be in the works!
The Smalls World Show is streaming until 8 September – tickets are available now on Naomi’s website.