With her mesmerising, booby-popping performance of CeCe Peniston’s house track He Luvs Me 2, Jazell Royale became the pandemic’s fiercest viral sensation. The video – which has amassed almost four million views on YouTube – has since circulated all of the social media’s on various occasions, catapulting one of the LGBTQ+ community’s most revered and unsung icons to greater recognition in the process. In the words of one of Jazell’s new fans, “I’m not even gay but I love this performance.”
Over the course of her 20-year career, Jazell has conquered over six thousand pageants (we made that up, the real number is close, we think), most notably the prestigious Miss Continental (2016) and Miss Universal Queen (2019), the latter of which saw her make history as the first entertainer of African descent to do so. This year, Jazell is making her mainstream television debut on the second season of Queen of the Universe, World of Wonder’s drag-singing competition that will continue to spotlight queens from all corners of the world as they “battle for global domination”, (bragging rights) and a cash prize of $250,000.
“When Drag Race started, it really put drag on TV and I connected with it. But, it wasn’t until Queen of the Universe that I saw something that truly spoke to who I am and that’s a singer,” Jazell says, before explaining that she was “scared” to showcase her musical talents, especially when she’s known to audiences for her lip-sync abilities and illustrious history in the pageant and ballroom scenes. “I feel like I’m on training wheels now. I’m learning how to captivate audiences with my voice, as well as my drag, so it’s hard. But, it’s exciting and I can’t wait for the world to take me seriously as a real artist.”
Here, Jazell speaks with GAY TIMES about her upcoming appearance on Queen of the Universe, making ballroom history and her destiny to become the first Black trans woman to be inducted in the EGOT Hall of Fame. Oh and make sure you stick around for when she reminisces about having “lunch with the mayor of Paris while Notre Dame was on fire”.
Jazell, huge congrats on making the second season of Queen of the Universe. You’re a bonafide drag legend, so why was now the right time for you to make your mainstream television debut?
In a few months, it will be 20 years that I’ve been doing drag. I started at 16-years-old in nightclubs! When Drag Race started, it really put drag on TV and I connected with it. But, it wasn’t until Queen of the Universe that I saw something that truly spoke to who I am and that’s a singer. That’s how I got into drag, that was where my hunger for entertainment came from. When I saw a show where I can actually be myself, judgement-free in drag, I immediately gravitated to it. Then, when I saw Vanessa Williams was a judge I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I have to audition!’ And every day, a new queen is born and hatches from the drag factory. I wanna use all the talents that I have while I’m still young, vibrant and hungry about what I do.
You are an iconic figure in the pageant and ballroom scenes, but audiences might not be as well acquainted with your musical talents, so what can you tease about your upcoming performances, as well as your style of performance?
I like that question. I have mastered being able to captivate audiences through lip-sync. It is a totally different ball game when you have to entertain and sing at the same time. And there is a level of expectation to meet the standard of that vocalist. Like drag, music is second nature to me, but because I put it down for such a long time, I feel like I’m on training wheels now. I’m learning how to captivate audiences with my voice, as well as my drag, so it’s hard. But, it’s exciting and I can’t wait for the world to take me seriously as a real artist.
We have to discuss one performance of yours in particular, that legendary clip to CeCe Peniston’s He Luvs Me 2…
I don’t know which one that is? [Starts booby-popping.]
Jazell, I am blessed – I repeat, blessed – to be witnessing your iconic booby-pop. This performance has gone viral on the social media’s countless times. How did He Luvs Me 2 going viral impact you and your career, as well as contribute to your legacy?
In that moment, there were so many things that I was emotionally going through that were not conducive to my happiness. It looked like I was there to entertain you all, but I chose that moment to release all of that negative energy, and it turned out to be this awesome number. It taught me to always take any type of negativity, turn it into a big ball of positive energy and throw it back at them. How it changed my life is that so many people saw it and reposted it. Lisa Rinna was one of the people! I get recognised sometimes in the airport like, ‘Are you that girl? The titty girl?’ Not only that, Pat McGrath, the world-renowned makeup artist, sent me a whole big personalised package of her makeup and had me model for Garage Magazine in LA. A lot of doors opened and that was during the pandemic when it really went viral. It brought joy to people during that time. I even had people tell me that it motivated them in the gym. I want to thank CeCe Peniston for singing that song. Even she and I were able to meet. It’s been a whirlwind! Even with Queen of the Universe, some of the judges recognised me from that moment.
Being known as the “titty girl” is brilliant. Because of how legendary that video is, did you feel pressure ahead of Queen of the Universe?
Yes, I also felt a lot of pressure as the only trans-identifying person because, sometimes, people don’t think our drag is valid. They don’t think that our drag counts like other drag queens, but we are drag queens just the same. I didn’t want anybody to think that, because I am female-presenting, it gave me a vocal advantage. I make a point to say that hormones do not change your voice. It does not make your voice higher. This is what puberty left me with and I’m glad I didn’t get a Barry White voice! But it definitely didn’t give me an advantage over anyone. The pressure of being known to win all the time, the pressure of being this pageant queen… It was a lot.
Recently, mainstream audiences have become more acquainted with some of world’s most prestigious drag pageants, particularly with Drag Race alum such as Brooke Lynn Hytes, Sasha Colby and Naysha Lopez having won Miss Continental, which you also conquered in 2016. For those who don’t know much about Miss Continental, can you talk to me about why it’s so revered?
It’s been around for about 40 years now and it’s one of the most prestigious pageants in the US. Everybody has competed and everybody wants to be Miss Continental. I don’t know many entertainers pre-Drag Race that didn’t want to be. I would say that Miss Continental in the US was the Drag Race before Drag Race. It was the top tier of where you could go in your drag career. Continental is a system that is for the supreme and elite entertainers, people that have honed in on their craft and perfected the skill of drag. Continental was something that I competed for five times. My first time, I was 21-years-old and I won when I was 29. Another pageant that I won that is televised is Miss International Queen. That is the largest pageant for trans women in the world. I’m the first and only person of African descent to win. It’s huge. We do press as if we were in the actual Miss Universe pageant, and it’s respected the same way. I hope that Continental could get that same recognition one day.
That brings me onto my next question. As the first Black trans woman to win Miss International Queen, what kind of impact do you think that had on the pageant circuit and representation for Black trans people around the world?
Me winning Miss International Queen was bigger than me. Some accomplishments are just bigger than you. When I’m not here anymore, it will inspire a Black trans person to say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ That pageant has been around for 20 years and I know that it spoke to so many people. My inbox was flooded for weeks with people being so inspired because there had been several people of African descent that have competed over the years and we would always get really close. I watch the pageant every year and study where they were falling short. It can be very nerve-wracking because you don’t know what they’re going to ask you.
So would you say it’s mostly about Q&A?
It’s about beauty and being more than just beautiful on the outside. It’s being able to convey that beauty to the masses, verbally with your heart, mind and how you’re able to interact with people. As Miss International Queen, you have to go around the world and meet people. I was able to be in the company of different dignitaries and mayors. I literally had lunch with the mayor of Paris while Notre Dame was on fire. That’s a memory I will never forget. I was literally in the mayor’s office having lunch with her and the windows were open and we could see and smell the smoke from the church burning. How monumental is that? I’m not happy that the church caught on fire, but this Black trans woman, of all people, is in the mayor’s office of Paris, little ol’ me, while the world is talking about Notre Dame on fire. I’m sitting here watching it for myself. Crazy! So, it’s not just about being a beauty queen, it’s like being a beauty queen president.
Jazell, you’re also highly immersed in the ballroom scene. Earlier this year, you wrote on Instagram that you broke a ballroom record – can you talk to me about that?
I am the overall mother for the House of Riccardo Tisci. I have been walking balls now for two years. I walk Femme Queen Face, Perfect 10s… I won Best Dressed once. But yes, I walk face, darling! Face, face, face, 10s, 10s, 10s across the board – all of that. And yes, I did break the record for the largest cash prize in ballroom history, which was $12,000. Ballroom is a culture that has changed the world and pop culture as we know it. Ballroom is pop culture. Every celebrity that you see and love has been inspired by and has a connection to ballroom, whether it’s their hairstylist, makeup artist, costume designer, choreographer. Ballroom consists of the most talented people that you will ever meet. Some people have only been discovered and only exist in ballroom, and some people have been able to emerge from the shadows. Ballroom started off underground for Black and Brown queer individuals to come and be who they wanted to be in the outside world and couldn’t. Now, we don’t have to hide anymore and heterosexual individuals love what we do and want to be part of it. That’s why you see artists like Jennifer Lopez, Teyana Taylor and Beyoncé with the Renaissance album, so many different dope artists that have taken a piece of ballroom and put it in the mainstream world. I’m happy to be a part of Ballroom, especially at this time because we need it. Even male entertainers, Chris Brown and Usher, they all have different influences and nuances of Ballroom.
Although trans performers have always been a vital and integral part of the LGBTQ+ community, it feels like their talents are finally being recognised in mainstream media with Drag Race, Pose and of course, Ballroom. How does it feel to be part of this new wave of trans icons receiving their flowers on a mainstream level?
I’m very happy to be part of this groundbreaking moment. It’s long overdue because Black and Brown trans and non-binary individuals were the first people to throw the bricks and stones to say, ‘No we will not be cast aside, you’re not going to get rid of us.’ So, why should we not be getting our flowers when we’re the reason why we can be on television? We’re the reason why there are gay clubs, gay rights and Pride. There were Black and Brown trans individuals that literally laid their lives on the line and stood in the face of supremacists and homophobes, people that wanted to get rid of us. Now, we’re able to represent people like Marsha P. Johnson, Crystal Labeija and a bevvy of entertainers and activists that stood up for us and for me to be sitting in this chair having this interview as a proud Black trans woman. Any LGBTQ+ identifying person owes it to these individuals that fought for us. So, I’m happy to be a part of it and I can’t wait to see what comes. I hope to see an all-trans and non-binary show come out to show the world who we are. Even though we are under the same umbrella, we’re all different. I want people to understand that trans people are not all the same. We do not all think alike. We do not all dress alike. The light needs to be shined on that.
Jazell, what can we expect from your post-Queen of the Universe career?
I’m always going to do drag shows and lip-sync, but I am now in the studio recording my own music. I want to be releasing house music first, so I want to be at every house party, dance party, circuit party – whatever type of party! Bar mitzvah… Whatever it is, I want to be part of it to make people forget about their worries. I want to empower people. I want my music to be meaningful, thought-provoking. Travelling, too, and I hope to model more. My goal is to win a Grammy. Kim Petras has beat me to being the first trans person to win a Grammy, so I wanna be the first Black trans person to win!
C’mon now, you’re going to be the first Black trans person to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
EGOT! Listen, I truly believe that I can definitely do it. Absolutely!
Queen of the Universe season 2 premieres 2 June in the UK on Paramount Plus.
This interview features in the June 2023 edition of GAY TIMES Magazine. To read the full issue, click here.