A Matter of Legacy: Alaska Thunderfuck’s All Stars Crown
If you were #TeamKatya, I feel for you. It’d be shitty to feel like someone as inspiring and unique as her was wronged… but I want to explain why we don’t need to feel bad for her. Why it would have been unfair to her to crown her so early in her post-Drag Race career, and how the full story extends far outside the slick narrative packaged for television.
All Stars 2, as exciting as it was, did not occur in a vacuum, meaning there are other stories and journeys outside it that factor into the result. It actually would have been an anticlimactic turn for Katya’s exciting career, whereas it was a very appropriate moment in Alaska’s. It all comes down to a word that this season used a lot: LEGACY. Katya is still building hers, and Alaska has been laying her foundation for years now.
Maybe you became a fan in Season 7 and watching older seasons doesn’t really appeal to you. That’s valid. If that’s the case, I can see why you think Katya’s story didn’t get the appropriate conclusion. Or maybe you’re a fan of the “underdog” narrative, but here’s the the thing…
KATYA IS NOT AN UNDERDOG.
Neither was Sharon, Jinkx, or anyone else that surprised close-minded competitors who didn’t recognize their potential. It’s condescending to call someone an ‘underdog’ when they’re talented enough to make it onto All Stars 2. The only way to frame her as an underdog would be to also frame the supportive, affectionate sisterhood between Alaska, Roxxxy, and Detox as an evil alliance.
So maybe the underdog story really spoke to you, but I want to take you back and tell you another story… back to the very first season of Rupaul’s Drag Race. A baby drag queen who’d named herself Alaska Thunderfuck was applying for this tragically obscure show. She was barely of legal drinking age, but she’d already become an underground sensation for her outrageous, brilliant performance of “I Will Always Love You” at Trannyshack with an ending you have to see to believe.
Painfully young and fearlessly weird, Alaska was tearing up L.A. parties with her song “Trannies Are Fierce”, a loving ode to the ferocious strength of trans women and transvestites living in a world that calls them weak.
She auditioned every year and made it to the final rounds of casting more than once. Rupaul explained on “What’s the T” that the show had to prepare America for someone like Alaska by presenting more traditional drag artists before pushing new boundaries. During casting for Season 4, both she and Sharon Needles were slated to enter the Werkroom together to be the show’s first couple, but the final decision was to spread out their star potential over two seasons as opposed to concentrating it in one.
When she entered the Werkroom in Season 5, it was never made as clear as it could have been that Alaska had a career of her own, had been considered multiple times, and had not just been invited on because of her now famous boyfriend. Sharon’s win had put Drag Race on the map. They’d captured lightning in a bottle with her, and the phenomenon of her brand is built into the show’s present popularity. Meaning… no one had ever gone to compete under more pressure and expectations than Alaska.
During the season, her relationship was brought up constantly. Even Roxxxy half-joked that she was “a sad, washed-up, cheaper version of her husband.” In spite of their aesthetics and work being similar only in the panoramic scope of their vision, Alaska’s creativity was continually reduced and dismissed as “Sharon Needles Part 2”. It’s fair to compare someone to her peers, but cringe-tacular comparing her to someone she shares a private life with. Still, Alaska committed to her legacy beyond just aesthetics, espousing positive attitudes and kindness between sisters.
She distanced herself from a jokey clique called “Rolaskatox” because she could see it was being taken rather seriously by the judges. A playful name born out of friendship and smoking breaks became associated with a ‘mean girl’ group. The moment that she burst into the Werkroom crying “ALASKA!” was the first time of many that we’d see her liberating herself from associations that were complicating her emergence as an individual performer.
Jinkx won Season 5 because it was her time then, and Alaska was still baking. But after the reunion her relationship was thrust under a microscope, which will damage the intimacy in any loving partnership over time. When the relationship ended, she described a black hole opening up into which all her talent, potential, and momentum might have been consumed.
Heartbreak is a strange thing; it can destroy you outright or it can drive you to survive like nothing else will. And Alaska took the reigns of her career to ride it out of that dark place with so much energy that it resulted the #1 drag album of all time, “Anus”, with hits that echo through every city’s Village nightly.
This was the true meaning of “trash into treasure”. Alaska had put her darkest experiences to work for her legacy. She released breathtaking music videos with enough visual content, references, and metaphors to fill dissertations on gender performance. Drag had always been the underground commenter on mainstream culture, but it had edged into the mainstream since Sharon Needles’ iconoclastic win. Alaska then kicked the bottom out of subversity to uncover a deeper level, emerging as the most dynamic commenter on the grand commentary itself.
Her work was not a simple satire, which tends to be caustic towards the material it parodies. Alaska had genuine affection for the mainstream culture she interpreted, and it filtered through the innocent, otherworldly eyes of her alien Glamtron character. It came out the other side with an uncanny, unnerving, seductively compelling dissonance that was loving and subversive at the same time. Alaska had the very rare quantum capability of being multiple identities in the same moment: she was soft, she was tough, she was relatable, she was unearthly… all in the same second. Her work was deceptively minimalistic, infusing familiar concepts with the bizarre and unexpected.
She was the neutron star of drag: a regular-sized star with the concealed density/gravity of a hundred suns. I’ve heard so many fans say they don’t even understand WHY Alaska pulls them into her orbit the way she does. There’s many brilliant drag artists working today whose genius we can immediately describe; with Alaska, you simply don’t know what hit you right away. The flickering identities contained in one were mesmerizing in a way that few performers have ever been capable of.
Finally, Alaska Thunderfuck was as much an individual on her own terms as she’d been years earlier on the Trannyshack stage, unafraid to joyfully break taboos. And her album was a gift not just to the drag community, but to any queer or queer-adjescent fans who felt as though they didn’t have a place in the gay world. Women, trans men, and bearded queens were all lovingly represented on her album and night-to-night performances. There might be a hundred jokes about vaginas being disgusting in a drag comedy revue, and Alaska would get up and sing “I Love Your Pussy”. She could make every woman, non-binary, and trans person in the audience feel like they mattered, and not just ‘taking up space’. She was political in a way that was essential to this community.
Even critics who say drag is problematic or misogynistic will point to her work as some of the most progressive, inclusive, and privilege-aware material available. And it manages to do that without being sanitized; case in point, she’s one of the few comedians I’ve ever heard make an effective rape joke that’s grounded in the experience of the victim. She was also among some of the top touring Rugirls to vocally endorse bio-queens as a legitimate evolution of the protean art form that drag was becoming with her influence.
And then came All Stars 2, the stage on which she could prove how the last decade had been dedicated to emerging as a star in her own right. And she BURNED that stage up matching Sharon Needles’ record for challenge wins, a record that has never once been broken in four years of ensuing seasons. To this day, they are the only queens with that many notches in their heels. However, Alaska’s focus worked as a double-edged sword… she cut through the challenges so cleanly it appeared to be effortless, and no one realized how hard she’d been working… until the pressure caught up with her.
Called “tantrum-gate” and “bratty”, Alaska let us see how afraid she was that it could all slip away so quickly. It was a human moment that nearly derailed her, but she apologized the next day and recommitted to her trajectory. She’d been praised each week, and the one week she was criticized her MOTHER was there to hear it… can we please factor that in?
Most of us have had an anxiety attack where we feel powerless to stop our built-up emotions from coming to the surface, but very few of us can recognize an anxiety attack in another person. It can be when our darkest insecurities swim up from the ocean trenches of our minds, and all the ugly things we think about ourselves find their way into words. It’s never flattering, but it’s something we can all have more compassion for.
She brought a Hermione Granger energy and focus to this competition, so is it any wonder that she had a breakdown before final exams? Hermione wasn’t traditonally ‘likeable’ either in that first book, and she got treated like crap by other students for taking school so seriously. But we love her because she wants to be the best and she’ll do the homework to get there. Well, Alaska’s been doing the homework all her 20’s and she Hermione’d the hell out of this season.
Tatianna said in her post-mortum that Alaska had a “wall” up, which isn’t inaccurate but it’s also not the word I would use. Having had her personal life invasively pawed over by the world, Alaska now has very healthy boundaries with her own fame. She manages to keep overzealous fans at arm’s length very politely, and says “I love your pussy” when strangers profess their love for her. She keeps that core of herself out of reach because it’s been hurt before and is worth protecting. That means we don’t really see how vulnerable she is until the pressure is too much for anyone to handle. Like Rupaul, she’s an introvert who learned how to share her talent, but is still careful about who/what she lets in. This is a quality that ALL superstars eventually cultivate if they want to survive in the industry.
So I can understand why many fans rooted for Katya. Not only because she’s charming and talented, but because her insecurities are right there on the surface where she can make fun of them. What is more endearing than that? However, I can’t agree that being endearing is more important than slaying challenges. Trust me– Katya’s moment is COMING. And it will be so exciting to watch her move towards it in the next few years as she invests as much talent and effort as Alaska has in her own legacy.
She’s still exploring her brand, if she even WANTS a brand, and she has the freedom right now to do, say, and be anything. If we were to crown her NOW, it would force her to solidify herself too early in her fame. I don’t want her to get knocked up in high school, so to speak, and have to be a mom before she has a chance to enjoy life free of all the labels a crown brings with it.
Let’s not victimize Katya; it discredits how far she’s come. She’s lovable in part because she is not yet fully formed– and neither are most of us. Many of us are a work in progress, which is why we relate to her. Not that Alaska won’t continue to develop, but she’s invested so much mental, creative, and professional energy in becoming self-reliant enough to be a leader in this community. Katya has said that if anything happened to Rupaul, Alaska is the only one who could take over because of how fully formed her brand, career, and awareness of the fandom is.
When Alaska won her crown, her first moment being interviewed was dedicated to promoting Black Lives Matter and insisting we close the gender wage gap. She didn’t try to change the reality when her social media was filled with snake emojis and people turned so viciously on her. Instead, she crowned herself “Queen of Snakes” and made fun of her behaviour… in the process also poking fun at how excessive the backlash was. She donated $10,000 (before taxes) to a trans youth charity to atone for a comment that wasn’t even serious. And then she got a damn snake tattoo to fully own the fact that this was part of her career now, thereby emerging through the firestorm stronger than before. She once again took trash and turned it into treasure– and the one great thing about the backlash is that Alaska is fully fearless now. She used to give a few fucks, like any polite lady, and now she gives NONE.
The final track on Poundcake, her new album, sums up a lot of what made Alaska ready for this crown. “It Is What It Is” is a transcendent hymn about accepting things as they are rather than trying to futilely control what’s outside yourself. Alaska has almost completely mastered control of her own talent and career, but she recognizes she can’t control anything else except to embrace it and turn it into art. We saw her prove that week after week on All Stars 2, mastering acting, comedy, singing, and dancing.
She knows how to take her weaknesses and make them work for her, hiring choreographers whose movement flatters her willowy body. She edits her experience of the world, filtering out distractions by not reading comments on some social media platforms. She’s a model of responsible alcohol/marajuana use, never showing up to a gig intoxicated. The character of Alaska Thunderfuck has become an extension and expression of all Justin Honard’s personal triumph over unfair judgements, heartbreak, substance abuse, and what Rupaul calls “the inner saboteur”.
Let’s recognize that the story here is much bigger and more beautiful than the eight weeks we watched All Stars 2. We’re looking at a performer’s entire twenties dedicated to building her legacy, through and outside the show. This was her time, the moment that validated a decade of commitment and creativity. We ought not to tarnish it, especially not out of love for a queen who adores Alaska. Katya has asked for everyone to join her in supporting her sister.
There was a time before Drag Race when no one expected queens to be likeable– we looked to them for fabulousness and fearlessness. For the drive to overcome personal tragedy and self-doubt. Now, the pressure from fans to be sanitized and cautious is easily the most corrosive single element inhibiting drag today. And the very last things a queen should be punished for are sisterhood, risk-taking, focus, or hard work.
The gif below is from an interview where Katya and Alaska fan-girled over each other and even flirted a little– we ought not to pit these two friends against each other now that the competition’s over.
But the most breathtaking thing about this long journey she’s been on is how she’s emerged from the stress and haters as if from an iron chrysalis. She released her video for “The T” a day before Poundcake dropped, with her direct, unflinching gaze starring alongside many of the people she discusses in this blistering rap. Alaska doesn’t look away from us as she confronts every single thing that’s been held against or whispered about her over the years.
I met her for the first time only two days before her win was announced, and I was so anxious about her dealing with a backlash like this. I still see her sometimes as the ridiculously handsome boy in the Season 4 Reunion audience, jumping up and down with a handmade poster she’d made for her boyfriend. I put together an elaborate gift-box, feebly trying to compensate for all cruelty on social media. But her untarnished kindness when we met last week, along with the blazing calm in this video assured me that “fire cannot kill a dragon”… or the Queen of Snakes, apparently!
I adore Katya and we’re so freaking lucky to have her. But there’s no need to treat Alaska like a villain just because this was her time to be recognized. She has everything it takes to be a Gaga, Beyoncé, or Bowie: the intelligence to create work we can apply to our own lives, the political awareness to be a force for change, the playfulness to make us laugh, the compassion to accept everyone into this healing, transformative kingdom… and now the fearlessness to usher in the 21st century of drag.