Why We Have Denali to Thank for Priyanka’s “Drag Race” Reign

"Priyanka looked at me and was like, 'What’s 'Drag Race?''"

Denali melted our ice-cold hearts from the minute she first skated into the workroom on Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Chicago-based queen had only been doing drag for two years before auditioning to become America’s Next Drag Superstar. Even though she is the latest queen to be sent packin’, over the course of her 10 episodes, Denali proved that she is more than just a skating squirrel friend.

She brought gag-worthy looks to the runway time and time again, including her colorful train ensemble, her Crash Test Dummies couture, and her beaded chandelier look. Denali also proved her acting chops, playing a Russian bot in Social Media: The Unverified Rusical and doing a shamazing impersonation of Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness for Snatch Game.

Denali spoke with NewNowNext about her time on Drag Race, including why she broke down after her lip-sync against Kahmora Hall, if Char made her a believer in psychics, and how she introduced Canada’s Drag Race Season 1 winner Priyanka to Drag Race.

I have to ask, did it hurt walking around in those ice skates? That’s all I was thinking when you first walked into the workroom.

It hurt my soul because it’s just so taboo in the ice skating world to walk around without your guards. And I’ll put this in writing, but I chose to not wear the protective guard because right before we were about to walk into the workroom, I finally had my feet on the linoleum floor and I was slipping a bit because of the protective guard and so I decided to chuck them because I wanted my first steps in Drag Race to feel a little secure. But no, I am so used to walking around in ice skates and being in skates all the time that it actually felt more comfortable than heels. So no, it didn’t hurt at all. I think the only thing that hurt was my soul in knowing that, “Oh, shit, I have to lip-sync,” and I’m basically living my truest nightmare, which is walking into the workroom on RuPaul’s Drag Race, having to lip-sync, and feel limited by a costume piece.

Would you have worn different shoes if you knew you were going to lip-sync?

Definitely, 180,000%. I would have been ready to go. I would have destroyed a Pussycat Dolls song. And I’m still really proud of what I did, however, considering I was in skates.

You said you broke down after your lip-sync against Kahmora Hall. Why?

I did. I pride myself on being a professional, and at the end of the day I had a job to do and I wanted to entertain and I feel like I did that. But at the end of the day, knowing that I had to send home my closest friend in the competition was really hard. We had gone through the audition process together from the very, very beginning of the entire thing. And then having to send her home of all things, it was heartbreaking and I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings. So I did my job and I did what needed to be done, but it wasn’t easy.

But Kahmora wasn’t angry or anything, right?

No. God, no, and she totally understood. She, at the end of the day was like, “Look, I know the structure of the competition. I know how it goes.” I just respect Kahmora Hall and her drag so much, so there were a lot of mixed feelings. But I hope it made good TV.

I thought your pick of Jonathan Van Ness for Snatch Game was genius! When did you first have the idea to do JVN?

So this was my second time auditioning for the show and I had the idea to Jonathan Van Ness, even from the very beginning, from that first audition. First of all, we were actually friends prior to the show — not super good friends, mostly just internet friends, but we knew each other from the skating world. He’s a big fan of figure skating. He does it recreationally, and he has followed my ice skating journey on my boy profile and my boy page. And so I was watching him on Queer Eye, and just seeing how exuberant and positive and bubbly and wonderful he was. I knew that, A, you gotta pick a big personality, and B, you gotta pick a personality adjacent to yours and see somebody that’s funny. So I felt like it was just perfect. And we’re in a new era of drag where drag is just transformative. It doesn’t matter if it’s fem-presenting or masc-presenting. So I was like, I think that this is a real standout character and somebody I can play with. The look is polarizing. There’s just so much about it that I was like, it fits too well, so we’re going to go with it.

I know Jonathan retweeted your Snatch Game performance, but did he reach out to you personally?

Yeah, he did again. We had been chatting on the DMs for a bit and things like that, but he had reached out one more time and put me on his main on Instagram and all of that stuff and was just really sweet. He is such a loving and supportive soul, and everything has just been a dream, being able to interact with him like that.

Did you have a backup character?

Yeah. I had two. Actually, I had three backup characters. Snatch Game was one of the challenges I was really afraid of, to be honest. So I felt like I needed to hyper-prepare. I had Tonya Harding, Leslie Jordan from Will & Grace, and Sofia Vergara, which wasn’t my strongest, but it was a backup as well. Because I’ve seen historically how Drag Race goes and some girls are like, “Well, I wanted to be this person.” “So did I!” I was like, I’m not letting that happen.

That’s smart. As far as this week’s episode goes, did you already believe in psychics, or did Char make you a believer?

I don’t believe it. I don’t know. I believe that the human experience is able to believe whatever they manifest. So if that’s something that you believe in, then it is going to manifest and it’s going to be real for you. So I think that that’s where I am with that. In that environment it was a little difficult to believe, but at the end of the day, she is really intuitive and I enjoyed that experience.

Were you surprised that you were in the bottom two?

Yes and no. I know that my makeover was not great. There were a lot of moving factors around this certain challenge and it was really difficult to adapt to all of those factors. In previous seasons usually, somebody comes in and we’re able to makeover them, but obviously, with the current pandemic in the world and everything that was going on, we had to makeover each other. And some things around it, were just some adaptations to the challenge that I was not fully prepared for. So I understand that I should have been in the bottom based on my inability to adapt. And I know that my actual makeover could have been executed a lot stronger. I still think that I did it pretty good considering. And I think the only reason that I obviously have mixed feelings is that I do know that my partner received a bit harsher critiques. But at the end of the day, sometimes that’s just the structure of the competition, and in those challenges, you’ll be judged in a group. And as a group, I understand that we were probably the weakest.

Well, hopefully you’re happy with your performance on Drag Race because you made it so far and you brought so many good looks to the runway.

I am so proud of myself. I was a part-time drag queen of two-and-a-half years that got on the show and lasted 10 competitive episodes. I am beyond, beyond proud of myself.

I heard that you introduced [Canada’s Drag Race Season 1 winner] Priyanka to Drag Race. How did that happen?

I have a lot of friends in the skating world, and I had a friend that was living in Toronto, an ice skater friend, so I went to visit him for a week in the summer. He was on a gay dodge ball league, and Priyanka was on this league. Well, at the time she was Mark [Suknanan]. But we went out for drinks, and I just hung out with his friends. And I remember that night was the season of finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9. And I remember telling everybody, I was like, “Oh my God, wait, tonight’s the finale of Drag Race. We have to go watch.” And Priyanka looked at me and was like, “What’s Drag Race?” Literally had no idea. So we went to her friend’s house and watched the finale, and she was just instantly hooked. Right after I left Toronto, she started drag, did some amateur competitions. She won every single thing that you could possibly win in Toronto and then went off to win the biggest stage as well. I’m so unbelievably proud of her. She’s such a star. And when people are just meant to do something and everything just falls into place, it’s so beautiful to see. So I’m so proud of her.

Who would win a lip-sync between the two of you?

Ooh, song choice. If it mattered in song choice, if it was anything real high energy and danc-y, I think that I could squeak her out. But Priyanka is extremely theatrical. She embodies songs so well. If it’s a Celine Dion song — girl, bye! She’s got it, she’s got it in the bag. But I don’t know. I think it would depend on song choice.

So maybe a double shantay?

It’d be an actual double shantay.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."