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The Vivienne is embracing stardom beyond Drag Race: ‘I’ll never go back’

The Attitude Inspiration Award winner on addiction, drag's newfound ubiquity and why she’s never returning to the show that made her a star.

By Jamie Tabberer

The Vivienne in a black dress
The Vivienne has detailed the horrific incident on social media (Image: Provided)

Seeing Pete Burns on V Graham Norton was a formative moment for a teenage The Vivienne, arguably the most high-profile UK drag talent of her generation. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ I’d never seen anything like it,” she remembers of catching sight of the late Burns for the first time in 2003. “‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ had just been rereleased,” recalls Viv of Dead or Alive, whose songs returned to pop culture consciousness with a bang after their frontman’s unforgettable turn on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. 

Attitude is catching up with Viv over coffee at London’s plush, stylish White City House; the former BBC Television Centre building seems an appropriate place to reminisce about 00s TV. (The Viv laughs as she reveals how she used to watch Norton’s raucous, saucy, and deliciously queer Channel 4 talk show of yore “with my finger on the off button!” And she’d keep watching for “Eurotrash, on which you could see a bit of willy!”)

Ironically, Viv arrives fresh from a meeting with ITV — visibly excited yet resolutely tight-lipped about any forthcoming projects. She’s already made her televisual mark everywhere from the BBC (2019’s season one of Drag Race UK, which she won) to that sweet spot between streaming and online video — she’s now fronted two seasons of web series I Like to Watch UK, in which her and guests ‘react’, Gogglebox-style, to Netflix programming. She’s still only 30.

Half her lifetime ago, however — before the rise of social media, before seven international editions of Drag Race — James Lee Williams was a 15-year-old schoolboy living in the tiny town of Colwyn Bay, Wales, (current population: 29,405) and nursing an obsession with Vivienne Westwood. “People called me Viv even before I started drag,” Viv tells me. (Dame Vivienne Westwood has never reached out, “but their Instagram likes a lot of my stuff,” which bodes well for a future meeting.) 

A fascination with comedy, glamour, and legendary celebrity impersonators — among those she namechecks is “Frank Marino of Divas Las Vegas” — informed her initial drag persona, which took form when she moved to the bright lights of Liverpool at 16. However, she did receive pushback about her new vocation from those closest to her. “It’s hard,” she says as she looks back. “You come out as gay — that’s scary for any parent, whether they accept it or not, I don’t care what anyone says. And then I started putting makeup on and wanted to be a makeup artist — after they’d put me through private school because I was going to be a lawyer! That was another blow. Then you start ‘dressing up as a woman’, in quotation marks. They’re like, ‘What’s going on? Where’s our son gone?’ Once they realised drag was a career, and keeping me out of trouble — well, it found me a bit of trouble — and especially after Drag Race, they were like, ‘Yeah, OK.’

The Vivienne
The Vivienne (Image: Provided)

“At one point, I just went by ‘James Lee’,” Viv laughs of those early years. “‘James Lee as Cher!’ I was like, ‘This is shit.’ Then I wanted to do pin-up, Dita Von Teese-style drag, so I was going to be ‘Vivienne Von Teese’. Then just ‘Vivienne’. Then I added the ‘The’. This was before everybody started calling themselves ‘the something’ — even Jinkx has ‘@theJinkx!’ —because of search engines.”

An SEO-optimised name was a canny early move, and the ‘Bitch on Heels’ singer has indeed had her eyes on the prize from the beginning. Way back in 2015, she was appointed UK Drag Ambassador by RuPaul, producing vlogs to accompany episodes of Drag Race in the US. Ru clearly liked what he saw: after her Drag Race UK success in 2019, he invited her back for this year’s best-of-the-best Drag Race All Stars: All Winners victory lap. She didn’t take the crown this time, but with next-level looks, flawless makeup and two acting challenge wins, Viv more than held her own against the franchise’s most gargantuan talents, cementing her status in the art form’s upper echelons.

How the hell do you follow that? She won’t be doing a Jujubee, that’s for sure. “I’ll never go back,” she confirms. “The only reason I went back is because I knew I’d be competing against the best. This is going to sound shady, but do you want to win a season and then go back and compete against ‘X’ queen? Jujubee, for example?! I love her, she’s fierce, but how many times are you going to do the show and not win it?!”

Here, the winner of The Inspiration Award reflects on achievements past, present and future, and speaks from the heart about addiction, cosmetic surgery and the saturation of drag culture, while also serving piping hot tea about getting a visa pardon from Nancy Pelosi.

In a prior interview, you said, “You don’t need to make everyone laugh, just RuPaul,” which strikes me as common sense — but elusive common sense. You’ve researched films like Mommie Dearest, which was released 11 years before you were born. Then there was political commentary in your Donald Trump impression in Snatch Game, which I can’t imagine many queens delivering with confidence. Do you think intelligence is what separates good drag queens from great ones?

I wouldn’t say it’s what separates good from bad, but definitely, knowing references… Not naming any names, but I just finished a US tour, and some of them didn’t know what The Rocky Horror Picture Show was, what Chicago was, who Cher was… I’m like, ‘How are you functioning?!’ 

Taking it back to Drag Race, there’s one main judge. If you’re trying to impress the judge down the road, or your mum, kudos to you, but you’re not going to win. You know Ru is obsessed with Mommie Dearest, with silly, quite dark humour. You have to play to your audience.

When it comes to impressions, who else are your specialities?

Bette Davis, Jennifer Coolidge, Joan, to a certain degree, but more Faye Dunaway. Just people I meet. Especially physical stuff — I can pick that up straight away. Not necessarily the voice; that takes work. Touring with people, their little ‘isms’: Kita Mean [from Drag Race Down Under] would tell a joke, then look around for approval — every time! [Humour] was my defence at school. I wasn’t bullied, because I was the funny kid. Mrs. Doubtfire was a big one in school, then teachers!

Has Donald Trump ever acknowledged your impression of him?

He hasn’t, but he must have seen it… I mean, I roasted him on a BBC documentary! 

You did Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous on All Stars this year. Who were your plans B and C?

I should have done them. I was very selfish this year, because I’ve always wanted to do Catherine Tate as Nan, which completely got edited the shit out of, and Patsy. Put those on a British season and I could’ve had a chance of winning. I should have done Jennifer Coolidge or Bette Davis, but hey ho.

The Vivienne
The Vivienne (Image: Provided)

Tell me about when All Stars: All Winners reached out. Did you have any conditions under which you accepted the offer?

It was very late, I was in bed, and one of the producers who I know very well came up on the phone. I said, “I’m not answering that —he talks for hours. I’m about to nod off!” My husband went, “I bet that’s about the winners’ season. Answer it.” Within minutes, it was done. Conditions: a few things came out of the contract, like an exclusivity period. I wasn’t going to be signed to World of Wonder for two years! And I was like, “There’s no limit on baggage. If you want the best drag you’ve ever seen, you’re going to get it, but we can’t do it on five bags.”

How did this Drag Race experience compare to the last one?

It was more relaxed. Drag Race UK was my first big show, getting used to the filming hours and working with crew — who are always my favourite people. You realise it’s not what it looks like on TV. It’s a set and you’re working. It did feel [like] there was more at stake this time.

How sequestered were you? Were you allowed to FaceTime your husband?

I wasn’t. I was allowed my phone rarely to, like, pay a bill. But we did have massages, our nails done on a Sunday, movie nights… they were a lot more relaxed. 

Did you get to speak to Naomi Campbell or Nancy Pelosi?

Naomi was two hours late! We didn’t get to meet her off-camera. Nancy actually got me into the country. I got a letter of pardon. A certain production company messed up my visa, so I was a day late, because my visa had expired. They had to fly me in via Mexico. I got a pardon from Nancy Pelosi in writing. Thank you, Nancy!

As if we needed more reason to love her! Some queens have said that, because the season ended up with a celebratory feel, some critiques were edited out. Did you receive any that didn’t make it to air?

Yes. Michelle told me I looked like a strip-club version of Dolly Parton. To which I say, “Fuck off, Michelle!” There was so much. There were fights. 

Yvie Oddly said she was unhappy with her edit. Were you happy with yours?

I was. All you can hope is that you come across nice and likeable.

Would you do a UK All Stars?

Never. Not a UK versus this, versus that. No.

When news of All Stars emerged, were the UK contingent supportive, or were there any sharpened claws?

In all honesty, I don’t hear much off the rest of the UK queens. Baga [Chipz] now and again. Me and Cheryl [Hole] are really close. Gothy’s doing her own thing, but I love her to bits. Everyone’s doing their own thing.

But you’re super tight with the US ones?

It’s crazy how much closer we are. But we’re all winners. There’s always that thing: the winner of the show’s not going to be the best-liked within the cast. That’s a common trend when you speak to other winners.

Is there an All Stars group chat?

Yes. It’s called All Wieners.

Who are your closest friends in the Drag Race universe?

Chad Michaels I’d drop anything for, and he’d do the same. Trinity, Raja. There are so many. All the cast [from this year].

Are you going to tour with Jinkx?

Everyone’s asking for it, but I don’t know! I love her to bits and think it’d be epic. We’re so similar. We say, “I wish we’d met out of a competition setting.” Am I open to it? I’m open to anything that makes me a bit of money, love!

You won money on the US show and didn’t on the UK one. I also wondered if your ball-gag look would have flown on the UK show. Do you think the BBC is an inhibiting home for the Drag Race brand?

The prize money’s one thing. Once you tax it and pay off your costumes, there’s fuck all left anyway. You’ve got to see it as a career springboard. Then, you never know with the BBC. There’s one rule for one, one for another. [For] my original [HM the Queen] look, I had a shotgun. She was hunting; that’s why I had the ducks hanging off me. They said, “You can’t use a gun on-screen.” I said, “Fine” and left it at home. Then Cheryl’s bouncing down the runway as a Bond girl with a fucking handgun! So, it may be restricting it in the art sense.

The Vivienne on Drag Race All Stars
The Vivienne on Drag Race All Stars (Image: World of Wonder)

The Drag Race brand was initially with truTV when you were made Drag Ambassador seven years ago. How has your working relationship with Ru evolved?

I remember him giving me that sceptre in Café de Paris! He’s very private. People ask, “Do you speak to Ru?” No. She comes in, does her thing, and we’re lucky if we get a little conversation. She follows me on Twitter so there’s sometimes a DM. But that’s it. And I don’t blame her. She’s always seemed lovely, which is nice. But sometimes you see too far behind the curtain.

What’s your advice to queens who want a career in drag but don’t want to compete in Drag Race?

That’s a good point. There was a drag scene before Drag Race. It’s so hard. I would hate to be 15 years old getting into drag in this world. There are so many [of us]. I remember the days — I’m going to sound like one of those bitter old queens I used to slate! — when I knew the 10 queens in Manchester, the 10 queens in London… Now, there’s a brunch on every corner. It’s like, ‘It’s what you wanted — now you’ve got it!’

Do you think we’re reaching saturation point?

I think we’ve reached it. We did a Christmas tour, and you could see Blu Hydrangea down the road, LaLa Ri round the corner. Straight after mine and Baga’s show, Priyanka was in the same venue. I thought, ‘This is going to fucking crash and burn.’ People haven’t got the money for shows seven nights a week. And the climate’s fucked as it is. It’s like, ‘You’re going to run this thing into the ground.’

And there are only so many people you can have emotional investment in.

Exactly. It’s come to the point that the big stars, the big personalities — where are the Alyssas, the Biancas? They’re all 10-year-olds who can’t pick up a mic, no experience, who haven’t trodden the boards. They can’t do anything! They just stand there going, “I’m beautiful!” It’s like, ‘Good luck having a long career, girl!’

Do you have an opinion on how fast the Drag Race franchise is growing?

Yes. I think they’re fully aware of what they’re doing, which is why they’re shagging it for every penny. I don’t think it’s got long left, I really don’t. Look at the patterns with these types of shows, like The X Factor. Celebrity versions, selling it to other countries. Then all of a sudden… It used to be this prestigious… You’d look forward to it. Now, I don’t even know when it’s on. It’s crazy.

An America’s Next Top Model situation.

It would have [been] better if it had stayed as it was, the version of it still with Ru. Now you’re being judged by someone who came ninth!

I’d love to ask you politely about your experiences with cosmetic procedures…

Oh, go for it.

What would your advice be to someone who wants to surgically change the way they look?

Start early! [Laughs] No, start early with Botox. It’s preventive. Think of your skin as an elastic band — it only has so much elasticity. I started at 19, and there’s not a line on my face! I’d maybe wait for filler. Your face is changing until your mid-20s.

And what’s your advice to that person who is worried what people will think of them?

Fuck what everyone thinks! It’s your face. What did Cher say? “If I want to have my breasts put on my back, they’re mine.” But the best advice is to go to someone reputable. Because again, like drag, there’s a filler shop on every corner. Go to someone who’s been doing it for years.

What’s your message to someone struggling with addiction?

Just sort it out. It might be fun in the moment… I don’t like to sugar-coat things: you’re probably going to have an absolute ball. But not everyone is blessed to be able to put it down at the end of the party and not touch it for two months and go, “Oh, do you know what, I’ll do a bit of that tonight.” Some people get fully addicted. And then your health starts declining, your bank account empties, you have to cut friends off. It’s not a good place to be. Get advice. There are so many people willing to help. You worry people are going to go, “Eww, get away!” But the biggest reaction is always wanting to help. My dad’s exact words were, “You dickhead — I wish you’d told me!” He found [out] off Drag Race.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

I see it online all the time, “Oh, she’s a bitch.” I’m like, ‘You’ve never met me!’ The on-tour people say I’m the nicest person they’ve ever worked with! It was season one of Drag Race UK that did it, because I was…


I was confident. And I thought you had to be that [pulls a stern face]. No, people love you for who you are. Especially sat in that confessional chair: “Go on — what did you really think about her outfit!” You’re tired, it’s first thing in the morning — you don’t want to be there. Then you know the process and think, ‘If I just say it, I can leave!’

What would your teenage self make of you getting this award?

I’d be confused! But you’re always knocking yourself: ‘I’m just doing drag. I’m just doing my job.’ But then, you open Instagram and see messages from people about addiction, from the parents of fans. I’ve presented an award at the Attitude Awards — I never thought I’d done anything big enough to receive one. Young James would think it was crazy. 

Check out The Vivienne’s speech from the Attitude Awards below:

The Attitude Awards issue is out now

Josh Cavallo on the cover of the Attitude Awards Issue, October 2022
Josh Cavallo wears full look, by Sandro, ring, stylist’s archive, cross necklace, Josh’s own, silver necklace, stylist’s own (Photography: Sam Wong)