A year after her ‘Drag Race’ win, Symone’s just getting started

Article by Gibson Johns
Produced by Alex Hughes, Jordan Walker, Izzy Ashton and Gibson Johns

There’s just something about Symone. Ever since she stepped into the Werk Room at the beginning of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s 13th season last year, the Arkansas native has transfixed the world with her irresistible personality, her revelatory approach to drag and a laugh that, once you hear it, stays with you forever.

Throughout Season 13, Symone garnered well-earned praise for nearly every look she sported, often paying homage to Black cultural icons past and present. As the season aired during the dark depths of our first winter with COVID-19, her ensembles became beacons of inspiration and unavoidable topics of conversation at the virtual watercooler for Drag Race fans. As in your face as some of her fashion moments were, there was also a certain je ne sais quoi quality to her persona that simply drew us in.

Symone on In The Know’s June 2022 digital cover. She’s wearing an Iris Van Herpen dress, Alexis Bittar bangles and Marc Jacobs disc earrings . Photo by Jasper Soloff

Since capturing the crown — inevitably becoming a winner (baby) in a way that felt welcome, not in a way that made anyone groan — Symone has had a year that many drag performers dream about. She attended the Met Gala, walked in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fashion show, appeared at the 2021 Emmy Awards, starred in a Kacey Musgraves music video and is set to appear in Billy Eichner’s upcoming gay studio romantic comedy, Bros.

Yet, as she told In The Know’s Gibson Johns in an interview for her June 2022 digital cover story for Pride Month, she’s had moments during the past 13 months where the pressure and the onslaught of opportunity and the constant need to churn out bold new drag looks took a toll on her. She wondered if she had it in her to go on. It was her collaborators from the House of Avalon that picked her back up and reminded her why she does what she does, relighting the fire inside her that felt very much apparent during the photo shoot for this cover. 

Symone has her sights set on becoming the most visible, mainstream, in-demand drag star since RuPaul — something she told Ru herself last year — and, as if she hadn’t already proved so already, our conversation with her below is evidence of that. The Symone takeover is coming, and we couldn’t be more here for it.

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Gibson Johns: Symone, we’re so excited to have you as the star of our June cover for Pride Month, which also happens to mark pretty much just over a year since you won Drag Race, which is pretty, pretty crazy. Does it feel like a year to you? Or does it feel longer? 

Symone: Oh God, yes and no. It feels longer. So much has happened, but it's also like a blink of an eye. It feels like both.

Gibson: Like you just said, there have been so many huge moments in the past 12 months for you that I can't even really list all of them. You went to the Met Gala, you went to the Emmys, you’ve been on magazine covers, you've worked with some of the biggest pop queens in the world. Is there a moment that sticks out to you as being particularly unbelievable?

Symone: I think it's the Met for me. I remember going into filming [Drag Race], and I was like, “There's two things I want to do,” and that was one of them. The fact that I got to do that? That's a treasure I'll have that no one can take from me.

Gibson: When you're walking up the Met steps or when you're dancing onstage with Chloë Bailey or appearing at the Emmys, do you let yourself appreciate the gravity of the moment? Or do you have to do that afterward?

Symone: I think afterward, because when I'm in it, it's like, “OK, we're here. We're doing the moment. Let's get camera, camera, camera — done!” And then afterward, it's like, “Wow, I just did that. Like, that really just happened to me.” I soak it in later. 

Gibson: You've worked with some of the biggest names in music, a lot of artists that especially queer people idolize: Rihanna, Madonna, Kacey Musgraves, Chloë Bailey… Could you speak a little bit about how special that is? You’re doing what a lot of people can only dream about.

Symone: I think a lot of people see me, and they kind of live through me, in a way. I don't know how that sounds, but that's how a lot of people see me. So, for me to be able to do those things, especially from where I come from? I never thought I would get to do a lot of the things I've gotten to this year. It speaks to what's possible, especially when you put in the work, and you just keep going. There are a lot of things that happen to you that a lot of people say can't happen, but it’s about having the mentality of, “I'm not gonna let it stop me. I'm not gonna be held back by anyone or anything.” 

Gibson: So do you think that simply just having that mindset and that attitude helped you get to some of these milestones?

Symone: Absolutely. I've fought through a lot mentally, I would say, to get where I am now. So, it's like, I'll be damned if I'll be back in debt. It's like, “No, we can't do that again. You can't go back there.”

Gibson: Let’s talk about the Rihanna moments you’ve had: She famously DM’d you being a fangirl about your time on the show. And I think that her putting you in her Savage X Fenty show is her walking the walk. It's her going from being a fan of yours to then giving you this major opportunity that was on your bucket list. Can you talk a little bit about that moment and the connection that you have with her? I feel like you also probably have similar outlooks on life.

Symone: She's definitely one of my fashion icons, for sure. She definitely shaped who I am as my drag character, so to speak. It was very special to me, because I took what she's done and I put it into my personal blender for [Drag Race]. So, the fact that she saw it and recognized it and was like, “Keep going. Keep up the hard work, keep your foot on the gas,” that will stay top of mind. I'll never forget, we were going to the desert to shoot, and it was five in the morning. So I'm delirious. Just woke up, got painted, and I thought [the DM] was a joke. Like, this is a RiRi fan page. I got my contacts, because I can't really see, and then there was a blue checkmark. I was like, “Oh, this is for real.” Then I was like, “I can't cry. We're not gonna get up real early to get my makeup done just to mess it up.” But I hold that close to me, because she's definitely top two for me.

Gibson: You should frame that DM.

Symone: I should frame that DM, shouldn’t I? OK, I think I'm going to now. [Laughs]

Symone in a Bronx and Banco dress, a Bronx and Banco arm sleeve, Christian Louboutin pumps and Alexis Bittar earrings. Photo by Jasper Soloff

"At the beginning of the year, I went through that, being like, ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’ It's a lot, and it takes a toll on you mentally."

Symone in an Iris Van Herpen dress, Manolo Blahnik sandals, Alexis Bittar bangles and Marc Jacobs disc earrings. Photo by Jasper Soloff
Symone in a Junya Watanabe dress, Vex Clothing leggings, YSL harness and Patricia Von Musulin cuff earrings. Photo by Jasper Soloff

Gibson: Take me back to that moment of being chosen to be in her show.

Symone:
Again, it's the follow-through for me. You know what I mean? I remember waiting for it. I was like, “It’s coming, right?” I was waiting for the email, and then the email came and I was again on the brink of tears. That’s what I wanted! I was like, “I'm good now.” I've gotten a few things I really, really wanted. I was like, “Maybe I'll get to meet her,” and then I got to meet her and party with her. She's real. She lives up to everything you want her to be and even more. She’s such a cool person and so sweet but also fiercely individual. She’s the real deal — the real f***ing deal.

Gibson: When you were on Drag Race, you demonstrated that you were a multifaceted queen, but it was really your looks and the image-making you did on that show that really elevated you to a different level than a lot of your competitors. You were so celebrated for those looks at the time, and you’re still celebrated for them now. I read
an interview you did recently where you're talking about going back for the most recent season finale and what went through your mind when creating your look for that moment. You said it was a combo of showing growth and showing that you have evolved from a year ago but also staying true to who Symone is. Can you walk me through a bit more about how you approach a look?

Symone:
For me it always starts with the feeling. How do I want to feel in this moment? What am I trying to say? I think that sometimes gets lost on people, but it's really important because it informs it. If you have that and that's the image you want to see, then that's what other people get too. So, it's very important for me to start there. Then I'll go to the silhouette and see, “OK, how do I want to feel? Do I want some shorts with my legs out? But I'm still very intention-focused, and I am a little bit of a control freak. I’m a perfectionist, which I’m learning to embrace. Anyway, that's how I start, and it grows from there and I collaborate with, of course, my house. We all pretty much put in our opinions. We take it apart, rip it up, put it back together again, and we have a beautiful image.

Gibson: Let’s talk a little bit about your house, the House of Avalon. It must feel just so amazing to have that support, that built in community and that built in just a source of inspiration for you. Talk me through how you guys collaborate and how it really works, because it's this amazing collective you're part of that informs all of your work.

Symone:
We've known each other for — well, I'm not gonna say how long, because then you might start calculating age. [Laughs] But we've known one another for a very long time, and we all have our different perspectives and things that we love. I'll be like, “OK, this is how I want to do this” or, “This is what I want to do right now.” And they'll be like, “OK,” and we all kind of say what we would want, how we could interpret it this way, how it could be done, how we can make it better, what we can take away, what we can add. It is very much collaborative, and I want everyone's opinion, because that's how you make the best art.We all have very strong opinions, and we are also built on the fact that we trust each other and we love one another. We know that whatever is being said isn't to hurt you; it’s to make the art better, which took me a long time to learn. We come from a place of love and understanding and knowing that we want the best for everyone involved.

Gibson: It’s obviously such a great source of creativity, but what about what it does for you emotionally to have your house? You've been in the fast lane for the past 12 months, but there must be moments where you feel burnout or you aren’t feeling inspired or just feel down. Is it your house that lifts you back up or reminds you maybe of what you've accomplished? 

Symone:
It’s funny that you say that, because at the beginning of the year, I went through that, being like, “Do I want to keep doing this?” It's a lot! It's a lot, and it takes a toll on you mentally. Yes, I've had great opportunities; I'm not trying to be ungrateful about it, but it's a lot. I went through a time where it was hard for me. But they were like, “It's OK. Don't overthink it. Just remember that you're here to have fun and that no matter what, you're just trying to express yourself, and you just are just trying to have a good time. So, don't lose that part of it.” It can become very much a business, and it can suck every bit of fun out of it. So I had to get back there mentally. So, yeah, absolutely they're there for me emotionally, creatively … all of it.

Gibson: Some of the themes we’re talking about right now — feeling the support of a community and a chosen family of sorts — are kind of what Pride is all about: being part of and accepted by both this greater community and also yourself. Not to get too into it, but can you just speak a little bit to your own journey of feeling that acceptance, whether by the LGBTQ community at large or by finding the House of Avalon.

Symone:
When I grew up in Arkansas, I wasn't in the rural part of it, but it was by no means the city, so it was very hard for me to accept myself and be OK with [my sexuality], because I wasn't really surrounded by many gay people — especially gay Black people. All I had was my TV, so it was very hard for me to accept myself growing up. I just found that through drag, and that's what helped me get out of myself, so to speak. Then I found my house, of course, which helped me navigate like, yes, I'm doing drag, but what can we do that's not the same old? [Drag can be] very pageant, you know? Very rhinestones, rhinestones, big earrings and pads and things like that — and that just is not me. It took me a long time to accept that and move past that, but I think being able to find my tribe and my house helped me definitely be more comfortable with myself and be able to speak and be myself.It’s important that if you ever feel alone, you just find people that have the same goals and the same aspirations [as you] and can speak the same language as you. It's very important. We can sometimes look at each other and know exactly what's going on, like, “No worries.” Yeah, it's so important to have that to make you feel like you're not alone.

"It was very hard for me to accept myself growing up. I just found that through drag."

Symone in a Junya Watanabe dress, Vex Clothing leggings, YSL harness, Gianvito Rossi pumps and Patricia Von Musulin cuff earrings. Photo by Jasper Soloff

Gibson: When you were in Arkansas, and you said that you had your TV where you could see people who were more like you. Now, though, you're probably that person for a lot of people. Do you think about that at all? Because that's a big idea, and I know it can probably be overwhelming, but you are that person. Like, when you first stepped onto Drag Race and when you won that show, there were a lot of little kids in Arkansas or somewhere else in the middle of the country who looked at you and saw themselves.

Symone:
I think about a lot, yeah. At first, I did allow it to weigh me down. I will say that; I'm not gonna lie. But now it inspires me. I don't get so scared. I think of it more as there being more people rooting for me now. Like, “Yeah, that's my girl! That's our bitch!” I look at them as more like they're extensions of sort of a family for me. It’s amazing.

Gibson: Again, we’re talking for Pride month and we’ve touched on a lot of ideas that connect to that, but you also have a lot of pride around being Black and celebrating Black excellence and trailblazers that came before you through your work. Some of the people and moments that you pay homage to are things that maybe some of these younger people watching Drag Race or following you online aren't really familiar with. They might not know the history, but you’re kind of exposing a new generation of young people to important pop culture touchstones. Is that part of it for you at all? That you kind of get to be a teacher?

Symone:
At first, it didn't really come from that. It came more from wanting to pay homage, and I didn't necessarily think of the other side of teaching someone because these divas, so to speak, saved my life. I just want to be able to honor that, because I would not be here — like, physically not here — if [they] weren't there for me. So, yeah, it was more about honoring and paying tribute to that. Then of course, people were being like, “Oh my God! I didn't know [about this].” Or, “I didn’t really understand that reference before!” I'm still not really thinking in those terms and I don’t think it necessarily factors into what I do or what I want to show [with a look], but it's a great after-effect. I'm not gonna be mad at that.

Gibson: As we touched on at the beginning of this interview, you're basically at the one-year mark in terms of this massive platform that you have now. You recently, officially passed off the Drag Race crown. 

Symone:
I did. A crown — not mine — a crown! 

Gibson: [Laughs] Thank you for clarifying that. You passed off a crown, and I’m wondering if that frees you from anything? Or is that really just a symbolic thing?

Symone:
“Free.” That's an interesting word. I think it definitely … I would say there's a hint of freedom. Yeah, I'm not gonna lie. I'm not gonna lie — there is. I've had the title, and I feel like I did a very good job, and now … I wouldn't say I didn't ever get to do what I wanted to before, but there's a little less pressure. That's not there anymore. 

Gibson: Lastly, we went through the list of the divas who you’ve been able to already work with, but is there another one who's the next pop queen or diva you haven’t crossed paths with but is still on your list to work with.

Symone:
Next for me, since I would like to speak it into existence, I would love to meet Beyoncé. You could just [let me] say “hello” and “goodbye,” and I'm good with that. That's it.