A bigger and more colorful worldSalem Collo-Julinon June 9, 2022 at 2:45 pm

Denali in her entrance look for RuPaul’s Drag
Race, season 13 Credit: Courtesy the artist

There’s an expectation for most contestants on the drag reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race that the gigs will come a’callin’—and for those who have been lucky enough to appear in the big money, Emmy-nominated seasons, this can mean constant and sometimes worldwide travel for a while after their TV appearance.

Denali is one such drag queen. The Chicagoan (via Alaska and Utah) competed in season 13 of RDR, which was filmed during the 2020 Summer of Pandemic and aired on VH1 from January to April of the next year. While Denali left in eighth place at the conclusion of episode ten, she solidified her reputation as a well-balanced performer with dancing and lip-syncing skills that kept her in the sights of her fellow competitors.  

Denali spoke to the Reader before a recent hosting gig for the international Pride Bands Alliance (an evening of symphonic band performances at the Auditorium Theatre presented by Chicago’s Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles) about ice skating, drag, and her adopted hometown of Chicago.  

Salem Collo-Julin: What brought you to Chicago originally? 

Denali: It was a funny transitional period in my life where I was like, OK, I am tired of living on the road. I was doing figure skating tours from about ages 20 to 25, and I wanted to stop living out of a suitcase and to really find a city of my own.

And I knew I was a big city kind of girl. I always wanted to be in a big city, and New York just felt like too much to me. I think for a young kid, there’s that feeling of wanting that midwestern friendly kind of deal all the time, but obviously still wanting to be in a big city. And the only city that had both of those feelings was Chicago.

And had you been actively doing drag before you moved here? 

No, I absolutely hadn’t. I moved here purely as Cordero [Denali’s name out of drag]. And then Denali was developed as I started in the club scenes here in Chicago.

I did some very bad bedroom drag and just played around with friends, but nothing serious. I wasn’t yet studying the craft. It wasn’t until I found Berlin nightclub and this really great group of friends that gave me a lot of advice—that’s where I really started to learn and grow.

Can you remember what turned your head to drag performance? Was there a performer you saw that made you think, “Oh, I want to do that”?

I lived and worked on cruise ships for a while, working as an ice skater and performer on the ships. And there’s a large queer community working on cruise ships, which was honestly the first time in my life that I’d ever been surrounded by a large group of LGBTQ+ people—which was really nice.

And we would all get together on Sundays and we would watch Drag Race. I believe it was season five that did it for me. Oh, Lord. I was in a trance. I was just like, “Oh, what is this? I’m obsessed. I love it.” 

This came at a time in my life when I felt really constrained by a lot of the things around me. I lived on cruise ships. It’s just a super limiting kind of lifestyle. You feel like you’re bound to this massive tin can at sea. And as liberating as that might sound to some people, when you’re on the ship for two, three, four years at a time, it feels really restrictive. And I just felt like the world had to be bigger and more beautiful and more colorful.

What was your queer experience growing up in Alaska and going to Utah for college? 

You know, I grew up in a Christian household in Fairbanks, Alaska. So in general, not only was it a small town, but because I grew up with those ideals, I was taught that my sexuality was taboo and that my sexuality was not to be spoken about. 

I grew up ice skating. That’s all I did. All I did was ice skate because it made me happy. And so by the time I reached age 13, I was like, I have to do something with this. And I felt very limited by my hometown. There was no professional coaching available there. So I decided to take a leap. And I moved to train and professionally skate when I was 15, which was way too young (and my mom agrees with me). 

So as surprising as it may be, Salt Lake City, Utah, was where I came into my queerness the most. I was 16 or 17, and that was where I was finally exposed to some other queer people. And they were in my ice skating, my high school, and my college. That’s where I really felt like I started to blossom and develop. I went to my first Pride there when I was 17.

There is something to that—those places where you wouldn’t expect to see the largest amount of queer people often have LGBTQ+ communities that are just so solid. 

I think it’s because there’s so much restriction in those places that the people that have gotten out of that mindset are even more passionate and more intense about making sure that they are loud and proud and things like that, because they know that around them is a lot of bigotry and hate. So actually, I’ve met some of the queerest people in Utah. 

Denali performed during the intermission of the Chicago Blackhawks Pride Night game in April.

Ice skating still seems like it’s a big part of your life and it sounds like it was something that you jumped into early on. 

My sister was a beautiful ice dancer. And of course, being the young queer kid that I was, I emulated her, and I wanted to be her. She was so beautiful. She was just the most ethereal goddess in my life. And when you’re a young gay thing, you glamorize beauty.

I said something so dumb on [RuPaul’s Drag Race] one episode. I was just like, “I love chandeliers,” when I was in costume as a chandelier. But the rest of my thoughts were edited out. While we were doing post-production voiceovers, I was able to add that as a young queer kid trapped in Alaska, I was drawn to beautiful and ornate things. And I didn’t realize that my obsession with these lamps was just my expression of queerness as a kid.

Do you feel like there’s any difference in how you approach choreography for a drag performance versus something that you’re going to be doing on the ice? 

Choreographing for the ice is a totally different mindset. You’re constantly moving [on the ice]. You take one push and you’re suddenly accelerating. Most skaters are going seven to ten miles an hour or something like that. There’s constant acceleration. It’s dancing, but you are flying at the same time.

And then for drag, [choreography is] not always all about being dynamic, but you’re trying to draw attention to yourself. You’re trying to feel the spotlight. A lot of people tell me that they thought I choreographed a lot of my lip syncs [on RDR], and some of them were, but some were just working out a few moves in my hotel room the night before. 

Chicago Drag Excellence was produced by Denali with TransIt Productions and filmed at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport.

You made a video in 2020 [Chicago Drag Excellence, featuring many Chicago drag performers] and released it online after the season premiered in January of last year. 

We have been in quarantine for so long, and the year prior was so difficult for Chicago drag. Nobody was working. Nobody was happy. Nobody was really doing much with their drag besides creating digital drag videos.

The video was an opportunity for us to all gather safely, laugh again, and to just feel like we were being fabulous all together. There were around 40 performers in the video, and everyone had a two-hour block, and it was a lot. I’m really proud of Chicago doing that. 

What would you tell a drag performer new to Chicago that they must do? 

One thing that you should do if you come to Chicago or if you’re trying to get into the scene anywhere is find your people. You need people, you need your sense of community not only to share skills, share wigs, share costumes, all that stuff, but it’s the whole point of drag, in my opinion. Find your tribe and find the people that you click with and grow with them. 

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