I'm in the basement of an empty Times Square theatre in the final hours leading up to World Pride weekend in New York City. It's not where I expected to spend my Friday afternoon, but when you're told that's where you'll be interviewing "RuPaul's Drag Race" royalty Aquaria and Naomi Smalls and they mention there will be air conditioning, you don't ask questions — you simply haul ass.
The pair is on hand to rehearse tonight's show: Looks & Laughs: Hosted by Trixie & Katya, a variety production featuring Violet Chachki, Kim Chi, Asia O'Hara and newly crowned queen Yvie Oddly in addition to the duo. Aquaria, Naomi, Violet, Kim and Asia debuted their 'Shop like a Queen' outfits as part of their campaign with Klarna during the show. But how do they shop?
"I definitely put more money into the girl than the boy," Aquaria says.
"It's a lot easier for me to style Davis," Naomi adds.
I took the chance to catch up with Aquaria and Naomi to discuss shopping like a queen, even when the queen is incognito.
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Let's begin with laying down some nomenclature for a conversation like this when you're talking about your identity in and out of drag. Am I talking to boy Aquaria and boy Naomi? Is it Giovanni and Davis? What's your preferred language in a scenario like this?
Aquaria: I like "out of drag." I know it's a lot of out-of-mouth words but…
Naomi: Yeah, definitely "out of drag." I feel like with a lot of the drag queens that I know, the boy persona can get a little bit lost, because drag takes up so much of our time and our work and our money, but what I've realized is that I'm really all about the self-care and I'm not necessarily going to feel good as Naomi unless Davis is taken care of at the same time. So definitely try and put just as much work into him. I mean, not right now [laughs] because I'm about to get in drag, but when I go out, I like to feel cute just as Naomi likes to feel cute.
Aquaria: I definitely use a lot of my energy when I'm in drag, so a lot of times, I don't feel so inspired to put together something nice because my brain reads wearing a stylish outfit as "drama, that's your job." But even just putting on a cute shirt and some shorts, I try to stay more inspired to keep the boy alive. I do prefer using the term "out of drag," because in general, when someone's not in drag, they're not necessarily a boy, so I think as a blanket term it's more safe to use.
Naomi: Something really cool for both of us is that we don't really tend to change our body type when we're in drag. I mean, a corset comes in handy every now and then, but I like mixing and matching sometimes, like my Naomi fashion to my Davis fashion.
Naomi: Like later tonight I'm totally going out in something that Naomi has worn…
Naomi: Davis is going out in something Naomi has definitely worn in the past.
In terms of organization, do you keep your drag and your everyday looks separated or are they indistinguishable from one another?
Aquaria: Rhinestones and sequins go in the one room…
Naomi: …cotton and polyester in the other. [Both laugh] In my apartment, I don't want to see any drag at all.
Aquaria: Not even fabulosity. Like the crown, she's hidden. [Tongue pop]
Naomi: But definitely when I'm at home, my boy is way more present and my drag is locked away because that's for when I'm working.
Say I gave you $1000 to spend on clothing. How do you decide whether that goes to Aquaria and Naomi, versus Giovanni and Davis?
Naomi: The thing that people don't realize — and I didn't really realize when I first started doing drag when I was 18 — is just how expensive drag is. Like, $1000 is real cute and it does not get you far in drag.
Aquaria: Especially when you have upkeep. Like, okay, you got your nail glue, but you're going to need another twenty in the next couple of days because you're going to lose every single one of them. It's a lot of that. I definitely think that when it comes to money, Giovanni gets put to the side. I definitely put more money into the girl than the boy.
You both show up to plenty of gigs out of drag where you're still getting your picture taken a ton. Do you conceptualize your out of drag looks with the same amount of detail as you do in drag?
Naomi: It's a lot easier for me to style Davis. In my drag, I like to do a lot of monochromatic or a lot of everything going together, so when I have a look made, it's pretty much all in one bag. But for Davis, I get to mix and match and wear this short with that pant, so that's a lot easier to have fun with and pull options from. With Naomi, if I'm going to change the look, I'm probably going to accessorize and keep it in the same genre because it's a tailored look.
Aquaria: I like to go out on the town a lot in out of drag moments while still having some kind of cool concept; it is nice and embracing where I find masculinity in it all. That's what I tend to go toward.
Are there certain brands or designers that you favor for your out of drag shopping?
Aquaria: I'm definitely terrible shopping for the boy. That is so not where I focus a lot of my energy. I definitely can see people whose style I like and things that I like to imitate but I think because I am so focused in drag, even though I take the time for my out of drag self, I still don't always treat him to nice clothes and stuff.
Is there a part of you that ever clocks that and thinks, "wow, I should treat myself to something nice"?
Aquaria: Well, I know this sounds dumb, but I'm feeling pretty cute right now in this straightforward, not boring but regular, every day outfit because I'm usually in my Adidas trackies and slides 24/7 with a different band T-shirt on. To dress pleasant and presentable for the world gets me very excited nowadays.
Naomi: I really enjoyed traveling to Asia because I got to see how Koreans were dressing. Korean men's dressing is probably my favorite…
The tailoring alone.
Naomi: The tailoring! The silhouettes! Not being afraid to invite female silhouettes into the male fashion space, I think, is so refreshing, because when we go to the store, and we go to the women's department, there are so many options. And you go to the men's section and it's like, "okay, some T-shirts and some shorts; here's some socks." But really, it's all about styling. It doesn't necessarily have to be male or female. You can really make anything wearable to your persona so long as you have one.
Are there any menswear designers that you have your eye on at the moment?
Naomi: I really like Ricky King, he's an up-and-coming designer from Denver. I think a lot of his silhouettes have been flattering for my body to wear. I like a lot of high-waisted, but also don't like it to feel too dated. And his stuff has a rustic feel, which I'm really into, being from the West Coast.
Aquaria: I've always been inspired by fashion that can be simplified and recreated — not in a Fashion Nova sense — because before I could afford nice things, I used to have to figure out how to fake them. So stuff that I see with fun tulle moments that you can make something similar affordably, or anything that there could be a cheaper drag equivalent to, I gravitate towards; anything I see down a runway that I immediately can visualize how it could work into my wardrobe, or how I could have someone make it or make it myself, that gets me excited.
You both are regarded by many as fashion queens: lovers, appreciators and emulators of the art form. At the same time, you always seem to be setting the bar rather than chasing after it. How conscious are you of that?
Naomi: Well, there's so many "Drag Race" girls now that it's very important to have your stamp and to have the world you live in established, but play with different characters within that world. I've always said that I'm a drag queen first — drag is like my love — and I love fashion second. And it's really easy to blend the worlds without focusing in on "is this draggy enough or is this fashion-y enough?" Just have it be mixed. Violet [Chachki] actually has one of my favorite quotes of all time and it's like "It's not called being a look queen. It's called looking good. And everyone should try it some time." Which is so fierce.
Aquaria: She do have a point there.
Aquaria: Sometimes things come natural and I just grab some things and put them together and create a new image out of all these different references and then sometimes it's like… something that comes to mind is getting ready for Drag Race or putting together a look for [drag party] Holy Mountain in which there's a given theme, like "furniture store at night, but it's Thanksgiving and neon." Okay, so how are we going to do that? And how am I still going to put my twist on that?
Naomi: It's always nice to have a theme.
Aquaria: A theme is great, but I even if it's, say, hats, I try to think about not even doing a hat but overdo a hat at the same time. It's about being and doing everything and nothing; no middle-ground. That's for the the meet-and-greet.
Naomi: That's drag!
How often are you and your drag sisters giving opinions and perhaps criticism of each other's looks?
Naomi: I feel like we give our opinions more than we ask for them for sure.
Aquaria: Or want them.
Naomi: When we start on tour, it's like show-and-tell. It's like the first day of school and everyone's pulling out their new costumes and being like "Who did that? Where'd you get that? Who beaded, who stoned?"
Aquaria: And in the back of our head we're like [feigning shade] "Mmhmm."
Naomi: It's a very family dynamic, but also very catty "Mean Girls" at the same time.
Aquaria: It's catty "Mean Girls," but with the five of us here, we definitely know that we're not competing with each other for anything — until we're all cast on an "All Stars" season or something stupid — and we appreciate drag and fashion so much. We're obviously such big fans of each other, so it's cool to just be able to, up close, casually enjoy these things that people pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars and fly crazy places just to see us do.
Naomi: I care more about my peers' constructive criticism, because I know that it's constructive, more than a 12-year-old girl who has never left her bedroom and swears she knows drag.
Aquaria: Now see, I value my fans' opinions.
One last thing, we're wrapping up Pride Month this weekend—
Aquaria: Gay rights!
Very that. What are you most excited about?
Naomi: Pride is honestly probably my favorite time of year before Halloween, before Christmas, before all of that jazz, because the people I value are out and about. Those are the people who don't really give a fuck about what people say about us and are still going to come out and show the world exactly who they are, and I think that's one of the most powerful things that you can ever do, so I really treasure Pride season. When I first started touring, it was right after Pulse happened, so the fact that people are still coming out and not letting that get in the way of showing the world that this is who I am and there's nothing wrong with that and you should value that and treat me with respect… I just have so much respect.
Aquaria: We get to live our Pride everyday and that's such a blessing and so fantastic, but to have a month devoted to that… it's like having Thanksgiving everyday. It just gives me 30 days to remember why I'm thankful for what I get to do, what I get to share with the people who enjoy it, [to be] thankful for all of those people that came before me. And I am so excited because I'm not working at all on Sunday, so I'm going out as a boy, which ties into all of this because I'll be wearing a Namilia leotard. It's a little bit of a mix-and-match moment with some buffalo, some rhinestone sunglasses, but still not working: no lashes, no foundation, just having a blast with all of my queers and peers.