I Worked Out With One of the Stars of Ru Paul's Drag Race
Kameron Michaels is best known for being the show's first self-branded 'muscle queen.'
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
When I'm asked how long I'll need to interview Kameron Michaels, one of the four finalists on the latest season of "RuPaul's Drag Race," I'm not sure what to say. In the show's reunion episode, which just aired, the other queens criticized Kameron for having a bigger personality on her Instagram than during the taping.
Kameron had tried to explain that she's shy, but "when you come and see me live, I'm the same way I am on social media." I'm nervous that, in this context—lifting weights out of drag, at a CrossFit gym, in a room of strangers—the Kameron we'll see will not be the performer. I tell the producer filming us to plan for an hour, but not to be surprised if it goes for half that.
When I meet Kameron the morning of the shoot, even thirty minutes seems ambitious. In the past two months, she's visited 25 cities, and it's three days after her performances at New York City Pride and two days before the season finale, when the winner will be announced live. Like most days, she's slept only a handful of hours, and she looks tired. While we set up our cameras, she sits in a straddle on the ground, drinking coffee and eating oatmeal. "I haven't worked out in two months," she says, staring at her bowl like she might pass out into it, "so let's see how this goes."
Despite that recent hiatus from lifting, Kameron is best known for being the show's first self-branded muscle queen. "I auditioned for Pit Crew," she said, as she made her entrance during the season premiere, referring to the beefy, underwear-clad models that serve as prop pieces, "but this is going to be way more fun." As the season progressed, she emphasized her beefcake credentials, and she now sells her own Bodybuilder Barbie protein shaker, muscle tees, and gym bags. While she and I warm up on the rower, though, she explains the irony behind this persona.
Throughout high school, Kameron was bullied for her body language, especially her walk. "It took until my late teens to understand what it was," she says, demonstrating how she used to walk, a strut with one foot in front of the other, as if on a balance beam. "It's crazy to talk about, but I learned to spread my feet apart and walk with a little bit of a waddle, which felt weird to me but apparently looked normal to other boys." To further remove any other hints of femininity, she'd study photos and videos of herself for inculpatory gestures. "In public, I learned how to hold myself in a certain way so that I'd be looked over," she says.
The only exception to that rule was when she performed in drag, which she started at eighteen but stopped a few years later at the insistence of her then-boyfriend. He encouraged her to hit the gym instead, and in three years, Kameron went from 145 pounds to 185, a transformation that didn't go unnoticed when she returned to drag after the couple broke up. The other queens criticized her for arms they deemed too muscular, so Kameron covered them up. "For the first three years I came back to drag," she says, "I refused to wear strapless dresses."
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Like Kameron's personas, fitness is often skewed toward the stereotypically masculine and feminine, and in that regard, she's not just helping gay men who may be intimidated by the gym. "I had a lot of female bodybuilders come up to me crying at Dragcon," she says, "telling me I made them feel validated and accepted because I showed that muscles could be feminine." However, what impresses me most isn't the composition of Kameron's body. It's how she's learned to move it depending on the circumstances.
As we cycle through the rest of our workout, that heightened body awareness is on display—not just while we do cartwheels, a staple of her performances, but also with the weightlifting. When we bicep curl, she doesn't arch her back or swing her arms. When we do handstands, her body is stacked in a clean line from her toes through his shoulders. When we squat, she drops below parallel. At the end of the workout, she drops into a middle split as easily as she swung a kettlebell.
After the workout, I spot Kameron on a back walkover (she tried to learn a back handspring before season 10 but ran out of time), and then we sit on the ground and dish. She brings up the reunion episode, and it's clear she's still upset that Monique Heart called her fake and standoffish. By way of explanation, she says that she's an ambivert, an introvert who can pass as extroverted when the occasion calls for it—another example of someone who lives in a liminal space.
However, for me, the most important part of that exchange wasn't what Kameron was accused of being. It was her reaction, when she rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. Monique interpreted this as an unintentional reveal of the true Kameron Michaels. "That girl right here," she said, pointing a long acrylic nail across the stage at Kameron, "this girl—who's she?"
That question—who's she—is difficult for anyone to answer, but it's especially thorny for someone who embodies seemingly opposite poles: both bodybuilder and Barbie. At different hours of the day, Kameron is one or the other or both or neither. It's an identity that's never fixed, but what is certain is that her fish face was no accident. After all, she's spent her life learning the importance of controlling her body.
"I feel a lot more feminine when my nails look like claws," she tells me after I ask if there's a moment when she clicks into her drag persona. "And there's little things for every queen: a certain length of hair, a certain type of outfit, a certain size and type of heel that makes them feel like their most—I don't want to say feminine because not all drag is feminine—but the truest form of their character."
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