Aja LaBeija on authenticity, ‘Drag Race’ and Tampa Pride

Aja LaBeija is having a ball. Literally.

A member of the Royal House of LaBeija, the drag family known for its presence in the ballroom community, the entertainer recently returned to the drag and ballroom scenes after a professional hiatus.

LaBeija first received national acclaim for appearing on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She competed on the show’s ninth season in 2017 and returned for “All Stars” season three in 2018, and has released two full-length albums and three EPs since.

She also came out as transgender last year, detailing her battle with gender dysphoria. “I am ready to be in the skin I was meant to be in,” she explained. “I am ready to be affirmed.” It’s a journey that has helped the entertainer fully embrace every aspect of her artistry.

LaBeija will highlight her authenticity on stage at Tampa Pride March 26, headlining Pride at Night with fellow “Drag Race” alum Kandy Muse. She’ll also serve as a special guest judge of the ballroom event Vivica’s Pink Secret at The Cuban Club March 25.

Watermark spoke with LaBeija ahead of Tampa Pride about living authentically, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and more.

WATERMARK: How has your artistry evolved over the years?

AJA: I feel like I probably have one of the most complex drag and artistic evolution stories. Now I’m doing drag as performance again, but there was a time where I stopped and I was doing random things filling in the gaps and figuring myself out. As an artist, pretty much any art form that I’ve ever done has always evolved with me as a person. So if things in my life are changing, my artistry is changing. My artistry, especially drag and music out of all my mediums, are sort of like mood rings, so if I’m having a great year it’s going to project in my artistry.

If I’m having downtime or if I’m not feeling well, it’s going to show.  There are different ways of interpreting emotion into performance, and I think that my evolution of my artistry has really shown my ups and downs as a person.

Some of that was captured on “Drag Race.” What did you learn from those experiences?

I’ve always been a natural born hustler, so I’m just super “business, business, business!” I sort of had this way to navigate business before making television appearances, especially “Drag Race.” I think being able to add being a reality TV star under my belt changed a lot of what I think about the media and about television and unscripted television at that.

It made me more of a conscious artist and made me realize that now millions of people watch everything that I do and say, but not necessarily in a way where I should hide myself.

If anything, the pressure is on to be myself, because people are watching and you should always have that influence of authenticity – so when people see you, they’re not necessarily, “I want to be like Aja,” but “seeing Aja be herself makes me wants to be myself.”

What surprised you the most about that?

What really surprised me post-”Drag Race” was realizing how fickle consumers are. I realized that you can’t really do your art just for other people, you have to find your niche. You have to find your crowd and the people who are going to support you, because you can’t make everyone in the world love you.

So what I really learned was to just find where I belong and stick to it, and to try not to push any particular fans that I have away for any reason. For example, being known for doing drag, especially after my “All Stars” run, in a modest way I became very popular amongst the contestants of the franchise. And I became so known for drag that when I started to try to experiment in other art forms, there were very mixed reviews, because there were people who felt like they wanted me to only do drag and only do lip sync performances. But there were people who were excited for everything else that I had to offer.

What was that like?

It was the beginning of me building my own niche and finding my own crowd, instead of relying on just the crowd of “Drag Race.” Because at the end of the day, “Drag Race” is us, the contestants, but we are not “Drag Race.” We are our own people and it’s possible for someone to be a fan of the show and not be a fan of us. So we really do have to create our own fan base for survival and we have to create our own business.

These are the things that nobody’s tells you before, so you go in and people think, “Oh, I’m just gonna be popular and I’m gonna ride on it.” But I always say that “Drag Race” is on a big high right now – because there are literally like 60 editions, I can’t keep up – but one day, it won’t be around anymore. And there will be people who have been on the show who have not yet branched out with their career, and they might be in trouble.

What advice do you have for them?

I say while you have the platform and you have the visibility, f**king go for it. Extend your arms and do everything that you’ve possibly ever wanted to do. Don’t let the fear of it not being received by just the fan base of “Drag Race” scare you. People always say to me that “you have almost a million followers watching you,” but out of that, people who are uniquely just Aja fans in ratio to fans of “Drag Race” as a television show, it’s significantly lower. So, for me, I like to appreciate my own fan base and not single out anyone who is a fan of me through “Drag Race.” Now, that’s something that I had to learn.

Do any particularly negative or positive interactions with fans stand out to you?

After “All Stars,” 2019 was a very weird year because I was both heavily praised and also received backlash for taking my own directions and navigating my entire gender experience in front of millions of people. It was challenging. It’s really hard as an artist when you’re critical of yourself. If you have a million people watching you, 500,000 of those people are like, “f**k you,” and the other half are like, “yay!”

I don’t care what anyone says, it’s really hard to block it out sometimes. That’s just a human thing. I was very aware of both the positive and the negative responses to everything that I was doing and going through at the same time. But I think that what was important was that I just stuck to my guns and did what I needed to do for me. Because if not, I wouldn’t even have been here now.

You mentioned your gender journey. what can you share about that?

Gender has always been a really strange thing for me to navigate. I actually came out to my mom as trans at 18 and started living my life as a trans woman then I stopped. I tried to navigate gender a lot through drag. Not purposefully, this is just a realization later on.

I understand now that whenever people would critique my drag, sometimes that felt very personal – not because I was feeling insecure about my art, but I was feeling insecure about my gender – and for whatever reason, it was hard for me to disassociate gender living from gender performance. I felt like I had to perform my gender just to be my gender. It was just me figuring it out and in 2018, I came out as nonbinary to set the tone for what I was going through, but I think that

I’ve kind of always known that I wanted to live my life as a trans woman and affirm that. I think that the struggle that I was having was just feeling that if I were to live my life as a woman, people would just think I was in drag, that I wasn’t really a woman. It was sort of like a gender dysphoria thing that was happening and I think a lot of people didn’t understand that.

How did you address it?

I sort of pushed myself into a box where I made myself extremely butch. I grew out a beard and literally started doing OnlyFans as a male. Just to push this idea that I’m not going to perform my gender for anyone. I don’t regret it because it made me realize later down the line, this is definitely what I don’t want. It was really seeing Kylie [Sonique Love] on “All Stars” that helped me – I didn’t really watch [season six] but I saw the last few minutes when she had won. Something about that moment was very real.

What are your thoughts on drag as a whole right now?

I think that I ran away from the idea of drag for the last few years because of my gender and because I feel mainstream society doesn’t respect it. I feel like we think it does, because “Drag Race” is so big now, but I feel like there’s a lot of people who think that drag is sort of just a joke or it’s just comical, like a parody. For me, drag is not a parody.

I don’t think I’d strike anyone as a comedy queen. I have a very serious nature, like many other queens have been on “Drag Race,” like Roxxxy Andrews. There are a lot of pageant girls that tend to come off very serious. I’m a fashion girl, I come from the ballroom. I’m a runway girl, I’m a best-dressed girl, I’m all about my look and being a bitch. That’s, that’s just who I am. So this whole like comedy thing and making it seem like every drag artist has to sort of be one thing, I don’t agree with that.

Why are you excited to perform at Tampa Pride and what can fans expect?

Pride is so important, and you guys don’t just have Florida Pride, every major city has a Pride and I love that. I feel like that’s important for Tampa and for visibility. It’s important for everyone to see all different types of identities.

It’s hard to like describe how you you’re going to perform, but one thing I’ll say about me is that I’m always high energy. You can always expect a high energy performance from me, you can always expect a relatability and personality. I’m going to give you me – all of me – and I’ll make sure that you are glad you came and you have a good time. My goal is really to make people forget about everything in their life that’s just not going the way they wanted and give them a minute of euphoria to realize that “you’ve got this.” I love that idea of inspiring people.

What else do you want Tampa Pride attendees to know?

I want the people reading this not just to attend Pride but come and have a good time! Take photos, take videos, make memories and realize that Pride is such a beautiful thing. It’s a privilege because a lot of places people can’t really be themselves, so I think it’s up to us to keep having bigger and bigger Prides. That inspires and influences the rest of the world.

As queer people, I feel like a lot of us are happier because we don’t let society’s rules dictate how we live our lives. So come out and have fun and make it fun for everybody else. Let’s just have a big gay time!

Aja LaBeija will judge Vivica’s Pink Secret: The Mini-Ball March 25 and co-headline Tampa Pride at Night March 26 at The Cuban Club, located at 2010 Avenida Republica De Cuba in Tampa. For more information, visit TampaPride.org.

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