We first heard about Carmen Carrera when she joined season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Since then she’s carved a career for herself as a successful model, been photographed by David LaChapelle and spoken out publicly for trans rights and equality.
In 2014 she publicly called out RuPaul’s use of the phrase “she-male”, which led to DragRace pulling the Female or SheMale game from the programme. A backlash followed and Carrera was criticised for biting the hand that fed her.
Attitude’s Cliff Joannou met her during her latest visit to the UK:
What is Carmen Carrera’s job title?
Trailblazer. Businesswoman. We’re all existing at the same moment, we should all be on the same page as a community. We should all want the best for us all, everywhere. So I wanna be able to connect the dots and I’ve already toured most of the world because of my show and the showgirl stuff, and now I’m just thinking, “Well what can I do to give back?”
How do you pick and choose what you do?
People got to know me before my transition, and then got to know me during, and then now. So that part, it’s gonna always be part of my story. So I always think, if I get a trans role, is this going to help, or is this going to take away? Is this going to add to this stereotype, or is it gonna help to change it?
So that’s what I’m always thinking about when it comes to movies, and TV. And also, ideally I’d like to do non-trans roles. I’d like to just play a female character, just a teacher, a mom, or whatever, you know. Something relatable to women so that it normalises the idea that trans people can play regular roles and have regular jobs and be embraced for how they present themselves to be.
How does it feel knowing that people have followed your transition?
I feel like it’s a gift and a curse, because, on one side I’m opening myself up to the ignorance and the misunderstanding, the misconceptions. People seem to put me in a category, like they’ll meet me one way and only affiliate me that way. So it’s difficult, especially, I think given the area that I chose to open myself up to. There was a lot of confusion, as far as, A: allowing me to grow, and B: accepting me for how I present myself.
And then there’s the other side where it’s like people get to see that progression and become inspired by it. And that’s the side I chose to hold onto because, no matter what, people are gonna judge me, they’re gonna have their opinions of me, but that’s not really my job to care too much.
I am aware of it; I don’t let it bother me. It used to in the past, but I’ve moved past that. My story is yet to be complete, and I feel like by living my story out loud I’m able to, not only normalise the idea of transitioning, but also help others who may feel stuck, or help educate other people who are interested.
What examples of transphobia stick in your mind most?
I think the misunderstanding and the unacceptance of trans people in the drag scene. When I came through, I was a wide-eyed kid in New York City, not knowing who I was, I just wanted to learn. So I was like a sponge. I went to the gay clubs and made tonnes of friends that I still have, and I got to know the trans girls in the drag scene and the drag community, and performance art.
Now I feel like after I’ve transitioned, there’s still that kind of disconnect between drag performers who live their life as male and go on stage as female, versus the trans performers. That’s where I feel like we need the most work.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had directly?
I think with RuPaul, specifically. I remember I think I was at an airport or something and I received a few – actually a lot of messages from trans people saying, “Hey, did you see the episode of Drag Race where they’re comparing body parts?” and I’m like “No, I didn’t but I’m gonna go check it out.” I did and I was like, “wow”.
To be honest with you I was like “fuck!” [laughs] I’m like gosh okay I’m gonna try and make this as diplomatic as possible, so I made a Facebook post, and I said something along the lines of, “I don’t think it was Drag Race’s intent to offend anyone, but I think we should all be more aware of the words that we use and especially now, being that we’re going through this trans movement”. The response was so negative; it was terrible.
The response from who?
From mostly all the fans were like really, really negative. So I was really confused. It was just all over the place. And I mean I had other Drag Race contestants speaking out against me, how could I bite the hand that fed me or whatever. I understand where people stand as far as not wanting to disrespect someone who helped you, but I didn’t feel like I was in that position.
I wasn’t trying to disrespect anyone. That wasn’t my intention; my intention was just to be fair. My intention was to try and make everyone happy, just like be on Drag Race’s side to say that’s not their intent, but also to say something to please the folks that see me as a person who has a platform to speak about these issues.
So I was in that position and once I started to get the feedback from other Drag Race girls, the Drag Race fans and then Ru herself, I was just like, okay this isn’t making sense, so I’m gonna write another post. So, I wrote another post and it started getting worse and worse.
People weren’t understanding me, so I was in a position where I was like, gosh what do I do, work is pulling me this way, Facebook is pulling me that way, and it was probably the most transphobic language I’ve ever seen. And I think it was following an interview that Ru did and she was asked, how do we feel about the situation that was going on, and she was very insensitive and she basically said, “oh you know, you just have to get stronger and you’re playing the victim card”.
I don’t know where she was coming from. I was trying to understand it myself, either if she’s been hurt in the past, either if she’s had other negative experiences, I don’t know, but it wasn’t my problem to try and figure out. I was just done with it by that point. So, yeah I mean there was other things that happened on the inside, as far as on that end there were roadblocks that were set up.
Like, okay, a lot of the girls share the same management company, so you know it can become a conflict of interest. So, if my manager is dealing with managing the tour of Drag Race and there is an issue like this that happens, you know when there’s a hierarchy, the message will go down the levels so to speak and there will be roadblocks. There were road blocks that were put up for me. And it’s rude. Like, I’m doing my thing, we might have had a misunderstanding, just call me. There’s no need to say, “oh well I don’t want Carmen on this, don’t put Carmen on that.”
Do you feel like your work was actively taken away form you then?
Yes, but see I was lucky because God blessed me with a modelling contract at the very same time. So I got to focus on something else. But it took away the Carmen Carrera showgirl from the gay scene that I wanted to continue entertaining.
I wasn’t done, you know. But you know, that was what was happening at the time so I had to adapt. I had to be like, okay well. Bianca Del Rio came out and said some really transphobic things during that time. It was a mess. And they all basically turned their back on me and continued to throw dirt on my name.
Have you seen any of the queens since?
No. Not really.
Have you seen Ru since?
And you haven’t communicated since?
Would you change anything about that situation?
Erm, I would. I mean, ideally I’ve always had a strong connection to the drag scene, and I’ve tried in the past, I’ve spoke to my management and been like, “We’re not setting a good example for everyone else.” Why take any of the language to a platform where the rest of the world is learning about us? We should just try to use the right language and respect each other so that it sets the tone for everyone else.
What would you say to Ru if he walked in now?
I would say “Hi!” and give him a hug. I don’t hold any grudges. It’s a shame and I’m always gonna look back at that and think “why” but I don’t hold any grudges.
Did you enjoy the new Drag Race?
With Gaga? I did. It was good. She’s so smart. She’s super-smart. I felt like Ru and the judges were very – they weren’t as flamboyant and extravagant. It was more about Lady Gaga’s the guest, and the contestants. Which was amazing to see as well.
What did you feel about Wendy Williams hosting?
She’s gonna learn from Race [about] the community, and maybe that’s what she needs. Sometimes you have to be exposed – because you have your own ideas of what you think about a certain community – who these people are. Until you go in and learn and experience is when you can realise, “oh, maybe I was wrong”. So maybe it was a good choice, you know. I don’t like to think of anyone as an outcast, like “you’re not allowed in.”