Drag is a centuries-old art form dedicated to subverting conventional gender and building queer community. Drag performers have long thrived in the underbellies of night clubs and on the front lines of protests, all while pushing the bounds of fashion, hair styling, and make-up, music, comedy, and culture at large. Drag is a true celebration that allows artists to literally embody their practice by creating fully-fledged characters, distinct aesthetics, and immersive universes as part of their acts.
After a lengthy tenure on the margins of pop culture, drag has seen something of a mainstream boom over the past decade or so, largely due to the popularity of the hit reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. For 13 years and running, the show has not only provided a platform for over 150 drag queen contestants— it’s served as a showcase for designers whose work has been worn on RuPaul’s main stage, including designer JForPay.
JForPay is a Chicago-based drag queen and fashion designer whose work has steadily gained much-deserved recognition within the drag community. The bright, bold looks she’s designed for both herself and other queens affords her a unique perspective from both in front of and behind the curtain. Drag Race has featured a handful of her designs, and one particularly impressive outfit was seen on recently crowned winner Willow Pill in April’s Season 14 finale.
The ingenuity of this design blew me away and sucked me into the rest of JForPay’s candy-colored body of work. I was quickly convinced that I needed to learn more from the artist herself.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
How did you first get into drag?
I grew up in Seattle and moved to Chicago in 2013 to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I studied mostly painting, film video, and performance art— it’s a very interdisciplinary school. I didn’t have much experience with fashion. I learned sewing and pattern making in a soft sculpture class— that was my intro to making garments. At the same time, I was also getting really into Drag Race. This was right when Jinkx Monsoon was on, so I had my Seattle hometown girl on TV; it was really exciting. I found my friends who were also into drag and started going out to clubs as soon as I was of age. I started performing pretty soon after that.
I was a really shy kid. I loved the idea of performing, but I was a little too scared to do it for a long time. But I pushed through it and got myself into the theater departments in middle school and high school. I did some high school plays, but I also did some theater outside in a program called Young Shakespeare Workshop in Seattle; it was a really cool experience.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
It’s taken a lot of evolutions. As I told you, when I started off, I was really into Jinkx Monsoon. So my initial iteration was wanting to be this campy, cabaret, flapper-type character. She’s still there in the back of my head—her name is Elsie Friday, in reference to a character that Sally Bowles refers to in the title number of the musical “Cabaret”—but she’s not really where I’m at anymore. Once I started making more of my own drag, I was interested in bold colors, fun silhouettes— bright, exciting, iridescent, sparkly, but through my own perspective with my art and sculptural background.
Now my aesthetic has gone in this really bright, bold, colorful, fruit-inspired direction. It comes from my thinking about fashion and drag as being a very over-the-top, consumer thing. It’s a good metaphor for that, so I play with that in my work a lot.
What other artists have been your biggest influences?
I was really into performance art when I was in school, where I was introduced to people like Leigh Bowery and Divine, who were club kids. They’re really important to me: these really incredible presences who used drag and the club kid aesthetic to push the boundaries of fashion, silhouettes, and what was acceptable; pushing against mainstream queerness that is more acceptable. I admire that adversarial type of spirit.
After I graduated from school, I moved in with my friend Eda Birthing, who’s another fashion designer, and has showcased work on Drag Race. We both graduated from SAIC at around the same time, and she became such a mentor for me while I was living with her. I didn’t really know anything about costume design, but just from watching her work and absorbing a lot of perspective (because she was just working out of our home at that point), I saw so much of what is possible, and how much joy the act of creation brought her, and getting to share that with other performers and models. I was like, Wow, she creates what feels like an entirely unique world that comes specifically from her. I was envious of that feeling. I wanted to feel like all of these things are just coming out of me. She’s a huge inspiration for me.
What’s the process typically like for collaborating with the other queens you design for?
It’s always different; I try to meet people where they are. I frequently work with people who haven’t had costumes designed for them before. Especially as I’ve gained notoriety over the last couple of years, it’s felt important to make sure that I’m not leaving my community behind and just making stuff for high-profile people. That also comes down to me not wanting to ever feel like I’m making clothes for one body type or one identity. A lot of designers focus on very thin, able-bodied people; prioritizing white, cis people. That’s the focus of the fashion industry. Drag is so much more cool and interesting and diverse than that, and I never want to be in a place where what I make doesn’t represent that.
What was it like designing Willow Pill’s Drag Race finale look?
I’ve known Willow for a few years because she performs in Chicago pretty frequently, so we’ve had a bit of a relationship. Basically, she hit me up and told me what she had in mind for the finale: the idea of the big suit revealing into pants. She was looking at a few different references, specifically Jane Asher’s “Fancy Dress Costume Book” from 1983, and then David Byrne’s big suit from the Stop Making Sense tour that was designed by Gail Blacker.
The main part of the project that was my responsibility was the difficult task of figuring out how to make it a reveal. It was a challenge; I definitely spent several weeks just thinking about the structure. The jacket is all one piece; the white shirt and tie is just thrown straight into the lapel, and there’s a set of snaps that goes down from behind the tie, so Willow was able to just rip it open from the inside. It was important that it wasn’t too difficult to open, or too complicated, because she does have some mobility issues with her hands, so we kept that pretty simple. And the pants were similar— another set of snaps right in the fly.
The arms were the last thing I made, because they were a last-minute request. Willow asked me for big puppet arms in reference to one of her runway looks from the show. So in order to make sure that they stayed up, I basically made these big, oversized gloves, stuffed them, and then attached them to dowels. The dowels are attached to a scrap of cloth and sewn into the armpit of the jacket, so that they could hang if she needed to let them hang, but she could also hold them up and perform with them. It was a really fun detail.
And the stakes of that reveal were so high, since Willow wore that design in her final lip sync battle. What did it feel like to watch that?
I went to Derry Queen’s viewing party at the Annoyance Theater here in Chicago. I don’t typically go to viewing parties because I get too stressed, especially as a fellow performer. I feel those emotions in a way that might not be familiar to someone who doesn’t perform; it’s really intense. But I was there at the viewing party, and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had made the costume until afterwards, because I just knew that if all of the attention was on me, I would be so stressed out. I was there with a lot of my friends watching her win, and it was so exciting.
Has your popularity skyrocketed since that moment? Are you Chicago’s hottest new designer?
There’s definitely a higher level of respect, which is nice, but I don’t really enjoy feeling like a celebrity— that’s not my personality, and that’s not what I’m aiming for. I’m really just very happy to be able to work with talented people and help them realize their dreams.
When I started doing drag, close to ten years ago, I was very into the idea of being on Drag Race and being a star— it was all about that for me. Then I actually experienced some of those moments—like on New Year’s, I got to perform on stage for 4,000 people—and I realized what it’s actually like to be at that level. It’s both more exciting than you can imagine, but also way more boring. I’m like, Okay, I get it. I feel calm about it.
I’m an avid viewer of Drag Race myself, and it’s been interesting to see the evolution of design on the show. Some of the queens wear extravagant custom-made looks from other designers, while others are still creating everything for themselves by hand. I enjoy seeing the collaboration between queens and designers—like you and Willow—which also allows for designers to have their work showcased more broadly. But at the same time, the queens who continue to design and sew every single garment for themselves need to be heralded for that. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s important to me that all of these things are represented. Drag Race can be such an amazing platform for these really experienced designers, and even for designer labels, but it’s also important to have representation of people who do make everything for themselves, because that’s one of the fundamental elements of drag. It’s about self-creation; it’s about building yourself up from the very real difficulty of being a queer or trans person in this world; creating something when you have nothing. It’s important to see that on TV.
I think in the past, they’ve left it very mysterious about who was making the garments. They let the audience believe that the queens were making everything for themselves, which most of the time is not true and not realistic. But I think they’ve done some shout-outs more recently— like Willow actually wore Eda Birthing on the runway for her mushroom-inspired look this past season, and she got to shout her out.
Do you do any design work for clients outside of the drag space?
I’ve designed a couple things outside of the drag world, but I’m not really interested in having much of a relationship with the straight fashion world. There’s not really much interest from that world in drag either, so I’m pretty comfortable right now, working in between fashion and costume, and blurring the lines there.
What does drag offer you as an artist that you can’t necessarily find in other means of creative expression?
I always come back to drag because it’s so all-encompassing. You can bring any skillset into drag, and it will make your drag more unique and more interesting and more special. That can help you connect with more people too. I know people who are really good at organizing events, who are really good at all sorts of different random skillsets that you wouldn’t necessarily think go into drag, but it really is a container for so many possibilities. That relates to the artistry of it too.
I come from performance art, sculpture, and video art, and to a degree, I never thought that those would have that much of an impact on my drag. But during quarantine, we were all stuck in our houses, not doing live events anymore. Those of us who depended a lot on live performance had to figure out what we were going to do, so I started making videos and I taught myself animation. I made some music videos and things that I never dreamed that I would be able to make; things that I put together in my house with my roommates helping me. I never would have even thought I would be able to do that if I hadn’t started drag.