Michelle Visage teaches us The Diva Rules
3rd Dec 2015
So when we learned that Chronicle were publishing Michelle’s book (“it’s not an autobiography,” she says, “because I like to leave that to the people who matter, like castmates of TOWIE”), and that we had the chance to kiki with her about it, you can imagine our reaction.
For those not familiar with Michelle’s career and story, the timing of The Diva Rules seems obvious; Drag Race is more popular than ever, CBB brought her blunt Jersey honesty, wicked humour and fierce fashion to a huge new audience, and just last month she was awarded the first ever Straight Ally Award.
But when you learn that Michelle’s been in the biz a long time; walking at the infamous vogue balls in 80s New York alongside the kids immortalised in the iconic 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, then becoming a member of girl band Seduction, touring to packed stadiums across the world while still a teenager, followed by a 17-year career in radio, you might wonder, why now?
“It was about the messages that I get, the tweets, emails and letters from kids who need validation, and need to know that they matter,” she says. “They need to know that the people they look up to, me included, are not perfect and flaw-free. And that good things come to those who work at it, and wait. And that there is a better life, and it’s yours for the taking. I had to share my story; how I got to where I am today, but how along the way, I’ve fallen many, many times, and continue to fall. And I’m not anywhere near where I wanna be in my career or life, but it’s okay. That’s what it was about.”
There are twenty-five rules in The Diva Rules, which features a foreword from RuPaul and just as many garish patterns, glitz and full-colour photographs as you’d expect from someone who spends six month a year in close confines with queens.
Each chapter details an episode from Michelle’s own life, then distills the lessons readers can learn and apply. From ‘Get off your ass, girl‘ to ‘Keep it real, except for your tits,’ the titles alone are enough to give you a good idea of Michelle’s approach, and her distinctive voice (rule number three: ‘You have a voice. Use it.’) resounds throughout; warm and authentic, but not afraid to give tough love when it’s needed. You can almost hear her trademark cackle. But which rule is the most important?
“If I were to choose one, I’d choose the last, which is about your legacy,” she answers. “Because it makes you think about what you do every day. What are people gonna remember you for? Are people gonna remember you? I think that’s a really important, powerful message. Everybody wants to be remembered, I think. So it’s about what you put out into the world. And if you think about that all the time, it’s a lot of pressure, but it makes you re-think the way you talk to people and the way you do things.”
Most of the rules seem self-explanatory (while ‘Give Good Face‘ and ‘Stop Relying on that Body‘ sound like they could contradict each other, they actually contain wise words about body image, work ethic and much more besides), there’s one which might not be as immediately obvious. So, Michelle, explain it for us. Rule number eighteen is ‘Never trust a man in dockers.’ Why?
“It’s about sexism in the workplace. I worked in terrestrial radio for seventeen years, and that’s very much a man-driven industry,” she explains. “I never got paid what the men were paid. So it’s about how to overcome sexism in the workplace, and how to navigate your way around it. Because you won’t always win, and sometimes it takes baby steps. That’s what that chapter is about.”
“It’s been an important one for me to learn,” Michelle continues.”I talk in that chapter about a lot of women try to become dudes. You know, they go out and play golf with them and wear suits instead of fabulous clothes. And they don’t have to be that way. You can very much stay true to who you are and still win.”
From reading The Diva Rules, a few things soon become obvious about Michelle Visage. Her passion, sincerity and fearlessness are infectious. She makes no apologies and pulls no punches. Her work ethic and conviction are second to none. And she has the utmost faith in those convictions. But for those of us who might not always feel so certain about our path forward, how can that faith be built?
“I talk [in the book] about faking it until you make it, that a lot of times, my confidence act is a big ruse, ’cause inside I feel fat, I feel old, I feel not good enough, not talented enough,” Michelle responds. “But I really believe firmly that if you show, on the outside, that you have confidence, that not only does everybody else believe it, but you start to believe it. And then it starts to build, slowly but surely. So it’s about having confidence in everything that you do. And there’s a difference between cockiness and confidence. Cockiness is just ugly. But confidence is beautiful, and you glow from it. It’s not easy, and every day’s a work in progress, but it can be done.”
From a story about Madonna nicking her moves (rule number ten: ‘Celebrate Your Competition‘) to a heartbreakingly honest account of disordered eating during her teens, there’s not much Michelle won’t disclose. Every chapter includes candid accounts of her experiences. “I don’t know if you’ve always felt like an outsider,” she says, detailing her adoptive family in ‘Be Thankful You’re a Misfit,’ “but I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t know I was one.”
So, with The Diva Rules seemingly chronicling all the key component’s of Michelle’s journey so far, what I want to know is, what’s not in the book?
“I’m the type of person that’s always lived her life openly,” she says. “A lot of people have said to me over the years, ‘you shouldn’t be so open about everything, you should have some mystery.’ But if you have secrets, when I get to the star status I want, somebody’s gonna rip them out and hold them over my head. But if I expose everything, there’s nothing left. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
But there must have been some chapters that didn’t make the cut? “There was one chapter saying you should always have a friend that’s willing to beat somebody up,” she admits, with a mile-wide smile. “It’s a story about my friend. There was a girl who was spreading rumours about me for a long time. And I grew up with these twins; there was one really butch twin and one really femme twin. And the butch twin was my fuckin’ bodyguard. She climbed in this girl’s window, in the middle of the night, and beat the crap out of her in her own bed, and I’m still friends with her to this day. Chronicle were like, that’s a bit violent, you don’t need to put that in. But the moral of the story is, always have somebody that’ll have your back.”
Michelle also has a lot to say about her favourite writers; she enthuses about Marianne Williamson‘s A Return to Love, both in the book and in several episodes of What’s The Tee, her hilarious podcast with RuPaul (“I’m not into self-help books,” she says in The Diva Rules, “but when The World’s Most Famous Drag Queen gives you one, you read it”).
And when we meet, she can’t contain her excitement about a certain bespectacled boy wizard. “My all-time favourite author has to be JK Rowling,” she says. “I’m such a Harry Potter fanatic. And the fact that she’s a woman and has created this boy’s world is beyond phenomenal. JK creates a world that is like no other, in detail like no other. I’m a Slytherin through and through.”
But putting aside the Boy Who Lived for a second, I want to know what’s next for Michelle Visage. When asked this question before, she’s answered, “world domination.” So what I want to know now is, what does that mean?
“That means everything,” she answers. “Gaga’s a great example. Some people love her, some people hate her. I love and admire her, because she’s committed to her own thing. Whether you think it’s fake or pretentious, it’s still her own journey. I love that she’s transitioning into doing more acting, and I’d love to finally be given a chance in that venue, so people can see what I do. And then there’s theatre, which is really important to me. Not just to prove to the world what I can do in theatre, but to prove to myself that I still got it, and never lost it, even though I never got a chance to actually use it. Musical theatre is literally my heart of hearts. It’s what I love. And world domination means all of that.”
And what else will Michelle Visage be doing in the meantime? “Spreading the word of equality and tolerance. We need to get to a place where we don’t have to say to ‘gay marriage’ anymore, where we can just say marriage and it means everyone. Until that point, we still have fighting to do.”
Amen. And with The Diva Rules, an inclusive, accessible and, above all, truthful guide to strength, resilience and overcoming life’s obstacles while staying unique, divas-in-training will hopefully find the weapons they need for that fight. And that’s the real T.
Michelle, until next time…
The Diva Rules is published by Abrams & Chronicle, and is out now, available from Foyles, Waterstones, Amazon and other independent retailers.