She started storing the images on the camera roll on her phone, taking note of the clothing, shoes and makeup — not to re-create the looks but rather to honour her idols through homage in drag.
“We, as queer people, that’s kind of our thing,” Symone, 26, said from her home in Los Angeles, surrounded by posters of women she looks up to. “We look up to our heroes. They give us strength.”
“If you sprinkle all those women together and put a dash of my mother, you get Symone,” she said.
By the time she made it to the final round of contestants to participate in the 13th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality show where drag stars create looks and compete in challenges, she had been carefully crafting this aesthetic for years. (On the first episode of the season, she walked into the show’s workroom wearing a minidress made of Polaroids of herself. “I wanted everyone to know who I was,” she said.)
It turned out to be a crucial part of a winning formula. Fifteen episodes later, Symone had defeated 12 other drag performers and was named America’s Next Drag Superstar.
Symone grew up in Conway, Arkansas, a small city that she described as “quiet and Southern.” She remembers being a “very, very shy kid” and felt different, she said: “I always kind of felt like I didn’t really belong.”
Symone’s mother, Regina Price, 54, worked with children with disabilities, and her father, Eddie Gavin, 53, was a factory worker at Virco Manufacturing Corp. Price remembers her child as quiet but very focused and dedicated. Symone’s favourite subjects were algebra and band, she said. “Random, right? I know, but that completely sums up the way my brain works.”
Symone at The House of Avalon, a queer fashion and pop culture collective, in Los Angeles on May 11, 2021. “I really want to stretch this box that is drag,” Symone said. Natalia Mantini/The New York Times
At 16, Symone got her first job cleaning tables and washing dishes at a local cafe called Something Brewing and started buying makeup with her earnings. “I would come home after school, and I had like a 2-hour window before my parents got home, and I would practice my makeup,” she said. When she heard the garage door open, she would quickly take it all off.
Her senior year, that changed. For prom, Symone bought a blonde shake-and-go wig and a long fuchsia dress on the sale rack at a vintage clothing store called Viki’s at the Village for $69. “The owner, Vicky Hawk, was one of the only people to let me actually try on a dress and treat me with respect and kindness,” Symone said. “Her doing that literally changed my life.”
Before prom, Symone said she went to the local Olive Garden in the dress and people stared. “It made some people very uncomfortable,” Symone said. “Some people got up and left, but I stood my ground, sat there and ate in drag.”
After high school, Symone went to University of Arkansas at Little Rock to study communications. At 18, she had her first performance at Triniti Nightclub under the name Delilah Alamaine. She eventually changed her stage name to Symone, after a character in a play she wrote in high school, and started to build a following performing at drag clubs where she hosted a show called Symone Says.
It was at Triniti Nightclub that her mother saw her perform in drag to the Mary J. Blige song “Just Fine” and couldn’t believe she was watching her once-shy child. “She killed it,” said Price. “My mouth was open, I was like, ‘Are you kidding right now?’”
In 2019, Symone moved to Los Angeles and joined the House of Avalon, a queer fashion and pop culture collective that includes as members designers Marko Monroe, Hunter Crenshaw and Grant Vanderbilt. They all lived together, threw parties and provided creative direction for ad campaigns.
It was there she met Gigi Goode, a drag performer and member of the House of Avalon, who had been on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2020. Symone always knew she wanted to be on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and Gigi Goode helped her understand how things worked. Symone had watched the show growing up but “there really weren’t that many Black queer people growing up — outside of RuPaul — and so I kind of wanted to be that for someone else,” she said.
Symone at The House of Avalon, a queer fashion and pop culture collective, in Los Angeles on May 11, 2021. “I had to learn to love my Blackness,” said the winner of this season's ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ “I’ve learned to love my queerness. I had to learn to love myself.” Natalia Mantini/The New York Times
She worked with Marko Monroe to create a look inspired by singer Rihanna’s spring 2017 Fenty x Puma collection, with a durag that had a long mint and blush-coloured train. It remains her favourite look from the runway challenges.
“I had to learn to love my Blackness,” said Symone. “I’ve learned to love my queerness. I had to learn to love myself. And so on the show, it was kind of a love letter to Blackness and queerness.”
In another challenge, contestants were prompted to incorporate a fascinator into their look. Symone walked the runway in a white sculptural column gown, designed by Howie B, with a white custom fascinator, designed by Monroe. On the back of the gown there were two red-Swarovski-crystal bullet wounds, with the words “Say Their Names” emblazoned in ruby-rhinestone blood.
RuPaul Charles, the host and creator of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said of Symone: “She is a master class in creative expression. Like no other, she uses the art of drag to entertain, enlighten and celebrate her rich Black heritage.”
Neon Calypso, 28, a drag artist in Brooklyn, hosted a weekly “Rupaul’s Drag Race” viewing party outdoors at a bar called Parklife while the season ran. From the beginning, she said she thought that Symone was a top contender for the crowd. She remembers the cheers and screams of over 100 people when Symone was announced the winner. “It was a really glorious moment,” Neon Calypso said, “and I’m happy that in the year that we had and at this crucial time, that moment happened.”
“Often, as performers of colour, we have to hide those things that we experience in order to get where we want to get,” Neon Calypso added. But Symone stayed true to who she is. “When you get on those shows, you have to be able to represent yourself as whole, and I think that Symone did that from the beginning.”
Mikelle Street, a writer, editor and former digital director at Out Magazine who has written about Symone’s performance on the show, echoed that. “To see things that you know are part of your culture now being looked at and prized as something that’s worthy of providing inspiration or worthy of being looked at in this artistic or historical context, I think can be extremely validating,” he said.
By phone, from Los Angeles, Symone recently recounted a pivotal moment for her — when she received a direct message on Instagram from one of her idols, Rihanna. It read: “You soooo EVERYTHING!!!! … I live for every second of it! You’re a true joy to watch!” Symone thanked her and expressed how much these words meant. Rihanna responded: “Please … no brakes, all gas!!”
A text from her icon is validating, but Symone has only begun her journey. “I really want to stretch this box that is drag,” she said. “I want to rule the world. I say that humbly.”
© 2021 New York Times News Service