Symone is supremely elegant, delightfully goofy, and the toast of the worlds of flirting, fashion, and, now, theater. Is it any wonder she’s having the best time of her life?
Drag Superstar Symone can’t stop smiling. She smiles when talking about her victory in season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She smiles when we talk about drag as a form of activism. She even smiles when she encounters technical problems. And it’s not just any smile; it’s a rare smile that seems completely genuine. It’s radiant, infectious and just a little goofy, and it takes up her whole face. And with the world at your fingertips, Symone really has plenty to smile about.
During his time on drag race, the self-proclaimed “Ebony Enchantress” quickly became a fan and judge favorite for her bubbly personality, quirky laugh, and edgy style. Since winning the crown in 2021, she’s become a true fashion icon, sitting front row at various fashion weeks, starring in Moschino’s Fall 2021 campaign and gracing the Met Gala red carpet.
But I’m not greeted with an elaborate hairstyle or designer dress on this particular rainy afternoon. Instead, Symone is streak-free, fresh-faced, and wearing a Tina Turner graphic tee. Behind her, I see a glimpse of her life in Los Angeles: take-out leftovers on a coffee table; laundry on the way to the washer; stacks of books and magazines waiting to be read. It’s a magical mess you might expect to find in the home of five drag queens, a few of whom make repeated appearances in the background throughout our video chat. “We really are family,” Symone says of her mother and drag sisters, who go by the name The House of Avalon. “I’ve known them since my sophomore year of college, so I pretty much grew up with them.”
Before meeting her drag family, Symone was a makeup-obsessed teen from Conway, Ark., who rushed home after school to try out beauty tutorials. “I had two hours before my parents were home from work, so I would put on makeup, and then as soon as I heard the garage door open, I would wipe everything down,” she says. Symone’s secret hobby, inspired by the early seasons of drag race and her mother’s love of dressing up – quickly evolved into an integral part of her identity. “I wanted to find a way to express myself because being a teenager was hard,” she says, referring to her experience of being bullied in middle school. With some extra cash from a part-time job, Symone was able to quietly build a Target makeup collection and began posting her looks on instagram.
Despite Arkansas’ conservative reputation, Symone grew up in a more open-minded part of the state, with her family fully embracing her queer identity once she told them. “Of course, it was always a challenge, and I still went through [derogatorily] called ‘gay’ and all that, but it was nothing compared to if I had lived 30 minutes away,” she explains. “I also think that because of the internet and drag race becoming more common, when I got to high school, my sexuality and hobbies weren’t that important. Even if people weren’t on board, they were at least open to it.
It was one of Symone’s friends who encouraged her to have her very first drag experience at the school dance. “It hadn’t occurred to me to do it until she said so,” admits Symone. And thanks to the mother of one of her classmates (“she was the only shopkeeper who let me try on a dress”), Symone was able to choose a pretty little pink number to wear and even got the support of her headmaster. “At first he didn’t recognize me, but when he did he told me I looked great and if anyone said anything to me I should let them know.”
Symone’s first drag performance was at an amateur night out at a local bar a few months later. “I was so nervous that I was shaking,” she recalls. “But as soon as the hostess introduced me, it was like a switch. I still can’t really explain it. I remember the spotlight hitting me and then it was over.
But Symone’s drag racing career was just beginning. While at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she met House of Avalon resident Grant Vanderbilt at a drag contest. In fact, it was Vanderbilt who encouraged her not to wear body padding, which Symone is now known for. “I didn’t know it was possible to be a drag queen without padding,” she says. “Then I tried, and I felt so free, so I kept doing it,” she laughs. Soon she was spending every weekend and summer with The House of Avalon in Little Rock and finally became a permanent member of the drag family in 2019, when she moved into their Los Angeles resort. This is where Symone decided to apply to be sure drag race. “I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be on the show, but everyone in the house was literally yelling at me to send in a tape, so I did.”
And the rest is history. When Symone won multiple challenges and created many viral fashion moments, including a white dress adorned with bullet holes as a tribute to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear she had come to not only kill but be shameless black woman and celebrate her culture. .
For Symone, flirting is more than dressing up; it is activism. “By its very definition, drag goes against society,” she says. “Society is afraid of what it can’t control, and you can’t control a drag queen.” But, ironically, the drag gave Symone a sense of control over her own life. In a particularly poignant moment drag race episode, Symone revealed that as Reggie (her name outside of drag), she felt pressure to be perfect after her brother was arrested. “Symone could do whatever she wanted – she could get drunk and be loud and have fun,” she explains when I refer to this moment in the series. “Reggie had to protect his family. He couldn’t be wrong because he had a real life. So when I discovered drag, it gave me the freedom to not be that person.
Over the years, the lines between Reggie and Symone have become increasingly blurred. “Most queens say it gets harder to balance the two characters, but I think it got easier,” Symone reveals. “At first they were two separate entities in my head, but this past year has helped me inject Symone’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent back into Reggie.”
This new confidence in his personal life led to more confidence in his professional life. A 30-second scroll through Symone’s Instagram account shows just how fearless she is, especially when it comes to fashion: a neon green tulle ballgown by Christian Siriano; a Mona Lisa crop top by Jean Paul Gaultier; an all-leather jumpsuit designed by Zendaya’s fairy godfather, Law Roach. Then there’s all the magazine covers, red carpets and front row seats of global fashion weeks. “Drag queens are the new fashion muses,” Symone says of the industry’s current interest in her and her sisters. She explains that “drag queens are always on the cutting edge of culture,” and given the massive success of drag race – the show is now in its 14th season and has inspired a slew of spin-offs, including Canada’s Drag Race – she does not exaggerate. The show’s contestants become celebrities overnight, and for Symone, that led to her pursuing her acting career, particularly in Bros, the first major studio film to feature an all-LGBTQIA2S+ cast playing fully LGBTQIA2S+ roles. “Acting is similar to dragging in the sense that you can play around with how people see you,” she shares. “But I wouldn’t say Symone is a character; she is more just who I am.
And who she is is shamelessly herself. She’s quick to smile – even quicker to laugh – and brings sunshine wherever she goes. “Drag saved my life,” she reveals. “I’m serious. I physically wouldn’t be here right now without it. And I think that’s what keeps us queens going. We know what it’s like to literally fight to be us. All I want for my flirt is for other people to enjoy and experience it. Making people happy makes me happy. Mission accomplished.
Photography by GREG SWALES. Creative direction and styling by GEORGE ANTONOPOULOS. Hair by FITCH LUNAR FOR OPUS BEAUTY/HIDDEN CROWN. Makeup by RYLIE HOLDEN (RUBBER). Digital technology: MEREDITH MUNN. Production: ALEXEY GALETSKY FOR AGPNYC. Lighting: YOLANDA LEANEY. Fashion assistant: LENNON-GABRIEL. Production assistant: SASHA MILOSTNOVA FOR AGPNYC.