The Texas-born queen (and Shakespearean actor, and pageant winner) known as Islaya was just starting to become a name in NYC drag with her vibrant mixes and fierce looks when COVID struck. Now, she’s keeping the momentum going as a divine digital diva.
Thotyssey: Hello, Islaya! So… it’s quite a surprisingly eventful day, this quarantined Saturday, and there’s lot to talk about.
Islaya: Hey, Jim! I agree, there is definitely a lot to talk about. I just want to start off by saying #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter, and #BlackLivesMatter.
One hundred per cent. So generally speaking, how have these months of quarantine been treating you?
They have definitely been a journey. I’ve been allowed to rest, recharge, and check in with myself. Now that I’m rested, I’m excited to get back to doing more consistent art online, which is an interesting platform to navigate through this time.
You’re a fairly young queen, but you’ve already been making quite an impact in this city: winning competitions, slaying guest spots, working looks… and now you’ve been dabbling in digital home shows. How do you like this new module for performing?
I am actually a huge fan of digital drag. It’s kind of like the difference between stage acting and film acting. The camera picks up everything, so the subtleties speak volumes through digital drag. I’m definitely more of a stage performer, but digital drag is allowing me to showcase a side of my artistry that I don’t get to show off in the clubs.
That’s a smart way to look at it! Friday night’s socially distant finale for RuPaul’s Drag Race was actually an interesting test of that. I think Gigi and Crystal put a lot of dazzling creativity into their pre-taped segments, but in the end it was beauty and old school showstopping performance that got Jaida the win.
You took the words right out of my mouth. Jaida serves up classic drag in a fresh way that is very captivating to me. What I liked the most about her lip sync was that each gag and reveal helped further tell the story the song was communicating. You can tell she put a lot of thought into it beforehand, so that she could really give herself over to the performance once the time came. I was honestly blown away, and am so glad she is our current reigning queen!
Plus, the beloved Heidi N. Closet is Miss Congeniality! She’s been such a pleasure to watch in what was a compelling–albeit cursed–season!
I am so in love with Heidi. She’s the living proof that talent and charm go a long way, and that it isn’t always about how much money you can spend. She worked with what she had and made it a lot further than so many queens who had way more resources because of her honesty and ability, which is something I adore.
As much as I’d love to just spend today celebrating these queens (and reading Ru’s bizarre fashion choice)… there is a lot of real life horror and sadness happening in the country right now. No doubt additionally fueled by fears and frustrations of Covid, people are also rightfully furious and devastated about what happened In Minneapolis. Protests across the country got extremely heated, and now there is possible evidence that hate groups are disrupting the protests with anarchistic violence. Not to mention, there’s excessive force being instigated by police officers at the protests. I don’t even know how to begin to unpack it all. How are you feeling about all this today?
I’m simply just fed up with it all. I’m tired and exhausted. When slaves were stripped from their homeland and brought over to America, it was never intended for them to have rights, and the police department has been here to enforce racism and oppression since the beginning. During the Reconstruction Era, police were there as a way to continue monitoring black people as slaves while they navigated this new “freedom.” Police enforced Jim Crow and segregation laws as a way to continue this oppression.
Then on top of that, there are racist legacies within the police department; a lot of officers, their fathers and grandfathers were also in the force. These legacies help maintain those racist beliefs throughout the force, leading to what we see today. The purpose was never to protect and serve, and black people and allies are tired of it. I honestly think that since the racism is built in the roots of the establishment, you have to uproot it and rebuild.
That is the hopeful development that could come out of this, but it is not going to be easy; especially not with this president running the show.
So, it’s about time to discuss Islaya. Where’s your original hometown, and how did you begin as a young person in the arts?
I am from San Antonio, TX, born and raised. I got lured into theater in high school when one of my friends forced me to audition for a musical called Aida. I was cast as Mereb, and I haven’t looked back since. I got my BFA in acting at Texas Tech University, did an internship with Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and then moved to New York where I started drag.
Oh wow, I guessed your background was in dance or fashion… but you are a theater queen!
Yes, sir! Thankfully in theater you learn a little bit of everything, so I have my hand in it all. It’s funny because I spent so much time planning my life as an actor, but I think it was really all preparing me for drag. Granted, I hope my drag leads me to acting and theatrical opportunities, but now my focus is definitely just on developing my drag persona.
So, drag happened shortly after you got here.
I moved to NY March 15th, 2019. First thing I did was audition everywhere, and I started landing small gigs here and there, which was nice. In the back of head though, I knew I wanted to try drag… so I went looking for how to start. I went to the Monster on a Sunday night where I met Zarria Powell and Jasmin Van Wales, and I got in drag for the first time at the “Off With Her Head” competition on March 24, 2019. I looked a mess, but they took me under their wing, taught me the ropes, and gave me a firm start. I’m definitely appreciative of them for that.
“Islaya” I am assuming is a play on your boy name, Isiah.
You are one of the only people that put that together! Yes. Back when I went to Texas Tech, a girl I worked with would always call me “Islaya” and I would think, “that’s kind of cute.” That first night, Zarria asked me what my name was, and Islaya was the first thing that popped in my head. I watched how she spelled it on her sheet of paper because I didn’t even know how I would spell it, and it stuck ever since.
Doing the weekly competition circuit in this city can be a complicated endeavor. On one hand you’re in it to win the prize money, but you are also there for exposure, experience, and to network. Is all of that hard to navigate, sometimes?
It’s pretty complicated. But thankfully my sister Tina Twirler put me on game with how it all worked. She had started drag months before me, so when we got close she told me what places to go to and how they all worked. Thankfully, I am typically received pretty well by the crowds and other queens, which made going to them so fun. I’m at the point now where I’m trying to step out from the competition scene, but I definitely will always support them because those are my drag stomping grounds.
Indeed! You won a recent season of the Ultimate Drag Pageant at The West End, for one thing.
That was an amazing experience, and winning it made it all the more better, lol! What I loved most about that competition was that it forces you to showcase more than just one thing, which was exciting for me because it taught me to be more confident in my abilities. I prepared as soon as [host] Marti sent us the list of themes, and I feel that showed in how well I performed in the competition. My girls Acacia Forgot, Janae Saisquoi, Jupiter Doll, Arya Klos, and Ruby Monroe are sisters forever. We were a great support system for each other throughout the competition, but we were definitely all fighting for that crown! I loved doing that competition. It was also amazing meeting Marti Gould Cummings through that. She embodies what it means to be a drag queen in my opinion, and is a huge inspiration of mine.
You were also crowned Miss Atrevida USA back in September, at the El Trio Lounge in Corona, Queens!
I was so shocked to win that. I had literally only been doing drag for a few months at that time, when Lady German asked if I wanted to take a slot from a girl that dropped out. I had a few weeks to prepare, but with the help of my drag mother Zarria and a lot of friends I was able to put together a package. After the talent portion, there were people chanting “She’s the one!” in Spanish. That experience gave me a lot of confidence, and taught me the importance of investing in your drag. I’m excited to do more pageants later on in my drag career, for sure.
I’ve seen you do a particularly fierce Julia Sugarbaker “That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia” mix! And I’m sure you have a ton of other strong mixes. That’s that theater background!
Thank you so much. The Julia Sugarbaker monologue is my favorite. Talk about a read!
How would you describe what Islaya’s like today, performance-wise?
Unconventionally classic. I love classic camp and glamour, but I put the ‘Slaya Spin on it to bring a new perspective that other people like me can relate to.
Last week, you and Tina Twirler debuted a weekly digital show: “Sista Sista,” Wednesdays (8pm) on Instagram! Tell us how it went, and what the show is like.
The experience was honestly overwhelming and very fulfilling. In conjunction with “Sista Sista,” I also am doing a performance series called “Slay Days” where I post a new performance each week before the show (7pm). This past Wednesday, I posted myself doing a Shakepeare monologue from Titus Andronicus in drag that is already the most watched video on my Instagram. Then me and Tina started our show, and it was magical.
In the show we turn out numbers, talk about recent events, and open ourselves up to discussion with our viewers. It’s crazy how much people just need a release right now, and we’re bringing the people that release with quality performance and banter every Wednesday.
And I see that you and Tina will also be part of the cast of the Instagram showcase “Reverse Racism” hosted by Oliver Herface on June 6th (10pm)!
I am so glad Oliver Herface has put together that group, because the message is so necessary. It’s an all QPOC cast showcasing their talents, which is sadly still a rare thing. Reverse racism doesn’t exist, but actual racism does… which is why it is important for QPOC to create their own opportunities and support each other when others won’t. Oliver isn’t afraid to use their platform to start necessary dialogue, and I am so proud of them. Myself and a few other performers will be donating the tips made to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, so the tips of the viewers is going to a great cause.
Anything else to add?
I’d just like to thank you for interviewing me and allowing me to share my thoughts on a lot of important events going on. I really appreciate it, and I also hope you’re in good mental and physical health right now with everything going on.
Thanks so much, and likewise! These are challenging times indeed. And with that, let’s end on a lighter note: who do you wanna see win All Stars 5?
I would love for Shea Coulee to take this home, but I feel like Miz Cracker could come take it too. Those two are definitely the ones I would want to see taking the crown. It would also be pretty sickening to see Jujubee finally get that win, though. #TeamAllofThem
I second that! Take care of yourself, dear, and hope to see you soon!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Islaya’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.