Even if you're not a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race you've probably seen or heard of Alaska, one of the most popular drag queens in the country. The runner up of Drag Race season 5 and champion of the iconic show's All Stars spin-off in season 2, Alaska's "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent," have cemented her place in pop culture, along with her iconic vocal fry greeting, "Hiyeeeeeeeeeeee."
Now, the drag star, singer, and all-around show-stopping performer has taken to the big screen with the release of a new comedy special, The Alaska Thunderf**k Extra Special Comedy Special, available now on OUTtv, the first LGBTQ+ Apple TV channel. The comedy special, a one-night live performance recorded before the pandemic, features "some of Alaska's greatest musical hits, exciting special guests, and a series of comedic jokes."
"[When] we recorded this comedy special," Alaska told Travel + Leisure over Zoom, "I should have just stood there and told jokes for an hour. But instead, I had to do musical numbers and I had to do like, costume changes, and I had to do a crystal bowl healing session and a drag contest. I couldn't just do the easy thing."
Then, Alaska recalled, the world changed, and so did the film.
"We had Zoom calls about it, and [we] put those in the movie, too," she said.
Like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic changed drag across the globe. Instead of picking up dollars on the stage, drag queens were cashing out their Venmo accounts after virtual performances. For high-profile, touring queens like Alaska, virtual shows eventually evolved into drive-in performances in cities around the U.S. "Anytime I can get in front of people, and they put a microphone in my hand, I'll do it," Alaska said of the drive-in shows. "I don't care if it's in a parking lot, on the lawn. I don't care if it's in the parking lot behind Macy's."
Of course, a parking lot full of cars is certainly a different dynamic than the neon light-filled, loud, and often intimate nature of a drag show in a queer bar. "It's weird, because everyone's spread out, which is good… for safety it's good to keep everyone spread out," Alaska, who performed in parking lots from New York to Los Angeles, said. "It's weird to be, like, telling a joke [and] people are just thousands of yards away from you. But that's why I just added a laugh track [to the show]. It helped everybody."
While drive-in and virtual shows have been the way to keep on keeping on during this unforgettable time, Alaska is certainly no stranger to traveling the world to perform, especially pre-pandemic. Traveling internationally and around the country, drag queens see the world in a different way than most tourists: popping in and out of cities, performing, and moving on to the next gig.
"Touring is hard," Alaska explained. "It's really, really hard work. I think it maybe appears on the outside, like, 'Oh, you're going to all these fabulous places and seeing all these things,' but it's like no, I'm going and I'm seeing the airport and I'm seeing the bus and I'm seeing the dressing room and seeing the hotel for three hours and then I'm doing it again."
But just because Alaska's travels don't always include photo ops at tourist attractions, there's still a sense of connection with the local community — and more importantly, its fans. As Alaska explained, the best way to "experience the city" is by connecting with the audience. "I'm very lucky," she said. "I get to meet the best people wherever I go. I feel like everywhere I go is like a sense of family. I feel at home everywhere."
Having toured from Tampa to India to Brazil, it's safe to say that Alaska — who co-hosts the Drag Race podcast "Race Chaser With Alaska and William" — is well-traveled, but the average person can only wonder the logistics of transporting the necessary makeup, outfits, and wigs required to put on a glittery drag show.
"I consider myself to be very low maintenance. That being said, I'm a drag queen. So, I mean, it's a lot," she said, noting that she travels with three suitcases: one for drag, one for makeup, and one full of merchandise to sell. "These are at the absolute maximum end of what the airlines allow for weight. So they are packed to the gills. Then we go and we ruin the airport check-in desks because we have all this shit. And they're like, 'Where did this come from?' And then we go to the next place and to do it all over again."
For now, like the rest of us, Alaska is patiently waiting for the world to get back to some version of normal. Luckily, the U.S. is slowly starting to get there, and Alaska's calendar is starting to fill up. It's important, she says, for drag fans and performers to keep supporting one another, LGBTQ+ bars, and the community as a whole until we get settled into whatever our collective futures will be. Until then, Alaska, one of the most dynamic queens in the business, will just keep taking it day by day waiting for sunnier skies.
"I feel like it's the end of the school year, and I just want to go on summer vacation," she said.
Tanner Saunders is the Experiences Editor at Travel + Leisure. He's a very big fan of drag. Follow him on Instagram @Tizanner.
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