Early morning in LA, and Laganja Estranga’s enjoying a joint, a coffee and the sun, her dog barking in the background.
‘How am I in June 2019? That’s a loaded question,’ she says (non-defensively) down the phone. ‘I’d say “contemplative.” We’re talking about my life. I have mixed emotions about where I am.’
She finished eighth on RuPaul’s Drag Race SE6 five years ago (’A decade in TV!’). And yet, 30-year-old Texas-native Laganja remains one of the show’s most memorable contestants. Not least for moments so immortalized in meme culture (‘Let’s get sickening!’ ‘I feel very attacked!’), even non-fans of the show recognize her.
‘Death-drops, catchphrases, going to nightclubs… it gets monotonous’
But that’s part of the problem. Laganja’s brief, impactful, polarizing RPDR performance follows her to this day.
’Now the show’s on Netflix, people are watching it for the first time’, the nonbinary star points out. ‘It’s something I’ve realized I’m going to have to relive my whole life.’
She’s shown different sides to herself – for example, on So You Can Think You Can Dance? – with other highs including a performance with Miley Cyrus at the 2015 VMAs, and being called one of 2019’s ‘most powerful drag queens’ by New York Magazine.
But there have also been lows.
‘I went into a deep depression and risked my life many a night’
‘I suffered alcoholism after the show,’ explains Laganja, real name Jay Evan Jackson. ‘I went into a deep depression and risked my life many a night. Luckily, I got sober for three years. I fell off last year, but I’m sober again now. Since 28 December. So, several months.’
‘It’s an ongoing battle,’ she adds. ‘But those years sober were life-changing. I realized I’d allowed the show and public perception [of me] to deteriorate my love for myself. I got help, was in counseling for years, worked through it, thank god. But I think the show should’ve been there for me. I really do.’
Here, Laganja candidly addresses TV shows’ duty of care for talent, her experiences of the ‘homophobic’ cannabis industry and the real reason an All Stars return’s so complicated for her.
You mentioned you might be moving?
Yeah. I’m not sure what I’m doing – I’m an artist. My life’s been scheduled the last six years. This is the first time I’m not making plans.
I was going to move to Denver to focus on the cannabis part of my brand. To work on WeedTube, created by my dear friend Aaron Richard. It’s like YouTube for cannabis creators. YouTube doesn’t allow you to make money off cannabis content anymore.
I’ve been focusing on expanding my brand. It’s become limited. Death-drops, catchphrases, going to nightclubs… it gets monotonous.
As an artist I like to change things; be constantly evolving. One reason people have attached to me since RPDR is, I’m constantly trying to better myself. I’m not afraid to fall down in public.
I’ve tried a lot of things. Make up lines. Jewelry. Dance classes. Some things have been more successful than others. But because I’ve been playing Twister – one hand here, one hand there; shows, modeling, doing it all at once – it’s made it hard to succeed hugely in one area.
My projects have been mildly successful. But I really want something that’ll set me up financially, so that I can do what I really want. My goal, my dream. To have a dance company.
I went to college, got my BFA in Dance and Choreography from the California Institute of the Arts – I’ve always been a very educated person. It’s just my character on TV didn’t come off that way. I’ve been constantly fighting that battle of earning people’s trust again.
So many girls have broken the barrier. With cannabis, that’ll be my way. It’s been with my brand for so long. I was scared to go into it for numerous reasons. It’s a homophobic culture, the cannabis industry. You’d be surprised.
Really? How so?
Unfortunately, like most smart ideas, when white, rich, [straight] men figure ‘this is a good thing’, they take over.
It was a grassroots movement. Especially in California. The reason we had medical marijuana is the LGBTQ community. They were fighting for their brothers and sisters to receive proper medication for HIV/AIDS at the time.
So, to me, it’s crazy. These two cultures have been simultaneously next to one and other. But for some reason, ‘bro’ culture took over. That being said, I’ve forged my way, made relationships.
This year we saw Pride collaborations at an all-time high. Of course, in my opinion, a lot of these collaborations just slapped a rainbow on their product. It wasn’t a genuine appreciation of the LGBTQ community.
But there were companies [that did show appreciation]. Such as [one] I worked with that not only donated to the charity of my choice – $10,000 to the Los Angeles LGBT Center – but created a product that had a drag queen on the cover.
My edible’s coming out. What’s unique about what I’m doing with Fruit Slabs is it’s not just going to be available for one month. Pride should be celebrated year-round. We’re still working on which charity we’re donating to. But absolutely, we’ll be giving back to the community.
What also makes our edible the best is we’re not a gummy. We’re all-natural, vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free… I’m proud. It’s the partnership I’ve been looking for.
What’s your view on legalizing drugs?
I definitely don’t believe in the legalization of drugs. I consider cannabis a medicine. So I’m all for the legalization of that medically. For drugs, I know Denver just decriminalized mushrooms. Is that what you’re asking? Am I for that kind of thing?
Yeah, sure. That’s a good example.
No, not at all. I’ve done mushrooms. If you’re interested, wanna do them, sure. Do I think they should be decriminlizaed, encouraged? Probably not.
There’s more research to be done on marijuana. Do I think psychedelics may have a medicinal property? There have been studies shown that micro-dosing acid can do things. I’m not opposed to drugs at all. It’s just not my platform. Not something I’m promoting or care to take on.
Circling back to Drag Race, Netflix, rehashing narratives – would you return to All Stars to reset that?
It’s a question I’ve been asked every year after doing the show. My answer’s always been no. I’ll be quite honest. It was quite traumatic. I haven’t wanted to put myself in that position.
But there was one year I did say yes. I did go for the psych evaluation. I’m trying to be creative with how I say this… Long story short, I didn’t get approved that year. I refused to give them the ‘more information’ they required, because it was legally my right to do so. So, I didn’t end up going on that season. Obviously.
The one Gia was on. The most recent one? It could have been the one before that, because they could’ve asked us together and she got turned down. But they ask me every year. I was like ‘I’m going to entertain this because Gia’s going on. We can do this together.’ But it didn’t work out.
Now I’m in this weird place. I don’t know. I’ve mixed emotions. It’s a gift to be on that show, the platform we gain. [But] I feel right now, in this moment in time, when you ask me this question, if I were to go back, it would be because of financial struggle.
My rate’s been what it’s been for the last couple of years. It hasn’t improved. Even though I’ve worked with Miley Cyrus, been on other TV shows. I’m currently on TV right now, on So You Think You Can Dance? Even though I’ve done amazing things, in our community, unless you go on that show, you’re not really coming up. Unless you do something that breaks through.
So I’ve been feeling an extreme amount of pressure to go back on. To retell my story. But it’s scary. I’ve worked so hard to be rebuild. What if I go back and all of that crumbles?
I know I’ll know when the time is right. I’m more open to the opportunity than I once was. I’d love to show people the mature young adult I’ve become. The non-binary, proud being that I am. I wouldn’t even have considered myself non-binary when I started the show. I’ve grown. Who doesn’t want to show that?
It’s one of those things. Girls are spending $15,000 to go on that show now. It’s a commitment. That’s not to say you don’t make the money back. You do. But funding that upfront isn’t easy for all of us. Especially those of us living in LA! It’s an expensive game I play.
You’ve said other shows were less intense that RPDR. What’s your view on companies’ responsibilities to talent?
I think they have an extremely huge responsibility. The fact they’re psych-evaluating contestants explains everything to you. If you have to give someone a psych-evaluation in order to compete, it should be required to not only have a follow up, but, I think, at least a three-month period in which counseling’s provided. At a discounted rate. If not for free.
Was the experience of fame traumatic?
Sure. I guess it was the fame. It’s hard to pinpoint. It was all of it. Losing friends. Being so busy. Being so drunk. Everything I did being scrutinized. It was an intense time.
I thought people were going to love me, that I was hilarious. That was the feedback I’d gotten from the producers. When I realized my hilarity had been turned into a mockery, it was hard.
Have you received apologies?
I have. One of the Untucked producers definitely, even when it went down, knew it’d gone too far. That’s why I was allowed to leave. You’re not allowed to leave set. It was shown. ‘I would like to leave.’ I did, calmed down.
But I’m not looking for an apology. That’s the producers’ job. They’re there to make television. They have children to feed. While it’s not a job I would ever choose to do myself, I have extreme respect for those who can separate work from real life. It can’t be easy to make someone cry, feel horrible. But it’s their job. I’ve come to terms with that.
Michelle Visage is the person who helped me realize. We talked after I was eliminated, Whatcha Packin’. Before filming she was like, well, we can do this on camera or here, and broke it down for me. I chose off-camera.
She told me: ‘I’m not a bitch. But I play one on TV.’ I was like, oh. I get it now. Everyone has a role.
Unfortunately, I was the role of the young innocent contestant who didn’t know what was going on and gave them everything they needed. But I did it well. I don’t regret anything; I was myself. That’s why I remain well-known. I’m not the most popular or liked, but people know who I am. I left an impression.
Maybe it wasn’t always positive, but I made people feel something. As an artist, that’s our goal.
Obviously, I was ridiculous, sure. But I’m still proud. I stuck to my guns, never apologized for who I was. That’s hard to do. Because I was crazy. [Laughs]. But I know who I’ve become, who I am. I’m still that crazy person as well, and I live up to it!
How did you feel about the New York Magazine spread?
Also a loaded question! I thought my cover was sickening. I was disappointed in the article. That doesn’t overshadow the fact 37 queens were on the cover of New York Magazine looking amazing. Unfortunately, the drama spoiled that a bit. The article was horrendous – I wish there was a nicer word. I couldn’t believe, in Pride month, they were ranking us.
Have you and Gia have fallen out?
I love this question! She discussed our relationship on Hey Qween and was honest about her opinions at that time. Remember, everything in TV land is filmed one time, shown another. Do we fight? Yes. Of course. We’re sisters. But do we love each other and have each other’s back always and forever? Of course.