Were there not a pandemic keeping the doors of Little Rock’s gay nightclubs shut — and its queer nightlife on ice — you can bet that Friday nights in January 2021 at Club Sway would have been lit. That’s because Arkansas has its first drag queen on the long-running “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — the televised Olympics of drag. And with the way the 13th season of the show has opened, the watch parties would have been as emotionally charged as they’d have been celebratory.
Symone, born Reggie Gavin, is from Conway. She’s as witty as she is sweet. She’s quick to laugh, or to crack a blue joke. When we mentioned to her that Arkansans back home were shamelessly rooting for her, she issued a gracious “Thank you,” then quipped that she “loves a good shameless rooting.” And, not insignificant in her line of business, Symone is breathtakingly gorgeous. The camera doesn’t just love her. It is wed to her.
The Faulkner County queen’s sparkle and charm have not gone unnoticed. After the premiere of “Drag Race” on New Year’s Day 2021, a writer from New York magazine’s entertainment blog Vulture wrote that “if anyone can lay claim to the title of frontrunner after only 10 minutes of screentime, it’s Symone.” After the second episode aired on Jan. 8, the feminist blog Jezebel published an article under the title “It’s a Little Early, But ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Already Seems to Have Found a Winner.” (Guess who?)
Symone became a darling of the small but fierce drag community in Little Rock over the last several years, hosting late-night shows at Discovery and a series called “Symone Says” at Club Sway — “boot camp,” she called it — then going to classes at UA Little Rock, her two-inch red fingernails the only tell that Gavin had an extracurricular career in entertainment. She moved to Los Angeles in early 2019, and had lived there with a consortium of other Arkansas expats for a little over a year when she got the call that she’d made the cut to appear on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She’d come into her own in LA, she told us, completing the transformation from the “shy, anxious little thing” she says she was as a teen to the supermodel queen we see owning the RuPaul runway on the TV screen. “Here,” she said, “no one had any idea who I was. I had to make a name for myself.”
Back in Arkansas, the line between Reggie and Symone had been slightly more defined, and their corresponding pronouns kept more separate, Symone said. “Because, in my mind, they were different, you know? But now I’ve come to a point where I’m much more comfortable being called Symone, out in public or whatever. If you call me Reggie, that’s fine. I’m not a person who’s gonna get upset about those things. As long as you’re being respectful, I’m cool.” She acknowledged that, after all, gender is a construct and, in the same breath, waved off the notion of phrasing it in such academic terms. “For me,” she said, “it was about getting out of my own way as far as gender and identity.”
These days, Symone and Reggie cohabitate a little more intimately. There’s a short video Symone made for Vogue UK with Quinn Wilson, Lizzo’s creative director, in the summer of 2020, called “Symone, a Black Drag Queen Finding Ways To Be Free,” which Symone told us was “almost like a therapy session.” It’s soft and gauzy, and weaves in short ruminations on identity. “I created [Symone], and she helped me be free. And Reggie, which is my boy name, he’s my guard. Being a gay Black man, you have to be strong. Symone tears away at that. She’s the child underneath it, the one that, you know, society tears down, makes fun of, and says something’s wrong with. … She’s the person that I really am. I would say Reggie is a mask I put on every day.”
Realizations like that, for Symone, come not only with their own complexities, but with their own consequences. There’s a misconception about drag, she said, “that you put on a wig and you become somebody else. … I personally think drag reveals who a person is. There is a certain power that drag gives you. And I think there’s a misconception that you get to use that power to do and say whatever you want.”
The Vogue UK video was filmed “around the time of George Floyd, for one. And then also right around when I got the call to go on the show — either right before or right after. So all of those things that I was speaking about were really important for my life.” The timing, she said, was “crazy. Like divine intervention or something.”
“The person I’d really credit that to, the one who really broke it down for me — what I do — is my housemate Hunter. He really sees people. You know what I’m saying?” That’s Hunter Crenshaw, a Bald Knob native. He’s Symone’s housemate in a double sense. That is, they live together, but are also both members of the House of Avalon, a gay street gang that takes its name from a passage in a book by Marianne Williamson, spiritual space cadet and one-time seeker of the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. House of Avalon, which got its start in the Arkansas capital city its members rechristened “Glitterock,” is a fully formed fashion/pop culture braintrust, hosting outlandishly themed parties in Hollywood and environs, armed with a sensibility that blends glamour with absurdity. “Drag,” Symone told us, “has become more like what pop stars have to be. … You’re not just a pop star. You have to be a mogul.” There’s House of Avalon merch. The members have posed for a shoot with Los Angeles magazine. There’s an Avalon TV station on Twitch, a quarantine project dreamed up by Symone et al. when the pandemic quashed their party-planning aspirations for the year. There’s a playground of inventive Instagram content — Avalon members dressed as sexed-up characters from “Sesame Street”; a mini-horror film shot by HOA’s Caleb Feeney involving a Destiny’s Child refrain and massive amounts of what appears to be honey; vibrant full-body stills that make clear how difficult it is to fit Symone’s endlessly long legs into Instagram’s square-frame format. In that feed, too, is the iconic “Polaroid dress” menswear designer Michael Brambila constructed for Symone to wear for her “Drag Race” stage debut. The dress — “a love letter” to her drag character, Symone told us — was built from a collection of polaroids of Symone, chain-linked together to (barely) cover her upper half, a re-creation of a 2004 Gisele Bündchen shoot for Esquire magazine.
The formula that drives “Drag Race” is, by now, familiar to viewers of competition-based reality TV shows. We know there will be solo “confessionals” where we get to know the contestants one-by-one. We know there will be manufactured opportunities for contestants to talk shit about other contestants. We know contestants will strut their stuff in some sort of weekly challenge — on “Drag Race,” queens sport couture drag looks on the runway and face the ever-imminent threat of a sudden death lip-sync battle. We know there will be some come-to-Jesus moment in the last third of the episode in which deified judges rain down judgment from their pedestals, sending some poor soul packing. And above all, we know the show’s editors will work long and hard to steep as much drama as possible into that 22-minute cup of tea. (Or, in this case, nearly 83 minutes; “Drag Race,” being the empire that it is, occupies a considerable amount of Friday night prime-time real estate on VH1.)
But the formula is not so hard and fast this season, it seems. There are COVID-19 precautions in place, for one thing, upending the usual getting-to-know-you routine in the premiere and forcing a plexiglass barrier between each judge. And given that there are ostensibly a dozen more shows to go (the number of episodes in this season was unconfirmed when we went to press), RuPaul and her panel haven’t exactly been coy about their enthusiasm for Symone in the name of maintaining some element of suspense. In the second episode, for example, Symone posed and punched her way down the mainstage in a candy-apple-red satin boxer’s getup with “Ebony Enchantress” etched on the back and the word “AVALON’’ emblazoned on her gloves and belt. Afterward, RuPaul, the nation’s most recognizable drag mother — and one whose brand of motherhood isn’t exactly tender — shrugged and said flatly, “You’ve got star quality. You’ve got it, kiddo.”
As pivotal as that mothering moment seemed to those of us bullish on Symone’s chances at winning, Symone says it was a show of support from her father back home in Arkansas that took her by surprise. “When I came out, he did not take it very well,” Symone said. “Thank God for my mother, but I just felt very unseen by him as a kid. For men, especially Black men, it can be very hard to have a gay son and then on top of that, your son wants to do drag. So I was just very surprised that he a) watched the show and b) that he watched it with family members. I’m so proud of him. In a way it was a breaking of a barrier, in my mind. Of not being ashamed.”
In the drag world, as in the workaday world, categories of identity can be as helpful or as restrictive as we make them; queens are often expected to specialize in a certain area of expertise: comedy, choreography, modeling, emceeing, singing. “People want to put you in a box so effing badly because it makes sense for them,” Symone said. “But you know, nothing’s supposed to make sense. It’s life. This is drag. I wanna do everything.”