Michelle Visage opens up about being on the frontline of the fight for LGBTQ rights for more than three decades, as she is named winner of the Ally Award, supported by Jaguar at the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar.
Presented with the honour by her best squirrel friend, RuPaul, the Drag Race favourite maintains that speaking up for the marginalised, oppressed and silenced is “like breathing, it’s something I just do.”
“Being an ally is as important as being a mother to me, it really is. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s not,” she states.
Michelle Visage, winner of the Ally Award, supported by Jaguar for the Attitude Awards issue (Photography: Zoe McConnell)
“When I entered into this ally world, in probably 1986-7, I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what the word meant, I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was getting into – but I knew that I was needed, I knew that I had a big mouth, and I knew that my words had an impact.”
Michelle – who has previously spoken about being attracted to both men and women but doesn’t define herself as bisexual – considers herself to be a part of the LGBTQ community, and anybody who argues otherwise can “sod off!”.
“Over the years, I’d been told – especially by the younger generation – that I’m not part of the community. I would come back and say, ‘Really? Who are you tell me that I’m not part of a community that I’ve been involved in for over 30 years?... Because I don’t present as a queer person on the outside? You don’t know my past; you don’t know who I am; or where I’ve been. You’re judging by the fact that I’m a cisgender woman married to a cisgender man.”
She affirms: “I know where my place is.”
Appearing on the cover of the Attitude Awards issue - out to download and to order globally from 1 December - the American singer and actress turns back the clock to the 80s, when she swapped suburban New Jersey for the mirrorballs of the gay nightclubs and underground balls of the Big Apple.
“It was the first I time I had felt comfortable and I had felt at home,” she recalls. “Dorothy clicks her heels three times and returns to Kansas, for me, I click my heels three times and I end up on Christopher Street.”
Michelle wears dress by Self Portrait at Selfridges, necklace by Lark and Berry, earrings by Louise Kennedy (Photography: Zoe McConnell)
Joining the House of Magnifique – where she became “one of the first cisgender women to compete in a vogue category and a face category” – Michelle, 51, reflects not only on the friendships she forged, but the loved ones she lost when the AIDS epidemic took grip.
“Over 20 people, all men. Not just men, but boys,” she discloses. “One of my voguing mentors was Willi Ninja [and] I got to see him in hospital before he passed. Too many funerals, too many memorials, too many stories… the way these gay men were done was so wrong and disgusting and unbelievable to witness. You see how we spring into action with COVID? Nobody sprung into action for these men who were dying. Nobody wanted to go near them.”
She continues: “I also lost a lot friends to drugs within the gay community, [and] I lost a lot of friends [who were sex workers] to accidents with ‘tricks’. A lot of them lived on the streets and had no other way to support themselves, because they were thrown out by their families for being gay, trans or just different.”
The mother of two - who is married to her author and screenwriter husband, David - adds that her allyship was strengthened when her daughter, Lillie, came out as gay.
“I couldn’t imagine abandoning my child because of who she loves or what she stands for,” Michelle begins. “She wrote me the most beautiful text that I’ll keep forever, which was her coming-out story. She started it by saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you do for our community, and our community because I am part of this community and I never thank you for the work you do tirelessly, endlessly.’”
Family – including her chosen family – means a lot to Michelle, and as somebody who is adopted, she connects more than most to the idea that bonds by no means must be bound in blood and biology.
Photography: Markus Bidaux
“Being adopted is a gift," she explains. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met my biological parents, and I had a beautiful relationship with my biological mother – she’s not with us any more, but I was lucky enough to have that... If you think about it, I was adopted by the gay community as well.”
Looking ahead to the future, Michelle reveals she has plans to adopt and would like to welcome another LGBTQ child into the fold.
“I have every intention of it,” she shares. “I would want to, obviously, foster or adopt through the LGBT family, so this kid knows they’re going to go into a fully inclusive household who’s going to love them for who they are."