She made her name on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now she’s a judge on TV3’s Ireland’s Got Talent. Esther McCarthy meets Michelle Visage
Irish TV fans are going to be seeing a lot of Michelle Visage over the coming months, when she joins the judging panel of Ireland’s Got Talent — TV3’s new, high-stakes addition to their spring schedule.
It’s fair to say that Visage isn’t as prolific in this part of the world as in her native US, but Irish fans from shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race were thrilled at her appointment, and with good reason.
Her blend of straight talking and empathy in the annual search for ‘America’s next drag superstar’ has endeared her to fans and makes her a perfect candidate for the Irish talent search. Best of all, she has lived this experience, knowing successes and rejection over since she was an aspiring singer and actress in her teens. Growing up as a kid in working-class New Jersey, her parents allowed her dare to dream, she tells me.
“I was adopted, actually, into a family who were completely tone deaf and have no rhythm. What I will say about my beautiful mother, who’s no longer with us, and my great dad, who still is, is that they always encouraged me to be who I was. They never judged me for being different or for thinking outside the box.
“When everybody else was going to uni, or everybody else was doing what they were doing in secondary school, I was the one who was wanting to audition for shows, go to this lesson and that lesson. And though we couldn’t afford it, they always found ways of making it happen. I think that they knew from the very beginning that I was a little different. They don’t have the musical ability, or the theatricals, or whatever you want to call it. But what they did have was unconditional love and support for my vision, and that’s sometimes all you need.”
Her parents, who had wanted to adopt a child for some time, embraced her interest in a career in the arts — though they instilled in her the values of work and dedication, too.
“As an adopted kid, I think I got a little more indulging than the average kid would. Because my parents waited so long and fought so hard to get me, my parents didn’t have money but they did everything they could to get me what I wanted, within reach obviously. I wanted voice lessons but we couldn’t afford to go to New York City for voice lessons. So they found a local theatre coach who could help me. I think my mother was really tough, she grew up in Brooklyn. My dad’s from Baltimore, they were tough kids, and they applied the same principles to me. I think when I wasn’t good at things, they didn’t stop me from dreaming but they definitely let me know that maybe it wasn’t my strongest suit.”
The hard-working Michelle Lynn Shupack was already getting paid gigs in her early teens (‘Visage’ is her professional name). By the time she was 19, the talented vocalist had landed a place in girl group Seduction, whose US hits included Two To Make It Right.
“The first regional play I did was called I Remember Momma, and I was 13 years old. It was something that was outside of school, so I got paid for it. It was a great breakthrough moment for myself, mostly for my confidence. Then the girl group happened, and I beat out a whole bunch of other girls for this gig, before there was an X-Factor or even an internet.”
Despite this success, the young Michelle lacked a sense of belonging and didn’t know her place in the world, which impacted on her sense of self-esteem.
“When I was 17 years old I did not fit in throughout my school years, and I did my best to try to fit in. I never really felt like I had a place, I was an adopted kid and I didn’t look like my family. My parents loved me, don’t get me wrong, I’m talking about my own feeling of not looking like anybody and always feeling: ‘Where do I go? Where do I fit?’ In high school nobody really understood me, nobody really got me, I didn’t really fit in there. So when I found the LGBT community, then I knew that I had come home.”
Happily married to screenwriter David Case for more than two decades (the couple have two teenage daughters), she has long felt a strong bond to the LGBT community and formed great friendships there. She is passionate about a number of causes, including dog rescue and mental health supports for young people, but being a supporter of the LGBT community is the “biggest thing” in her life, she agrees.
“I knew that I was put on this earth to be an ally, and I’ve been marching in the Pride march for years. But I’m only becoming a known ally now because of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And I’m grateful, and hopeful that my voice can be heard and do some good.” Although she agrees great progress has been made in her home country in terms of tolerance, she is concerned about Trump’s ascension to power.
“It’s tough, we’ve got a horrible regime in charge and they’re trying to turn back the hands of time. We as a community are not going to let that happen. I want the kids to know that there are elders like myself that are out there fighting to maintain the rights and progress the movement even further. And that it’s ok, they will be protected, and loved, and safe.
“Fear is not a good place to operate from. We have to get mad, and we have to stick together. We’re a pretty tough community, we’ve been through a lot of shit, and it takes more than one orange little shrivelled-up man to bring us down. He has no regard for humanity, gay or straight.” Her daughters Lillie (17) and Lola (15) are getting the same family support as Michelle did from her parents in those early days, as they prepare to build their own future careers.
“They’re both really intelligent girls. They both have a whole lot more brains than I do, I was never really good at academia. I did like English and sociology and psychology but I was never very good with the numbers and the sciences. My oldest has battled depression for quite some time and finding theatre helped her. She’s heading off to uni next year. She has a love for theatre and I think she’ll continue to do it, but she doesn’t want to make it her career — her passion is writing. My youngest definitely is an actress and has been studying and wants to start auditioning. So we’ll see how that goes.”
Although she’s best known for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Michelle has taken on lots of other gigs over the years.
She was a Celebrity Big Brother contestant and her commentary of the Eurovision for US television last May was such a hit that she’s returning this year.
“Eurovision is very special, and to understand it and appreciate it are two different things. I both understand and appreciate and know how seriously you guys take this. I love it, it’s so camp and so fun and so real for these people.”
In fact, she gets not just the Eurovision but the Irish, having worked on 2FM for a spell before her TV career took off in the US. She was thrilled at the prospect of returning to spend more time here.
“I’ve been back and forth for many, many years, and Ireland reminds me of New Jersey in the sense that Irish people kind of have a tough edge about them. I wouldn’t say bitter or jaded like us New Yorkers are! But you have that edge where you kind of tell it like it is and don’t really care. And you guys are really funny.”
She’s excited for Ireland’s Got Talent to begin, and added she’ll be looking out for the quirky when it comes to making her selections.
"I love underdogs and I love weird people. I love people that live in the margins. I think the predictable is great, I think the predictable is safe and I’m not one who goes for safety, I like the ‘live on the edge’ and that’s the kind of stuff I like to see, people living their truth."
Ireland’s Got Talent begins February 3 at 7.30pm on TV3