'It’s a great country with great talent': Michelle Visage on her return to Ireland’s Got Talent

Michelle Visage returns to cast her eye over the hopefuls of Ireland’s Got Talent on Saturday night – and once again she’ll be a voice for the underdog, writes Esther McCarthy.

Her sassy combination of straight talking and kindness made her an instant hit in the first series of Ireland’s Got Talent, TV3’s high-profile search for our finest performers.

Now Michelle Visage can’t wait to return to the hot seat for the second series — not least because the talent pool is far greater this time around. Singers, dancers, artists, and performers who were shy of coming onboard for the debut series, she says, are now jumping at the opportunity to feature.

“We have seen the acts for this year and they are fantastic. I think everyone is going to be impressed,” she enthuses. “Last year was series one so a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do that, it’s not going to be good.’ A lot of Irish people thought that they wouldn’t do it right.

“And we did it right, and it was huge, and I think a lot more people were impressed, they came out this year. We had double the amount of auditions and double the amount of talent. It’s really unbelievable, the talent is phenomenal. It’s a great country with great talent.”

The first series turned Visage — already well-known across the Atlantic and among many Irish viewers for her role in RuPaul’s Drag Race — into a household name here. That highly entertaining search for America’s top drag performers won her a firm fanbase both in the US and internationally, and when she joined Ireland’s Got Talent, she vowed to encourage the offbeat, the quirky, and the underdogs to participate, the people we don’t ordinarily see on our TV screens. “I will always be that judge. I will always be that person. Absolutely. It makes me happy, and the crazier the better. I feel like those are things that don’t get seen enough.”

In her first series, Visage’s kindness to contestants was notable — not that she was inclined to shower them with fake praise, either. It is paramount to her, she says, to be a straightforward but empathetic judge on the show.

“That is important to me. Because life is tough, and you need somebody there. I feel like I’m the type of judge who has compassion, but also I’m the honest judge. I’m not just going to say it’s good if it’s not good, and I want to give them a reason why it’s not good. I’m not going to lie to them and say that they have talent if they don’t have talent. But if they do and they just need work, I want them to know that.”

Michelle Visage with fellow judges on Ireland’s Got Talent, Jason Byrne, Louis Walsh, and Denise Van Outen.

Perhaps Visage’s sense of empathy comes from the fact she has been a grafter throughout her career, and a woman who innately understands the ups and downs of life in showbiz.

“I still find it tough, because at the end of the day it’s a tough business and not everybody gets a chance. Sometimes people who aren’t very talented people get a chance and the talented people sit there and go, ‘I don’t understand why this is happening.’ It’s a tough business and it’s not for the meek of heart, that’s for sure.”

Growing up in working-class New Jersey, Michelle Lynn Shupack (Visage is her professional name) worked hard to make her own opportunities and was supported by her loving adoptive parents. There were no familial connections to the arts.

“I grew up in a family that had nothing to do with showbiz, didn’t know anything about showbiz. But my parents supported me. We did not have a lot of money so they did what they could, getting me lessons that I could go to. They thought, ‘If she’s going to try it, if it’s what she wants to do, let’s try it’. And I think they felt, if I wasn’t good enough, somebody would have told me. I think that was how they lived it, and I was lucky enough to have parents who did believe in me.

“But to be honest my mother and father were both tone deaf, so if I was getting them to tell me whether I could sing or not I’d be in trouble!” she laughs.

“I think I had teachers who were important along the way, one or two here and there, who believed in me and understood who I was and what I wanted to do. That was nice, but apart from that, you know, you’re kind of on your own.”

Her strong vocal abilities were already landing her singing and drama gigs in her teens, and by the time she was 19, she successfully auditioned for a place in the girl group Seduction, who scored a number of US chart hits.

But even through this success, she had a nagging feeling, not uncommon among teenagers, that she had still to find her place in the world. When she found her tribe in the LGBT community, she felt she had finally come home.

Married to screenwriter David Case for many years, with two teenage daughters, Visage has long voiced her support for and alliance to the LGBT community. A committed supporter of many different causes, this remains one of the biggest things in her life.

“For me that’s why I’m here, I think it’s why I’m on this planet, to speak up for the ones who can’t. And for me it was always this community because they’ve always been there for me. From the beginning. For everything. That’s why it’ll always be my platform in life to speak out.”

Visage feels that encouraging inclusion and a sense of belonging throughout society is vital and is something we can all champion more. “I think young kids today could never hear enough of how important they are and how much they matter. Some young kids don’t think they matter in any way and they think their voices fall on deaf ears. They more we can scream it out from the treetops, the more we should. It’s just not said enough.

“I didn’t set out to be any type of a role model. I did set out to be a voice, maybe, for people who felt that they didn’t have a voice. If I’m that person then I’ll be that person, but we need to all do this together. If I can speak up and encourage somebody else to defend somebody who doesn’t have a voice, then my job is done.”

As mum to teenage girls Lillie and Lola, Visage witnesses first hand the challenges this generation faces, and feels it’s a hard time to be a young person. “Social media doesn’t help with it at all. As good as social media is and as necessary as it is, it’s also awful because it makes people feel less than. When there are people showing off what they have and what they can afford, and an overwhelming majority of people cannot afford that, do not have that and never will have that, it makes them feel less than. There are good things about social media too, but those are the downsides. It’s not fair to young kids and young kids need to know that it’s OK if you don’t have that. If you don’t drive that car, or you don’t have the outfit or those shoes, it’s not going to make you any better to have that.

“I see my kids struggle — both my daughters have struggled with depression and I see it. And you wish you could take it away. But if we can sit here as champions then that’s what we should do and try and pull them through the other side. It’s easier said than done, but sometimes people just need to know that they’re heard. And that they’re loved.”

Last September, Visage experienced a big birthday as she celebrated turning 50. She says she is very excited about facing the next chapter in her life. “It was definitely a day of gratitude. I’m grateful. My mother died when she was 56 and the point is, you never know when it’s your time. Our time is fleeting. And I’d encourage people to stop wasting time with things that don’t matter, not having this or not having that. Not feeling pretty enough or skinny enough, or whatever it is, and start living for today. Because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, we have to live in the moment, to enjoy.”

- Ireland’s Got Talent returns for a new series tomorrow on Virgin Media One at 7.30pm

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