June 8, 2016 at 7:28 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Naomi’s ‘Drag Race’ behind-the-scenes tour
Naomi Smalls interview, gay news, Washington Blade

Naomi Smalls (aka Davis Heppenstall) performs at Town and Capital Pride this weekend. (Photo courtesy Neverland Events)

Once again this year, the top three queens from this season’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will be at both Town and Capital Pride. Kim Chi is at Town on Friday, June 10 and Naomi Smalls and champ Bob the Drag Queen are there Saturday, June 11. Naomi and Bob will also perform on the Capitol Concert Stage at the festival on Sunday, June 12.

Naomi Smalls, a 21-year-old Redlands, Calif., native born Davis Heppenstall, spoke to us the week by phone from her home in Chicago.

WASHINGTON BLADE: What was it like having to wait from the time you wrapped taping to finding out who won?

NAOMI SMALLS: I was nervous but I think I was more nervous finding out who made the top three because we filmed that last year. … For us, it was different because we were kind of walking on eggshells. The other girls got to know how they did when they left and so they all knew when their bad episode was going to be, but for Bob, Kim Chi and I, we were all nervous.

BLADE: You don’t find out who wins until the episode actually airs, so where did you watch it?

NAOMI: They have a crowning and coronation in New York and Kim, Bob and I were all watching it live. It was our first time finding out who was going to win. I had a feeling it was going to be Bob, so I wasn’t super super surprised. But we were happy to be there and see his reaction in person.

BLADE: How did he react?

NAOMI: Well of course he started crying. It’s the biggest moment of his life. I’m glad Kim and I got to be there for him. The three of us are actually really good friends. So any of us would have had the same reaction no matter who won.

BLADE: It was such a shock the night Ru sent both Dax and Laila home. What did it feel like when it was actually happening?

NAOMI: When I was watching it live, I didn’t think either of them were doing very good. It was a surprise that it was so early in the competition and she was sending two people home, but it was probably the right decision.

BLADE: How do they keep you all from seeing each other back stage when you walk into the work room for the first time?

NAOMI: Well all come from the hotel in separate vans one by one and we all go there and wait in a holding room. Like a very small room with a mirror and snacks. Then they just tell you when it’s your time to go in and you don’t see any of the other queens. We’re all in these closed-off rooms until everyone walks in.

BLADE: So you have to get ready at the hotel?

NAOMI: Yes.

BLADE: What did it feel like walking into the work room for the first time?

NAOMI: I was nervous but also really excited. It’s like this surreal moment after seeing it on TV for so many years. I really wanted to be part of it but I was also nervous to see who else was going to be there and if the other queens would be easy to get along with.

BLADE: Derrick was so nasty to you. Like she was going out of her way to pick a fight, especially the last episode she was on. Was that really how it felt at the time or did they edit it all together to seem nastier than it really was?

NAOMI: I wouldn’t say worse than it really was. I just think some people make for really good TV. Derrick is a really good friend but he’s also very good at turning it on for television. I wouldn’t say the producers had anything to do with editing it any certain way. It’s more of how Derrick’s personality comes across on television when he turns it on.

BLADE: So she’s not so confrontational when the camera’s not rolling?

NAOMI: Oh for sure. Not so loud.

BLADE: Acid Betty was such a bitch too, and I thought initially she would go a lot further. Do you think Ru takes the nastiness into consideration when sending them home or is it really just how good you are?

NAOMI: I always think of it as kind of a “Big Brother” thing where Ru is always watching and if maybe you get some news back from an assistant or producer that someone’s not giving their all or grateful to be there, I think that may come into consideration when it comes to the judging. I think you should just treat people the way you want to be treated and don’t be an asshole.

BLADE: But then it turned out that Betty had reached out to Cynthia when she was sick, so I guess she has a soft side too.

NAOMI: I think certain people get into a certain mindset when they’re in a competition. They could be the sweetest person but once you’re in a room pitted against 12 other people, they go into competition mode and you forget about the way to treat people.

BLADE: You seemed one of the nicest queens this season, though. Is that just your personality?

NAOMI: I grew up in a big family so I’m good with treating people the way I want to be treated. Unless someone comes for me, I’m not going to come for them.

BLADE: When you all saw all the kimonos coming out for the Madonna episode and realized almost everybody was doing “Nothing Really Matters,” why didn’t some of you switch gears? Was it too late? Were you all thinking, “Oh shit?”

NAOMI: When you get called for the show, you only have two weeks to prepare so once we got there and we found out who everyone’s Madonna look was, we were all freaking out. I actually think there were three other kimonos from the girls who went home before that challenge. I think Naysha, Laila, I think Dax and I want to say maybe even Cynthia were all planning that too, but there’s not really much you can do because you don’t find out the runway category until the day before. So yeah, trust me, I definitely regret doing that runway.

BLADE: So they did tell you to bring a Madonna look before you left home?

NAOMI: We knew there was a Madonna category, we just didn’t know what everyone else was going to do. Everyone was trying to be original, picking something not super obvious, but it just didn’t pan out very well.

BLADE: So that was just a huge coincidence?

NAOMI: I didn’t really know that many Madonna references. Just “Music” and “Hung Up,” so I thought, “Oh, I’ll do dark-hair Madonna, no one else is going to do that.” And it bit me in the butt.

BLADE: How tall are you out of drag?

NAOMI: 6’, 4”

BLADE: You often go without boobs in your drag. Is that like a little genderfuck thing or what?

NAOMI: I always grew up lusting over the ‘90s supermodels who were bone thin with like no tits and no hips and that’s what I kind of based my drag off of. It’s just proportion to me. I’ve worn the pads, I’ve worn the boobs, but it just doesn’t really work for me. I like my look the way it is. I never try to be androgynous or genderfuck. I just think it suits my look and my silhouette better.

BLADE: What are you planning for Capital Pride?

NAOMI: I’m actually really excited to do it. I didn’t know ’til today that it was with Bob on Saturday, so that’s going to be a blast. I’m just excited. I love Pride. It’s the best energy you ever have when you’re performing because everyone’s just there and proud to be who they are so I’m just excited to be there with everybody who’s celebrating.

BLADE: Usually the episode before the finale is highlights with the past queens commenting. Did they not do that this year?

NAOMI: I don’t think they did. Yeah, like a recap episode. I didn’t see it.

BLADE: Had you seen (season seven winner) Violet’s gown before she came out at the finale? Oh my God, that dress!

NAOMI: I saw the dress rehearsal but I didn’t see the full-on with makeup and all that amazingness until she came out. I was just as gagged as everybody else.

BLADE: Was that amazing or what?

NAOMI: I think it’s like the most legendary look that’s ever been on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” period. All seasons. It was amazing.

BLADE: Do you know Violet at all?

NAOMI: The first time I really got to meet her was at the finale but I looked up to Violet ever since she was on the show. So getting the chance to hang out with her and pick her brain a little was just really nice. She’s one of the sweetest queens. I think very highly of her.

BLADE: Where do you even get a dress like that?

NAOMI: I think somebody who mades a lot of her clothes made it but I don’t know his name.

BLADE: Were you intimidated to be in the group photo with all the past queens at the beginning of your season?

NAOMI: It sounds cocky, but once I found out I had to do a photo shoot, I was like super happy about it. I love being in front of the camera and taking photos so I wasn’t super intimidated by the other queens.

BLADE: Did you get to say anything to them or was it just like shoot, on with the next girl?

NAOMI: Just shoot and on to the next girl. I’ve worked with Raja and Sharon (Needles) before and they’re all very nice. So I wasn’t too scared.

BLADE: How do they make the commentary seem like it’s happening as the show is unfolding? Obviously you can’t really be commenting in real time. Is that just really good editing?

NAOMI: We do our interviews at the end of the week and we’re supposed to keep a journal but it’s really hard to do that because when you get back to the hotel, you’re so tired after filming you just want to go to bed. You don’t really want to stay up all night writing in a journal. But after you do the first round, you kind of get used to it.

BLADE: They always make it seem so nerve wracking and like you’re so pressed for time but then you see something like Kim Chi gluing a lotus blossom headpiece together blossom by blossom so you obviously have time to do something painstaking like that. Is it really as big a time crunch as they make it seem?

NAOMI: It’s definitely nerve wracking. You guys pretty much see all the time we have to work on things. We might get like an extra hour and a half. But yeah, it’s definitely not an easy competition.

BLADE: Is it about what you thought it would be or easier or harder?

NAOMI: It was about what I thought it would be. I knew it was going to be very stressful and there’s no way you can really prepare for it. It just kind of happens.

BLADE: Who was your favorite celebrity guest judge?

NAOMI: Probably Marc Jacobs. He’s just so legendary. So a chance to get critiqued by him was such an honor, especially on a design challenge. That was awesome.

BLADE: Do weirdos and stalkers come out of the woodwork once you’ve been on the show?

NAOMI: Most people have been pretty respectful. The only thing that’s annoying is drunk people at the clubs but that’s at every single club. You can’t really avoid that.

BLADE: What’s your type? Who’s a celeb who would be a good reference point for the type you like?

NAOMI: I like guys like Hugh Jackman or Jake Gyllenhaal.

BLADE: Are you seeing anyone?

NAOMI: Dating, but nothing like boyfriend status.

BLADE: So you like guys who are different from you?

NAOMI: My motto is if you’re cute, you’re cute. If you’re attracted to someone, you’re attracted to them no matter if they fit your type.

BLADE: Was there anybody you felt went home too soon?

NAOMI: I would say Laila is one of the most amazing performers and makeup artists I ever met. I would have loved to have gotten to know her better while she was on the show. I don’t think her personality really got a chance to shine. She’s super funny and super bubbly and just hilarious and I think the fans would have loved to have seen that.

BLADE: Do you think the judges are ever too harsh in their assessments?

NAOMI: I think they’re very accurate. They tell you exactly what you need to do. … They give it to you 100 percent, especially Michelle (Visage). I think she’s one of the best people to be in that position. She doesn’t say anything to bring you down.

BLADE: What did it feel like with your glam Scarecrow look when Ross said, “This is how you win this competition.”

NAOMI: Up until that moment, I still didn’t know if I’d done well that week, so when he said that, it was like this huge load off my shoulders. I was still scared I might be in the bottom two again, so it was a nice stamp of approval.

BLADE: That episode was such a turning point for you. Is that what you had planned for that look all along?

NAOMI: I had planned something a little shorter, a little leggier … but when Ru came around and was like, “The judges want to see something different from you,” that put off a lightbulb in my head that I should step it up, so I really wanted to put all my energy into that one because I’d been in the bottom two the week before. There was a lot of pressure to get it together.

BLADE: The fans seem really divided on Kim Chi. Some people were saying they couldn’t believe she was still in it, she can’t even walk and so on, but others thought she was just brilliant at painting and there was so much depth and nuance. What do you think of her drag?

NAOMI: I’m a huge fan of Kim and even before the show. So to see this beautiful image and this quirk of like, I can’t even walk in heels, I’m a big nerd,” is just so lovable and I think the audience gets that too. We all have our strengths. I can’t get on a stage and entertain a crowd like Bob can, I can’t create portraits like Kim can but I can do things they can’t do, so it’s all different skill sets and I think that’s amazing.

Naomi Smalls interview, gay news, Washington Blade

Naomi Smalls (Photo courtesy of Neverland Events)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

1 Comment
  • Won’t the transgender women be offended claiming their lives are put in danger when gay men portray women? Someone when on a rant concerning Tracy Morgan doing drag claiming it endangered transgender lives.

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