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Alyssa Edwards on Her Meteoric Rise to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Fame
Jun 15, 2018
When Justin Johnson’s dad signed him up for little league football, he offered this bit of advice: “Son, you won’t get tackled if you just run to the goal.” Despite being able to run “like Forrest Gump,” Justin was tackled and broke his arm.
Still a member of the team, he would suit up and sit on the bench, observing from the sidelines. Rather than internalize the playbook, Justin was fixated on the drill team members, cheerleaders, and dancing during the games’ halftime shows. In those moments, the seeds were planted for who Justin Johnson was meant to become: Alyssa Edwards, the dancer, choreographer, pageant winner, and RuPaul’s Drag Race fan favorite.
Where It All Began
A child of seven and from a working class background, Justin didn’t have much save for a vivid imagination. And, making him quite the lucky queer boy in Texas, he also had a supportive mom and an uncle whom he affectionately calls his “fairy godmother.”
One day his his uncle, a gay actor involved in the local theater community, took him to a performance where he was able to try a small role. “He was just like, ‘he’s gifted,” Alyssa recalls her uncle saying. “‘We need to get him involved in dance, ’cause he picks up this stuff really quickly.'”
Shortly thereafter, with his mom and uncle’s help, Justin enrolled in jazz classes at the Joy Sharp School of Dance—and was quickly smitten. “I would stay after and watch the other classes, and I would kind of do the choreography on the side,” she says. “And then I would go home and I would make up my own dances with my sisters. That’s kind of where it all began.”
You Never Forget Your First
At 19, Justin went to his first gay bar. “I’ll never forget because I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is a whole other world,” she says. It was an experience Alyssa will always remember, since up until that point she had lived a sheltered life in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas. Nothing could have prepared her for seeing her first drag show that night.
“It was very camp-y and I found that I was very intrigued [by] it,” Alyssa says. From that point on, Justin was inspired. It wasn’t long after that first drag show, that Justin saw a poster for an amateur show and didn’t think twice about going for it. Between the dance background, his time in theater, and years spent doing his sisters’ makeup, Justin was up for the challenge. “I was like, Oh, I’m gonna do this! I’m gonna so do this!”
Moments before going onstage for that first drag performance, the emcee asked for a name. Stumped and with only moments to choose a stage name, Justin stood paralyzed.
“I said, ‘Oh! I grew up watching Who’s The Boss!'” Alyssa recalls, “and I said, ‘I’m gonna be Alyssa.’ And she said, ‘Alyssa?’ And I said, ‘You know, it’s like Alyssa Milano, she’s beautiful and she’s funny and she’s charismatic.’ And she said, ‘You can be any name in the world, and you want to be an Alyssa?’ I said, ‘Well, an Alyssa is memorable, and I’m going to make that name memorable. And you’ll one day see that name in lights.”
“Alyssa is memorable, and I’m going to make that name memorable. And you’ll one day see that name in lights.”
Looking back on her first show, Alyssa is still surprised she found the courage. She likens transforming into Alyssa on stage to Bruce Wayne’s Batman transformation.
“He’s a superhero; that’s kind of how I feel when I transform,” she says. “I am a business owner, I’m a teacher, I think Justin’s actually kind of plain, kind of nerdy. But when I morph into Alyssa, I’m like this… Well, this creature, everything that Justin couldn’t be. It is definitely a fictional character. I’ve changed as a person because of the art of drag.”
A Labor of Love
Alyssa has come a long way since her first time strutting on a stage. Since those early days, she met and received guidance from former drag queen Laken Edward (the inspiration for her stage last name), competed in and won a handful of beauty pageants, became a fan favorite on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and is now drag mother for her own Haus of Edwards.
All of that, however, is secondary to her focus as a businesswoman: She owns Mesquite-based Beyond Belief Dance Company, which she calls her first love. “It’s like a parent would do with their kids, you know,” she says. “I became second to the kids at the studio.”
“It’s like a parent would do with their kids, you know, I became second to the kids at the studio.”
Her attention to the studio and all of the young dancers she mentors paid off—the award-winning company landed on Season Three of America’s Got Talent in 2008. In fact, her dedication to the studio even lost her the title of Miss Gay America a mere two months after winning the crown in 2010. “[Pageant owners] wanted me to live it,” she says, referring to the studio as her first priority. “They felt like Miss America was my was second priority, and I told them it was.”
With her studio’s mounting success, Alyssa decided to take a year-long hiatus from drag in 2011. “My life was going in [a million] different directions. So I was like, I need to focus solely on my studio.” And now the dance studio’s biggest break is around the corner. “The secret is officially out,” she says, “we [started] filming a reality series based around it.”
Alyssa is excited to bring people even further into her world, calling this new show a peak behind the curtains. “This is gonna be so ground breaking because it’s more than just a Dance Moms, it’s more than what we’ve seen on dance television right now.”
Here’s to the Future
“Life happened,” Alyssa says, courtesy of a call to join Season Five of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Thanks to her performances and the personality that informed them, Alyssa placed sixth that season and quickly became a fan favorite due in part to quips like, “I don’t get cute, I get drop-dead gorgeous.”
That wit, and her personal brand of #realness, has led Alyssa to amass hundreds of thousands of fans on Twitter and Facebook, not to mention a following more than a million strong on Instagram. “I’m a very real person that has overcome a lot, so I think I’m relatable,” she says. “I’ve always been true to myself. And I feel that if people like it, they celebrate it.”
Though Alyssa has this larger-than-life presence thanks to drag, she remembers a time when drag and ball culture were relegated to the underground. Now, she is warmed that the community has risen so much that RuPaul’s Drag Con can fill the Los Angeles Convention Center and be deemed a family affair. What bridges them together, she says, is “the culture itself” and a “celebration of people uniting together.”
“I’ve always been true to myself. And I feel that if people like it, they celebrate it.”
“I think with things being so mainstream, there might be another little boy or another little girl somewhere that might stumble across something they see—whether it’s on the internet or on TV—and it may really inspire them,” she says.
Through drag, Alyssa has morphed and evolved into someone 14-year-old Justin never anticipated. Before the jazz classes, before the gay bars, before the underground drag shows, she has a message she wishes she could deliver to that little boy: “It’s gonna be hard, [but] you’re gonna blossom,” she says. “Just remain faithful and hopeful. And never lose that sparkle in your eyes or that smile—’cause there were times when I almost did.”
Hair by Gypsy Wigz