Adore Delano sounds tired. She just flew from her native Los Angeles to Denver to shoot a music video, and in less than two days she’ll board a plane to Australia to perform a string of tour dates. “It was chill. I slept through the whole thing,” she says with a sleepy voice, when asked about her flight. If anybody deserves a rest, it’s Delano, the stage name of Danny Noriega, 28, a singer, songwriter and one of the most popular drag entertainers working.
Between stints on nationwide tours with other queens, club gigs and her own touring schedule as a musician, Delano spends a great deal of time on the road. In between appearances, there are video shoots, media obligations and meet-and-greets.
That Delano has such a packed schedule is due in no small part to her irrepressible charisma. As a performer, Delano is compelling without seeming studied. The kindhearted slacker pose that’s endeared her to millions of people (at present she boasts 1.5 million Instagram followers) isn’t a shtick at all. She laughs often, and speaks in a slack-jawed Southern California accent. She punctuates her sentences with “dude”-s and “man”-s, an almost bro-y verbal tick that belies the fact she dresses up as a gorgeous woman and sings songs about her feelings for a living.
“I don’t need to ‘use drag’ to further my career. It just so happens that I’m one pretty motherfucker in eyelashes.”
This tension—between Delano’s laid-back, SoCal personality and the fact that she makes an exceptionally beautiful woman—goes a long way in explaining some of her appeal. Drag queens are not, broadly speaking, chill people. Performing in dark nightclubs for mobs of intoxicated homosexuals and bachelorettes is a difficult task that usually attracts high-energy, sometimes high-maintenance personalities. By contrast, Delano’s approach to both conversation and drag is charmingly nonchalant. Onstage, she often does away with the more traditional trappings of female impersonation (hip and bust padding, floor-length gowns, sequins, wigs stacked on top of wigs) in favor of ripped band T-shirts and combat boots.
This aesthetic, of course, has not gone unopposed. Other prominent drag queens have taken Delano to task for her perceived unwillingness to do “real” drag, and internet commenters have accused her of using drag as a gimmick to further her music career. When asked how she feels about these kinds of criticism, she responds in a matter-of-fact tone. “If you come to one of my shows, you’re coming to a show with a fully thought-out character. I don’t need to ‘use drag’ to further my career. It just so happens that I’m one pretty motherfucker in eyelashes. I’m a fully thought-out character, so it kind of hurt my feelings, especially in the beginning. But all drag queens are different little universes, and if you can’t see that I’m another part of the rainbow, then fuck off.”
“If you can’t see that I’m another part of the rainbow, then fuck off.”
What goes into the making of a drag queen rock star? When asked about her childhood and the music that shaped her, Delano responds with an enormous laugh. “Growing up, my music taste was fucked! My brothers used to make fun of me because I’d have P!nk posters. Oh fuck! I don’t want to say that!”
Although Delano’s father was an infrequent presence in her life— the two had almost no relationship when he died almost three years ago—she cites his taste in ’60s and ’70s classic rock as a major early influence. She also explains that coming of age in the early 2000s heavily impacted her musical sensibilities. “I’d say Britney and Manson both raised me,” she says. “And the Spice Girls! When people ask who my favorite rock band are, I say the Spice Girls. During this album cycle, I was talking about a lot of rock influences, but I didn’t want to lose sight of my pop princesses.”
Delano is the kind of person who seems to have been born confident, but surely, being a queer kid in the hood who loved the Spice Girls and Marilyn Manson couldn’t have been easy. “Yeah, it was difficult,” she says. “I grew up in Azusa, man. It’s not the hardest place to grow up, but it’s not the easiest for a queer person, especially if you’re femme. You’ve gotta really know how to defend yourself and navigate certain situations. I mean, I was chased out of an apartment by guys with knives at one point. It was tough.”
Last year, Delano came out as non-binary, but in high school, her difficulties were compounded by the fact that she primarily presented as a woman. “I basically navigated my entire high school career as a girl,” she says. “It’s on Google, so you can see my little 14-year-old self looking like a slutty 27-year-old woman.” She laughs, then grows serious. “I had to fight my way through high school sometimes.”
After reaching puberty, Delano’s feelings about her gender gradually changed, and she began presenting herself as more overtly masculine, but she explains that those high school years hardened her resolve to live life on her own terms. “People used to be like, ‘If you don’t want to deal with that, don’t dress so loud,’ but it’s about the way I felt. It was really important to me as a young queer person to express myself artistically and wear makeup and live my life, even if people confused me for a girl and I got my ass kicked. As long as I looked pretty, I felt important.”
“It was really important to me as a young queer person to express myself artistically and wear makeup and live my life, even if people confused me for a girl and I got my ass kicked. As long as I looked pretty, I felt important.”
Luckily, Delano, who came out at 12 years old, had an easier time at home. “My sister is a lesbian, and she’s a bit older than I am, so I watched her and I had that preparation,” Delano explains. And then there was her mom.
“I grew up in a hair salon—my mom’s a nail technician—and I knew all her gay friends there. She’d go out with her gay friends and talk about it. She told my brothers two weeks before I came out that she thought I was going to tell her I was gay, so they needed to make it easy for me.” When Delano did come out to her mom, the reaction was remarkably mild. “She was baking, and she just said, ‘Don’t make this weird. Take the cookies out of the oven.’” Delano attributes her notoriously unbothered temperament to her mother. “I get my lack-of-fucks-to-give from my mom. I mean, she does not give any fucks. She’s 50-something years old, and she’s still bar fighting,” Delano giggles. “She’s crazy.”
Young Adore’s resilience was put to a major test when she landed a spot on the seventh season of American Idol. Delano—then still professionally known as Noriega—garnered attention for his brassy personality and smart-alecky rapport with the judges. But behind the scenes, he received pushback from production about his sexuality and effeminate presentation.
“I was very into makeup before the Idol days and then had to tone it down,” she explains. “They didn’t say, ‘You need to butch it up,’ but they told me I couldn’t sing female songs, and they told me I probably shouldn’t come out. I remember that conversation very vividly. For an 18-year-old kid, that was devastating.”
After leaving Idol, Noriega began making YouTube videos in drag and performing in West Hollywood nightclubs. “I’d been involved in the Hollywood club scene for a while,” she says. “After I was 18, my mom would let me go, so I grew up around the big L.A. queens, and I’d see them perform. The first time I performed in drag I was 21, at Micky’s in West Hollywood.”
According to Delano, scrutiny from other queens isn’t a new phenomenon. “In the beginning, they were just like, ‘Who’s this kid who’s popular on YouTube? Are they trying to come on our turf and take over?’” she explains. “And I was, bitch! I was beating them all in competitions, so they were mad.” She laughs ruefully. “But I think they actually liked my style more back then, because it was more drag queen-y, and I used to lip-sync and everything.”
After working professionally for three years, Delano was cast on the sixth season of reality television competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Delano narrowly missed taking the crown, and her nonchalant attitude immediately endeared her to fans. (She once answered a claim that her approach to drag wasn’t polished enough by stating that she was “polish remover, bitch.”)
Later, she appeared briefly on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars before, in an unprecedented move, electing to leave the show. In between her stints on Drag Race, Delano released two albums, her debut, Till Death Do Us Party, in 2014 and After Party in 2016. The first debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Albums chart and at No. 11 on the Independent Albums chart. The second debuted at No. 1 on the Dance/Electronic chart. Not bad for a kid from Azusa.
In order to fully grasp the import of Delano, it’s important to understand what, exactly, RuPaul’s Drag Race means, both within the LGBTQ community and pop culture at large. Even now, in an age of historic legal and cultural victories for LGBTQ people, the figures on media representation are abysmal. The 2017 edition of GLAAD’s annual report on representation in television found that 6.4% of the characters on network TV shows were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, the highest percentage ever recorded in the survey’s 13-year history.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is, by contrast, a riotously and unapologetically gay fantasia. Getting on the show is a golden ticket for drag performers, who often spend the years afterward touring on Drag Race affiliated world tours. But some former contestants have capitalized on their tenure on the show shrewdly enough to transcend the niche of queer entertainment and make bids for mainstream success. Among this vanguard class of drag pioneers, Delano is, undoubtedly, one of the brightest stars.
The popularity of Drag Race has had a number of positive consequences for queens who’ve competed on the show and, by extension, drag at large. Performing in drag professionally, once a surefire way to ensure a life of relative seclusion and few resources, has now become a potentially lucrative career. The sudden demand for the art form has created an entire cottage industry of wig makers, designers, photographers, stylists, videographers and administrators.
But this sudden boom is not without its repercussions. Many sectors of the entertainment industry employ exploitative business practices, but without the benefit of a union or even agreed-upon industry standards, drag performers are uniquely vulnerable.
“Most of my homegirls are drag queens, and we didn’t go to business school,” Delano explains. “We didn’t know what it was going to feel like to be thrust out there, and make all this money, and know how to handle it. I mean, we come from different lives. In the beginning you just work, work work, and it’s easy to take advantage of somebody when they’re not used to handling books or business,” but, she adds with a giggle, “y’know…I got lawyers now.”
That comment is an allusion to the ongoing legal battle between Delano and her former management, Producer Entertainment Group. In April 2017, Delano filed a suit against them alleging that they embezzled upward of $2 million from her over the course of three years. In January of this year, PEG countersued for $180,000 in alleged back fees. When asked where those legal battles now stand, Delano explains that she’s legally precluded from discussing any of it, but she works with a smaller, more tightly knit team. “It’s all about having people working around you who you love. I mean, my cousin [John Padilla, her current manager], I grew up with him living across the street from me. So now I have a structure around me that’s secure and that I can trust.”
Because Drag Race is one of the few shows on television that speaks directly to LGBTQ people, many of its fans are intensely devoted, and maintaining a flawless public persona amidst that intensity began to put strain on Delano.
“I think that’s very important for people to pay attention to,” she says, addressing the stress this can cause. “I think the line of people’s humanity is kind of gray now, y’know? I mean, we have fans and we’re [on] their lock screens, so we’re constantly in their pocket. It can make people think you’re an object, like you’re theirs. So when they see us, it can be like we’re just their screen saver; we’re just Adore Delano. We’re not going through shit; our dad didn’t just die; we didn’t just go through a breakup—there aren’t things happening behind those eyes.”
However, whenever she feels herself slipping too deep into self-pity, she reminds herself of some sage advice. “My mom always tells me, ‘No matter what, fucker, you can complain or whatever, but don’t complain to them. They bought a ticket. Whatever’s going on, go a cry about it backstage.’ [Laughs.] It’s all right.”
The toll that this kind of pressure—along with the physical and mental strain from maintaining such demanding touring schedules—takes on high-profile drag performers was thrown into sharp relief earlier this year when Katya Zamolodchikova announced she was taking a year off drag to focus on her well-being. “Katya and I had the same management, and they’re very grueling, man,” Delano says. “They’ll pump you like cattle.” She cites this as part of the reason for her recent move to Seattle.
“It’s always the third year when you start going crazy, and that’s what happened to me and why I moved to Seattle,” she explains. “I’m super-reclusive; that’s just how I am. I come off as this extrovert, but when it comes down to it, when I’m home, I like to be by myself. The third year, you just go crazy, and I think you have to just take time for yourself, and to get some perspective, and to see if you’re getting taken advantage of,” she continues. “I lost my mind for a few months due to my legal battles. It’s a lot for one human to endure.”
The video being shot in Denver was for one of Whatever’s standout tracks, “27 Club.” The title is a reference to the collection of popular musicians and actors who all died at the age of 27. Many of the artists in the club, among them Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, are the kind of hugely influential figures whose lives have been eclipsed by their own mythos.
It’s an unexpected but fitting fixation for a drag musician, since drag queens are, by their nature, creatures of self-invention and mythologizing. The lyrics also hint at the mental turbulence that drove much of the record and Delano’s relocation to Seattle in the first place. “Baby lost his mind/Nobody gives in time/The drugs are worth it/Or so it seems,” she sings.
In the past, Delano has spoken somewhat vaguely about the role that drugs and alcohol have played in her decision to move. When questioned about this directly, she’s remarkably frank. “Growing up, I never tapped into drugs or alcohol, really,” she explains. “When I started touring with Drag Race, I started partying harder to cope with the lack of relationships developed. We’d meet these awesome humans, and then tell them bye forever a few days later, and it totally fucked with me.” While she never got super-addicted to hard drugs, she admits, “the times I tried them on tour, I recklessly mixed, and the results of some of that was awful. It becomes your job to party, but you have to remember that partying isn’t your job.”
Additionally, she was motivated by a desire to take musical inspiration from a city in which she’d never lived but long admired. Delano cites a number of seminal Northwest musicians (Cobain, Courtney Love) and riot grrrl bands such as Babes In Toyland as major influences. “I think that was kind of half the reason my spirit was leading me there,” she says with one of her many laughs. Not surprisingly, Delano dealt with the city’s notoriously icy demeanor with aplomb.
“Yeah! I made friends,” she exclaims. “Y’know, I’m a social pterodactyl, so even if I’m not on that social intellect, I’m still going to be in social circles. Fuck you, bitch. You’re still dealing with me!” Ultimately, the move was about gaining the space to change her frame of mind. “I really just wanted to start fresh, and I always wanted to root there for a while and see what it would do to my brain,” she adds.
Seemingly, Seattle’s effect on her brain sparked a departure from her earlier, dance-tinged records. Instead, she wrote Whatever, a bona fide alt-rock album. Eschewing electro-pop textures in favor of a traditional rock band, Whatever is an 11-track suite of growly, straightforward rock songs. “Y’know, in the beginning, Sharon [Needles, the winner of Season 4 of Drag Race] was doing music and it was cute, and then I did music and it worked, and then everybody started doing the music, and it was working for everybody. And then I thought, ‘What can I do to separate myself from these people? What have I been wanting to do?’” In the beginning, I was catering to what I thought radio would want, and I was listening to management when I was writing things. But now, I’m more of a free bird. I just like to sit down, smoke weed, write a bunch of music, record it in a studio, throw it out and see if people catch onto it.”
Eventually, she found inspiration in her teenage years spent in garage bands. “I realized I’d been happiest in high school, in a band making trashy, awful music. It sounded like shit back then, but I had so much fun,” she gushes. “So I started sitting there with my bandmates, making dumbass music that made no sense, and I decided to fly out to Arizona to record with Nathan [Morrow, producer], and I just sat and wrote. It was so organic and so fun and it was like, ‘There you go. No one else is doing this. They can say it sounds like shit all they want, but I don’t sound like anybody else! Whatever!’”
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Although Delano initially describes the process of making the record as “fun,” it’s clear, when she begins elaborating, that, in reality, the process was much thornier. “The headspace I was in was dark,” she says. “I wanted to die some days, and [at times] I didn’t eat for three days straight. I was obsessed with getting every sound right. I stayed up for hours smoking bud and writing.” Ultimately, she says, that intensity paid off. “Nathan put up with my obsessive energy and delivered my baby.”
In the run up to the album’s release, Delano was routinely questioned by the press about the risk involved in such a sonic pivot. After all, many of her fans had presumably been drawn to her music precisely because it was lighthearted dance-pop, and rock hasn’t been a genre in which drag performers have historically flourished. But for Delano, the rewards out-weighed any risk.
“It was definitely a risk that I was willing to take because I was going along, and—I know it sounds dumb—but I was so over touring and making pop,” she says. “I just wanted to do what I wanted to fucking do.” Now that she has the record in her rearview, the risk looks to have paid off. “The fans have been really receptive, surprisingly, and they’ve been more welcoming than I thought they’d be. I just rolled the dice and…hey, they’re still tagging along, man. These kids seem to like me! I don’t know why they like me, but whatever! I’m down. And I’m going to continue doing shit that I like.”
One of the best developments of this new musical direction, according to Delano, is getting to tour more heavily with her band. “It’s just my bassist, my guitarist and my drummer,” she says. “I love those motherfuckers, man. They just bring the music to life.” When asked whether she likes touring with her band more than in a bus full of drag queens, she reveals, “I love touring with a band way more. It’s perfect. I made this album for me to perform with a band, y’know? It sounds so complete, so solid. It makes me want to punch everybody in the face.”
One of the unexpected aspects of Delano’s fame (and that of the Drag Race franchise at large) is the number is extremely young fans it has attracted. Once solely within the purview of adult patrons at gay bars, Drag Race queens now often boast massive teenage followings. Delano, in particular, seems to have attracted many of the series’ youngest fans. “In the beginning, I didn’t really understand it, because, y’know, I’m from the hood,” she says with a self-deprecating snort. “The drag community that I grew up in, there were no kids at the bars. We were raunchy as hell. We talked about some nasty shit. So in the beginning I was like, ‘Why are you driving your kids for hours to go to a bar to meet drag queens?’ But about a year later, I realized that Drag Race had become a total cultural phenomenon. The kids are getting younger and younger, and they’re just seeing all this color. It’s opening the eyes of parents, and that’s having an effect on their children, and it’s creating this whole cool thing. These kids are young, and they’re salivating over drag queens on their TV, in their living room, right after Love & Hip Hop, y’know? I love it. I love the kids!” She adopts a coy, lecturing tone. “Whitney said the children are our future.”
Delano seems nonplussed when asked if this level of attention ever emotionally exhausts her. “I always remind people when they ask me something like this that I’ve been doing music shit on and off since I was 17,” she replies. “When I first started getting any success with it, I was probably 19 or 20, and there were like paparazzi, and I was like, ‘What the fuck? How do you deal with this?’ But now it’s like robot mode, dude. I put myself in the public eye, so I’d be a fucking asshole if somebody approached me when I’m out with my friends and we’re having a bite to eat, and I was like, ‘I’m eating right now.’ I always try to make time to take pictures with people because I put myself out there willingly.” Besides, she adds with a laugh, “I better be glad that I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m not good at anything else. Take a picture! I’m gonna look like fucking Pepper from American Horror Story. I don’t care.”
One major effect of Drag Race’s popularity, for better or worse, has been a shift in the way drag queens are perceived romantically. Before the show, with its emphasis on depicting the contestants out of drag, working as a queen professionally often meant being viewed as deeply undesirable.
“Dude. It’s been such a fucking shift,” Delano explains when this phenomenon is mentioned. “Even when I was just starting out, if somebody on Grindr found out I did drag, they’d instantly block me. It was not cool. It was not sexy. My eyebrows were shaved off. Now it’s so different. Now they sexualize you. I think it’s because they show us de-dragging on the show, and in ‘boy mode.’ Whatever that means. It shows us as humans, which is good, but it’s also caused that fucking shift.” Even now, she says she occasionally faces that kind of prejudice. “It depends on what part of the world you’re in,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll show guys pictures of me in drag, and they won’t be into it. And then they’ll see the number of followers I have and then they’re interested.”
When asked about her own love life, Delano answers with a characteristic laugh. “Right now, there’s not really much of a love life. I mean, I’m a free spirit, and right now I work so much, and we’re on the road so much that I just end up casually meeting people. If it gets serious then it gets serious, but I’m just focusing on my music.”
What can Adore can get away with that Danny can’t?
“Oh everything, dude!” she exclaims. “There’s just something about that makeup mask and that superhero wig that makes me feel like I could do anything, girl. When I’m in drag, I’ll hit on people and be flirty; when I’m Danny, I’m just chill, usually stoned. It’s pretty weird.”
Delano describes Whatever as her angriest record, and much of that anger is, understandably, political. Many of the legal advances made for LGBTQ people in recent years seem, in light of the current administration, suddenly tenuous. Delano is also Chicanx, another population who’ve suffered under a number of new political measures aimed at tightening legal immigration and deporting undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
“I mean, it’s devastating, man,” Delano reveals about the effects this crackdown has on her own family. “It’s really lit a fire under everyone’s asses, because what the fuck is actually happening, y’know? It was really trippy for a moment because I have foster tías on my mom’s side who could be affected by everything. It was not a fun moment for anybody on our block.”
Another reason for her increased political engagement has been the sense of responsibility she feels for her younger fans. “Before I’d kind of turn a blind eye, but when you see something like this political situation, a disaster waiting to happen, you have to at least try to do something to stop it. If your people are looking at you as a role model, and you see somebody trying to attack your people, you’re going to have to say something, dude. Not only for yourself but for the future, y’know? There are babies who have got to live here and clean up the bullshit that these motherfuckers are creating for them. It’s hard not to say something.
“I got suspended on Twitter for going after…what’s her name? Tommy Loren?” she says about conservative pundit Tomi Lahren. “You can’t help but just say shit, y’know? And I don’t mind if I get suspended. It’s like, ‘I’ll be back in 12 hours, bitch!’”
Given Delano’s newfound political zeal, there’s been some interest toward how she views the person in whose footsteps she most directly follows, RuPaul Charles. Earlier this year, Charles caused anger among many fans of his show when, in a profile for The Guardian in March, he disclosed that he would likely not allow a trans contest who’d had gender confirmation surgery or begun medically transitioning to compete on the show. (Drag Race has included transgender contestants in past seasons, although many of them have come out after their tenure on the show, and none underwent gender confirmation surgery before filming.) Given the immense lineage of transgender drag performers, and the fact that many fans of the show are themselves transgender or gender-nonconforming, the comments sparked a wave of outrage.
“I mean, he’s from an older generation,” she begins tentatively, “and a lot of his comments are out of touch with what’s happening, because when he was coming up, a lot of the topics that are floating to the top right now weren’t even discussed. I feel like he just doesn’t understand how to dissect those topics and figure out why people are upset.”
But Delano is quick to make it clear that, while she understands the generational differences, she regards RuPaul’s stance as fundamentally flawed. “I don’t want to talk shit, but I don’t understand what that mentality is. I grew up in a generation where if I didn’t understand something, I would look it up and read on it. And seeing that the fans are getting younger and younger, and the culture of drag is becoming a lot more accepting, it’s a really fucked-up way of thinking. Drag really starts with trans women. Those comments are very cringe-y, and every time he says something like that, I end up on the phone with some of my homegirls from the show and I’m like, ‘Girl… she needs to chill.’”
When asked if those kinds of comments make her personally question Ru’s cultural legacy, she gets slightly emotional.
“It makes me question, of course! It makes everybody question. We’re all on the phone together saying, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ We can chalk it up to age, but she grew up in the midst of drag, as well. My friend and I were on the phone that morning and we were like, ‘Is she tired? Was she sleeping when she tweeted that? What’s going on?’”
As the interview winds down and she’s asked about her future plans, Delano is vague. Her answers, beyond the immediate (“This video tomorrow has a boa constrictor with one eye, and I’m nervous”), are vague. “We have some projects in the summer that are going to be really fun!”
When asked if she ever worries about whether her career has an expiration date, she seems unfazed. “I don’t worry about it,” she says. “Not to sound cocky, but I was smart about it. I’m not an asshole, so I got really close with some of the promoters. I get re-booked almost as soon as I’m done touring. We’re already talking about going back to Australia and New Zealand. As long as there’s a market and people are interested in my music, this is all going to happen.”
In the past year, Delano has been through a great deal—legal battles, emotional turmoil, dramatic changes, both artistically and personally—and she seems to have arrived at something closer to peace. “I don’t know, man,” she says, by way of explaining her new approach. “I’ve just gotta start seeing it like that, ’cause otherwise, you can lose your fucking mind.”
This feature originally appeared as the Pride Issue cover story for AP #358. The full magazine is available here.