Drag heroine Naomi Smalls, like you’ve never seen her before

By
Photography Todd Diederich

Published May 9, 2018

Naomi Smalls’s name is a tribute to a bygone era. Her first pays homage to the forever beautiful Naomi Campbell—an easy inspiration to Smalls growing up a fashion-obsessed ’90s kid during the model’s reign. And her last honors the late Biggie Smalls, a rapper that oozed “freshness” and “[didn’t] give a fuck about what anybody else [thought],” both qualities admired by the young queen. At only 24, Naomi Smalls is doing her best to live up to her dual namesakes, and she has accomplished a lot. Beloved by fans for her performance on season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she shares a runner-up title with best friend Kim Chi. She has played clubs and stadiums, intoxicating growing numbers of crowds with her high-glam brand of drag and comedy, and has traveled around the world to places like Buenos Aires, Glasgow, and Bangkok to share her radiant energy. Recently, however, the queen has started to feel the unrest that comes from seeing moments and experiences swiftly recede into the past.

Her latest creative project is an embrace of these feelings and an attempt to document the quick, gone-in-an-instant adventures that characterize a catapult to success such as hers. In Small’s World, a short film series the queen has been steadily publishing on YouTube since February, big runway reveals are absent. Instead, it’s the behind-the-scenes moments that are lit, framed, and magnified. In recorded conversations with friends and artistic snippets cut from a drag superstar’s everyday, Smalls gives her audience a sincere peek at “the monotone man under the wig.” The videos feature gritty, vaporwave-inspired aesthetics courtesy of director Todd Diederich, and dreamy, lush music from electronic artist Cameron Traxxx. The combination is something original and affecting—this is a Naomi Smalls we have not seen before.

The queen is on her way to the airport when I get her on the phone. “I’ll be in New York for less than 24 hours,” she explains. We speak until she arrives, and touch on everything from pretty people persecution to kids who haven’t yet been jaded by the world. For Smalls, part of getting older and growing up is taking control of her own narrative and her own representation.

NGOZI NWADIOGBU: In the first video for Small’s World, you express how recently you realized how much you want to remember this time in your life. Was there a specific incident that sparked this self-reflection?

NAOMI SMALLS: I was touring nonstop for two years after Drag Race. Having this time off and being able to reflect on it, I mean, I don’t really have that many memories besides just Instagram posts. I needed my brain to look forward to something besides getting on a plane and getting on a stage. [These videos are] a fun way of having a creative outlet again, and it’s nice to be able to represent my true self. I can represent myself the way I would rather be represented than a TV show kind of just having a bunch of footage and releasing what they want. Another reason is that I don’t really have any home videos. I came from a family of 12 and I’m number 11. They gave up on photos and home videos by my time. [laughs]

NWADIOGBU: Do you feel more self-assured now? From Drag Race, which I’m sure was very exciting, to now, where there have been a few seasons of buffer—are things very different?

SMALLS: I’m really grateful that the show has given me a platform to get out there, but it’s awesome that I have totally separated. I love being able to do gigs, and now people are just a fan of me when they come out to see my show, they’re not just a fan of Drag Race since it has been four seasons. I definitely feel a lot more confident. I was 21 when it all happened. I know I’m only 24 now but still, going through your twenties on the road is kind of an interesting experience, and having it be so public.

NWADIOGBU: How did being on the road impact those first years of your twenties?

SMALLS: In your twenties, you’re known to just make a ton of mistakes. And having a spotlight on you when you’re 20 and making a ton of mistakes is intense. So you can’t say a lot of things. I mean, I’m an idiot. [laughs] I really am. I say a lot of stupid shit. That has gotten me in trouble a lot. It’s hard to have advice on that because I would ask my parents but my parents didn’t have the Internet when they were 20. They don’t have much advice for someone who’s young, dumb, and in the spotlight. What also got to me on my time off was reading about myself and it wasn’t necessarily a lot of positive things. Not to toot my own horn, but young, pretty people— [laughs]

NWADIOGBU: Speak your truth!

SMALLS: Young, pretty people have a bad rap of being really inconsiderate and irresponsible. That made me a little bit angry because, in my opinion, I’ve always had a really good work ethic and I’ve been good to people. That is one of the things I do want people to know about me through the videos. But I do think it made me grow up really fast. I’ve got more of a lock on how I present myself to the public and how I just handle being around people I guess.

NWADIOGBU: Are there mentors or other people besides your parents who are a little older who were able to give you any advice that stuck with you?

SMALLS: My best friend is Kim from the show, Kim Chi. She’s not much older than me, I think she’s 30. She’s such a pro and she’s so smart that having that has really helped me. And my other best friend Natasha, she lives out here and she’s 37 and I think I just have really wise conversations with her, her advice is always really on top of it.

NWADIOGBU: What was the inspiration for the style of the videos?

SMALLS: I’ve always been a huge fan of the behind-the-scenes videos of a photoshoot. My favorite part of drag is the mechanics of it, setting up the shoot, setting up the wig, setting up the costume, getting ready, and I think [Small’s World] highlights all the behind-the-scenes aspects of drag and makes it more of a real thing instead of those four minutes you get to see somebody on stage.

NWADIOGBU: How did you find Todd, the director, and Cameron, the artist supplying the music?

SMALLS: Todd and Cameron Traxxx are both from Chicago and I live in Chicago. I met Todd through my old friend. I really thought what he was doing was something I’ve never seen. We come from very different worlds. He’s like a straight, 40-year-old teacher and I come from the drag world. It’s refreshing to have his art direction because it’s so different from what I think a lot of drag queens are doing. Having it be so not what you would expect is, at least in my opinion, what viewers want to see, instead of a typical come get ready with me type of situation. I went out and saw one of Cameron’s sets that he performed at a bar out here, and after that I just fell in love with his music. Since Todd and him are friends he’s just really excited to be part of the project. It went hand in hand and it’s really cool, because the editing of the video and the music go well together.

NWADIOGBU: How is Chicago in terms of the drag scene?

SMALLS: I moved here two years ago and I’ve loved it ever since. I have a home bar, but I love to go out and see all the other drag shows and support all my friends. There’s so much opportunity for art here that there’s always something to do. Even if it’s not going to see a drag show, being able to talk to the Boys and Girls Club, where all they do is take photos—I was like, “Oh, I want to go be their subject matter for the afternoon, why not? Let’s go film it.”

NWADIOGBU: That video was so sweet. How was it interacting with kids that are so young? I feel like you’re going through a lot at 13, 14. It was nice to see you being so honest with them.

SMALLS: Whenever I do Drag Con or we have an all-ages show, a lot of my fans are children. I don’t exactly know what it is, [laughs] but they like this 6’4” man in a wig for some reason. I love it because kids, to me, are so, I don’t know the best way to say it, but pure. They haven’t been jaded by the world yet and they’re so excited to have fun and they look at me as almost like a mascot. I could honestly just be Minnie Mouse to them. [laughs] But they’re really receptive to it and people get so scared of dealing with kids, but I just think back to when I was one, how I liked to be talked to, and what I thought was cool. I have so many young fans and they can see that I’m literally just a kid still, learning how to do all this stuff, and that’s inspiring to have someone at your age that is doing what you want to do. It’s really easy to connect with them. It’s not like that if I talk to a bunch of adults, that’s when I probably will clam up because I’m way more scared. [laughs]

NWADIOGBU: Is there a moment, before you started making this series, that you wish you could’ve videotaped and immortalized forever?

SMALLS: I really wish I had done this when I first started touring. But I was very confused and scared and nervous. After Drag Race, before I first started touring and having drag be my full-time job, my brother passed the month before casting and then my dad passed a year pretty much right after. That just kind of messes with your brain and makes you appreciate life more.

NWADIOGBU: I’m so sorry to hear that.

SMALLS: Thank you. Yeah, I wish that I had more memories of that, and I think that video is such a great way to just remember things.

NWADIOGBU: Is there a question or mystery in your life that you are grappling with right now?

SMALLS: I’m going through a phase of my life where I’m curious as to where I can go with what I have. I do know I’m not going to necessarily want to be in a nightclub until 4 A.M., until I’m like 40, asking for my paycheck, you know? I’d rather have something more stable, and what I’m trying to figure out right now is how I can still include all the things that I love doing. I want to be more behind it in the future. I pretty much get all my looks and all my ideas from photo shoots, and art directing, video, and photoshoots is what I’m leaning a little bit more towards.

NWADIOGBU: Speaking of your looks, how do you come up with your next thing?

SMALLS: I’m all over the place, but I always sketch out my stuff. One outfit I had recently I just found a pair of sunglasses at a costume store that cost me like $2.99. I was like, “Oh I want to plan a full-on look around these sunglasses and have it coordinate,” so I just sketched out something, went and got fabric, and then sent the fabric to a designer and told her what I wanted. But it’s a collaboration of Tumblr, Instagram inspiration, and just scrolling through my phone and seeing whatever I saved. A lot of music also speaks to me, I don’t know why. [laughs] It’s like a never-ending job. I’ve done a pretty good job of showing people a bunch of different, new looks, and I do get attached to some. Some are really good performances, but I think it’s always important to reinvent and give ’em something new and try to stay on top of your game. For me at least, it helps me mentally to always change it up. I know if I keep doing the same thing, putting the same costume on, the same lashes, the same wig on, then I know that’s when I’ve given up. I need to be challenging myself. And I really like being nervous. You can’t be nervous in the same old, same old. I have to be nervous that people are going to like something new.

WATCH THE NEWEST EPISODE OF SMALL’S WORLD HERE: