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Miss Fame Is Ready to Take Her Makeup Off Now

Paola Kudacki

“Can you wet this for me?” Miss Fame asks the young woman next to her, handing her a pink Beauty Blender makeup sponge. It’s early February in Brooklyn, where the drag queen is about to pose for the first in a series of portraits captured by the fashion photographer, Paola Kudacki. After she’d chatted with each member of the team that day — from the manicurist to the wig master and the fashion stylist — she carefully took her perch in front of the mirror, where she’d go from Kurtis Dam-Mikkelsen to the contoured, tucked, and painted Miss Fame. At various points during the process, most of us would find ourselves watching her in the mirror, transfixed, before moving along. But one loyal subject remained totally cast under Fame’s magical spell: Kudacki’s wide-eyed young niece, a solitary student for a masterclass, watching the drag artist spend hours meticulously building her signature look from a bare face, absorbing advice on everything from application techniques to mixing loose powders. And now, she had officially gone from audience member to faithful assistant, with a sisterly nod from the woman in the mirror.

“If you’ve taken just one thing from what I’ve said here, I’ve done my job,” Fame says to her loyal subject as she wraps up her final look for the day. If it comes off like she’s a natural at this, it’s because she is: She has over half a million subscribers on YouTube, where her tutorials easily rack up millions of views. In fact, she’s been doing this kind of work for years — before Drag Race, her viral internet presence, or her worldwide appeal as a drag sensation, Miss Fame was a teacher. She moved to New York in 2011 and got a job with MAC Cosmetics at Bloomingdale's where she taught anyone coming in from off the street how to beautify themselves. Originally, that was a backup as one of her dreams was to become a male model — but nothing quite took off the way she wanted.

That is, until the makeup artist and photographer Fidel Gonzalez put her into drag. For that shoot she felt unsure of herself, not clear on how to walk or hold her body, but it was the start of a new trajectory. Before femme boys had really exploded on YouTube, before “gender-neutral” fashion was in Vogue, and years before one could ever imagine a beauty brand like Chanel launching a makeup line for men, Dam-Mikkelsen caused quite the stir, appearing tattooed and made up, bearing an almost uncanny resemblance to Nadja Auermann in the ‘90s. The looks, and the photography that they would come to inspire, changed the game — and there was born the beginning of Miss Fame.

But the road to becoming a star on her own terms wasn’t exactly glamorous. Before she perfected her signature severe winged liner, sharp angles, full lip, and tightly corseted waist, Fame found herself at odds with her rural beginnings, where standing out or being stylish was heavily discouraged.

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Born on a small farm in sunny Templeton, California, and raised by her grandparents, Dam-Mikkelsen had a pastoral, yet complicated, upbringing.

“I really love where I grew up. I loved being out in nature,” Dam-Mikkelsen says of a life intertwined with the farm she lived on. “I didn’t know anything else.” Her world was basically contained to a one-hour-drive radius from where she lived with her grandparents, as well as her aunts and uncles. In Templeton, houses were sometimes miles apart, so her friends were more likely to be of the animal variety (she kept an incubator for baby chickens under her childhood bed), and entertainment was a television with no cable, although Wheel of Fortune and Animal Planet were favorites. It was rustic, but as with everything, it had its own allure.

The house itself was busy — her grandparents had 10 children, many of whom were much older than Dam-Mikkelsen. At a young age, she became estranged from her biological parents, who were both struggling with addiction. “I was dealing with really fucked-up life stuff with [my mother] overdosing, and then having to see her in the hospital,” Dam-Mikkelsen recalls. “Coming back to school, it [felt] like none of these kids got what was going on in my personal life. They’ve all got two-parent households while I’m growing up with my grandparents, my mom’s a mess, and my dad’s deceased because of drugs."

Fortunately, many of her other family members ushered in the high points of Dam-Mikkelsen’s life. As early as five years old, she began finding joy in watching her aunts chat and get ready in front of the bathroom mirror. “They had this one drawer next to the lightswitch that had all of their eyelash curlers, tweezers, CoverGirl mascara, and Rimmel eyeshadow palettes,” she recalls. “It was all very Brooke Shields. A bunch of eyebrow, shimmer eye shadow, foundation that was a little light for their shade so they looked ghostly in photos, and overly teased, hairsprayed hair. I was obsessed with watching them."

Obsession, of course, turned into experimentation. When she was alone, the youngster would sneak into the drawer and try on the eyeliner for herself. Or she would slip into her grandmother’s bathroom and play with her lipstick, keeping an ear out for sounds of cars approaching down the long driveway. Once, when Dam-Mikkelsen’s aunt bleached her hair blonde (per her request), things came to a head, and her grandfather reacted with rage. “I knew it wouldn’t be cool to him, because any sign of me being gay [made him] uncomfortable. I got hit really hard and called a faggot,” she says.

Her grandfather’s mentality was, unfortunately, not atypical of her small-town community. “Trying to have style and standing out was going to get you hurt,” she says of life in the countryside. “If it wasn’t getting you hurt at home, it was going to get you hurt at school, because kids would target that kind of individualism. We were growing up in the middle of nowhere, so you couldn’t really be feminine.”

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Relief came in the form of art. As a pre-teen, Dam-Mikkelson began creating drawings, eventually progressing to realist portraiture. “Art was the only thing that I was able to do without it being too complicated, and I was good at it,” she says, describing the outlet as a safeground. Her earliest inspirations were the flowers and animals around her. But in solace, she also started to draw women: curvy, dramatic silhouettes with thin waists and full hips; elaborate eye makeup. Idealized women. The sketches were, in a way, prescient.

It wasn’t until her late teens that Dam-Mikkelsen turned her flirtation with makeup into a regular process. “I’ve never had perfect skin,” she says. “I had cystic acne when I was 11 all the way up to after high school, so I started to wear makeup as a mask to hide that.” That mask functioned not only for her appearance, but also for her emotions. Wary of being clocked as being fake (and, potentially, hurt), she kept an intentional distance between herself and her peers, all in an effort to keep up the illusion of perfect, natural skin. With practice, her craft got better, revealing a whole other skill set beyond her artwork.

After selling her portraits for profit, Dam-Mikkelson used her funds to finance a move to New York in 2011 — all in the hopes of becoming a male model. While that dream didn’t work out — the sector was too competitive, and the industry wasn’t receptive of her edgy, sometimes androgynous look — her career as a makeup artist and nightlife personality (the latter in drag) began to blossom. She worked under the luminary Pat McGrath at New York Fashion Week, made a cameo in Brooke Candy’s music video “Opulence” shot by Steven Klein, appeared at events for the MAC AIDS Fund, and launched her now-famous YouTube channel. One of her digital admirers was none other than Mathu Andersen, the genius artist responsible for many of RuPaul’s most iconic makeup looks. Moved by her aesthetic, Andersen encouraged Fame to audition for Drag Race, where she’d nab a spot on the season-seven lineup alongside her peers like Violet Chachki and Katya Zamolodchikova.

“I’m Miss Fame, I’m 29 years old, and I’m beyond-this-planet beautiful,” she said during her introduction to the workroom, wearing a spiked purple catsuit. “My brand is classic, chic, fashion model. I’m ready to show everybody what I’m meant to do, which is leave a beauty mark on the face of the planet.” With that statement, Fame declared her look as her glory — an outsider in a competition where at the time, pageantry, sewing, and comedy chops were key components to impressing the judges.

“How’s your head?” Ru asked Fame almost constantly, both in the workroom and on the mainstage. And Fame, who some would criticize as being too caught up in her own world, continuously missed the seemingly obvious joke. Just an episode before she was sent home, Fame finally understood Ru wasn’t asking about her mental health. “Haven’t had any complaints!” she replied, finally taking it in stride.

The recurring gag was a bit of a metaphor for Fame’s tenure on the show. While the other contestants were lip syncing, delivering camp, or allowing themselves to be laughed at, Fame doubled down on being the “look queen,” someone who aesthetically delivered on the mainstage, but who mostly floundered elsewhere. In an act of almost poetic justice, Fame would finally get the chop after failing to successfully pull off a John Waters-inspired challenge that demanded the queens look “ugly."

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While many eliminated queens use their time after Drag Race to improve upon their critiques, Fame found vindication in leaning into her different approach to the art of drag. To this day, she does not perform like the majority of her Drag Race sisters, preferring her real crown as one of the reigning look queens. In fact, Fame has not performed since May 2017. During a trip to Peru, she was expected to teach and lip sync for an audience at one of her many scheduled appearances, but the location brought up unexpected emotions — her grandfather had passed away in the country years before. After that evening, she stepped away from the experience and doubled down on her makeup expertise, teaching masterclasses around the world through programs like “Painted by Fame,” and securing brand partnerships with the likes of NYX Cosmetics, L’Oréal Paris, Marc Jacobs Beauty, and beyond.

“I am a model,” she explains matter-of-factly. In fact, the now 33-year-old is currently represented by IMG Models in Paris and Wilhelmina Models in New York, holding a coveted spot on the women’s board of both agencies. “I’ve done enough work, with enough legit names and brands in this industry, that I get to call myself that.”

“When we first met Miss Fame at the Cannes Film Festival, we knew we had to represent such an incredible talent,” Johanne Sebag, vice president and co-managing director of IMG Models Paris, says. In 2016, Fame’s work with L’Oréal grew from mere appearances and commercials to walking down the red carpet of the iconic Cannes Film Festival. Her look for the 69th annual event — a full-skirted, corseted black Zac Posen gown with a vermillion wig and matching lip — was jaw-dropping in and of itself. It became even more notable when it was later revealed that a drag queen hadn’t graced the Cannes carpet since pageant royalty Flawless Sabrina and Rachel Harlow walked for The Queen, nearly 50 years prior, in 1968.

“Signing a drag artist to IMG Models Paris is a crucial milestone in the path towards representation of all men and women, regardless of how they present or define,” Sebag continues. The signing was a first for the industry, since followed by Drag Race season 10 winner Aquaria. 

Fame has since made considerable inroads with the fashion industry, posing for editorials in some of the most prestigious publications, ranging from international editions of Vogue to LOVE to V. Just recently, she made waves in the front row of the couture collections in Paris, dressed head-to-toe in creations by houses like Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Iris van Herpen. She is meticulous about the details of her looks, preferring a carefully-nipped waist — which also means she’s fastidious about her body.

And just like any good modern model, Fame is expanding upon her already multi-hyphenate status, capitalizing on her social media following and her good industry standing. Last September, she celebrated the launch of Miss Fame Beauty, a self-funded, six-piece, cruelty-free line of lip products. And while it parallels the ascent of drag in the mainstream beauty space, her line is already breaking new ground.

“I think Miss Fame really sets herself apart by being a self-funded drag artist doing this on her own versus collaborating with a brand. But it also fits into this trend we’ve been seeing, where we have people who are famous on social media for their makeup come out with their own lines,” says Allure’s digital deputy beauty director, Sophia Panych. Fame’s power on YouTube places her in the company of fellow social media entrepreneurs, like Patrick Starr or Jeffree Star, who have each launched their own projects to what appears to be overwhelming success. And, by starting off with a single-product focus, Fame’s approach mirrors that of the beauty billionaire Kylie Jenner, whose now ubiquitous brand started with one “Lip Kit.”

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So far, the line has been worn by the likes of Janet Jackson and Madonna, among other notables. It includes shades like “Flash of Flesh,” a true khaki-toned nude, “The Other Woman,” a perfectly bold, cool shade of red, and a lavender glitter to be worn over the wearer’s lipstick shade of choice. (Fame most recently layered it atop a violet pout at Kim Jones’s Dior Homme show during Paris Fashion Week.) But, the staple and bestseller of the collection is none other than “How’s Your Head,” an easy-to-wear shade of peach — and a clear reclamation of her story arc on Drag Race.

Through her products, Fame is sharing her aesthetic in a new way, but a life in (and about) beauty remains a definitive commitment. It has required an undying dedication to upholding the integrity of her skin, sometimes through extreme measures: “I do everything. Microneedling, laser, microdermabrasion, chemical peels,” she reveals. “I’ve drawn my blood out and injected it back into my face. I have a cream from Dr. Barbara Sturm made from my own plasma. Anything to make the skin come back to life and heal.” But Fame’s fierce work ethic has also given way to an uncanny self-awareness about her goals and needs, and a realization about why she really started all of this in the first place.

“I needed a maternal, loving, powerful, commanding woman in my life that could show me the way,” she says. “I feel that my experience as Miss Fame allowed me to attain that. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I can say, ‘I’ve realized it’s emotional but I’ve cleared that up. Now I’m doing it purely for art’s sake.’ But for now, there are days where it’s light and I can just float through the world, and there are days where I have to say, ‘Hey, no, let’s sit and talk about that.’”

Part of that emotional process means she’s had to recognize her artistry for the mask it is — and, in a more complicated twist, avoid losing herself in the illusion she’s created. That work has, at times, required pulling back from the brushes and skipping a few layers of foundation in an attempt to feel good about what’s inside. “I had the ability to create makeup looks that were refined and beautiful, but I started getting to the point where I began to wonder, ‘Can I feel comfortable enough in my own beauty? Am I beautiful enough to just be? Yes, I can do the makeup, but can I bring it down to nothingness and still be OK? And can I still capture something worth looking at?’”

By the end of our 12-hour shoot, the entire crew — photographer, stylist, and beyond — remains totally captivated by Fame’s chameleonic posing. For the last shot, Kudacki orders Fame to give the camera “tears.” An assistant dutifully brings over Visine, and a few drops in each eye release streams down her cheeks, smudging and running the immaculately applied makeup she's wearing. The crew changes the soundtrack, and Adele’s 25 begins blaring over the sound system. As Kudacki continues her encouragement, something shifts in our model. Off came the tousled blonde wig, and somehow, the fabricated tears turn into real ones. Miss Fame, our beautiful supermodel, is actually crying. After Kudacki put her camera down, the two embrace, thanking each other for the moment.

“I wondered if I was only beautiful enough because I created a fantasy that’s not real,” Fame reveals, just a day later. “And that, to me, needed to change.” Slowly, it absolutely has, editing Miss Fame almost down to nothing other than Dam-Mikkelsen, at last and finally, bare.  

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