There she is.
Symone emerges from her dressing room. Grant Vanderbilt, who she has called her drag mother, leads the way. Marko Monroe, the uber-stylist and designer who has long helped the current title holder of America’s Next Drag Superstar with her sartorial vision, follows. The trio dance to a track from RuPaul’s 1996 Foxy Lady album, the follow-up to Supermodel of the World. The music in the studio is adjusted to be from the same project — “Snapshot” is first — and then Symone slides into place, cycling through a few test shots before re-creating a 1994 cover of Out, featuring RuPaul holding a baby, for a new Out100 digital cover honoring the magazine’s 300th issue.
“That cover is from one of my favorite eras of RuPaul,” Symone tells Out later over the phone. “It speaks to me. Especially because at that time, a drag queen holding a Black baby on the cover was a big deal.”
Times have changed, largely because of the trail blazed by Ru. Still, watching Symone throw pose after pose (with and without a toddler in her arms), allowing photographer Micaiah Carter to capture angle after angle, is something to behold. It seems like the perfectly-oiled machine: Symone trusting herself and her team members (Vanderbilt and Monroe,) who are tossing words of encouragement and adjusting anything that might be out of place. This seems, and will likely prove to be, some of the early days of a star taking off. The confidence, the seemingly unending schedule — the night before our L.A shoot she was hosting an event in New York City for Madonna, and the next day she was in San Francisco — and the disciplined, supportive team all working under a singular vision foreshadow quite the trajectory for the Arkansas-born performer. A trajectory that Symone, this year, launched toward in earnest.
“All gas, no brakes.” Rihanna DMed Symone after seeing her on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13. "All gas, no brakes."
LaQuan Smith Dress; XIV Karats Earrings, Necklace, and Rings; Femme La Shoes
2021 started for Symone in a place of excitement and euphoria. While she was still experiencing the effects of “partaking” on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day was about the premiere of Drag Race, where she made her television debut. She’d been preparing for that moment since age 16, when she started doing makeup at home in a small window of time between when she got home from school and her father pulled into the driveway.
“I think all that time I was preparing, not necessarily knowing that, but I was,” she says. Drag became a light for her: first in those stolen hours at home, then on Instagram, and finally with her public IRL debut, going to prom in full geish. Later, a 2013 performance at Triniti Nightclub proved pivotal: “I remember going to college and being like I’m going to college because that’s expected of me but I’m going to this specific college because it’s easier for me to do drag there, in Little Rock.”
A move to Little Rock brought family and growth. While attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock studying mass communications, Symone met Vanderbilt, who read her down after judging the Fresh Fish drag competition at Club Sway. The read became a conversation, an introduction, and an invitation: Symone soon after joined the House of Avalon, a queer collective (now all living in one Los Angeles duplex) that included founders Monroe and Hunter Crenshaw. This experience exposed the budding performer to all of the references she needed to learn. She combined those references with a core group of Black women to create the Symone the world knows today.
Much like RuPaul Charles has a recipe for the drag persona Monster, which many of us know simply as RuPaul, Reggie Gavin has a recipe for their drag persona Symone: the business aptitude and unapologetic heart of Rihanna; the sticky-sweet glamour of Diana Ross; the class and soul of Whitney Houston; the sexy ferocity of Lil’ Kim; the innate charisma of Tina Turner; and the staying power of Naomi Campbell.
These women are “always on the moodboards, always on my mind,” she says. “Each one of them are icons in their own right.” And of course, RuPaul is the “blueprint.”
Alexandre Vaultier Couture Dress; XIV Karats Earrings, Necklace
The first four months of 2021 were a race for Symone. She watched herself compete in the world’s biggest drag competition as the world reacted to it. She had made it through after only auditioning once previously (“I don’t know what I thought I was going to get onto with that [season nine] tape.”) But, outside of rare low points like the roast, she found the competition transformative not because of the eventual crown or cash but because of how it changed her relationship with herself.
“I didn’t know that people would love me so much and resonate with me so much,” she explains. “I didn’t see what they saw until after the show and I didn’t really understand. For people to ride for me so hard and love me so hard, it’s so humbling because I didn’t see it for myself first." In addition to her humorously affected accent, she brought high-fashion looks to the runway, often infused with Black culture; she became the first queen to do so at such a high taste level in the show’s 13 seasons. Specific “wink” moments, or personal tweaks generally grounded in Blackness that are added on to looks, helped Symone develop deep connections with a legion of fans off of the specificity of shared experiences alone. The perceived closeness has proven emotional.
During NYC Pride at a rooftop party, she was approached by a fan. “I felt his energy and it was really sad,” she recalls. The fan shared that his mother had recently died and that “watching you on that show pulled me out of the dark place that I was in after she died.” While holding on to the 26-year-old, he tearfully explained that Symone’s mannerisms were reminiscent of his mother, and that seeing her meant a lot. The experience confirmed that Symone had done what she ultimately aimed to on Drag Race: “be the person that I needed to see on the show.”
But of course, she won and has exploded since. After her Drag Race victory, Symone attended the Met Gala, appeared onstage at the Emmy Awards, appeared in a Kacey Musgraves video, booked a Moschino campaign, walked the runway for Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty brand, and been cast on Billy Eichner’s upcoming history-making film Bros. She’s done this all with the support of the House of Avalon and RuPaul who, uncharacteristically, posts some of her latest exploits on social media (“It’s very much a mother-daughter thing”). All of this with the House of Avalon, as well as other "chosen family" like Drag Race alum Gigi Goode, in lockstep about the future.
Back at NYC Pride, at one of the first major fashion industry events in Manhattan since the pandemic, Madonna held a “surprise” performance at the Boom Boom Room. Outside, crowds crushed around the gates, edging for the attention of someone who could get them in. Zachary Quinto, Lance Bass, Violet Chachki, Anderson Cooper, and Andy Cohen were all in the melee.
The House of Avalon and its entourage arrived early, and the legendary nightlife fixture Connie Girl pulled Symone out of line. “How many people do you have with you?” she asked. Symone turned to her. “Thirteen,” she replied, then watched as they filed her entire party through the cluster and into the venue.
“I have a family around me, and we’re good at what we do,” Symone says. “We have an understanding of 'if one person eats, we all eat,' so if we can all make this work, it will help everyone.” You see their names in the credits of almost every image: Vanderbilt and Monroe holding down the fort with creative; Goode doing hair; and Crenshaw often uncredited, but ever-present on the business end.
“I understand the path I want to go down and it’s not necessarily the easiest, but they all understand that and we all see the same path and speak the same language,” she continues. “I would hope for anyone who wants to make it in this business, that they have that because that’s the only way you’re going to survive.”
But Symone wants much more than just survival, with visions of returning to TV in the future — a talk show or possibly a scripted project. As she’s said many times before, it’s world domination she’s after. “All gas, no brakes.”
Photographer Micaiah Carter @micaiahcarter
Stylist Law Roach @LuxuryLaw
Hair Gigi Goode @TheGigiGoode
Retouch Picturehouse+TheSmallDarkRoom @phtsdr
Photo Assist 1st Jordie Turner @joyride
2nd Sam Rivera @samrrr5
Digital Tech Blake Mohr @blakemohrcreative
Co-producer The Only Agency @theonly.agency
Creative Assistance Marko Monroe and Grant Vanderbilt for House of Avalon @Marko_Monroe and @GrantVanderbilt
Cover: Rago Top XIV Karats Earrings Amrita Singh Necklace
Symone is one of seven cover stars of Out's 2021 Out100 issue, which is on newsstands November 30. She shares her print cover with Law Roach. Since this is also Out's 300th issue, we are running a $3 promotion for a one-year subscription. Subscribe now (the promotion ends on December 1). Otherwise, support queer media and subscribe outside of the promotion — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.