Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race with the fortitude to stick by the show for 12 regular seasons, five iterations of All-Stars, and the international Drag Race sprawl, have become well used to the franchise’s character archetypes: the insecure pageant queen, the broadway baby who seriously overestimates her own talent, the Instagram celebrity dragging in a trunkful of couture. These characters pop up every season. Rarer is the Drag Race contestant who walks into the workroom fresh off the plane from some Southern nowhere, costumed in full drag but somehow more naked than the other queens, without the benefits of college theater-level knowledge of archaic show tunes or bespoke gowns hand-stoned by someone else. These types of contestants come to the competition prepared mostly with only a love of drag incongruously born in parts of the country where knowledge of the form is hard to come by and drag’s practice is still relatively scandalous, confined to back rooms of a shitty town’s lone gay bar.
In Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Chi Chi DeVayne, born Zavion Davenport, who died last week of pneumonia at age 34, was that queen. I rooted for her before she ever stepped foot in the workroom because we’re both from Shreveport, Louisiana, a town not that not many leave—especially not to become drag queens. And before I ever met Chi Chi through my television, I knew the dark back room of the town’s one gay bar where Chi Chi came up, because I started sneaking into that very establishment at 16 to see up-and-coming performers like her.
“If you made it to RuPaul’s Drag Race, you made it honey,” she declared, as she made her grand entrance wearing a gown she crafted herself from black trash bags to form a rosette-swirled bodice that puffed into a tea-length skirt. “I’m a cheap queen,” she told the other contestants, who snickered behind her.
“Chi Chi walked in in a trash bag,” another contestant, Robbie Turner, complained to the camera in a cutaway, seemingly angry at the audacity of a person coming on the show without any money. From that second forward, as I watched in the living room of my mice-infested New York apartment, myself a person who’d come to a giant city without any money pretending thrift store clothes were a choice at parties where acquaintances reminisced about their $74k-a-year glory days at Bard, I wanted nothing more than to watch Chi Chi systematically take these other queens out.
Chi Chi wasn’t the first hardworking Southern drag queen who unfortunately showed up to television without enough clothes—Shangela, who has become a major star in years since, popularized the role and, most recently, Heidi N Closet has carried on the tradition. But what Chi Chi did do was pick off those smirking big city queens one by one through a combination of talent and heart that left her in the top four at the end of the season, long after the humiliating experience of having to lip-sync for her life for wearing a hastily-constructed swimsuit she’d crafted in the workroom after a panicked realization that she’d run out of clothes. In that mid-season episode, when Chi Chi told the judges she didn’t have the money to dress in the expensive and intricate costumes her competitors wore, the judges shut her down, pretending that talent is all that matters in a business that requires thousands of dollars of face paint, gowns, wigs, and shoes just to be considered for the chance to spend five minutes on stage at a nightclub lip-syncing for singles.
“You don’t need money, girl, that’s never an excuse,” Michelle scolded Chi Chi. But that’s simply not true. I’ve spoken to former competitors from past seasons who told me about the designers they worked with beforehand to create customized looks; there are rumors of queens taking out loans before their seasons just to avoid the shame of looking poor on television and getting publicly scolded for it. In the most recent season of the show, Heidi N Closet lamented the fact that she’d come to Drag Race with less than a dollar in her bank account and was also roundly scolded for failing to bring enough costumes that looked sufficiently expensive. Chi Chi was honest about her reality in a way that most other competitors aren’t, explaining that a poor childhood and adult bankruptcy made the resourcefulness of her “cheap queen” costumes a necessity and not a quirky Southern character trait. That frankness, along with sweet, yet quick wit and undefeated dancing ability, made Chi Chi a refreshing addition to a show about creating illusions and characters, sometimes at the expense of extending real human decency to fellow competitors.
But it’s not just the lack of runway-ready clothing that puts the down-on-her-luck Southern queen at a disadvantage. Throughout her season, Chi Chi struggled with her accent, her upbringing, the fact that she wasn’t raised in a place that values art, especially any art that reads gay. “Chi Chi is a fucking bumpkin,” Bob tells the camera in that first episode, “Country as catfish sandwiches.” Years later, rewatching the season on the day nearly every drag queen on Instagram posted a memoriam to Chi Chi, it’s infuriating to rewatch Season 8, where arty New York queens like Acid Betty and Thorgy Thor, a white man with dreadlocks, speak over Chi Chi’s ideas in a challenge she’d go on to win. And the moment when Chi Chi finally faces off against Thorgy in a lip-sync to a song from the musical Dreamgirls, “And I Am Telling You,” so passionately that the same competitor who led the charge in belittling her all season simply gave up is a win for every Southerner who ever grew up poor and afraid to speak in a room full of people who believe access to resources has somehow made them inherently smarter. At the end of the lip-sync, Thorgy forcefully grabbed Chi Chi’s wrist and thrust both their arms into the air, attempting to take Chi Chi’s hand in some last grasp at solidarity.
Chi Chi didn’t take her hand, and I’m so grateful to forever have that two seconds easily accessible for replay. You don’t get to share this with me, the moment seems to say. Despite the fact that Chi Chi didn’t win the season and became too intimidated to go very far in All-Stars, that lip-sync was the real winner of Season 8. In the years that followed, Chi Chi hashtagged many of her social media posts Lousiana Drag with an alligator emoji. I liked it every single time.
Two years ago, I moved to Los Angeles after four miserable years in New York City. One of the first months I was here, I was lucky enough to finally see Chi Chi perform at Mickey’s in West Hollywood with my best friend, also a Louisiana transplant. It wasn’t a smoky backroom in the town’s one clandestine club; it was neon lights on the mainstage at one of the most famous drag shows in a town full of them. I wish I could remember what Chi Chi performed that night. My friend can’t remember either—too many vodka sodas while we waited for her to come on, one of the last performers of the night.
But I do remember that I’d been judicious with my ones, just waiting for Chi Chi. When she came out, I got so nervous that I handed them all to her in a big clump before running back to my seat, shy now that I could see her up close. After the show, I waited on the smoking patio for hours as the other queens came out to take photographs. Probably I would have blurted out that we are from the same place, about the same age, most likely know the same bartenders, and grew up at the same shows. But she never came down. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have said something boring and dumb like “You’re here. You made it.” But I might have. So it’s probably for the best I didn’t get to speak to Chi Chi, since all I really wanted was to feel proud of her and by proxy our hometown from the closer proximity of a live audience. She certainly didn’t need me to tell her she’d made it. From the moment she arrived on Drag Race, she knew.