Drag queen Pandora Boxx may not have won RuPaul’s Drag Race, but she’s gone on to lead a life entertainers of all stripes might envy. Né Michael Steck, Pandora has since appeared on RuPaul's Drag U and RuPaul’s Allstars Drag Race, and performs throughout the US and abroad. In Chicago this weekend for a gig at Spin, a soft-spoken Steck took the time to grab an iced tea and discuss Pandora’s comedic influences, deliver behind the scenes Drag Race gossip and offer his side of that whole Mimi Imfurst debacle.
Our Town Looking at your life before and after RuPaul’s Drag Race, what’s the biggest change?
Michael Steck (Pandora Boxx) Before I was a video editor for a local TV station and I did drag on the side, and I’m an entertainer now. It really has allowed me to travel all over the country and to different countries. There are certainly prices to pay for this kind of life. I’m trying to find the right way to say this, I’m very thankful. I love what I do, but it’s not as glamorous as everyone expects it to be. Like, the travel and the exhausting schedule isn’t something I thought of when I was getting into it.
OT People always seem so judgmental when celebrities claim exhaustion. And maybe some of them are just going to rehab, but when you look at a performer's life, exhaustion seems like an inevitable byproduct.
MS Right. I don’t think people realize. If you’re doing a TV show you could be shooting for sixteen hours straight. Even on Drag Race, we’re there from nine in the morning to ten at night. And half of that day sometimes is standing. It’s painful enough to be in heels, but to stand onstage for hours? So, performers passing out from exhaustion? Totally possible. I live on the West Coast now, but a lot of the gigs are on the East Coast, so I take a red eye in, maybe get a nap, do the show, the show ends at two a.m,. then I get on a six a.m. flight and fly to the next show. Drag numbers aren’t too long onstage, but you get someone like Lady Gaga or Madonna onstage for hours, constantly moving and singing and doing costume changes; I’m blown away they can even do that.
OT You mentioned being onstage at Drag Race for hours. What are the actual time-frames for challenges?
MS They purposely make it look like we don’t know how long we have. And sometimes we don’t because we don’t have phones or--there was a clock on our wall, but it was a RuPaul clock and it didn’t work, which I find kind of funny. Like, oh you better NOT werk, RuPaul. They’re always saying time’s running out, but then you have another hour or something after that. But you still believe it the next time they say it. They just want that rush. But the eliminations are a full day of standing there in heels and being judged by everyone because every judge says something about every contestant.
OT Obvious question, but what’s that like?
MS It’s terrible. It’s awful. None of us want to be judged and you go out there thinking you’ve done something great and you find they didn’t like any of it. Any time I saw any contestant be bitchy or talk back to the judges, I thought it looked really bad. So, me, I just didn’t say anything or I’d add something funny at the end, but after a while it was like, okay, are you going to like anything I do?
OT I have to say, on Allstars it looked like you took one look at Mimi and just deflated. Do you mind talking about that experience?
MS I don’t mind. It wasn’t working with Mimi because I’ve worked with her before and I’m fine with that. I was deflated because I knew in my heart that we would never go far. I knew that given the other teams and how they judge on that show and the fact that Mimi was the one person who was questionable as to why she was on that show--I think she’s very talented, I just think they added her to Allstars for the sake of controversy-- I just saw the outcome. I saw all the work I put in and I felt like my chance of winning was gone. So yeah, I was totally deflated, but when we did the challenges I put all my effort in. I mean, I made out with Mimi. People are like, she gave up and I’m like, um, did you see my tongue in Mimi’s mouth? That’s not giving up. That’s one hundred and twenty percent effort. And we had fun in the challenges. The makeup was an issue. She just wasn't listening to what I was saying.
OT I still don’t know how to put on makeup, and I don’t have to do it for an audience, but I feel like giving up the control of doing your own make up would be a big deal.
MS Yeah, it’s a big deal, and it’s a time crunch. We decided to do our makeup how we normally look. And I explained to her how to do my lips and she made them into a triangle. It was like, did you listen to any word I used to describe how to do my lips because you did exactly the opposite? And then by the sixth time of not even coming close to what I was explaining, I’m getting angry and frustrated and we’re running out of time and I haven’t even started her face. And then I kept thinking, maybe it’s me, maybe I’m not communicating well, but then looking back I don’t think I could have explained it better. But then after that it was fine. She looked like herself, I looked like a sad clown who had been punched in both eyes, but I went with it and we had fun.
OT How did you realize you wanted to do drag?
MS I didn’t even know it was something you could do and then at some point I saw a drag show and it just looked really fun. You kind of get to be your own director and writer and you’re a rockstar but you don’t have to sing. I never thought I would do it as a career and I never thought I would do it this long.
OT What goes into cultivating your drag persona?
MS It’s an ongoing process. You can always become a different and better entertainer. I just looked to people I admire like Madonna and Goldie Hawn and Janis from the Muppets. I like comedic women--Madeline Kahn, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett. So Pandora was a chance to be all of these women who are like, sexy and pretty and kinda goofy. Well, I don’t know if I’d call Carol Burnett Sexy.
OT What’s required to be a lip-sync pro?
MS You have to know the words. Some people say you can do ‘watermelon watermelon.’ No. I mean, maybe you can do that if you flub one word. I hate when queens go out there and they don’t know the words. If you don’t know the words, why would you do the song? It’s knowing the breath of the song and the emotions. And you slightly exaggerate the mouth movements because that actually looks more realistic. Sometimes when I’m practicing, I’ll do the song, just kind of feel it without lip syncing to it.
OT Drag can be seen as in a sense anti-woman, but I felt like your video for "Nice Car (Shame About Your Penis)" was explicitly feminist.
MS I always like really powerful women. That video idea came from--I love John Waters movies. I like Russ Myers' Faster Pussy Cat Kill Kill and kick-ass women. So I wanted to show women who went from being victims to taking control and kicking ass.
OT What’s next for you?
MS I shot a short film. That comes out in January. But I’m kind of at a point where I’m trying to decide what the next step will be.
OT Do you feel pressure to keep evolving as an entertainer, either internal or external?
MS Both. You always have to keep relevant. The good thing is that Drag Race is a continued success, but there’s like fifty queens from the show now, especially with the new season, and you notice that not everyone is working. So you have a window of opportunity and you have to use it. People forget quickly so you have to keep reminding them.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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