ALASKA THUNDERFUCK 5000: Q&ALASKA
By Justin Grant Swanson
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, aka Alaska Thunderfuck, aka Alaska 5000, aka Justin Andrew Honard, is an American drag performer best known for her participation in the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, an American reality competition television series where drag queens from around the world compete to be “America’s Next Drag Superstar!” In addition to RuPaul’s Drag Race, Alaska has starred in an American Apparel advertising campaign, contributes to multiple popular YouTube series including Bro’Laska, has been releasing a slew of brilliant music videos, and just released her debut album ANUS this summer.
To get down to it, Alaska is by far one of the most prolific RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni, and it’s clear that her career in and out of drag is only going to reach even greater heights, all the while solidifying her position as a leader in the drag community by breaking her art into the mainstream. TRIM Magazine met up with Alaska on one hot, sweaty, carcinogenic, summer day in New York for an in depth Q&A. We discussed Alaska’s formative years, as well as her current and future work. First topic of discussion? The album! Obviously.
Q: So, the album cover. It makes me think of an au naturale Alaska; Alaska in her most natural state if you will.
A: I love that idea. I went to the shoot and I was wearing no makeup basically, I mean I usually wear a lot of makeup, and I was like ‘Austin, I’m hardly wearing any makeup, we need to make this work!’ Also, I wanted to do something personal, that’s really much a part of me, so I wanted to have it be the idea of ‘this is Alaska nude.’
Q: It definitely comes across that way. I also like the bleeding ANUS text on the album cover. It has a nice comical element to it and is very much in the viewer’s face. What was the thinking behind that font and the overall design?
A: Well, I just really love that font. It’s the Rocky Horror font, and it’s playful, and I just wanted it stamped right on this clean pristine thing.
Q: Also on the cover I noticed how your fingernails are bandaged or taped on, and I see that is a consistent thing you do with your nails. Why do you do that?
A: I wish it was something cerebral and smart, but honestly those nails were brand new, they’re by Pinkies Nails and sometimes on the underside they paint it, which is really beautiful, but when the underside is painted it makes them not stick on, so I was running late to the shoot and my nails weren’t gluing on, so I was like ‘Okay, here we go!’ It was a happy accident.
Q: For some of the album art you’re covered in a clear gel substance. How did you achieve that effect and what was the thinking behind it?
A: It was clear hair gel. Austin had this giant tub of it, and he was like ‘I have this idea, it’s kind of weird, I don’t know if you’ll be into it.’ But of course I was like, ‘yes let’s do it!’ It’s kind of like amniotic fluid, as if I’ve been born or hatched out of an egg.
Q: A good theme for your debut album then.
A: Absolutely. Because in a sense it’s like birthing a child, putting this whole thing out. It took a lot of time and work. It grew and it changed. And then it was finally birthed into existence.
Q: So, let’s talk about some of the songs from your album. In particular, “This Is My Hair.” Is the song a statement on identity, and the need for people to understand that outer appearance is just as much an extension of one’s identity no matter how different that appearance may be?
A: Yeah, it is. I don’t like when people come up to me and say ‘I like your wig,’ insinuating that it’s not real. This is something I always get in conversation, and I say ‘this is my hair.’ You don’t say that to a woman ever, and you shouldn’t say that to a queen. Because you don’t know what’s going on.
Q: I agree. People should be more sensitive and compassionate in general. And I think that’s also the message I got from your album as a whole. To be compassionate for others regardless of who they are. More specifically there’s a lot of focus on gender. Like with the song “Pussy.” What was the thinking behind that?
A: It’s inspired by my good friend Viktor Belmont. He’s a transgender model, and just a really cool person. We had a random meeting and it just felt like we had known each other for the longest time. I think he’s really cool, and really sweet. So I wanted to write a song about him. But of course it’s also a song that everyone can relate to.
Q: I think it really captures the general sentiment that is happening right now in our society. We’re in a progressive time where gender and sexuality are starting to become accepted as something that is fluid, that does not necessarily always fit in with the standard social parameters. Also another song that I want to talk about is “Beard.” Is that about not conforming to gender stereotypes in drag, as exemplified by the many bearded drag queens that are becoming popular?
A: Yeah. It’s so all about the beard right now isn’t it? When I wrote “Beard” people were obsessed with having beards, and beard contests, and queens have beards now too. It’s a huge thing. So I wanted to write a song for all the bearded queens to perform in. That was the idea. Sound wise I was influenced by bath house, and San Francisco, and Grace Towers.
Q: And now there are queens performing to your music!
A: I love that. It’s a huge honor. I was really jealous when Shangela put out her song “Werqin Girl” because I could go to any city, and any drag show, and in some way that song would be in the show somewhere. That song had a huge impact on the community, and it’s great because I love her so much. She’s stunning and amazing. So I’m really glad that some people are performing to my songs now. I know queens that do “Your Makeup Is Terrible”, “This is My Hair”, “Nails.”
Q: Another song on the album, “The Shade of It All,” features Courtney Act and Willam Belli. What has it been like working with them in general? Are you all really good friends now after everything you have done together?
A: We are. We have a group text. It’s like an aol chat room. We’re always checking it. They’re my really good girlfriends and I’m really glad we have gotten to work together on so many different things, like the American Apparel music video and advertising campaign last year.
Q: How did that all come to fruition in the first place?
A: Well it was originally just supposed to be those two. They had been talking with Jonny Szymanski from American Apparel for a while and they were going to do a campaign, and it eventually started to happen. Then Johnny was like ‘we need a third, we really need Alaska.’ Going into it I was really scared, and felt out of my league because the American Apparel aesthetic is these young girls showing up wearing no makeup, no hair, and then it’s just about the clothes. I was like ‘okay here we go,’ doing these shoots where I wear so little makeup, and of course Courtney and Willam show up in full everything! So I just had to borrow some hair from Courtney, which I still have, because I didn’t have any nice hair at the time.
Q: Isn’t she lending hair to everyone from her company Wigs By Vanity?
A: I know, but that’s because the wigs are so good! They’re really high quality. They’re on the more expensive side, but if you want a great lace front, do it! As for the American Apparel experience, it was overall cool and scary, but it worked out really well and I’m glad to have been a part of it.
Q: I think that just in general with the American Apparel ad campaign, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAS, and your show Bro’Laska and everything you’re doing, drag is definitely moving in a much more mainstream and commercial direction. How do you feel being at the forefront of this movement where drag is becoming more accepted by the general public as a form of art, and in a sense working in tandem with the gender equality movement overall?
A: I think it’s great, and I think drag speaks to people because it’s a scary world out there for a lot of people, in a lot of ways. It’s terrifying to think that someone can be killed because they’re wearing the wrong clothes in the wrong place. It’s just clothing! Drag is dangerous. If you’re a man and you’re wearing a garment that is a woman’s garment, and you wear it the wrong way, in the wrong place, people will beat you up, people will kill you. This happens. Still today. It’s 2015. That’s terrifying. So I hope that with drag it’s balancing the scale of that a little bit, and helping make the world a bit less terrifying. I hope that it’s loosening up everything.
Q: It definitely is.
A: Okay good. As soon as we start loosening up about gender, and about sex, and about sexual orientation; as soon as we start loosening up our major reactions to all of these things, I think that’s when we’ll move towards a better humanity. A place where we can be civil with each other. A place like Star Trek. That’s the future I want to get to.
Q: Also I want to talk about your origins, and how you got started with drag. You’re from Erie, Pennsylvania. Did you have a musical upbringing? What was your family life like growing up?
A: I mean my family life was good. We were pretty poor; we lived by the railroad tracks, and by the airport. But I never felt poor, my parents were really loving and caring, and I’m really grateful for that. But yeah, I was always into music a lot. I would listen to my CDs over and over again. Ace of Base was my first CD I got. Toni Braxton, No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom. And I would just draw pictures and listen to music. I took piano lessons for 10 years, but I can barely even play now. It didn’t really retain. I can play The Entertainer though. That’s the one song that I retained.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I went to University of Pittsburgh. I studied theater arts. It wasn’t one of these schools, where the major actors go, because it isn’t a specific acting or just musical theater program, it’s more like you have to use drills, and build stages. And I got to act as well. I’m really grateful that I didn’t get into Carnegie Mellon actually, which I wanted to attend at the time, because I’ve really used everything I learned from Pitt in this field that I’m in now. It’s good to know what’s going on.
Q: How did you first start drag?
A: Chi Chi Larue came to Pittsburgh. She did a ‘fish bowl contest’ which means you don’t know what song you’re performing until you pick it out of a bowl on stage, and I got ‘How Many Licks,’ and I knew every word, and I won the contest. It was my first time performing.
Q: Your drag mother was Jer Ber Jones, what is she like?
A: She’s crazy. I love her. She inspired me so much. Because he was someone who had this character and his own concept, who was putting out CDs and selling them. And putting on performances, and doing cabaret shows that were really weird, and really pushing the boundaries of what typical drag was.
Q: When did you move to Los Angeles?
A: Right after college, so 2007.
Q: And is that when you started getting into acting?
A: At first, but then I just hated all of that. I didn’t like waiting in lines for casting calls with my headshot. I felt so awkward. Taking a headshot of myself made me question what I look like, what my product even was. At least with Alaska I knew exactly what I wanted her to look like and be, so I just did drag for fun and eventually started getting jobs from it.
Q: That’s great, because you were just being yourself basically.
A: Yeah, by just being someone else completely.
Q: How do you define the role of drag then? Is Alaska just completely someone else? How much is she an extension of yourself and your identity? I think in a sense drag allows for absolute freedom of expression.
A: I think so. That’s what I love about drag because anything goes. There aren’t any rules or restrictions. I can put out an album called ANUS. Who does that? You can do that because it’s this crazy art form that’s so lawless, and I love that about drag, and that’s what attracted me to it from the start.
Q: What I appreciate so much about drag is that it acknowledges the stereotypes and darkness that exists in our society, and makes fun of it in a way, ultimately empowering the performer as well as the audience. It’s no surprise to me that the commercialization and mainstreaming of drag is occurring at this point in American and world history, where we have events occurring like the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage in the U.S. Unfortunately there are still other parts of the world that are not necessarily as equally safe for everyone.
A: We’ll get there eventually.
Q: Something that I found interesting RuPaul say in an interview was society tends to move in waves of progressivism and conservatism, and one can even see that through the span of his career. What do you think about that?
A: Yes. But also time is moving forward, and the culture today is different. Everything is moving so quickly now and is so interconnected.
Q: The advent of technology as it is today has definitely changed the way our society operates and made everything so fast paced.
A: Absolutely. So now it’s not like there’s a decade where people wear flare pants, it’s a year, a season, and basically all the fashion from all time periods at once, which is exciting! So I hope that peoples’ minds are also changing and opening up now in the same way. That’s the hope.
Q: I think it’s interesting how technology in general is really changing the way our society operates, and the way drag queens and artists in general can become famous. What do you think about the prevalence of social media in our society? How do you navigate that as an artist, and do you think it is perhaps changing the role of drag itself in our culture?
A: I think social media is great because it keeps us all connected. And drag has become one of those things, where the trends keep changing. Like this month we’re nose contouring, and then the next month that’s completely over, and the next month we’re strobing instead of contouring, so it’s good that we’re all staying connected. Also drag queens are really good at social media. It’s almost as though it’s made for us. Because it’s a visual thing. So if you post a picture of me in drag you’re going to get way more likes than a photo of me out of drag. There’s something that goes hand in hand with drag and social media. It’s magnetism.
Q: What is your work schedule like? You’re always doing interviews, shows, and performances. Do you have a solid team? It seems like you’re really close with your family as well, do they help keep you grounded in this time despite the level of success and fame you’ve achieved in your life?
A: Yeah. I mean my family and friends are very important to me and they always have been, and they were believing in me and my bizarre choices a long time ago, which I’m grateful for. But I also have amazing management, and I’m very grateful to them for making the work happen, and putting it in my calendar so I know where I’m going today. And I just like working a lot. I feel comfortable when I’m on stage.
Q: Is the stage where you feel most at home as an artist?
Q: What is your music making process like in general? I read that you use a ukulele?
A: Yes, I once wrote ten songs with a guitar I bought. I didn’t have any money. I was broke. I could barely pay my rent, but there was a man selling mini guitars on the street, and he had dozens of them on his back. So I spent money I didn’t have, on this guitar, and then I wrote ten songs. I think the Fisting Song is one of them that made it to today. I performed that at Drag Queens of Comedy.
Q: What is ultimately your goal with your performances?
A: I like creating a space where people feel safe and free and hopefully they can take a little bit of that feeling into the world with them. It’s like planting seeds and growing dandy dandelions. That’s what I hope to do.
Q: Who are your main inspirations for your music and the album?
A: I’m really inspired by Britney Spears. Alaska believes she is Britney Spears. She believes that she looks exactly like her, and sounds exactly like her. But I also love Divine’s music because with Divine she just took music of the time, and literally stole it. She would steal beats from Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, and then she just wrote really raucous, fun music to party to in clubs.
Q: So I have to ask you about RuPaul’s Drag Race. How was that overall experience, and how drastically has your life changed since then?
A: Wonderful. A lot of people are still working towards it, and it’s become a phenomenon throughout the world. It’s a really special gem that only can happen at important times in history. Everything just came together and made this little show, that could have just been a camp show, into something very real and impactful and beautiful. I’m just really grateful to have been a part of it. There’s nothing that can really prepare you. I guess seeing Sharon go through it and being with her during that time helped.
Q: I was also wondering about your style aesthetically. It seems that a consistent look of yours is a fitted dress with a slit in the right leg. Who do you collaborate with to create most of your outfits?
A: My friend Dallas Coulter, she lives in San Francisco, and she makes all my dresses. She makes clothes for a lot of queens, and she doesn’t know just how to make one dress. Believe me, she can make anything. She’s done a lot of clothes for Michelle Visage on Drag Race as well. I love working with her, and my goal is to fill my closet with that same dress in every color. I like being a cartoon, and cartoons never change their clothes. Jessica Rabbit was in the same dress the whole time. Nobody reads her to filth!
Q: How did Alaska’s dress come to realization?
A: Well the first dress was black, and it was made out of one piece of stretch fabric with two lines of stitches. My sister Amy Vodkahouse made it. And that was the beginning of it. I was thinking, ‘this is the silhouette, this is what she wears, this is what she looks like.’ And so I took that to Dallas and she made the really nice, fancy version of it.
Q: An expression that you are now probably most known for is the drawn out greeting: ‘Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.’ How did you come up with that initially?
A: I didn’t come up with it. I stole it. I stole it from Isis Mirage and Coco Ferocha, who are two queens in England, and they used to say it during their review of RuPaul’s Drag Race shows. I feel bad that they can’t audition for the show because they live in England, so I wanted to give them a shoutout because I love them. And so I did that by going into Drag Race and saying it a lot.
Q: How do they feel about it then? Are they grateful?
A: Yeah, because no one can own it! People tell me I should copyright it, but it doesn’t belong to me, darling. First of all, I stole it. But they got it from someone else too. I think Ongina says it back in Season 1 of Drag Race. Now Rupaul is using it at the end of the show, and it’s sneaking into other more mainstream straight people shows and everything. And that’s not only fine, but cool! I even saw Tina Fey do a run with it on SNL.
Q: Also, anus. It’s the expression you use as an ending punctuation in sentences, and it’s the title of your new album. Why?
A: Because it’s absurdist. There’s an element to Alaska that is completely absurd and insane. And saying ‘anus’ out of context, and out of nowhere, it’s sort of funny, but also jarring. So that’s why I like saying it. I like answering important questions with ‘anus,’ and one of those important questions was what am I going to name my new album? And ANUS was the only name that was shouting to me from the mountaintops. My concept for the album itself is that it responds to the body’s chakra system. There are seven chakras: your anus, genitals, navel, heart, throat, third eye, and mouth. And on the cover it says anus, and it’s your lower chakra, but it’s being brought up to the top. So the idea is to find your connection with heaven through the album by shaking your ass and dancing.
Q: What advice would you give to anyone just starting up drag or young artists in general?
A: Work hard. Do stuff that scares you. Be nice. Tip your server. Tip your driver. Tip your coffee maker person. They’re working hard.
Q: Where do you see your career going 10 to 20 years from now?
A: Well I think eventually I would like to be behind the camera lens a little bit more, but I’m 30 now and I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is my thing. This is what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be on stage, and I’m going to be on camera, and I’m cool with that. I like doing it. I want to have projects that bring people together, in a way that Peaches Christ or Heklina are doing. And in the way RuPaul is doing, of course. It will always be about bringing people together and celebrating our individuality.