I’m a cannabis activist, choreographer, and creative director, but I’m best known as a female illusionist from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I consider myself an artist first and foremost, but I like to wear many hats—or many shoes, if you will. Quarantine really pushed me to test my skills and I found out that I can run a light board and do my own set design, and that I really am a one-man band. I feel lucky that my art as a drag queen has been pretty much accepted by the masses and that I’ve been able to create a name and a brand for myself that way.
Since I was probably seven years old, as Lady Gaga says, I’ve been living for the applause.
I’m originally from Dallas, Texas, and I was very lucky to have extremely supportive parents. I grew up in musical theater and was touring professionally around the United States by the time I was 14. I took it very seriously from an early age, and I was so blessed to have parents that really encouraged this. Whether it was a dance shoe or being able to travel with a company, they made my dreams happen at such a young age. But in a way I was also cursed, I think. As I get older, I think my parents sometimes wished that I could find a normal job and settle down, but I just can’t because this is in my blood. This is what I believe in. Since I was probably seven years old, as Lady Gaga says, I’ve been living for the applause.
I also began exploring drag at a very young age. Growing up in musical theater, I always gravitated towards the female leads. By the time I was 14, I’d been in one of my favorite musicals, Gypsy, maybe six or seven times, and I’d always dream of being Gypsy, the girl who was the stripper. So naturally, when I moved away from Texas to California to get my BFA in dance and choreography from the California Institute of the Arts, I started to explore drag much more seriously. I’d put on dresses and played in my sister’s clothing, but I took it more seriously when I moved to college and was given a landscape in which to explore my gender.
CalArts is one of the best art schools in the country. I’m so lucky that I got an education from that school and was able to not only learn about my art, but also about gender expression and myself. We had a weekly party—every Thursday night—where people would get together in the gallery to see the different art that had been made that week. It was during those parties that I started dressing up. In fact, I would host a RuPaul’s Drag Race party where everyone would come to my house in drag and we would view the show. At that point, it was still just a hobby and something that I did for fun. I don’t even think I had a drag name. But by the time I became a senior, I was taking it much more seriously. I entered my first amateur contest out here in Hollywood which kind of launched my career. So, by the time I was presenting myself in public, outside of CalArts, I had already created Laganja and the character of the Queen of Green.
My cannabis use began when I was a senior in high school. I had a really great friend, Lauren, who wanted me to explore cannabis with her. She had smoked for several years, but I was always a good boy: I had straight As and parted my hair and wore colored t-shirts. I never broke the rules, but for some reason I really trusted Lauren. I knew that she wouldn’t expose me to something that was dangerous. Her way of introducing me to the plant was for us to go get stoned after school, before our rehearsal. While I didn’t use the term “medicinal,” from day one, cannabis was already in my eyes something that was used to elevate and propel you forward. I fell in love with the plant immediately. In fact, we choreographed a piece together that we ended up performing at the Kennedy Center in front of the president. I became what’s now called a YoungArts member and a presidential scholar.
Right away, it was like, Okay, cannabis equals success. I never saw it as a bad thing, but I didn’t really see it as what I see it as now. That exploration began in college, because in California, I was able to legally gain access to the medicine and to the knowledge. During a dance piece my junior year of college, I fell and hurt my back. A chiropractor suggested I get my medical license because at that point, I’ll be honest, I was just seeing dealers on campus. And while I knew dispensaries existed, I was still from Texas so that world just seemed like something I’d seen on the TV show Weeds and not a real possibility. But once I had a doctor, an actual person in the medical field, tell me that cannabis would really help with pain while getting realigned, I began to take it more seriously. As someone who grew up on antidepressants, things to help with sleep, and all kinds of pharmaceuticals, finding this natural plant that gave me not only the same benefits but more, it became crucial to me to spread this knowledge.
I prefer to dab because I view this as medicine and so I treat it like medicinal intake.
Growing up as a queer person in a small town with small-minded people was definitely difficult, but I can’t even imagine what it would have been like had I been exposed to cannabis earlier on. I didn’t have to come out of the green closet until I was here in California where most people accept what I do. But back home in Texas, when Laganja became a thing, it was an issue. For many years, I taught children in the dance world and some of the mothers just didn’t understand. I definitely did face conflict, but my activism didn’t really start until I had been on Drag Race and got my foot into the cannabis industry.
I would describe myself as most likely manic-depressive, though I’ve never been diagnosed that way. I assume if I were to see Western doctors, that’s what they would say. I find that cannabis really keeps me regulated, it keeps me level-headed. I prefer to dab because I view this as medicine and so I treat it like medicinal intake. I don’t really smoke joints anymore. I will occasionally, but prefer to get my medicine and go. This is not to say that I’m not consuming recreationally—I am. I’m surrounded by people who see me as Laganja and who want to get high with me. But I really do think of it as medicine. I take my dab in the morning, I take my dab in the evening, and I take my dab at night. Yes, I’ll smoke in between here and there, maybe I’ll vape pen a little bit, but it’s really about getting those three dabs throughout the day and utilizing it as medicine.
In fact, the only time I’ve ever been without cannabis was while filming RuPaul’s Drag Race. I sent them my medical license under Prop 215 at the time, but due to the company’s laws, it was taken away from me. This ultimately resulted in me having my first and only—knock on wood—panic attack on national television. That’s why I’ve been vocal about it. But I am happy to say that even though it’s not written anywhere in black and white, I know that girls on the show are able to have access to cannabis now. I definitely think I had something to do with that.
I prefer sativas. My favorite brands right now are Maven, which sponsored my music video “Daddy” and 3C Farms, which works with my incredible friend Adam iLL, who is an amazing straight ally. I like those companies not just because their cannabis is great, but because their morals and their staff all reflect things that are very important to me.
When I came into this, I really didn’t know a lot about the history of cannabis. But I did my research, because as someone who takes this very seriously, it’s important to me to be able to back it up. So, I will just go ahead and say, yes, the reason we have cannabis in California is because of the LGBTQAI+ community. That is a proven fact, it is known. West Hollywood was the first city to relax the laws on cannabis. I believe the Rainbow Bar and Grill was one of the first places that allowed smoking. The lineage of the queer community in cannabis is absolutely there. That’s always something that I try to remind people of because there is so much homophobia in the industry. It really shocks me because the industry wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the queers.
It’s been challenging. I’ve had people boo me off stage, I’ve had companies only hire me one time so that they can say, “Well, look, we did something for gay people.” But I feel very hopeful and very excited for the future. I work with a lot of women and people of color and I think together, their voices plus the queer voices, really are going to outweigh the people in power.
The reason we have cannabis in California is because of the LGBTQAI+ community.
What being an activist looks like now is so different from what it looked like in the beginning. It used to be just smoking pot publicly and talking about how it didn’t deter me from doing any activities, but in fact helped me get through my day. Whereas now, I think activism is much more about creating safe spaces. Visibility is one thing, but it’s about taking action and partnering with organizations like the Last Prisoner Project to free people who are in jail for cannabis. I’m trying to not just be a public figure, but to be someone who’s actually in the field doing the work. Obviously, as an entertainer, there’s only so much I can do while trying to keep my audience entertained on the daily, but I always try to infuse my work with my activism. That can be about cannabis, or breaking down sexual stigmas, like I did with a recent song called “Daddy.” I’m always trying to infuse a message into my glamour and my art.
I believe I’m political in just showing up in a room and being who I am, which I think is unusual for most activists. They have to get up on stage, they have to talk, they have to present, but me just showing up in full glam at a cannabis convention is saying a lot. I’ve always felt my strongest suit is my dance. I think I am pretty good with words—my parents are very educated and taught me to care about these things—but I’ve always known that my most powerful form of language is movement and showing up as myself.
It’s really about expressing your inner diva, and regardless of your gender identity, I think everyone has one.
I feel very grateful to be a part of the Drag Race franchise. I think it has changed the landscape for queer people forever. Once upon a time, when it aired on Monday nights, it gave people a reason to go to the bar that night and to get together. I’ve always referred to it as gay church because there really is a sense of community that the show has built. I’m so grateful to be a part of that and to have made a lasting impression on the brand. I’m very, very proud.
Drag is incredible. I think it’s one of the hardest art forms out there because it combines not only performance, but also makeup, hair, wardrobe, and sometimes comedy. It’s very much like musical theater in that it is the culmination of so many forms of art. I think that’s why so many people, especially now that they have public access to it thanks to a show like Drag Race, have fallen in love with drag. It’s really about expressing your inner diva, and regardless of your gender identity, I think everyone has one. Drag allowed people to explore this.
It’s been a very powerful thing for me, exploring my gender. Now I identify as non-binary, but who’s to know if that’s going to stay the same. I think the future of drag is non-binary and non-gender. It’s not about what you’re born as, it’s about what you feel and what you want to express. I would have never discovered these things about myself had I not taken on this art form.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Laganja Estranja photographed by Jasmine Durhal at her home in Los Angeles. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.