When Raja Gemini won season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she pretty much changed the game for what a winner looked like. Supermodel size with legs for days and a savage punk edge, she brought an androgyny realness to the drag scene in a way it had never been seen before. It was like David Bowie had landed on Planet Ru, except as a David Bowie who could lip sync to “Vibeology” and do a hysterical Tyra Banks impression.
Her punk charisma comes from her youth, reaching all the way back to her reason for ever embracing drag: as an expression of rebellion against her religious upbringing. As a young boy growing up in Indonesia in an Islamic household, Raja (real name Sutan Amrull) would see trans sex workers on the streets at night and became intrigued. “I knew that there was some kind of strange power in it,” she tells me over Skype, “there was something in it that made people uncomfortable but it was also very beautiful.” Her first experience of drag culture came soon after, when her mother explained to a shocked Sutan one night during The Oprah Winfrey Show that the impersonators onstage doing Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross skits were actually men.
Now in her 40s, Raja isn’t just a drag superstar, but also an award winning makeup artist, with clients ranging from Dita Von Teese to Pamela Anderson. This month, she appears as one of the many stars in a short film by Diesel to celebrate their new global outlook: ‘Make Love Not Walls’. Created by Diesel’s Nicola Formichetti and directed by David LaChapelle the campaign focuses on using the Diesel voice for good, love, and togetherness to overcome hate. It’s about tearing down the mental and physical walls that divide us. So, we decided it was a good opportunity to catch up with Raja, to discuss life, challenges, and how she’s broken down some of her own walls.
Hey Raja! So, tell me a bit about your upbringing. Where did you grow up and how was it?
I was born in the States, but when I was 3 my family moved my sister and I to Indonesia, which was where my parents were from. My father came from a very well known Islamic family, religious leaders in fact... And then there’s me. Then, at age 50, my father converted to Christianity, which is obviously a no-no in the world of Islam. That’s considered to be as bad as fucking your mother and then killing her. So we left Indonesia because of his spiritual choices and we came back to the States and he became a Christian minister.
So religion has played a big part in your life?
For most of my life my family have been very supportive of me being this freakish artist, but as a kid there’s a lot of frustration growing up in a household that’s highly religious. Especially because I had a different path that I wanted to take, and I knew that from a young age. When I started doing drag as a teenager, it was as a rebellion…
How did that come about?
I remember as a young boy living in Indonesia, seeing what I now understand to be trans sex workers, there was a certain section that you would drive through and my father would say, “Look those are men.” So it was always very intriguing to me. And I knew that there was some kind of strange power in it. There was something in it that made people uncomfortable, but it was also very beautiful. I like to make people feel uncomfortable and to do it with beauty, and so that’s where my fascination began.
How were your school days?
When I was in high school it was the late 80s and early 90s and I became more and more aware of the club scene and the rave scene. When I was 16, I would sneak out of my parent’s house on the weekend, and go to the clubs with my friends. We would dress up and that’s where I started to meet my own community of other freaks, queens, gays, lesbians, and transgenders. It’s where I found my own niche and world, at a young age. And it just sort of continued.
What made you step from being a fan of drag to actually wanting to do it?
It was a rebellion, it was provocative. It was a no-no. And I liked that. Now, drag has evolved and I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s now an industry; the world is involved. It’s not just NYC or LA or London. It’s everywhere, and it’s powerful. It’s giving a lot of people the freedom to express themselves. I’m proud to be a witness to it, and a person who inspires it.
In drag, I’m always fascinated by the unbelievable amount of confidence it requires. More than probably anything else I’ve ever seen performed. You can’t die up there, because you don’t just need to act like you own yourself, you need to act like you own everyone in the room.
As any entertainer will tell you: it’s an addiction. It’s like a drug when you feel the applause and the appreciation and when eyes are all on you. There’s something very satisfying about it. It’s delicious on the ego, like a jolt of electricity. I’ve always been addicted to that. I love being in front of people. But then there’s a part of me that doesn’t want anyone to fucking talk to me and leave me alone. So there’s that. But when I’m on stage is when I get to be most released and powerful.
You’re also an award-winning makeup artist. Did that all just happen hand in hand with your drag career?
It did, but there really wasn’t a lot of room for drag career-wise until after RuPaul’s Drag Race to be honest. When Drag Race happened for me, I was sort of at my wits end with it all. I felt like I needed to concentrate on being a great make up artist, and put the drag on the back burner. And then the universe laid an opportunity in my lap, and I had to listen and go with it. It told me that I had a lot more to say and that there are people now listening. So, now I love where I’m at. I never expected that I’d be doing drag as a career.
Who or what keeps you inspired?
That’s hard. I find inspiration through so many different sources but I think now what inspires me is my fans. Especially young ones. I can be a little bit grumpy and old and I don’t wanna do things, and I just want people to leave me alone. But when I see how excited people are to follow me and to have interest in what I’m doing, that inspires me. They keep me going and my juices flowing.
Have you had any moments in life where you feel like walls have been put up to stop you from achieving? And how did you overcome them?
Now I’m getting older, I’ve realised that opposition or doubt has always been self-inflicted. Any time someone says you can’t do something, I don’t listen. It’s my own voices that are the hardest to fight with. And I have to listen to them screaming at me when I wake up in the morning. So I don’t really care what anyone outside of me has to say. I have my own path; I have my own journey and passions. It’s just the conversations that I had with myself that were quite cruel. That’s why we all need to stop that.
How do you overcome that when it happens?
Well, RuPaul has this quote that goes, “The voices are coming from inside the house.” It’s a reference to horror movies, but it’s so true. The voices are most dangerous when they are coming from inside the house. It takes meditation and constant cheerleading to get you where you need to go; realising and reaching the goals that you’ve made for yourself.
This Diesel campaign you starred in is all about knocking down metaphorical and literal walls with love. Was that an issue that spoke to you personally?
When I arrived on set that day and saw what they had built in the desert, I really started to get the feeling of what the message was. It was a larger message than me just being in a campaign. It’s about diversity, colour and being part of a melting pot. It’s not just about America or the UK, it’s about everyone mushing together – cultures coming together to create a new thing. That’s what life's about: learning from one another, being around one another, sharing and rejoicing. We all understood that there was a message to put out there and we all portrayed it.