By Shannon Levitt
It wasn’t supposed to go that way.
Joey Jay, the 30-year-old Phoenix-area contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 13, unexpectedly found himself on the chopping block in the opening moments of the show.
Previous seasons began with introductions, funny interludes between contestants, a challenge and a runway walk. Only then came elimination. But on Jan. 1, Jay and fellow contestant Kandy Muse barely had time for introductions when RuPaul appeared, saying they would lip-sync before the judges and the loser would be eliminated.
“RuPaul is right there and then you’re lip-syncing for your life,” said Jay, who describes his drag persona as a “Jewish princess.” “It was the scariest moment of my life.”
Later, in the show’s individual confessional, Jay laughed about possible “plot twists,” though as of press time it was unclear how the drama would play out. But Jay’s recent tweet, “S13 is basically just gay Saw,” seems ominous.
“It was so much and all of us were so taken by it, but tomorrow’s a new day,” he explained. “This is going to be lovely TV.”
Season 13 had other surprises thanks to COVID-19 — including the show’s 12-day quarantine.
“Twelve days of self-isolation in a hotel room, you kind of go a little crazy,” Jay said.
Jay’s drag career began just four years ago — and as a part-time gig at that. By day, he worked as an account manager at an educational software company in Mesa, Arizona. He only did drag on Friday nights because of his work schedule.
“I really value and cherish sleep,” he said. “It was just really hard to function efficiently when the next day I had to sell.”
But the job was always a means to an end — to save money for a condo and mark time while building a drag career.
He started auditioning for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” just a month after starting drag.
“Let me tell you, the audition process is very lengthy and it takes a lot of time and long days — very stressful, long days,” Jay said.
His first two attempts weren’t successful, and he hopes no one ever sees his first audition tape: “If it surfaces, it’s not good,” he said jokingly.
But the third time was the charm. Winning a coveted place on the show so quickly isn’t the only unique thing about Jay’s drag career. For one, his drag name is rather low-key. Born Joey Jadryev, he didn’t feel a more flamboyant name would suit him. For another, Jay usually sports his own short hair rather than an elaborate wig, which is more the norm in the drag community.
His “boy hair” has drawn ire from other drag queens, but it’s something he feels strongly about — and a topic he was planning to address on the show after his runway appearance. But he wasn’t expecting to be in front of the judges right away. Depending on how things play out, he realizes “my plan could definitely go down the drain.”
“When you get in drag you are a political statement — you’re not just in drag to put a wig on,” he said. “It’s your duty to educate people about Stonewall and Marsha P. Johnson.”
Given that many of the show’s fans are young and impressionable, Jay said he feels a responsibility to provide a perspective they might not otherwise get.
“Who knows what their parents are telling them or what their parents stand for, but I know equality is right,” he said. “I’m a humanitarian and it’s just so important for these kids to know what’s right and wrong.”
People in the Phoenix area are proud of Jay’s success.
“I’ve been watching ‘Drag Race’ for years,” said Deb Behrendt, one of the chairs of AZ Jews for Pride. “I am proud that Joey Jay hails from Phoenix and is Jewish. I just feel like a proud mom watching Joey Jay slay!”
Behrendt’s co-chair, Cantor Ross Wolman of Temple Chai, appreciates that Jay has chosen to highlight Jewish identity.
That identity is very important to Jay, whose family in Los Angeles is “very Jewish,” he said. “Whenever I go visit them, we’re just throwing Yiddish at each other all day long and laughing and it’s so fun.” Jay was very close to his late grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, and attended virtual services at his mother’s synagogue for the High Holidays last year. “It’s really nice because a lot of people have their preferred pronouns and it’s very LGBT-friendly,” he said.
One regret, however, is missing out on a bar mitzvah. Growing up, Jay was a competitive figure skater and the family couldn’t afford both ice skating and a bar mitzvah. Jay’s grandmother advised that a bar mitzvah could be put off, but there was an expiration date on ice skating.
Even though Jay is “more lax” religiously than his grandmother, missing out on a bar mitzvah still rankles.
“To this day, I have not had a chance to get my bar mitzvah,” he said. “But it’s on my bucket list because I know if I don’t I’m going to have guilt for all eternity for my grandmother.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on The CW Network, MTV, MTV2, PopTV and Logo.
Shannon Levitt is the managing editor of Jewish News in Phoenix, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.