When drag star Denali arrived back in Chicago after filming Drag Race, she was uncertain of whether or not her performance was good enough. “I came home feeling really indifferent,” she tells Billboard. “I was really unsure of how fans were going to receive me.”
Little did she know, the response would be resoundingly positive. From the moment she entered the work room in episode one, fans became immediately enamored with the figure skater-turned-drag queen, and made that love apparent. The star fought her hardest, especially in last week’s episode, when she wound up in the bottom with her makeover partner Olivia Lux and lost a lip sync to Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You).”
The overwhelming response was “healing,” Denali says, especially in a year where pain seemed to be the overarching theme. “Drag Race is a unique experience, and there was a lot of pain that had been carried through that entire year, from COVID to a lot of the shifting in power in our community, especially in Chicago,” she says. “But that’s the sort of beautiful part of Drag Race — at the end of the day, it’s just a platform where you get to showcase your skills, and if people love you, then they love you.”
Plenty of Denali’s fans have been vocal about her elimination, saying that the judges’ critiques were much harsher toward Olivia, and that her partner should have been the one to sashay away. Denali understands the reaction, but wants to set the record straight. “Yes, I feel like Olivia got harsher critiques than I did,” she says. “But, I also know that my makeover could have been a lot stronger, so I am definitely taking responsibility for what I did in that challenge.”
Part of the reason fans were so shocked to see the Chicago queen leave the competition was the fact that earlier in the season, Denali had proven to be a phenomenal lip sync artist — in her episode four lip sync against Kahmora Hall, Denali became renowned amongst the Drag Race fandom for absolutely slaying Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love.” The lip sync went over so well, that within two weeks, the house anthem had risen to the top 10 of Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Digital Song Sales chart, a first in Waters’ career.
Denali says it was “astonishing” to watch her lip sync bring a ’90s classic back into the mainstream — especially when the singer got in touch. “Crystal Waters reached out to me directly, and thanked me personally for basically getting that song back onto the charts,” she says, still sounding shocked. “That is truly one of the greatest memories and experiences and moments from my entire time on Drag Race.”
That moment spurned on another career high for Denali — shortly after the lip sync aired, she posted a video titled “Chicago Drag Excellence” to her YouTube channel, where she highlighted more than 40 of Chicago’s best drag performers, all lip syncing to “100% Pure Love.” Denali says she knew that she was going to have a lot of attention following the lip sync, so she wanted to put it to good use.
“The only reason I am anywhere in my life and in my drag career is because of Chicago,” she says. “These artists inspire me, they challenge me, they push me. So it only made sense that as soon as I got home, and I knew the narrative from episode four, that I celebrate my city. After such a hard year, I wanted a moment for my community to feel happy again.”
Below, Denali curated a special playlist for Billboard, featuring the songs that inspire her on a daily basis. Ranging from even more ’90s house bops, to slept-on singles, to modern classics, check out the songs Denali picked below, with her own explanations for each selection:
Crystal Waters, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”
As you might know, I’m a big fan of ’90s house music. Although I’ve never properly walked a ball, vogue and ballroom has a huge influence on my performance style. This song takes me back to house roots making me feel femme and fierce. The piano melody in this track has gone on to be sampled in so many iconic house tracks and is forever a staple.
Beyoncé, “Find Your Way Back”
I would be remiss to not include my ultimate – the GOAT, the greatest entertainer of this generation and my absolute idol. This album didn’t get the praise it deserves and this song got me through my time on the show. The mellow, island feel paired with the lyrics created one of my favorite songs from that album and reminded me to remember my roots when life gets crazy.
Chloe x Halle, “Ungodly Hour”
Speaking of Beyoncé, her protégés that are the goddesses Chloe & Halle came out with in my opinion the album of the year. The title track is my absolute favorite and gives me all the lo-fi Kaytranada-eque futuristic pleasure mixed with their angelic vocals. It’s the almost haunting operatic Beyoncé-style vocals in the bridge that really sold it for me.
Kali Uchis, “Dead To Me”
Another artist I cannot exclude from this playlist is Kali Uchis. In life, I strive to be the dreamy cool girl — glazed sex eyes, a light hazy filter on me at all times, and all done with Latina flair. I love literally all her music, but this one added a house synth under the pre-chorus on and I ascended. Her vocals truly take you places and I’m obsessed.
Bree Runway feat. Missy Elliott, “ATM”
Right before the lockdown, I started to discover Bree Runway and I’m gutted that I’ve yet to dance to her music on 6 shots of tequila in the club yet. Truly the it girl for me right now, every song embodies this bad bitch attitude and this song especially makes me feel expensive, opulent and like shaking ass. Not to mention my absolute IDOL is on this track too — Missy eats the second verse, and I’m forever blessed.
Sophie created the soundtrack of my cultural upbringing in Chicago. She was the sound of what was probably the most defining period I my life in terms of freedom, love and queer joy. Hyperpop is queer music to its highest level, in my opinion, and Sophie was the backbone of this genre. “Ponyboy” stands out to me for the percussion and madness that hyperpop should be. May this queen forever reach for the moon and rest in peace.
Kuuro feat. McCall, “She’s Got a Gun”
Music should make you see things and feel somewhat synesthetic. The first time I heard this song I saw me in a whole ass music video modeling in the desert and seducing a lover right before killing him- lol. It gives me middle eastern melodies blended with future house, trap and and a bit of grungy dubstep elements and I’m sold. McCall’s vocals are so perfect on this too and it’s truly one of the songs of the year for me.
KD/A feat. Madison Beer & Kim Petras, “Villain”
I always love a touch of darkness in my art, be it drag or music — but still mixed with commercial, pop elements. This song really defines that for me and blends so many incredible pop divas into this rolling baseline electro supervillain anthem. I can’t not strut to this song and feel completely sinister and fierce.
Blackpink, “Pretty Savage”
I spent a year in South Korea studying Korean language and in turn falling in love with K-pop. Although I will forever be a Blackjack and 2NE1 mega fan, the girls of BP have softly healed a few of the wounds from 2NE1’s disbandment for me. This song stuck out to me this year because it’s very rare that K-pop lyrics really push a lot of bitchy, diss-track style boundaries considering it’s conservative musical history. I love this message to their haters and play it whenever I need to feel untouchable.
Billie Eilish & ROSALÍA, “Lo Vas a Olvidar”
Vocally not a better pair I could think of for the epitome of the dreamy, cool girl genre. Mega fan of both these women in music and this entire song makes me feel like I’m floating underwater but also above the clouds at the same time. Billie singing in Spanish is the ultimate combination, and adding Rosalía’s incredible vocals to match is truly too much to handle. Let me go skate to this song real quick…
Check out Denali’s full elimination playlist on Spotify below: