Pittsburgh's 'Alaska' takes a turn on 'Drag Race'

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There exists no sparklier show on television than "RuPaul's Drag Race," with more glitter, tears and false eyelashes than even "Toddlers & Tiaras."

And, ladies, the Race starts tonight.

Joining the cast for Season 5 on Logo (9 p.m.) is Pittsburgh's Justin Honard, well-known in local circles as the drag queen Alaska.

That's not quite right: Mr. Honard, 27, usually goes by another version of his professional name, one that takes its bawdy cue from a brand of cannabis. It's also unprintable in mainstream newspapers.

"My last name is like 'Voldemort.' It's the name that cannot be said on television," he said breezily. "It adds a sort of mystery to me, and I like that.

"I also like being called 'Alaska' because it's like being called 'Cher,' " one word.

"Like RuPaul says, 'You can call me 'he,' you can call me 'she,' you can call me 'Regis and Kathie Lee' ... just call me.

"So, they could have called me 'Zulu, Queen of the Dwarf People,' and I would have been just fine with that."

Mr. Honard was shown briefly on Season 4 when boyfriend Aaron Coady (aka Sharon Needles) received a video chat from home. The two live in Bloomfield.

Sharon Needles not only won "RuPaul's Drag Race," but also she received a fair amount of notice from major media. Among her post-"Drag Race" honors: a proclamation from Pittsburgh City Council and gracing the cover of Out magazine.

Her success on the show wasn't all roses, however. Ever since the first Logo casting call, Mr. Honard had been trying to get on the program. So when Needles made it on the first try, there was awkwardness.

"It was extremely weird and really hard and one of the hardest times in my life, but I had to face a choice," Mr. Honard said.

"I had to either be a bitter, bitter Betty or I had to just become Sharon's biggest supporter and No. 1 fan. I made the better choice.

"A success for Sharon is a success for my best friend, my partner and for the city of Pittsburgh. So when you think about it now, it wasn't a hard choice to make.

"But, we [still] had some epic fights, throwing the martini glasses into the fireplace. Things like that."

The winner of "RuPaul's Drag Race" receives prizes ranging from cosmetics to travel, as well as $100,000. The winning queen also headlines the show's tour. Mr. Honard said that having to wait until this season was a blessing in disguise.

"Over the years I've evolved a lot as a performer. I think I've become more professional or more marketable. That happened naturally, and I think 'RuPaul's Drag Race' had a lot to do with that.

"If I had gotten on that first year that I auditioned, it would have been a nightmare. ... I don't think I've been ready until this year."

Mr. Honard grew up in Erie "underneath the airport and right by the train tracks." He was a shy child who liked to draw pictures of beautiful women.

He "escaped to the big city" by studying theater at the University of Pittsburgh, where he found a more accepting environment: "Finally, I was around such a great community of people where I was able to express it completely."

Going from artist to theater geek to drag queen, he said, "was just a natural evolution of taking those pretty ladies from the paper and putting them onto myself, doing it in real life."

He said his all-around education from Pitt has served him in good stead, including the musical theater aspects. Judging from tonight's premiere, he's also got a good eye for turning unusual materials -- think aqua Saran Wrap -- into couture.

There's a good deal of throwing shade when the 14 queens meet up at the start of the show, with hints of a monumental grudge match between two of them. Another declares himself "Seattle's premier Jewish narcoleptic drag queen," and, of course, everyone is curious to know what's up with the Alaska-Sharon Needles connection.

In the first episode of Season 4, Needles was criticized by the other queens when she put together a horrific look for the first runway show, which included a bald cap. But the judges loved it.

It would appear she and Alaska share the same humorous sensibilities because Alaska's creation for the first runway is both feminine and funny. This doesn't stop another contestant from remarking, claws out, "She's like a bad Sharon."

Although his boyfriend had just gone through a season of "RuPaul's Drag Race," Mr. Honard said, nothing could prepare him for taping the show last fall.

"It's everything you'd expect, and it is absolutely beyond what you could possibly expect," Mr. Honard said. "It's like some sort of magical drag Disneyland place that I hope everyone who hopes to go there gets to go."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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