Willow Pill made history this year when she won season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, becoming the first disabled or chronically ill person (she’s diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder cystinosis) to take home the crown, as well as the first trans non-All Stars winner, having come out during her run on the show.
Fans were immediately captivated by the queen’s quirky sense of humor and outside-the-box runway looks, but it’s been her openness and vulnerability that carried her to the finish line (and the top prize of $150,000) on a season packed with formidable competition. As Emmys conversations erupt into full swing, Drag Race seems poised to continue its winning streak in a slew of reality categories, but Willow Pill may this year earn the show recognition down a new avenue: Her original song from the series finale, “I Hate People,” is awards-eligible — a rarity for a reality show contestant. THR talked to America’s reigning drag superstar about how she got into the art form, where she draws her inspiration and the significance of her victory on the show.
I wanted to start by asking about what your life has been like after Drag Race. Have you made any fun purchases with your winnings?
Honestly, I’ve had a pretty rough time. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t really had a moment to check in on my mental and physical health. I’m trying now this Pride month to take that power and refocus on my mental and physical health. I’ve honestly had no time to make any purchases, besides food at the airport. I’ve been doing a lot of these interviews, and some of them I’ve been like, “Oh, it’s great.” And it’s not great. But I feel like I have a little bit more control and have had some time to reflect. I’m ready to recharge and start having some more fun with this and take care of myself.
I’m sorry to hear that. Are things going to be slowing down anytime soon?
Things are not really slowing down. But they will slow down if I make them, and I will make them. Because this is my future and my reign, and it goes how I want it to go.
The song you wrote for the finale, “I Hate People,” is Emmy-eligible. How did you come up with the idea and execute it?
The whole thing seems like it was all planned meticulously, but it was kind of haphazard and fell into the right places at the right time. [Co-writer Leland and I] wanted to do a song that was totally left field of what anyone was expecting. Originally, we thought, “What if we just do a song that’s branding my time on the show?” And I was like, “My brand isn’t really shareable in one note.” So we were like, “Let’s add another note.” Let’s just add another fun thing for people to munch on. A theme over the pandemic, and over the last few years, is just this growing disdain for people. And the government and everything that’s wrong with the world. So we thought we’d make an anthem that would fit that.
Before you were on Drag Race, when was the first time you did drag and what was that like?
Everyone kind of dabbles for a little while. But my first real performance in drag was at a student showcase at Colorado State University. Most people start off with a little bar gig that has, like, 10 people. This was for a crowd of 1,500 college students, and I’d never been in drag. And funny enough, [season 11 winner] Yvie Oddly was in the show, too. And I looked awful. I was wearing a crop top and a skirt. I went out there and did the megamix of five of my favorite songs, with backup dancers. At the time, it was the biggest rush I’d ever had in my life. All these people screaming for me and cheering for me, even though it wasn’t very good. It was the best first performance I could ever ask for. Little did I know that someone I did the show with would become one of my best friends, and then my drag family, and [we would] go on to become winners. It was a pretty special first time in drag, to be honest.
When did Drag Race come onto your radar?
Drag Race first popped onto my radar season one. But I started watching after that, after seeing [contestant] Tammie Brown spitting out water onto a car. I was hooked immediately. That was in eighth grade. Over the years, it was a slow build of realizing that it was something I wanted to do. The key players that really made me realize it was something I wanted were Raja, Jinkx Monsoon and Adore Delano. They all really had a style of drag that I wanted to do. It wasn’t until season eight that I actually began doing drag, which was six years ago. Even since season two or three or four, I was like, “Oh my God, what do I have to do to be on the show?” But it really wasn’t until Yvie got the call that I realized it was actually a possibility. The show had felt like this impenetrable wall to get through. It’s like, you watch a pop star or a blockbuster star in a movie and you think, “Oh, that’s impossible. You can never be that.” How do you even get there? Once Yvie was on, I was like, “Oh my gosh, you can actually do this.” And then I got in on my third audition.
Did you find it to be on some level what you expected? Or was it completely different?
I had Yvie to give me the rundown of what it’s like, but no one can explain how it actually feels to be there. When you’re watching, you’re watching an hour and a half of what is actually 48 to 72 hours. You don’t see the outside world. You’re cut off from communication, and you’re just surviving with this group of people that you’ve never met in your life. I think it felt way more all-encompassing and all-demanding when you’re actually there, and it’s much harder. It’s much more taxing, and you become a lot closer than you think you will, too, because you’re with these people 24/7 and they become your life.
I read that you are inspired by a lot of old photos of your mom from the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the ’90s. What were the inspirations behind your favorite runway looks this season?
A lot of my inspiration comes from retro glam, hallucinations or dreams. Those are the three places that I most often pull. The house look was from a dream — imagining being a doll that is in a little house, but she grows too big. And the house really fits on her head in the end. The thong dress was a dream that I had one night, where I imagined that I was at, like, a Tommy Bahama, and there was a rack of swimsuits and I jumped into it. I love looks that play with imagination, and size, and things on the edges of your mind.
A big part of your story is representing for disabled and chronically ill people. Have you received any particularly memorable messages from those communities?
Everyone’s been so kind and sweet. Especially at DragCon, there were just so many chronically ill and disabled people that told me how happy they were that someone like me, or someone like us, got to be on the show. And also, to win the show. I haven’t really had time to be proud of the fact that I’m a disabled and chronically ill person who won the show. I’m just so proud of myself, and I’m so proud of everyone that made that possible. And I’m so proud of all the chronically ill and disabled people that have gotten to enjoy that pride with me.
You also made history as the first trans winner of a non-All Stars season. How has doing drag, or doing the show, helped you on that journey to figuring yourself out?
I definitely would not have come to the conclusion that I was trans if it wasn’t for drag, that’s for sure. I don’t really think there’s any point where I realized anything. I think it’s all been such a slow practice. I think most people don’t wake up and have it all figured out one day, right? The slow burn, and just playing with drag and slowly, very slowly, over time, becoming more comfortable with myself in my face and my body. And my spirit. And surrounding myself with loads of queer and trans people.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.