NOTE: This article contains spoilers for RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season two, and for RuPaul’s Drag Race season seven.
For a long time my love of Katya Zamolodchikova came with caveats. I have always felt the need to qualify it: I love her, but I understand why other people might not.
Better known as “Katya”, the Boston native and self-described “Russian bisexual transvestite hooker” placed fifth as a contestant on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race last year. She returned this year to compete in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and has, seemingly defying the odds, climbed to the top of a pack of the best queens from across the seasons to make it to the finale. We will find out the season’s winner when it airs Friday night.
Katya’s appeal is… difficult to describe. While Katya the drag queen doesn’t always perform as her Russian alter ego, the character does capture her love of the kitsch, the absurd and the grotesque. When she’s not giving full Soviet realness on the runway, Katya tends towards a kind of “ugly glamour”.
To see Katya at, well, not her “best” per se but certainly her most Katya, you should stop reading this right now and go watch her YouTube series UNHhhh with fellow Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel. The series about whatever the two queens want to talk about in a given week is weird, gross, and so funny I’ve had to stop watching it on public transport. Katya and Trixie have an amazing comedic rapport—they’ve become close friends since their season ended. More apropos, UNHhhh is a magical mystery tour through Katya’s psyche, from her history of strange hookups to her obsession with the 1997 sci-fi film Contact, starring Jodie Foster.
Katya is hilarious, she is messy, she is smart and above all else, she is real.
During Drag Race season seven, Katya’s storyline focused on her history of both substance abuse and crippling anxiety. Her precarious mental health threatened to derail her at various times throughout the season, and she was refreshingly open about how paralysed she felt by her inability to live up to her own expectations. Being on the series was also a challenge to her sobriety—she has described going from not smoking when filming began to getting through a pack or two of cigarettes daily after just a couple of days on the show.
While we saw flashes of her brilliance I thought at the time that she never seemed able to reach her full potential. I loved her, but I understood why she was eliminated.
As someone living with anxiety, that frustration is something I live with every day. I imagine that everything would be okay if only I could be better, if only my mental illness didn’t make every obstacle feel like the end of the world. It is very easy, through both external stigma and internalised shame, for anxiety to feel like the personal failing it is not.
Going into this season of All Stars, I never expected Katya to do this well. She may be my favourite Drag Race queen of all time, but as I said, my expectations came with caveats: I love her, but her appeal is too niche; I love her, but she’s too inconsistent; I love her, but other queens will do better. I thought a safer pick would be Adore Delano (an irony as it turns out—she ended up leaving the show voluntarily in the second episode) or Alaska, the drag powerhouse whose victory has felt from the beginning like a foregone conclusion.
But Katya has survived, and in a narrative climax I never saw coming, the finale looks set to be a face-off between the season’s two real remaining competitors: Katya and Alaska. (Of the other queens in the top four, Detox is a superstar but too close to Alaska to be a threat, while it’s a miracle Roxxxy Andrews wasn’t eliminated weeks ago.)
With the real (though perhaps slim) possibility of Katya’s All Stars victory now staring me in the face I wonder whether my qualified love is in fact an expression of my own self-loathing. The things I love about Katya—her bizarre humour, her messiness, her vulnerability—I’ve written off as somehow illegitimate grounds for success. I see them perhaps as idiosyncrasies that appeal to me, but in a way that I’ve believed says more about my own broken, vulnerable absurdity than what does or doesn’t make a “good” drag performer.
In other, cheesier words: the things I love about Katya are the things I often struggle to love about myself.
Katya’s vulnerability is her strength. And not at all in a pithy, hallmark way. She is open and generous and funny—Katya’s vulnerability is never a call for sympathy or even forgiveness, it is a point of connection, of humour and of intimacy. She is relatable and funny and even likeable not in spite of her anxiety, but because of it.
Much of this season of All Stars has been a showcase for Katya’s talents, but it’s hard to think of a more representative example of what I’m talking about than the episode in which the queens had to design a product then record an advertisement to promote it. In her ad for “Katya’s Krisis Kontrol”,
Katya drew on her experience of anxiety to sell a placebo-filled spray bottle designed to calm the “cacophony of demonic voices in my head telling me ‘you’re not good enough’”. I almost fell out of my chair laughing.
She may not have the polish of Alaska, a queen who seems destined to inherit a legacy of greatness regardless of the outcome next week. But reflecting on my own anxiety and self-doubt I have come to believe passionately in Katya’s status as one of the very best queens Drag Race has given us.
I’m not alone—it is difficult to find another Drag Race queen who will say a bad word about her, and her passionate fan base has made her one of the most beloved queens in the herstory of the competition. Her elimination two episodes before the season seven finale is now looked back on as one of the great upsets in the show’s run, and there are many who believe she should have won her season.
Her crowning next week in the RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season finale may be an outside chance, but it would be deserved.
I don’t want to make this just about anxiety, though that is part of it. The simpler truth is that Katya has given me permission not just to accept the fact that sometimes I’m a complete mess, but to celebrate it.
The season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars will air on Foxtel’s Arena this Friday night at 8.30pm.