‘Queer people are the reason we have fashion’—the singer and 'Pose' star get real about giving credit, being crowned 'queer icons', and serving a greater cause
This conversation will appear in Document’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 issue, available for pre-order now.
Performance isn’t limited to a stage, a screen, or a set. The best artists live their art, inhabiting a cultural limbo, occasionally lifting the translucent veil that lies between person and persona. Avid fans, casual onlookers, and even outright detractors can’t help but be mesmerized by the transformative power of art that contains a heaping slice of the soul that created it. It takes deep personal investment to create a song or a character that expands society’s boundaries, and that’s exactly what singer King Princess and actress Mj Rodriguez have instilled in their work.
In FX’s hit ballroom drama Pose, Rodriguez’s character Blanca cares for a community of black, brown, queer, and trans “children”: disenfranchised, homeless young people banding together for balls amid the HIV/AIDS crisis affecting their community in the mid-’80s through the early ’90s. Rodriguez is only 28, but as Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, she provides maternal wisdom that echoes her real-life nature as a nurturer, an optimist who believes her extended chosen family will receive overdue credit for creating so much of what popular culture steals and appropriates for its own. (Madonna’s “Vogue” figures heavily at the beginning of Season 2.) An actress and singer who got her first break as Angel in an off-Broadway performance of Rent, Rodriguez is well-versed in the way art reverberates in the real world, where trans women of color in particular are all-too-frequent targets of violence.
At 20, King Princess (née Mikaela Straus), whose eagerly anticipated debut album Cheap Queen drops today, is similarly unapologetic in her work; singing love songs about women, posing sensually in boxer briefs with a female mannequin in a music video dedicated to the song’s titular former lover, Talia. In another, she’s a football player, a construction worker in a sports bra, and the leader of a band during an intensely masculine poker game. By the end, she’s sliced like a sheet cake, devoured piece by piece while her song “Prophet” echoes her fears that all anyone ever wants is money, control, and profit. With mainstream queer identity becoming ever more palatable in popular culture, King Princess is finding new ways to keep her own self-defined queerness a key part of her persona without sacrificing success in what is inevitably a business.
On the pillow-laden patio of an outdoor cliffside home at the top of the Hollywood Hills, Mj Rodriguez and King Princess spoke about performing themselves, their genders, and their identities, sharing their personal histories and hopes for an ever queerer future.
Trish Bendix—When you’re getting onto set or stage, what do you leave behind of yourself to perform as an artist?
Mj Rodriguez—Oh, God have mercy, Kelly Clarkson! For me, I’ve got to leave ego at the door. I’ve got a small ego, but you have to leave it because you don’t want it to become bigger and take away from the people that you’re around. You’ve got to make sure the space is good.
King Princess—I bring my ego. I have to because the stage is like this accentuated version of yourself, but you’re not playing a character. Or, it’s a character that’s based off of you. When I first got on stage, the biggest thing was getting out of my comfort zone, moving my body, and that came from just faking it. Just being like, I’m fully comfortable. I’m not nervous at all. Because when I did Coachella I was like, I want to shit my pants. I was so nervous. But I knew that when people clock that you’re nervous…
Mj—Oh, they feed off of it.
King Princess—Yeah, and they feel uncomfortable. That feeling when you’re watching a performer and you don’t know if they’re going to hit the mark, which is my biggest fear. So I’m like, Fuck that.
Mj—Yeah, baby. I love that you said that because I sing as well, and I know exactly what it’s like being an artist. You have to create this persona that’s already there within you, and you have to fulfill that a hundred percent so that you can make your fan base happy. Being on set, there are supporters, but they’re supporters who work with you versus people who watch you.
King Princess—And there’s levels to it. I mean, there’s the actors, and then there’s the directors, and then there’s the writers, and then there’s the people who run the whole fucking network.
Mj—Right, so you bring your ego there thinking that you’re hot shit…baby, they’re gonna be like, Um, excuse me. Who are you?
King Princess—It’s so important because it’s about team setting, especially when there’s an objective. Like with Pose, that show is important. And my shows are important for queer people. I think when you have that in the back of your mind, it’s like, Bye, ego, because it’s not for you.
Mj—Right! It’s bigger than us. You have a moment where you see that you’re doing it for you just a smidge, but when you start to see the spectrum of everything, how wide it is and how many people we have to reach out to, you start to notice, like, Oh, shit, this is bigger than me. There’s a message that we’re out here doing. Whether you be an artist, an actress, a dancer…whether you be anything, when you get to a certain plateau in your life, you have to start striving for something bigger than who you are.
“When I first got on stage, the biggest thing was getting out of my comfort zone, moving my body, and that came from just faking it. Just being like, I’m fully comfortable. I’m not nervous at all. Because when I did Coachella I was like, I want to shit my pants. I was so nervous.”—King Princess
King Princess—Yeah, seriously, because I’ve been struggling so hard with ego and also with just not being an asshole. Like, every day. I know, it’s really bad. [Both laugh.] I’m not Elton John. I’m not fucking Mariah, you know…
Mj—But you are motherfucking King Princess, baby!
King Princess—No, I know. And I love that. I’m getting used to it because, obviously, life is so crazy and bizarre, and just how this has all happened…
Mj—It’s weird. Not weird in a bad way, but you never think in a million years that you—as us being queer people…How many opportunities do we get to just be in the forefront?
Mj & King Princess together—None. [Both laugh.]
King Princess—I was talking to a legend earlier today, a queer lesb giving me lesbian realness, like started The L Word—
King Princess— …and we were talking about how there has not been anyone to pick up the baton for a lot of the communities within the LGBT community. We’ve gotten to a point where we have shows that attempt to represent all of us at once. And then there’s these incredible enclaves like Pose…
Mj—Oh, thank you!
King Princess— …where you get what you get. You get we’re talking about the AIDS epidemic. We’re talking about queer black people. That’s important, and that deserves its own show. It doesn’t need to be grouped into a fucking cast of 85 people trying to cover every base.
Mj—I think it’s important that we have women like you out there who are standing for a community that does not get enough representation. Someone who’s a part of the queer community, a part of the L community, the letter L? Are you nonbinary?
King Princess—I always say ‘gay,’ but in my gender, I’m in the middle.
Mj—I think that’s beautiful.
King Princess—I love to be in the middle. With fashion especially, I feel really liberated. Especially now that everyone’s finally realizing that queer people are the reason we have fashion.
Mj—I really do, too. There’s been a lot of cultivation from the queer community. It’s always a revolving door. We borrow from people every single day. It just so happens that certain groups borrow more from others, and ours was the group that was borrowed from a lot and was not given the homage that it deserved. Now we’re finally in a space where you can just sit and watch it.
King Princess—And talk to each other! I cherish the rare opportunity that I get to talk to another queer person. And I know every time it happens, something good will come out because it’s the queer kiki. It’s the actual communication and language.
“There aren’t enough shows. There aren’t enough songs. There aren’t enough movies. There isn’t enough representation. And it’s not fair to ask me to speak for an entire community.”—King Princess
Mj—We understand each other. We know what it’s like to be ostracized. I know you know what it feels like.
King Princess—Well, in the industry itself, I kind of bypassed a lot of homophobia. I would go into these sessions, and the only thing that protected me was the fact that I was gay, because the dudes were like, ‘Bro!’—like, they bro’d out with me. And it protected me because I saw all my straight friends getting hit on, and it would create horrible dynamics in the room. It was something about me being younger and gay. I feel like I bypassed a lot of really traumatic shit that could have happened to me, and I feel really blessed and privileged because of that. I think my gayness actually saved me in a lot of ways.
Mj—I also think you exude a lot of strength, just in general. I mean, obviously, the gayness: This is power, honey.
King Princess—Well, gayness is power.
Mj—You know, it’s the gay liberation movement. Come on, let’s talk about it: It’s power!
King Princess—I think, right now, everyone’s bored of straight people. [Mj laughs.] That’s the truth of the matter.
Mj—I mean, I love all people.
King Princess—Oh, yeah. Sorry. I love all people, too. But we’re bored of straight story lines.
Mj—Well, this is true. Because it’s very generic. It’s something that happens all the time. To be quite honest, I’d love it if we can just coexist—and not even ‘coexist,’ because that sounds like separation. That sounds like division.
King Princess—The goal is to get to a point where it’s completely normal, and no one even bats a fucking eye. It’s all about good art. That’s it. But we’re not there yet. There aren’t enough shows. There aren’t enough songs. There aren’t enough movies. There isn’t enough representation. And it’s not fair to ask me to speak for an entire community. I can’t speak for an entire fucking community.
Mj—Because there’s much more of us out there that have to speak!
King Princess—It would also be so obscene for me, this white girl from Brooklyn, to speak for the entirety of the queer community. It’s so ridiculous. And that’s why it’s important to have these conversations, because then you get to see multiple perspectives of a unified community. Because we need to be unified. Really, it’s aggressive. We’re so angry.
Mj—But obviously it’s because of the oppression that we’ve been through, too.
Trish—Both of you have been called ‘queer icons.’ How do you feel about that?
Mj—Being a part of the ballroom culture, it’s beautiful to receive ‘icon,’ but I don’t see myself as an icon yet because I still have a lot of foundation to lay down. It takes a long time to become an icon in the ballroom culture. You have to travel the world, and vogue, and walk runway and do all the categories—or at least have some type of experience in all those aspects in order to receive ‘icon’ or even ‘legendary.’ I don’t think I’m an icon yet.
King Princess—I’m very Jew-y in this way. I’m thinking about the logic versus, I mean, [quietly] I like to be an icon. But truly, if it liberates people to say, ‘You are a queer icon to me,’ nothing’s wrong with that. Everyone deserves to have fucking icons. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. Everyone needs those people. Being young and calling someone your idol—that’s such a specific feeling that you have when you’re young and you’re figuring your shit out. So, I appreciate that. But I’m also like, Yeah, I don’t know if I’m an icon. I definitely have a lot to say. An icon, though? You are a queer icon, though. And I think that term means something different for these kids. It means, Damn, that person’s like me.
Mj—Right. I agree a hundred percent.
King Princess—That person looks like me, acts like me, talks like me. That’s a great feeling.
Mj—Okay, well, then I’ll take it, y’all! Shoot! [Laughter.] I’m gonna take it and put it in my purse.
King Princess—Take for those who couldn’t, honestly.
Mj—I agree with that. You just said something very important: Take it for those who could not take it. There are a lot of people who fought—who died—for our rights who didn’t live to tell the story. And we have to pick up the pieces to tell them.
King Princess—Our history! Me and my girlfriend were just sobbing watching Pose because it’s so well done. Sometimes shows just really hit you. To be invested in such complex queer characters is something that I didn’t get a chance to do when I was a kid. And now I feel like it’s happening. Besides that, it’s just amazing TV. But there is something really emotional and personal seeing your history represented in some way! Even though it’s not really my history. It’s kind of my history, you know.
Mj—Right, I feel you.
King Princess—But now I am in photo shoots. I’m like, Put on the character.
Mj—I want to cinch in my waist. I want the boobs to be high, above the sky.
King Princess—…I want a corset on the corset.
Trish—I’m really curious about the balance of art and commerce for you both, in terms of handling yourself as a business but also as an artist. How does that work for you? Is it a struggle?
King Princess—You want to ask me about that? I love money. [Everyone laughs.] I love Miss Money.
Mj—Oh, I love her, too.
King Princess—I don’t mind her one bit. But I say ‘no’ to a lot. I am too much of an artist sometimes. I will sacrifice shit that would be good for my bank account because I just can’t stomach it. And that’s because I’m a little bit bougie. [Laughter.] But it’s not only that. It’s that I really fucking care about how I’m displaying myself because I don’t want to get into a cycle of selling myself. I don’t want to do every fucking thing they tell me to do because I wouldn’t be happy with a crazy schedule like that. I need to make my art and I need to do my shit. But it’s also about making fucking money and providing for yourself.
Mj—Yeah, you have to be able to live, you have to be able to sustain.
King Princess—I would never sacrifice that. It wouldn’t be like, I want to die for the art. Like, no, bitch, I want an apartment!
Mj—I’ve seen people like that before.
King Princess—It’s beautiful, but you’re like, I can’t.
Mj—Yeah, because those usually end in a sad situation.
And you don’t want that.
King Princess—It’s a tragedy in our community. In the
artist community, in the queer community. You’ve got to take care of your shit.
Mj—Especially in our community.
King Princess—We deserve to live well. And I think that that’s important to remember.
Mj—Yeah, I take my business very seriously. I also expect people to know what my brand is when I come to the table. At the end of the day, we are the brands that are being put out there. We are the people that are in the forefront. So yes, money is cute, and I’m down for her. I live for her, too. But the message is most important, and the people who work in the business need to see the message in front of them, learn from it, and then piece together what they can get from it. And I agree a hundred percent: ‘No’ is the most important thing that you could ever say in this industry. Because people will use you for e-ver-y-thing. And you have to be like, Nah-ah, I know you’re gonna think I’m a bitch. I’m not really a bitch, but who cares? Because I really respect myself.
“I take my business very seriously. I also expect people to know what my brand is when I come to the table. At the end of the day, we are the brands that are being put out there. We are the people that are in the forefront.”—Mj Rodriguez
King Princess—Oh, well, being a bitch is also iconic. But you’re totally right. There are moments, like today, when you get into a room full of mostly queer, really talented [people]. Everybody’s doing their job, and you’re like, Oh, this is an example of putting yourself in a good position. This is good art. And they get who we both are and it’s not supposed to be some branded-ass bullshit. There’s a difference, and you can feel it on the set.
Trish—How did you become the artists and performers you are today?
Mj—I was the kid that stuck out and so I found the ballroom culture, but I still had my mom and my dad to go back to, unlike other kids who didn’t have any mothers and fathers. So, I was a little bit separated from the ballroom culture, too. I was in it because my house father found me, but I was also out of it when my parents were like, Get your ass home.
King Princess—How old were you?
Mj—Fourteen when I started. My mom influenced me a lot, so thank you, Mom. I know you’re probably hearing this. [Pauses.] She’s not dead. She’s across the world. How did you come into yourself?
King Princess—I knew I was gay when I was like, 5. I was in school and I would just dress completely masc and I wanted to go by male pronouns.
King Princess—I was fully in it to win it. My parents were like, She’s probably gay… No shade on them because I think they did a great job, and it turned out that I wasn’t interested in transitioning. I was just in between. But when I was a kid, I thought I was a boy. I felt like a boy. I dressed like a boy, to the point where I was like, Please call me boy pronouns. And my parents were like, No. But they were so good in so many ways. They let me wear whatever the fuck I wanted and they let me express myself and play sports and do shit that I needed to do to because, you know, I thought I just needed to be a butchy person.
Mj—That was your genetic makeup.
King Princess—Yeah, I remember vocalizing it when I was very young, and some kid was like, No, that’s not gonna work. And I was like, Got it. And then when I was in middle school, I came out. I told my close friends, ‘I think I like girls.’ When I got to high school, I had already made out with this girl who was dating the hottest guy in my high school, and so everyone was like, You’re the gay one. And I was like, No, no, no. I’m the bi one. And they were like, Pfff. No, you’re not. And I was like, Fuck, you’re right. Looking back at pictures of myself, What the fuck was I wearing? What am I doing? Like, I was not me. I was just so repressed in my gender. And I think about why I like sports so much, and I was like, Because you put on a uniform, and you’re neutral.
Mj—I feel you a hundred percent. That’s how I was when I was a kid. I mean, it’s the opposite. When I was younger, there were certain people in my family who knew the tea—they knew I was a little girl. And when I got to high school, I knew I was a chick. I just kind of conformed, somewhat.
King Princess—But you knew.
Mj—[Claps] I knew when I was 3 years old. I knew I liked boys. When I was, like, 7, I knew I was a girl.
King Princess—Because they’re different things. They’re completely separate, and it can be really confusing. I think what I was feeling when I was expressing that I wanted to be called boy pronouns was that I felt like a dyke. But that is a huge part of me, still, that person who did not want to conform to being a woman all the time.
Mj—It’s true. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time. I just knew ‘girl.’ I didn’t know ‘gay.’ I didn’t know ‘bi.’ I didn’t know ‘lesbian.’ I didn’t know any of that. I was just like, Well, all I see myself as is a chick.
King Princess—That’s so much simpler. Because you’re just like, This is what I am, I swear.
Mj—Right. Then you grow up. When you’re 3, your mind is not developed yet, but you know what you like, what is attractive, what is appealing to you. When you’re 7, you start developing sensations towards people. They’re probably not sexual because you don’t think about that crap.
King Princess—And then it’s social awareness—being aware that other people perceive you a certain way. That happens at, like, 12. And it sucks.
Mj—See, for me, it was the best thing because I had long hair…
King Princess—Did you start presenting completely female immediately?
Mj—For me, it wasn’t even a present thing. It was just an innate thing. It was in me.
King Princess—It was just your body.
Mj—It was just my body. I mean, when I was younger, from 7 to 12, I was walking down the street, had long hair and people were like, Oh, yeah, she’s just flat-chested. She’s gonna grow her lil’ titties one day. And I would look—and mind you, I’m, like, 9, 10—and I’d be like, Mm, yeah, one day, knowing in my mind that I would. Also knowing that it would be a tough ride for me, too. As time went on, I would sit and be like, How am I gonna do this?
King Princess—Did it just feel like there were so many steps? I just can’t even fucking imagine what goes through your mind. It has to be a mind fuck, and also probably the greatest gift ever.
Mj—We could say the same for each other. I would love to be like, No, this is who I am. And then you grow up and you’re like, No, that was just a transition or journey that I had to go through to get to this point.
King Princess—I remember it so distinctly. And then I think about myself now and the journey I’ve gone through to become the person I am, which is, you know…
Mj—Which is unbelievable.
King Princess—…which has been really cool, and I think it just took so much dress-up. And that’s the part that I really love, and I love to talk about, and I hope is made very clear in my shows and stuff. Dress-up is lit. You need clothes; you need to express yourself. It’s so important.
Mj—It’s an accessory to the already amazing gift.
King Princess—It’s everything. But also, it can be cathartic. Fashion is catharsis because I wake up some days, I’m like, I need to fucking look like a boy. I just need to. If I don’t, I feel uncomfortable all day.
Mj—I’m so glad I’m hearing you say this because I always thought I had to fit into this mold of being extremely feminine, because that’s how I always was.
Mj—Isn’t it weird? Then you grow up and you’re like, But this is not how I always have to be every single day. Every girl has their moment, every boy has their moment. I mean, men, they go through their own shit because they’re oppressed in many other ways. They can’t express themselves like we can, you know.
King Princess—Also female queerness is accepted a lot more.
Mj—My mom told me something very important, and I will always remember it. She said, ‘We are the powerful gender.’ And as much as they don’t want to know that, they’re going to come to a realization that we are. And we influence them to do a lot of things that they do. Once they start thinking they can get minds of their own, then they start fucking up. Clearly [laughs].
King Princess—It’s true. All culture seems to stem from women in a certain way. Especially the birth of all these historic movements that are happening. I feel like now, for instance, what’s happening with Pose, it’s all women. These are fucking women, spearheading this shit.