For six years, Ginger Minj has been turning down offers to star in La Cage aux Folles.
“Ever since the Trailblazer Awards I’ve been getting inquiries,” the three-time Drag Race contestant says of the 2016 event where she brought La Cage book writer Harvey Fierstein to tears and the house to its feet with her galvanic take on the Tony-winning show’s signature anthem (written by composer Jerry Herman), “I Am What I Am.”
But when Music Theater Works called about La Cage, she finally said yes.
She opens this week as Albin/Zaza, loving husband/father/devoted family man and legendary drag queen in a St. Tropez nightclub so decadent people abandon Givenchy dresses in the loo, and nobody bats an oversized eyelash when they hear the duchess got pregnant at the bar.
La Cage aux Folles
3/10-4/3: Wed 1 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, musictheaterworks.com, $19.50-$106.
We caught up with the actor/recording artist/comic/drag queen/self-described “Glamour Toad” for a freewheeling conversation about family, art, the Drag Race seasons she turned down, and why she finally said yes to La Cage.
Catey Sullivan: Why did you agree to MTW’s production after turning down so many others?
Ginger Minj: After I sang at the Trailblazer Awards, I started getting offers left and right to do La Cage. I’m so emotionally connected to it—especially at this point in my life. I feel like the whole family dynamic in the show has kind of started to resemble my own in some ways.
Every time someone asked me to do the show, I would ask them what they thought it was about. Not the plot, but what it’s really about. Everyone else talked about spectacle, and the dazzle, the showgirls, the sparkle. Which, obviously, is very important. But with Music Theater Works, they thought—we thought—it was about family at its heart. About creating your own family and making sure everyone in it knows they are loved.
My husband [Ceejay] and I bought a house a while ago, where we now live with my mother, my sister, and my two nephews and two dogs and we absolutely love it. This is my family. I protect that fiercely because I have worked so hard to be in a place where I can have it. We are a really strong unit. To me, family is the one thing most worth protecting at all costs.
I was supposed to be in the UK right now, touring with The Wizard of Oz. But I left that to do La Cage.
In the musical, Albin’s son tries to hide his drag queen superstar father from his fiancé’s ultra-conservative parents. Have you gone through anything similar?
I completely understand why Albin/Zaza kinda breaks down when she feels pushed out by her own son. My youngest nephew is 11; I’ve been a public figure for most of his life. We’re in the south—there are certain people who admonish him and make fun of him for having a parental unit who is a famous drag queen. But mostly, so many friends at his school were fans of mine and I can see how hard the spotlight could be for him. He didn’t want it. And I had to learn to not let that hurt me. It wasn’t from a place of not loving me. It was not wanting that constant spotlight.
Let’s hear about your first time in drag.
I started doing drag in the one gay bar in Florida near where I grew up. I was underage, so I borrowed my cousin’s boyfriend’s idea, which was go on a drag night, and dress up like a girl, and nobody will notice I don’t look like the photo in my fake ID.
I went to Pimp and Ho Night—I know, so problematic, you’d never call it that now. I looked like Carnie Wilson on a bender. I also became the life of the party. It was the first time I felt accepted. The first time people were telling me how beautiful I was.
I didn’t want to go to the bar to drink. I just wanted the community. So I kept hanging around. After a while one of the local queens was like, “Girl, you look a damn mess. We’re going to give you a makeover.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love to feel beautiful. I love a gown. But some of the most fun I have is when I allow myself to be ugly and just act the fool. I grew up lovingly obsessed with Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, these beautiful, hilarious women getting smashed in the face with pies. Eventually I discovered Divine, who did the same thing but on a much crazier scale.
How did you come up with the Glamour Toad moniker?
I mean, I’m built a little like a toad—big midsection, skinny little legs. And I did a great many pageants, which is the glamour part. I don’t remember when I said it for the first time, but the name struck a chord. I have people coming up to me all the time saying they’d never seen their body type represented on TV until they saw me on their televisions. Sometimes they wear T-shirts saying “Glamour Tadpole.”
Drag was a way for me to learn about my body. I’m 5’3”, 250 pounds. So I don’t fit in with the skinny girls. And I don’t fit in with the big girls. Latrice (Royale) and Eureka (O’Hara), they’re a good foot and a half taller than I am.
I had to sit and study myself and see what looked good and what I liked. I’ve worked with designers on how to offset my swayback or my large ass, but what I learned is that I’m built like a lot of women. Which really helped me feel more beautiful.
I didn’t realize how unhappy I was when I went to do All Stars 2. I was overworked from every angle. I was doing drag seven days a week. I had sacrificed so much of myself for Ginger. My skin was bad. My hair was stringy. My relationship was bad. I was exhausted.
My grandma always said, “You don’t see yourself until you see yourself through someone else’s eyes.” I understood that when I saw myself on TV.
All Stars 2 called like a month after we finished season seven. We had literally just put the crown on Violet’s [Chachki] head and I’m suddenly catapulted into this overnight famousness that they don’t prepare you for. And I was in Australia. The whole reason I went on the show was to get opportunities like the one to tour Australia, and then I had to cut all of that short to go back.
Plus, the finale week of season seven, my grandfather had died. And I had recently ended a toxic, 11-year relationship. So I was dealing with that, on top of the isolation that goes along with being on Drag Race.
It was all really, really difficult. I was spiraling, in a dark place. I was there for All Stars 2, but I was also kind of checked out. I wasn’t the same sassy person I’d been before. I made it very clear that I wanted to go home. It worked out for me to get eliminated early.
After I got home, I did all the wellness work and got myself to a better place. And now my regret is that I didn’t make that All Stars 2 experience what it could have been. I squandered that opportunity.
They asked me to come back for All Stars 5 and 6, but I turned them down because I knew I wasn’t ready. I felt I didn’t have anything else to share at that point. And I was so busy working. The movie Dumplin’, one-woman shows, revues, touring the world, releasing albums, [the TV series] AJ and the Queen. I was living my best life. And then, the pandemic hit.
How did you spend the pandemic?
One thing my grandmother always told me—look at every situation and find one thing that gives you joy. So in the pandemic, my best friend and I cleaned out the garage and set up a little movie studio and started putting on shows in the garage. People started coming to see them! Then they started tipping us. That’s how we made it through the pandemic.
When they called me to do All Stars 6, I felt like I had newfound creativity. Every day was new and exciting. One of the reasons all the other queens thought I was unflappable was because I applied what I learned in therapy to everything. It turned me from someone who had been the villain to a fan favorite. It was the first time on Drag Race I felt I was really and truly me.
After my first two seasons, I was disappointed. But with All Stars 6, I genuinely feel like the top four of us—that was the closest group of girls I’ve ever worked with. We made a pact: No matter who wins, we’re going to the most expensive restaurant we can find to celebrate. And we are all going to celebrate. Which we did. There’s so many opportunities Drag Race creates. I don’t think anyone ever has to panic about not winning.
How was the trip to Skokie? I heard there were complications getting here.
It was a six-hour trip that turned into 13 hours.
I had an awards show the night before I was leaving for Chicago. Big fancy thing. I literally left the venue and started getting out of drag in my car on the way to the airport. I’m so afraid to fail in front of people that I like to rehearse before I’m actually with the cast and everyone, so I scheduled things so I’d have like 13 hours to myself before rehearsal started.
But there was a layover at LaGuardia. And it kept getting later and later. And I’m watching all my alone rehearsal time vanish. I went right from the airport to rehearsal. And all my fears were unfounded. The second I walked in, everyone was so supportive and excited.
Speaking of supportive, Ceejay was doing lights and sound for you when you played Provincetown last summer. How did y’all meet?
I met him the day I got back to Orlando from All Stars 2. I was sad. I needed something to pick me up. So I went to (a theme park). He was a supervisor. I started chatting with him when I picked up my ticket. We became theme park buddies—we’d go to Epcot or SeaWorld or Disney, Gatorland, all of them—together. It really helped pull me out of my funk.
Why La Cage now?
It is more relevant now than it has ever been. In Texas we have this trans bill passed where they can now actually prosecute the parents of trans kids. People are once again trying to silence us even though we’re just as much part of the world as anybody else. It’s important that people understand we are not just a punchline in a sitcom. We are not a freak show to point and laugh at. We are not something you can take a selfie with and then use to post trans or homophobic tweets. That’s happened to me more times than I can count.
This show is so important right now. For visibility. I don’t know that things have gotten better. They’ve gotten different. The bigotry is still there and still strong.
I’m going to host Drag Race Live in Vegas. I get to ride in on a bubble like Glinda. I have tons of costume changes. I can’t wait. My book—Southern Fried Sass—is coming out. It’s my life story, and it’s paired with recipes. My grandmother didn’t have much. But she had her recipes. And she left them to me.
And I’m still riding the wave of Double Wide Diva [Minj’s 2021 album]. Martina McBride’s people have reached out about doing a cover as a duet. I’ve heard from Wynonna Judd’s people. There’s a lot of conversations going on.