Metro Weekly

The Secret (and Spectacle) of Alyssa Edwards

Globe-trotting drag superstar Alyssa Edwards makes time to do it all -- for her dance kids, her fans, her new love, and herself.

Alyssa Edwards -- Photo: Dillon Del Toro
Alyssa Edwards – Photo: Dillon Del Toro

Leave it to Alyssa Edwards, the high-kicking, meme-inpiring, tongue-popping dancing queen of Mesquite, Texas to deliver more than just a good drag show with her 34-city Life, Love & Lashes tour.

Billed as a coast-to-coast one-diva show, the tour expands on the Drag Race star’s stage show Memoirs of a Queen, which she debuted to critical acclaim in London’s West End last summer.

In two acts, Edwards — whose real name is Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson — recounts and dances the story of how the shy eldest of seven children in a Texas Baptist family became the internationally known, loved, and quoted drag legend, host of the digital series Alyssa’s Secret, subject of a Netflix reality series, Dancing Queen, and long-time owner and director of the Beyond Belief Dance Company.

For this tour, presented by drag impresarios Murray & Peter, Edwards promises more dancers, more costume changes, more fabulousness.

“We can’t say Alyssa Edwards and not think ‘more,'” she declares, zooming in from a comfy seat inside her voluminous, sequins-and-feathers-filled closet. “I mean, this show is a one-night spectacle. It definitely is extravagant. I have a full set right now, all set up in my studio. I mean pyrotechnics — there’s so much involved in this show.”

Memoirs of a Queen first started coming together after the Netflix series, in which Edwards  feels “gave everyone a small little peek into my personal life as a dance teacher.” Memoirs further “pulls back the curtain. It’s all things Alyssa Edwards.”

Part of her charm is that in the midst of discussing a show all about herself, Edwards can still sound humble trying to wrap her head around the fantastic ride she’s on, from drag pageants and dance competitions, to Drag Race, worldwide bookings, and leading her dance kids onto America’s Got Talent, where they finished as semi-finalists.

“All of this, really, was a trick of fate,” Edwards marvels. “It’s like I woke up one day and go, ‘How did this happen to me?’ I mean, I’m in my closet. How did this happen to me? And I do believe it’s all a part of our book of life.” Indeed, there have been difficult chapters for Justin Johnson, who, for years, lived a double life, concealing alter ego Alyssa Edwards from the dance parents at Beyond Belief, and even from his own family.

“My sisters were like, ‘What is a drag queen? This just sounds gross to us, or dirty,'” Edwards recalls. “They had no idea, until they went to their first show. Then they’re like, ‘You’re…beautiful, and funny, and relatable.'”

Acknowledging that people are afraid of the unknown, Edwards adds, “It’s like we’re seeing this right now, with people wanting books off the shelves. I just was a keynote speaker at the Texas Library Association, and it’s mind-boggling. Knowledge is power, and we should want to offer that to any young mind. And if it’s something that you don’t want your child in particular to read, then don’t allow them to read it. It’s so weird that we’re having this argument in 2022.”

A die-hard entertainer, Edwards is not averse to also diving into politics, advocating voting, visibility, and raising your voice as key tools for protecting the LGBTQIA+ community. The current political climate is tense in Texas, but some progress has been made since Edwards was having to explain to family members what it means to be a drag queen.

“Visibility is very important, and drag right now is no longer something we do in just a nightclub after midnight — it is complete mainstream. In fact, my students, especially my younger ones, they’re all watching Drag Race with their families, at their young ages. It’s just a part of pop culture in our world, and I love that! I love that we are celebrating that, because if it’s not hurting you, why are you mad?”

Alyssa Edwards -- Photo: Anastasia Beverly Hills
Alyssa Edwards – Photo: Anastasia Beverly Hills

METRO WEEKLY: They tell me you had rehearsals for a competition this weekend. Your dance company Beyond Belief was competing?

ALYSSA EDWARDS: Yes. Well, hello, André, happy Monday. You know what? I woke up this morning, I’m like, my life is a never-ending rehearsal. But I will say that it is a blessing. So this weekend, my dance company was competing in their final competition to wrap out season 19. Actually, before I jumped on here with you, I was writing my Facebook post of like, “That’s a wrap.”

Definitely, I’m in my Monday feels, because I remember being a young kid dreaming of all of this. Wanting to be an artistic director, a dance studio owner, sharing my imagination with other artists. And I mean season 19! I cannot believe it will be my 20th year owning Beyond Belief Dance Company. And it’s like, okay, so rehearsals for the dance company this last week were so long, but we had a fabulous, very successful weekend. And then it’s like, I shift gears, I wake up this morning and here we go. This tour that I have been working on, workshopping for, let’s see, I think a little bit now, I mean it’s been over a year. I was in the West End last year.

MW: June of ’21.

EDWARDS: There you go. And oh, my goodness, where is time going? Now about to embark on this 34-city tour. So rehearsals today, it was like, now you’re onstage, so let’s get in that studio a little extra earlier today. We went over script reading, lighting cues, music cues. My whole dance studio now is transformed into Life, Love & Lashes. I mean, the stage was set up yesterday and it was quite an exciting morning walking into all of that.

MW: Because you wear so many hats, what keeps you motivated to maintain two such demanding careers that are demanding separately, let alone together?

EDWARDS: Life. I mean, just waking up and having the opportunity to breathe in something — well, hold on, I don’t know if I should even say this is work. I mean, like I said, this was all a dream for me. I’m one of seven, so I was teaching dance to my sisters. I had a little squad. I had four sisters, so I had a small group when I was young, and for as long as I can remember I knew that I always wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

And then I stumbled across this character Alyssa Edwards by, really a trick of fate, because I actually was a shy kid that wanted to be the wizard, wanted to be the magic behind the scenes — the Steven Spielberg that creates it all, from the choreography, to the stories, to the costuming, the makeup, the sets. And I did drag in an open stage night, and it was like me overcoming my fear. I loved being on stage, but I was always kind of like in the chorus. But with Alyssa, it was like I was the principal.

And I discovered this creative outlet that I didn’t realize that I needed for myself. Because you get to that road as a dancer. You’re studying, you’re in studios as a young child, and then you get to like 17 or 18, and it’s a fork in the road, you go right or left. A lot of dancers choose to go right, which is like studying it in college, or pursuing a professional career, audition world, agents, all that. Or you go left, and you go into more of like teaching and choreography. I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was like the teacher’s assistant from, I would say, 11 or 12 years old. I was the kid that was like, “Can I volunteer with the baby class?” And I actually did a student choreography piece when I was probably about like 15 or 16. And my teachers were always like, “Justin, you are really gifted with this.”

So I don’t know if it’s work. There’s never a day when I wake up going, “I’m actually working.” I went to bed last night with a full heart. In my earlier years, I would say a successful weekend would be like, “How many first places did you win?” And now for me, a successful weekend is sitting watching these young people have so much courage and strength to share their vulnerability. And they do it with such poise and conviction, it is just inspiring.

MW: Has it been nonstop for Beyond Belief since making the semifinals of America’s Got Talent last season? And how was that experience?

EDWARDS: Well, I am a woman that wears many a hat. And I think that — not to brag, not to boast — but to be a proud teacher moment, this is my company’s second time on America’s Got Talent.

In season three, I took 23 kids and we made it to the top 25, and this was before Alyssa. And I remember the producers saying, “Can we get you on camera?” And I was mortified, I was like, absolutely not. I’m too shy, I’m not going to be able to say the right thing, my words are going to get tangled up. No, don’t film me, film the kids.

Fast forward now, here I am in full drag with young students in the semi-finals as the judge’s wild card act. It was just so surreal to come like full-circle, but it’s been nonstop. We wrapped America’s Got Talent and immediately got into competition mode, and the kids adjusted so quickly. And I’ve enjoyed watching them blossom, and I love every single second and minute having this opportunity to mentor them. Because these are moments that they’ll cherish and treasure forever. Not too many kids can say, at eight years old, they were on America’s Got Talent. And all of these young little ones, they will take this with them.

Alyssa Edwards -- Photo: Eran Levi
Alyssa Edwards — Photo: Eran Levi

MW: AGT is also a talent show like Drag Race. How was it different from what you went through on that show?

EDWARDS: I’ll tell you, it is very different, because there was a little bit less pressure for me to deliver on Drag Race. It was like, “I’m here and I’m going to be the absolute very best version of myself,” but in my mind, I already thought I was already there, I had arrived. And clearly, I was not as prepared

Then we get into All-Stars and it’s like, okay, I wasn’t aware in season five. Here’s the thing, André, I didn’t even have social media. I went on Drag Race without an Instagram, I didn’t have a Twitter. I was not in that realm of keeping up with the world and times. And I remember actually being at Coco’s house when the show premiered, and her and Roxy were like, “Alyssa, you have to make an Instagram.” And I was like, I don’t know about that. My life is too complex, when am I going to have time to post pictures of my life? And I don’t even know if my life is that interesting. And then I have a whole Netflix docuseries!

But on All-Stars I do remember realizing that, okay, not only are you being judged by these judges, but you will be judged by the most certified judges, that is, the people at home watching. Which, oh my gosh, they’re the most brutal at times. But I’m very fortunate that people really, really enjoyed my character, my silliness, campiness, and I think what really, what I feel like stood me out was my authenticity to be myself unapologetically. And that is a little bit more tense, though, as far as like, okay, what if I look silly? Or what if I look dumb? I’m questioning myself. What if my art is not creative? There’s all these what ifs? And then I remember one day just like going, “What if, girl, what if, what if! You have an opportunity, just go on here and be gay, and have fun, and laugh,” and that’s what I did.

But on AGT, it’s harder because kids are, these young minds are, they’re not developed, or maybe they don’t understand enough, or their capacity to learn quickly can be difficult. And there’s a time limit, so I had to be strategically magical with how we presented this to them. Because I couldn’t say, “Hey, we’re going on TV, we need to have this dance done, like two hours ago.” I had to make it fun and enjoyable for them because you want that light and charisma to sparkle onstage.

MW: Watching Dancing Queen, what seems really difficult about working with children in that capacity are their parents. Is that true for you? How do you deal with that? And with everything that’s happening in Texas, does anybody have something to say about a drag queen being the head of the dance studio?

EDWARDS: Well, honestly, André, I was terrified of being judged. In fact, no one knew my personal life, I was living a real-life Hannah Montana set up. I was very private, my very dear best friend Shelly Wellborn was the only one that really knew. And I would’ve been mortified if people would’ve found out, because I didn’t know how I would’ve been judged. In fact, when the season five premiere announcement of the [RuPaul’s Drag Race] cast came out, and they released it, I said, this is going to be a make or break. And you know what, I got to this point in my life where it was like, “Justin, I just really dare you to be you. You teach kids every single day, there’s only one of you. Be bold and be daring, live out loud, live proudly.” But then there was me that wasn’t doing any of that, because I was so afraid of what everyone would think of me.

And I’ll never forget, I walked into the studio that day and I could hear the chatter, “Justin is on a television show, and he has an alter ego.” They were out in the lobby, and I thought, don’t say anything, don’t address it, maybe people won’t notice.

And I got an email from one of the dads, and it just totally caught me off-guard. It was like, “Justin, I want you to know that my family is so very grateful and fortunate to have someone so talented, and so passionate, and creative mentoring our daughters. And best of luck to you on your journey, you’ve done so much for so many others. May you reap the same rewards and success that you share.” It was like an epiphany for me. It was like, it’s all going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay.

And as the week went on, one mom just said, “Well, the elephant in the room. Justin, you are Alyssa Edwards.” And I couldn’t really say it, but I was like, “Well, I’m really not Alyssa Edwards. It’s a fictional character I created. I always wanted to be like this, hide behind this character, maybe, to do all the things that I didn’t have the courage or the bravery to do.”

And the moms were like, “Get out of here, you are absolutely doing it. And why haven’t you told us about this before?” It was the biggest sigh of relief. Like you said, I’m here in Texas and this is home for me. And I always kept my studio in Mesquite, because I said, what if there’s another little Justin out there that needs a safe space to share your artistry and your creativity? But I was, once again, pleasantly surprised with everybody.

And the moms, as far as the dance moms go, it’s a double-edged sword, because you want a parent that is supportive. It’s like you have to audition the mom, the dad, the grandma, whoever is the support system there, and the child, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. It’s like every now and then they’ll come in like what we saw on Dancing Queen, and they’re like, “Justin, we don’t agree with you.” And I’m like, “That’s okay, let’s have a convo.” “We think that Sally’s hair bow was a more vibrant pink than my daughter’s.” I was like, “Well that’s all right. Is she okay? Is she comfortable with her shade of pink?” This is a weird analogy, but this is like the kind of things that I go through.

It’s like, I was just looking at my emails right here, and let me see, 13,000 unread emails, that’s probably dance moms. I don’t entertain some of it now, but I just would say, “Look, stop hovering. Let Sally figure out her shade of pink is perfect for her. And she’s happy with it, so you should be happy with that as well.”

Once you get like that with them they’re like, “You know what, thank you for that, thank you for that.” And here’s the thing, I can appreciate their passion, rather than someone — like my family’s really never seen me onstage. In fact, these moms and dads are so supportive, and they’re so supportive of me. When I’m sure there are some people that are confused, because my family was. Honestly, I can’t sit here and say anything other than I am really not only supported, but I am celebrated here in Texas. And it’s not just dance moms, it’s dance dads, and I met some grandparents this weekend that walked up to me, and the grandfather was like, “You really just are a brilliant human. And my daughter and my granddaughter are so grateful, and I just want to say thank you.” And I think that’s so kind, that’s so kind. So I do try to find the silver lining, I do try to find the good. I feel like I’ve been wired like that my whole life.

Alyssa Edwards -- Photo: Dillon Del Toro
Alyssa Edwards – Photo: Dillon Del Toro

MW: Now onto Memoirs of a Queen. What’s your favorite part of performing this show?

EDWARDS: I love reminiscing on the stories. In the first act, I talk a lot about my childhood, having a father that’s very masculine, boys wear blue, girls wear pink. And then there’s me, his first son — with my mom, that is. And the journey to me being the All-American boy and little league baseball, all of these things.

Then the opening of the second act is like the birth of Alyssa, and all of this, it’s like everything that people know, from behind the scenes of my auditioning to getting on Drag Race, and then we touch a little bit about where I am in life, what is love like for me. It’s really a fun campy show.

I do close out act one with a contemporary dance number. I didn’t know if I felt comfortable taking off my drag onstage. But it worked really well. And it’s like this show is a lot more, I feel like I’m once again peeling back another layer. It shows a slide show of me as a little boy and growing up, and it’s me contemporary dancing. In rehearsals I’m feeling it, so I’m very proud of that scene, in particular, because it’s another moment I didn’t know if I thought that I would be so open to do.

MW: You’re doing something like thirty cities in a month. Are they teleporting you from place to place? How do you maintain your sanity with the crazy travel?

EDWARDS: I prefer to just get in, and knock it out of the park, keep that momentum up here at all times. I just think sometimes taking a break can slow you down. Truthfully, I’m a homebody. If I need a break, I need to be home.

I’ve also paced myself. Usually in years past, I would miss some dance events, or shows, or performances because I was on the road. This year, I didn’t do that. I took off all of the competition season to be there with the kids. So, that break was also really nice, because while the kids are at school, I’m working on this show. At three o’clock, I get to the studio, I switch gears, put on that hat, and it’s competition material, it’s technique classes, office work, and parent-teacher conferences. It’s like a wheel. It’s like a cycle.

But, this is going to be, for me, the longest that I’ve been away from home consecutively. I think I’m going to write in my journal and document it all, maybe write a book. I’m going to use this time on the bus to find moments for me, just to dive a little bit deeper, set new goals, create some. My students, I got them all a journal, and I wanted them to write down some long-term goals and short-term goals. And I thought, why don’t I do the same thing for me, as well? I’m like, let’s just see where this takes us.

MW: The meditation of journaling sounds great. What about the body? On Pit Stop a few weeks ago, Monét X Change was talking about how torturous drag is on the body, the feet, the joints, everything. Especially because you are a dancer, how do you maintain your physical instrument?

EDWARDS: I work out almost every day. In fact, I was on tour with Monét over Christmas, I would drag her with me, and we would go to a Barry’s bootcamp class, and she was loving it. She was like, “Oh my gosh. This is great.”

The classes, for me, are also like therapy. I find this peace where I could just shut the phones off, disconnect from everything that’s going on around in the world, and just zone in, keeping the body strong, keeping the mind strong and healthy. Drag can be hard on the body, but I also tell myself, like with anything, you have to be the one in control of keeping all of this together. Definitely, I do love to eat my Tex-Mex, so the back rolls will creep up, and sometimes I’ll spoil myself with candy, drop the chalupa, but I stay working out.

MW: On Dancing Queen, you talked about dating on Christian Mingle, and I honestly couldn’t tell if you were joking. Did you really try dating on Christian mingle?

EDWARDS: I didn’t actually have to go on Christian Mingle, because I met my partner — we’re together now — on Tinder. There’s a little bit about this in the show. I hosted a global audition, and the first question of the audition had to be, “What is your credit score?” Because I know what I can bring to the table, and I’m not afraid, so come on, what we working with? What are we working with? But no, seriously, I would not have minded being on Christian Mingle. Absolutely not. I was with my grandmother every Sunday at West Mesquite Baptist Church. Tinder, definitely, that was an interesting task.

MW: Well, it worked out.

EDWARDS: It did work out, yeah. It did work out.

Alyssa Edwards -- Photo: Anastasia Beverly Hills
Alyssa Edwards — Photo: Eran Levi

MW: As for your home state of Texas, there’s just so much happening right now that affects trans people, kids, and women. What advice do you have for people who feel like… Well, I was going to say, feel like these laws are targeting them. These laws are targeting their existence, and yet they might love Texas, and might love where they live, and the people they live around. What would you say to them?

EDWARDS: So, I love where I live, but there’s been a few times in the last couple of years, it’s almost like you’re ashamed a little bit to say, “I’m proud to be a Texan,” because you’re like, what are we doing? I’m trying to word this right. I will say this, because this is hard. It’s like, we watched this on TV, then we watched it on Facebook, affect people that we know and our friends. Even if they weren’t our friend, they were still a part of our community.

I feel like the LGBTQIA+ community has always been steadfast, and just hopeful for something in the future. I believe we all have to maintain that hope, because it’s like, we got numb to the setbacks. We can’t ever get comfortable with it, though. We can’t ever get comfortable. I would tell my friends, I remember one night, we were all on Zoom, and I’m like, “You guys, just, at the end of the day, if we all show up to vote, let your voice be heard, that’s where it matters the most. Stop arguing with people on Facebook. Just show up to vote. If these people don’t have the opportunity, they won’t be able to do this.”

Well, we’ve seen how many trans people lost their lives. So, for me to be here in Texas, I’m thinking, are these people just lost and confused? Are they not seeing people? I have to then ask myself, maybe it’s not a part of their agenda. Maybe it doesn’t fit their narrative. Maybe they don’t have a trans person in their family. So, maybe, out of sight, out of mind. Maybe they haven’t ever took the time or the opportunity to learn. That’s sad to me.

I feel like those people are missing out. I feel like for anybody that feels like they are being targeted, because that’s really what it was, that we remain hopeful for better days and continue the fight, continue the fight. It doesn’t have to be necessarily just online, but to show up at the polls.

MW: So, last question, and it won’t be the first time you’ve been asked this. What’s Alyssa’s secret?

EDWARDS: Okay. Well, André, I think I’m still figuring that one out. I remember on Drag Race when I said it was “nine inches and fully functional,” my grandmother picked up the phone and said, “Justin, now I saw you on the television show dressed up like a woman.” I said, “Well, Granny, not really dressed up like a woman.” “Well, you had on false lashes and fingernails.” I said, “Is that all it takes?” “Yes.” I said, “Okay, then I was dressed up like a woman.”

She said, “Now, I gather you were speaking of your genitalia, your penis. That’s unbecoming, because you did that in front of Ms. RuPaul.” I said, “Is that it?” She goes, “Well, God, too.”

I giggled and laughed so hard. I said, “Well, Granny, that’s because on the show I said that was Alyssa’s secret. I was sitting on my secret.” She was like, “Well, I don’t understand any of that, what you just spoke of, but I watched you on that television show, and I don’t want you to speak like that.” I’m laughing. So, I still think I’m sitting on my secret. I don’t know what it is yet. I don’t really know, but you know what, maybe, André, when I’m on the bus, and I’m meditating, and I’m in my diary, maybe I should try to discover that, right? And unveil that. Maybe that could be the book! I don’t know. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this, because I get asked that, and I’m like, well, is it my…? I don’t know.

I got so nervous when Ru asked me that. First of all, RuPaul, I always admired so greatly. I remember I saw RuPaul in To Wong Foo — I was 15-years old when I watched this movie, and here was this tall Black man in a platinum blonde wig who comes out of the ceiling in this confederate dress. I’m like, what is this? Then, I said, “RuPaul.” I started seeing, what was it, like the Supermodel on the beach, singing live [on MTV’s Spring Break]? I was so fascinated. I thought, well, this person is bold and daring, but I was so intrigued. I had so much admiration. It was an inspiration.

Then, when I got to meet him. Gosh, one day, they’re going to release the unseen footage. I’m going to be half of it. The first day when Ru came in the workroom, and I got to go do the picture with him, I didn’t realize the format of the show. So, I was like, “RuPaul, I have to tell you, I’ve been waiting to meet you for years.” I start going into a whole speech, and he cut me off.

Fast forward, years later, he’s the executive producer on Dancing Queen. I mean, we’re talking about a pioneer. We’re talking about someone that believed in the power of being you. They pitched RuPaul’s Drag Race for eight years before Logo picked it up, and now it’s like, watching all the Emmy wins, it gives someone like me hope. It’s like, just be yourself. Be bold, be daring. Tell the whole world you’re not going to change for them, and fit into a box or mold because you’re supposed to.

The Life, Love & Lashes Tour: Memoirs of a Queen dances into D.C. on Wednesday, May 18, at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW, before popping off to other cities, including New York (5/19), Boston (5/21), Atlanta (5/25), Louisville (5/28), Phoenix (6/9), L.A. (6/11), San Francisco (6/12), and Las Vegas (6/13). Tickets at the Lincoln are $35-$75. To purchase tickets, and for a complete tour schedule, visit www.dragfans.com.

Visit www.thealyssaedwards.com.

Follow on Twitter at @alyssaedwards_1.

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