Widow Von’Du feels strange driving through town in the middle of the day in drag. When she shows up to our photographer’s studio in broad daylight, the standout competitor from the just-ended season of RuPaul’s Drag Race has a full face of makeup on, and her waist is cinched.
“What’s weird for me is not having a wig on while I’m driving,” she jokes, rubbing her hands through her hair.
Von’Du has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of driving in drag and she’s been a staple in the KC drag scene for over a decade. She hosts shows and performs weekly at Hamburger Mary’s in Midtown, bringing raunchy humor, an infectious laugh and impressive lip-sync numbers.
Von’Du—outside of drag, she goes by Ray Fry—has lived in Kansas City her entire life. She grew up near Independence and attended Van Horn High School. Everything in her life was flipped upside down, though, when she was seventeen and a series of life-changing events happened.
As revealed in a tearful and memorable scene in Drag Race, her mom passed away in a car accident, leaving Von’Du feeling guilty over a fight they had shared mere hours before.
Shortly after, she was publicly outed to her entire school as gay.
“A friend of mine, who I dated for maybe a couple of seconds, got very upset with me and decided to post [about me] on MySpace,” Von’Du says. “He had everybody from our school on his friends list. After that, it just spread like wildfire.”
“If it’s any consolation, he and I haven’t talked since,” she says with a laugh.
Von’Du started doing drag due to the insistence of a close friend who begged her to be a dancer. “It was during Pride Month, so he was trying to raise money,” she says. “His entertainers started dropping out on him because they were getting paid to perform at bars versus doing some charity event.”
Her friend eventually convinced her to perform in drag. Von’Du had fun, though, which led to her agreeing to more shows as time went on. “I’m sure I looked like a hot, hot mess, but I thought I was the prettiest b—- alive,” she says.
It wasn’t until 2008 when Von’Du won her first competition, Princess of Kansas City Pridefest, that she started to realize drag was not only something she was good at but also something she could pursue as a career. “It was my first time doing a cartwheel, first time doing a full split and all this was the first time I was wearing heels!” she says. “After winning, it was like, ‘Maybe I do have something to offer in this community.’”
Von’Du continued performing, building her resume and becoming a local star. Still, she never thought about taking things further until Monique Heart, fellow Kansas City queen and one of Von’Du’s dear friends, made it onto Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show that started as a parody of other reality shows, like America’s Next Top Model, has since become a national phenomenon, winning Emmy Awards and bringing drag back into mainstream media for the first time since RuPaul’s initial success in the nineties with hit single, “Supermodel.” The show has paved the way for contestants to appear in blockbuster movies like A Star is Born and even walk the carpet at the Met Gala.
For any drag queen to make it onto the show, it means they will suddenly be pushed into a national spotlight, which makes it all the more important. Von’Du applied unsuccessfully for Season 11 and decided to change things up for her audition tape for Season 12. “In my audition tape, I stopped showing them what I thought they wanted to see, and I showed them what I would want to see,” she says. “And what I wanted to see on the show was myself.”
When she arrived on the Drag Race set in Los Angeles, Von’Du entered the backstage area, known as the Werk Room, full of confidence and with a burning desire to win.
“It was a moment I’ve always waited for,” she says. “The only thing I was nervous about was missing my mark. I was like, ‘Don’t fumble your words, don’t stumble.’” Watching the show back and seeing the reaction on her fellow competitors’ face, one of genuine fear, it’s safe to say she got the reaction she wanted.
The premiere episode of the season saw Von’Du slaying the entire multi-phase challenge. She got glowing critiques from the judges and beat eventual finalist Gigi Goode in a lip-sync to guest judge Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.”
Although this was a day of celebration for Von’Du and Kansas City, not every fan was as thrilled about her success. “I got so many hateful messages because I beat Gigi in that first lip-sync. It’s not my fault I out-danced her,” Von’Du says. “I was the last queen in the entire season to reach over one hundred thousand followers on Instagram.”
The show started right before the global pandemic, but even after the first episode, Von’Du wasn’t sparking the attention of venues. “To be quite honest, I wasn’t getting any bookings at the beginning, at all,” she says. “I got maybe a little bit to go out to LA. It was still along the lines of, ‘She’s not skinny, she’s not white, and she doesn’t have a lot of followers.’”
That’s a contentious discussion point within the Drag Race community—most of the fans aren’t showing up to support Black queens in the same way that they are for the skinny, white queens. Out of the thirty Drag Race competitors with over one million followers on Instagram, only four of them are Black. A vast majority of the rest are white. This disparity goes beyond just the drag scene, though. It mirrors the entertainment industry as a whole.
Von’Du has an emotional moment on the show where she opens about her experience of being Black and gay in Kansas City. “Like I said on the show, it’s literally a fear of mine to drive my own car up and down the street because I’m afraid that someone is gonna be pissed off someday, and that’s the last time anyone will ever see me,” she says.
Von’Du finished in seventh place—an impressive placement for a season with one of the most remarkable casts in recent memory. She finished one spot higher than her KC sister Monique Heart on Season 10.
When she came back home from filming the show, Von’Du jumped back into work as soon as she could, waiting until the show would finally air and she could reveal her big secret. “I just wanted to keep my mind off of it until it was announced,” she says. “I was ready to hit the ground running as soon as the cast was revealed.”
However, shortly after the show started airing, both the world at large and the Drag Race fandom were shocked by a pair of unforeseeable circumstances. In mid-March, after only a few episodes of the season had aired, a global pandemic shut down the nation. This prevented people from leaving their homes, which in turn shut down the bars, clubs and tours the queens would have performed in, leaving them essentially jobless.
The global pandemic wasn’t the only dampener on the season: Contestant Sherry Pie, who did well in challenges all season, was disqualified after filming when she admitted to catfishing young men by pretending to be a TV casting agent. The show had already finished filming each competition, so although producers were able to edit out all interviews, fans saw Sherry on screen in every single episode until the finale. “This is a very interesting season of Punk’d,” Von’Du says of the series of events. “I’m just waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out. The disqualification is something that’s gonna follow the season no matter what. I stopped going on [Instagram] live to paint my face because that’s all anyone would ask about.”
Despite the ongoing developments of the Sherry Pie situation and global pandemic, the pre-filmed show continued to air as planned, and Von’Du continued to excel. She performed well in almost every challenge but was not able to snag another win over the next six episodes and eventually went home after ending up being one of the bottom two contestants two episodes in a row.
Even though Von’Du didn’t win the crown or the cash prize that came along with it, she got to meet two of her idols, Nicki Minaj and Chaka Khan, while also showcasing her amazing talents as a performer to the world. Now that the show has aired and the venues where she performs are slowly reopening, Von’Du plans to take full advantage of her time on the show, with plans to release her debut album, titled THE, later this year. After over a decade of working to turn her one-time hobby into a professional career, Von’Du has finally made her way into the room, taken a seat at the table and is ready for the world to hear her voice.
“It’s not always about winning,” she says. “It’s about getting into the room and how long you stay in the room.”
GB Couture: “Gabby, or Mulan, made about ninety-five percent of all my runway looks for the show in a little under three weeks. She had to stop working to help me get ready for everything. I guarantee you none of this would be possible without her.”
Mission Taco Joint: “I always go there. If you haven’t been, you definitely should go.”
Hamburger Mary’s KC: “Cause that’s where I work at! They do pour a really good drink. I should know. They actually paid my rent while I was away filming for the show.”
Mystical Dreams Productions: “They’re who actually put together all the stuff for my digital show, Drag Survivor. He also made my audition tape for Season 12.”