Michelle Visage – famed for her role as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race – is currently serving up a double dose of her special blend of glamour, personality and charisma, as she’s now strutting and shimmying across our TV screens on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing.
While her life seems a glitzy show business dream, behind the scenes, she’s been battling chronic illness for years – and it’s only in the last few months she’s starting to recover. She was tested for cancer just before she came to the UK.
“Being on Strictly is amazing, but also pretty emotional for me, because it marks my rebirth. I feel like a new person and after being ill for around 30 years, that’s something I never dreamt would happen,” reveals the 51-year-old. “This is my second chance at life and being able to live it to the full.”
Visage has had Hashimoto’s disease – where the immune system attacks the thyroid – for 20 years. She believes the disease developed due to her breast implants, which she had removed in February, in a bid to regain her health.
“My thyroid had doubled in size and I had to have a biopsy shortly before I left America. Thankfully, it wasn’t cancer. I was told it was benign on the day I came to England for Strictly, which was a really big moment,” says Visage, who first found fame during the Eighties in girl band Seduction, and competed in Celebrity Big Brother in 2015.
“I had them put in when I was 21 and started to get sick at 24. I’ve battled chronic illness because of them for the past 30 years. It takes around two years to detox from them, but now I’m starting to recover,” she says.
“I’ve suffered hair loss, weight gain, lethargy and hardcore panic attacks, but the worst was brain fog and not being able to remember things.
“I also felt like I was floating outside of my body, looking down on my body, which is weird,” she explains.
“It was so difficult to even move and nobody could tell me why, until I discovered thousands of women suffer symptoms from breast implants. Since having them removed, my thyroid’s going down in size, which is amazing.”
The mother-of-two lives in Los Angeles with with her husband, writer David Case, and their daughters, Lillie, 19, and Lola, 17.
Visage, who recently won the 2019 Specsavers Celebrity Spectacle Wearer of the Year award (in aid of Kidscape) opens up about being the ‘underdog’ in Strictly, her hopes to inspire those over 50, and how she’s supported her daughters through depression.
How are you enjoying Strictly?
“I absolutely love it, but it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, as I’m not a dancer. After years of ill health, I’m not used to what my body is doing, all this moving is new and I panic sometimes.
“I’m 51 and nothing is as bendy – knees, shoulders, back – as it was when I was 20.
“It’s a gift to be on it and I’m giving it my all. It’s an opportunity to challenge myself and my body, and hopefully show my daughters and women over 50 you’re never too old to learn something new and push yourself to the limit.”
How do you get on with your Strictly professional partner, Giovanni Pernice?
“I felt an instant connection with him. I prayed before I met him I would get him, because he’s perfect – the right height and personality and we have the same dark colouring, so we look like a good pair.
“We’re both Virgo star signs, both Italian, so put us together and it’s like explosions and disagreements, because that’s just the way we work. But he’s somebody who can handle me, and let me handle them without getting upset.
“He lets me make fun of him. I’ve jokingly told him, my husband and his partner Ashley (Roberts, the former Pussycat Dolls singer) that I’m Gio’s ‘bitch’ and I just have to do as I’m told by him!”
“We understand each other now and want to be the best we can. At the end of each day, we hug and thank each other for the work we’ve done. All I care about is not letting him down.”
What do you think about the so-called ‘curse’ of Strictly?
“It’s a crazy question. I’m not going into this looking for an affair and neither is Gio. I’ve been married for 22 years – it was love at first sight when my husband and I met, and I have no interest in messing around.
“My husband’s an amazing stay-at-home dad and holding the fort while I’m not there. You have to be a strong man to do the work of a woman. If I learn some sexy dance moves, I’ll give my him some lessons – he’s king of dad dancing.
“Gio and Ashley are so happy and sweet together. After all, they met when she competed last year and are one of the many happy couples that have come out of Strictly – I wouldn’t call that a curse.”
Do you think you could win Strictly?
“It’s a little presumptuous to even think of that. There’s far to go. I’d love to make it to the final, but I’m all about living in the moment.
“Also, every American who comes on the show has to know they’re definitely an underdog, as lots of people won’t know who we are. That doesn’t mean they can’t like me, but I have to tell them who I am; a mom of 51 who was in a girl group as a teenager, who’s still a singer, and a radio DJ and a judge on a few TV shows.
“Although I’m a proud American, I don’t like the current regime in charge. I have a flat here and when I come, I literally feel I’ve come home.”
What does your friendship with RuPaul mean to you?
“We’re soul mates on a friendship level, have been best friends for 30 years and together on Drag Race for 10 years. He’s my rock, like my other husband, and I look up to him.
“It’s so exciting creating a quintessentially British version of Drag Race here. The contestants, drag humour, the wit, the chat and grittiness – the fabulousness is what you could see in any gay bar from here to Blackpool.”
How important is motherhood to you?
“It’s everything. My daughters and I are very close. They’re brilliant, strong, independent kids, but have both battled depression in the past. As parents, we didn’t know how to deal with it, so it was very hard. In the end, we found it was a chemical imbalance and they needed medication.
“Lillie’s had quite a journey exploring her identity. She likes girls and identifies as queer. She’s flying the nest soon and I’ll be devastated to see her go, but I’m super-proud of her living her truth.”
How do you look after your wellbeing?
“I’m a steady Betty, I don’t do ups and downs. I don’t like getting myself into a tizzy any more. I stay calm, deal with things as they come, and see a therapist regularly and meditate.
“I had an eating disorder at 13 which lasted until I was 24. It’s so tough to hate the skin you’re in. Anyone who has had an eating disorder knows it will linger, it lives inside you, but I know I can’t ever let it out again.
“While I still battle with my body image, those days are long gone, but it makes looking after my mental health super-important. Exercise in the gym, having at least eight hours sleep a night, and a good diet – gluten free and vegan – all play a part.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
“RuPaul told me once ‘stop taking life so seriously’. It’s about living life and enjoying it. Of course, there are moments which aren’t going to be fun, but nothing bad lasts forever. Age brings lines, but also wisdom.
“I’m not afraid of hard work and I take that very seriously, but not myself. Aiming for happiness and having a sense of humour is key.”
Michelle Visage won the Specsavers’ 2019 Celebrity Spectacle Wearer of the Year award, in support of Kidscape. For more information visit loveglasses.specsavers.co.uk/kidscape