By Daniel Reynolds
Originally published on Advocate.com October 01 2012 3:00 AM ET
Above: Family photos
RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Logo channel’s popular drag queen competition, is Björn Flóki’s favorite reality television show. During his study breaks from the New School’s film program, he and his boyfriend, Pitur, would curl up on the couch and marvel at the physical as well as the emotional transformations of each contestant throughout an episode.
“The energy is so positive, beautiful, and real,” says the Icelandic documentarian. “These are men dressing up as women, but through this process, we get to know them more as people. There’s a lot more heart and soul and humanity than most other shows.”
For Flóki, the crème de la femme was Tyra Sanchez — known in plainclothes circles as James William Ross IV — the season 2 champion who, despite his young age of 21, dazzled the judges with old-school grit and glamour. In Drag Race history, he is the youngest winner. He is also the only contestant to have a biological child.
His coup, however, was controversial. In the memorable and — literally — breathtaking season finale, the diademed Tyra hyperventilated onstage while the runner-up, Raven, scrawled a lipstick curse on the workroom mirror: “Keep reaching for the stars, because you’ll never be one.”
“I thought James was the most interesting and most complex character on Drag Race,” says Flóki, dismissing Raven’s assessment. “For some reason, people don’t respond to him as much as the other winners. I think it’s because he can seem abrasive on the surface, and that’s kind of what I want to dig underneath. I was intrigued that he was a parent. I wanted to know more about him.”
Enthused, Flóki visited Ross’s Facebook page and submitted a proposal for a potential documentary on gay parenting. Ross called him back. He was in.
Left: Tyra Sanchez
“He was as excited about this project as I was,” Flóki said. “He’s always wanted to tell his story in a pure way, and he’s really interested in this being as ‘real’ as possible because he didn’t think that the show depicted him exactly like he is.”
In order to raise funds for the documentary, titled Drag Dad, Flóki and Ross began a Kickstarter campaign last summer. In less than a month, they raised more than $20,000, which, incidentally, nearly matched the amount Ross received as the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 2. The sum was enough for Flóki to hire a small crew and begin filming Ross and the 7-year-old Jeremiah in their daily lives as father and son.
“This is a family structure, a family dynamic that people want to know about because it’s so much in the zeitgeist these days.” Flóki says. “Gay marriage, gay adoption, gay parenting. These are issues the nation disagrees about at this point, and it’s important that American households get an in-depth look into being a gay parent and to show that it’s not all that different from their families.
“Does a Wall Street broker make a better parent than a drag queen? I don’t think so. But I’m not making any agenda with this film. Right now, what we want to do is capture James’ and Jeremiah’s life as it is.”
The film’s trailer, which was a segment from a recent performance in New York City, begins with Ross (mostly) out of drag. A black earring dangles next to his headphones as he lip-synchs to “Schoolin’ Life,” a song by Beyoncé Knowles dedicated to those who “didn't turn out exactly how your mom and dad wanted you to be.” Ross flashes a pearl-white grin. He knows the words by heart.
“Whenever I didn’t have someone to talk to, which was pretty much all the time, I listened to Beyoncé’s music,” Ross tells The Advocate. “How do I explain this without sounding crazy? Beyoncé is like a mother to me. Her music has saved my life numerous times. She kept me going.”
Raven, Tyra and Jujubee on RuPaul's Drag Race
Throughout his teens and early 20s, Ross was homeless, in part because the birth of Jeremiah created a rift between Ross and his own parents. For years he drifted from couch to couch of sympathetic friends and family members. He borrowed cars in order to spend time with his growing son and his best friend, Jeremiah’s mother. Along the way, he discovered an unlikely profession.
“He had to start making a living,” Flóki says, “and I think that’s how the drag started: to find a means to make some money and help support his child.”
“Having Jeremiah when I was 17 saved my life,” Ross says.
His drive and dedication to his son led him to audition for, and win, the world’s most prominent drag competition. But his story doesn’t end there.
“I didn’t want to be a drag performer in a nightclub for the rest of my life,” Ross says. “I’ve always wanted to be an actor, and I thought that this was the way to get there.”
In Scandinavian languages, “Tyra” means “God of Battle.” It’s an apt name for Ross as well as for the person he adopted it from: his infant cousin, Tyra. Born prematurely, the little girl had health complications and wasn’t expected to live. But the baby fought against the odds and survived, and James was inspired to do the same.
“At the beginning, drag was a way to escape,” Ross says. “But I don’t really feel that way anymore. It’s a way to break free and become the person that I was meant to be.”
By the conclusion of the trailer, Ross has removed the black baseball cap that reads “America’s Sweetheart.” He places a wig on his head, and the transformation to Tyra is flawless, complete. As the music swells to a crescendo, an announcer’s voice booms over the loudspeakers:
“Please give a welcome to the drop-dead gorgeous diva herself, the season 2 winner of RuPaul’s motherfucking Drag Race. The one, and only: Tyra Sanchez.”
Drag Dad, a documentary film about fabulous fatherhood, is expected to be released early next year.