The Beauty of Disabled Queerness: Willow Pill’s Win on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14, by Emma Cieslik
“Cute, Absurd, and a Touch of Ugly” — Willow Pill’s verse in RuPaul’s original song and music video “Catwalk” (episode 14, Season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race) speaks to what the Denver-based drag queen brought to the most recent season. From her “Little House on the Fairy” headdress and 1950s circle skirt to her “Rat Princess” gown to her psychedelic Green Fairy persona in the "Moulin Ru: The Rusical," Willow Pill is nothing if not unique.
Willow's victory as the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14 represents a major step forward in disability representation in the queer community, highlighting the importance of her chronic illness journey in her chaotic and wonderfully silly drag. As a queer woman living with chronic illness, I felt Willow’s performance open my eyes to the importance of seeing all parts of a lived disabled experience represented on television.
Willow enters the show speaking openly about her illness. She has cystinosis, a rare genetic disorder involving a build-up of the amino acid cystine. The disorder affects every bodily system, with the greatest impact being on the kidneys and eyes. Willow experienced kidney failure at age 14, eventually requiring a kidney transplant. Her sister Elizabeth died from cystinosis complications shortly after Willow filmed the show’s finale.
On the show, we see how cystinosis impacts Willow's hands and wrists, affecting how she applies makeup, sews, and dances. Willow also sardonically describes the effect cystinosis has on the eyes as “quite glamorous” when talking with RuPaul. As cystine levels in the eyes increase, a person with cystinosis may experience the development of crystals on the cornea, which can lead to pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light.
During the design challenge in Episode 6, we see an especially important moment of supportive, but not victimizing, assistance. In a moment of struggle, Willow turns to fellow castmate Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté, who assists with sewing while making sure Willow warms her hands on a cup of hot water. Kornbread also provides verbal reassurance and support in a moment of uncertainty. It was this “stability,” Willow explains in a cutaway, that enabled her to keep going.
In another cutaway, Willow explains the experience in a way viewers might understand, saying, “If you’ve ever been out when it is negative 40 degrees and then you go inside and you try to lace up your shoes, but your fingers just won’t do it, that’s how I feel all the time.” As someone with Raynaud’s syndrome who works in air-conditioned spaces, I relate to Willow’s frustration of wanting your hands to do something they cannot while you're under a time crunch.
Kornbread and Willow develop a close relationship throughout the show, before Kornbread sprains her ankle and can no longer continue. Kornbread’s exit profoundly affects Willow, especially given how much Willow had shared about her illness with the fellow queen. As Kornbread explained,
“I don’t think the girls in the werkroom know the extent of Willow’s issues because they
don’t talk to Willow as much as I talk to Willow. I don’t think Willow is telling them because Willow does not complain. Willow is going to get the job done regardless.”
This last portion is critical. Willow's illness is an essential component of her drag. She acknowledges that eventually her chronic illness will prohibit her from continuing, either from muscle decay or kidney issues, but she never admits that it has prohibited her from reaching her dreams, although it changes how she achieves them. It was important to me that Kornbread never downplayed Willow’s illness nor her victories nor expected acknowledgment when she won.
Willow's chronic illness, instead, serves as the inspiration for her performative journeys into the disturbing and nonsensical, best shown in her Talent Show act in Episode 1 where she throws spaghetti, wine, and finally a live toaster into a bubble bat before diving in herself. With this performance, Willow shows how physical illness can affect mental health and how having a chronic illness can play a role in suicide, depression, and anxiety, especially anxiety surrounding the body. Willow speaks to how chronic illness can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and despair, especially in those moments when the pain, nausea, and fatigue seem to drown us.
When RuPaul asks Willow where she gets her sense of humor, Willow calmly and confidently replies, “darkness.”
Willow is one of the first, if not the first, fleshed out representations of the beauty and ugliness of chronic illness I’ve seen on screen. She's the first person I've seen who allows herself to experience joy and victory while also embracing all the “darkness” that goes along with bodily and medical trauma.
Willow authentically owns that she looks frail — a major factor she used to her advantage when fellow queens underestimated her on her flip-flop werkroom reveal — but does so in a way that welcomes those around her into the experience with jokes about bad hand jobs and sickly Victorian dolls (during the Mensezes DragCon panel in Episode 9).
She also doesn’t accept that she needs to share all her experiences all the time, responding to RuPaul’s question about how she is doing in the finale with the flat but chagrin, “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
Willow Pill is everything I wanted and needed to see in a queer competition. Having just come out this past December, I remember not fitting into the queer community, especially one centered on bar culture and night life (chronic fatigue makes this difficult). Moving to a new city during the pandemic, the only social space I could participate in was going to see RuPaul’s Drag Race every Friday night with two new friends. I saved what little energy I had up for that one show, rooting for someone who made every part of myself, a queer person with chronic illness, feel valid, even the dark parts that I didn’t really acknowledge until a flare-up during the second year of the pandemic pushed me to my mental and physical limits.
Gender and sexuality, as Willow aptly notes, are also intimately tied to physical health and well-being. Season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race was groundbreaking for many reasons, namely becoming the most trans-inclusive season in Drag Race history with five trans queens: Kornbread, Kerri Colby, both of whom were out at the beginning of the show, Bosco, Jasmine Kennedie, and Willow Pill. The season also features the first heterosexual competitor, Maddy Morphosis, who highlighted the presence of straight queens in the drag community.
On March 3, 2022, while episodes were still being released, Willow opened up on Twitter about how her illness has affected her gender identity and her choice to come out, as well as how her illness affects her decision to take gender-affirming hormone therapy:
“During quarantine I started to explore my feelings about my illness and unpack a lot of medical PTSD and self-hatred. But only in the last year have I really started to realize that I’m not happy with my gender identity either. … I’m still not sure where I fit on the spectrum, for now I just say trans femme, but I also don’t have to know now. … A lot of people with illnesses and disabilities are not able to take hormones, even if they want to. Estrogen, particularly, can cause a lot of increase of side effects of the medications you’re currently on and I’m already on a lot.”
As someone with chronic illness, my sexuality was another part of myself that I began to feel ashamed about. I felt ashamed of the body I was born into, just as I felt ashamed about how my chronic illness interfered with being a twenty-something. Illness stole away late-night bar crawls, eating off brunch menus, snowball fights, and spontaneous coffee hours. All these activities are made harder, but not always impossible, by living with chronic illness, making a full season run on Drag Race, much less a season win, a testament to Willow’s perseverance.
Willow shows me that I don’t have to give up my trauma to experience moments of joy and happiness. I don’t have to compromise parts of myself to feel whole. As she explains in the finale, before voguing to “Gimme Gimme Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” by Cher in a giant pair of pants:
“I think what I’ve done on the show has resonated with people so much because what I do is just take dark and painful moments and take the piss out of them. I am here to represent people who are dealing with disability and physical illness. It is a big part of my drag. I’ve been through a shitstorm and back, and it’s made my drag funnier and more interesting.”
Willow Pill is exactly the kind of drag queen that I needed in 2022. As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are acknowledging the physical and mental toll of living and working during a global crisis, and despite the push for removing mask and vaccine mandates, a vocal minority continue to champion the rights of people with health issues who feel left behind by the able-bodied.
I have to believe that Willow Pill’s visibility as a queer disabled person on season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race invigorated this dialogue and discussions in the LGBTQIA+ community surrounding accessibility of queer spaces and including more queer disabled individuals in the places and events we create to champion love and acceptance.
Willow Pill shows us — shows me — that she could — that I could — accept all the places in which I exist with my chronic illness, in the dark moments and the happy ones, that I can ask for help without feeling guilty or indebted, that asking for help does not lessen my achievements.
Most importantly, Willow shows me that "disability" is not a disabling term, that it doesn't mean that a person with chronic illness cannot achieve something brilliant, or that my disability will serve as an addendum to my success. Although chronic illness may affect how a person achieves success, may even contribute to the inspirations from which it takes form, it does not deny the unapologetic defiance that people with chronic illness harness to make these things a reality. Willow Pill shows me that I can accept all parts of myself, the “cute, absurd, and a touch of ugly,” and for that, Willow, I am eternally grateful.
Emma Cieslik (she/her) is an emerging museum professional and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Along with curatorial research focused on queer history and identity at DC area museums, she has also worked in accessibility services at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Gallery of Art.