Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag race saw many a queen become well know and popular, but little did people know that being featured on only one episode would lead to so much. Nebraska Thunderf**k AKA Mackenzie Claude was Alaska’s drag sister and since the show aired, he now has his own shows in the clubs in Las Vegas, and is going from strength to strength on social media. I spent time talking to him on Skype from his Las Vegas home, and I learned a great deal about him, and what a genuine soul he is.
What was your reaction when you were approached by RuPaul’s Drag Race to take part in an episode?
Yes, of course , jumped at the chance to be on the show, However I had never watched the show before, so I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. I just know that opportunities like that don’t happen every day, so I was very excited. As you clearly saw on the show, I’d never done drag before, so it was quite the experience.
How was the show for you? And what’s it like working with Alaska?
First off let me say, filming the show was a lot of fun, and it was very rewarding for me, personally and in my modelling career. However at the time we were filming the show, it was terrifying and very intimidating. Coming off a military assignment in Morocco a month earlier, which is a very testosterone driven environment into the Workroom of RuPaul’s Drag race… it couldn’t have been more polar opposites. I felt maybe I had made a mistake. I say that because I went there representing the military and I didn’t know how that was going to be portrayed in the final product.
They did a great job, but at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was going to be like and I was nervous what the people in my unit, or the people that I served with were going to think. Alaska was incredible to work with. She made me feel very comfortable. When we were talking and getting to know each other, I look over and see she has a fake pink AK-47 and I was like “What is that? Why do you have it, and how can we use it?” So she came up with the bank robbers theme and we spray painted them black, and got to walk the runway with guns. I felt right at home!
You were part of the former military personnel episode. What interesting experiences did you had while serving?
Well I enlisted under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so I was open in my personal life, but when I joined the military I was advised to go back into the closet and I did. This was going to be a career that I was embarking on and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my hard work and my commitment. With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, if the wrong person found out that you were gay, or suspected you of being homosexual, they could present that to the chain of command and there would be an investigation that would take place. You could be discharged from the military simply for being homosexual. So imagine that not everyone is comfortable with homosexuality. I was completely in the closet for the first 2 years and it was very challenging because I would be in class or in the hall and I would hear conversations that would take place. All these people were from all over the United States, from all walks of life, brought together with a common goal, but they still have their opinions.
I remember one incident, there was this red-headed Raggedy Ann looking girl, speaking about gay people and how they are only gay because they can’t get someone of the opposite sex, and she was telling people like this was the truth. I’m a person who stands up for himself and what is right, but at the time I couldn’t say anything and that was very challenging and hurtful. After a couple of years serving with these people in the Marines I learned something, that the Marines don’t give a f*** if you’re gay or straight, they just care that you do your job right. I was a good medic, so eventually, I was able to open up to them. We have a lot of downtime in the military, so we pass it by sharing stories and they were fascinated by mine. They had so many questions and were so open and welcoming. The military was a very positive experience for me. But I’m not from a military family, I was in foster care, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to join the military. I needed some sort of foundation, I needed direction, you know, those things that parents provide.
What sort of child were you, and where did you grow up?
I was well behaved, I was creative, I was resilient, and you have to be in that situation. My childhood was very sad and it’s still difficult for me to discuss. I’ve learned to take that sadness and anger that I felt and I’ve used that now to drive me towards success. I’ve tried to turn my negative into a positive. If anything, I’ve learned what not to do in life, and I’ve learned who not to be in life because I was surrounded by those types of people that you didn’t want to be, you didn’t want to be around. I feel that drives me to be successful, and be a good person. I hope that with my platform that I’m getting now, that I can encourage others to do the same who maybe come from a broken home like I did or from foster care like I was. There can be a lot of times where you don’t feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you feel trapped and despondent. I just want other people in that situation to know that THERE IS a light at the end of the tunnel, and if I can make it to that light, then they can as well. If I can be successful coming from those circumstances, they can and WILL as well.
You moved from military service to modelling. How did that come about?
Well I’ve always wanted to be a model since I was little and I’ve always been very tall. Most people have parents who tell you you can be whatever you want to be, I had a social worker who said “find and keep a job, and make money and survive”, so modelling didn’t seem very practical to me. It ended up becoming a dream put on the back burner. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get to that, and that’s why the military became my number one priority. Through the military they provided me with financial stability and a foundation to pursue my dreams. I was able to take what I had saved with the military and move to LA and try out modelling. I guess one of the blessings of being a foster child, and not having a family as such, is not having anyone to answer to. You can truly make decisions and just go with them, there’s no strings attached. I simply packed my stuff in my car and went out to see if I could become a model. It wasn’t smooth sailing I hit a lot of dead ends in LA. Nothing ever works out how we plan, right? I ended up going to Vegas and that is where everything fell into place, and I’ve been so blessed and thankful
Your modelling portfolio is extensive! What photo shoots or catwalk shows have been most fun to work on?
Recently I opened a runway show during LA Fashion Week for the designer Perry Meek, who is Lady Gaga’s costume designer. I opened and closed his show which as a model is a very big deal, I was like “Check that off my bucket list”. Working for Marco Marco was an honour, because he includes a lot of Drag Queens, but I got to walk as a male model. My favourite photo shoot I did was for the cover of Las Vegas Weekly, which is one of the biggest publications in Las Vegas. It’s in every hotel, and Casino which was exciting. Around the same time I did a billboard campaign for the AFAN black and white party which was on seven digital billboards around Las Vegas and on the strip. Talk about a dream becoming reality. When I was younger, I would never have thought these things were possible, and now here I am looking up at myself on a billboard in Sin City.
What persuaded you to continue with Nebraska Thunderf**k after Drag Race?
There was a number of factors, one being my partner Derrick Barry. We did Drag Con in May where he was one of the special guests. He had a booth set up and I was helping work the line, I was telling people about some of his merchandise that was for sale, and there were a lot of people that were asking “Where have I seen you before?…Oh my god it’s Nebraska”. Derrick and I were shocked because I wasn’t in drag, and I hadn’t done drag since Drag Race, which was the one and only time. So based off of the reaction at Drag Con, Derrick encouraged me to pursue it. He has helped me immensely with developing my character. It has also been such a shock to me with the references to Pamela Anderson, and every performance there’s people who come up to me and say I should do this look of Pamela or that look of Pamela, which is the coolest compliment. We’ve been putting together different ideas and concepts of looks that she’s done and I’ve just started debuting some of those. We want to do Barb Wire and Baywatch, there’s a lot of fun things that are coming up. One of the other factors was the fans. After the show I wasn’t expecting that kind of online response. For the past two years I have received messages and tweets from fans of the show asking to see Nebraska again. It’s surreal to go from the first half of my life feeling unloved and unwanted to having love from people all over the world.
How much of yourself is in Nebraska? Does your military background make her a bit of a bad ass?
Absolutely it does. I definitely think Nebraska is one part Alaska, one part Derrick Barry and the rest is all my personality. It’s been fun taking parts of my experiences, and my personality and infusing that into Nebraska. I like that I get to make her pretty, but I’m not afraid to get dirty. That’s the military in me, you get dirty. I feel there’s a lot of drag queens that look beautiful, but they won’t don’t dance and they don’t sweat. I’m not afraid to do those things. I love incorporating my military background because it is such a profound part of my life. That’s a theme you’re going to see consistently throughout. I am enjoying the fans reaction to the evolution. It’s fun when people repost the photos or leave comments. It makes me so happy reading that stuff, it makes me happy to have a positive impact on other people’s lives.
What do you love about doing drag?
I think that I like drag because it’s helped me find my creativity again. RuPaul’s Drag Race helped me rediscover this creativity that was robbed from me as a child. Let me explain something to you. As a child being creative got me attention, and attention got me consequences. So you learn to blend in, to not stand out. It’s a lesson that becomes ingrained that stays with you, and it’s hard to break, but doing Rupaul’s Drag Race, and being around such creative individuals completely left a positive impression on me. I think with Nebraska and creating that character, it helped me find my creativity again that I lost a long time ago
Not many people may know, that you’re actually in what you affectionately call “a trouple” with Britney Spears impersonator and drag queen, Derrick Barry and artist Nick San Pedro. What would you say to people who question this or who are new to the idea?
Well knowledge is power, so I’d love to encourage people to get information before they cast judgement. My partners and I are in a committed trinogamous relationship, and what that means is there’s three of us. There’s never a forth, it’s not an open relationship, it’s just like any other traditional relationship except there’s an extra person. We’ve been together now for almost 4 years, Derrick and Nick have been together for almost 9. So just like any other relationship, we’re a team, we live together, we are interdependent, we sleep in the same bed. I think with this kind of equation, people have misconceptions like we have an open relationship or we invite a fourth and that’s not the case, that’s not our reality. Honestly, I’m too territorial for that. Most of the people that we know are 100% supportive, they know us together, they see how it works, they understand it. If they didn’t at first, being around us now they love it, they see we’re like Ying, Yang and…Yang. But if someone has a problem with it, it being my happiness, that doesn’t bother me. They should take a look at their own situation and focus their energy on their own happiness and their own relationships. At the end of the day I only answer to two people and their names are Derrick and Nick. As I said, I spent the first part of my life feeling unloved and unwanted, I went to sleep like that and I woke up like that. Now I’m at a point in my life where I wake up and I have double the love and affection. It’s like life is making up for lost time.
Any advice for aspiring models or drag queens you can offer?
Absolutely, if this is something they really want to do, they need to commit 110%. What I mean by that is I wanted to become a model so I packed everything I owned into my car, tied up all my loose ends and drove to LA and made it happen. I didn’t just half ass it, I dived in 110%. I feel like when there is risk there is a reward, so I would encourage them to commit to their craft entirely. If you want to be a model, move somewhere there’s a lot of agencies, print your photos and physically walk them into agencies and ask to be seen. I got a lot of being told no at first but then I got told yes, and it leads to billboards and then magazine covers. If you want to be a drag queen, make friends with one of your local queens. Watch them get ready, watch the process, ask them questions, watch their performances and learn everything that you can from that queen, because there is so much work that goes into it. If you don’t have a local queen watch YouTube tutorials!
What is your life’s motto?
“Ride or Die”. I feel that everything I commit to I’m ride or die about, so for example with the military that was my number one priority, my number one commitment, and I gave everything. That’s what I did with modelling and now that’s what I am doing with Nebraska now. I value respect, loyalty and committing 110%.
Who are your role models?
One of them is Janet Jackson, I grew up watching her. During my tumultuous childhood, her music was an escape for me. The Velvet Rope in particular, helped me through a lot of sad days and nights. I admire that she was always so sweet to people and so nice when she spoke to the fans and I really love that about her. She always changed up her look which fascinated me. She always pushed the envelope and she danced. I try to incorporate those elements to Nebraska. Another role model I have is Janice Dickinson. I read her book No Lifeguard on Duty and connected with her story. She came from a very challenging childhood and I related to that. It’s encouraging to see that through those circumstances she was still able to find success. That has stayed with me, and that is a story I look up to.
What does the future hold for you? Do you plan to continue both modelling and Nebraska?
The future holds both for me. I want to merge Nebraska with my modelling career. I see a way to do it, I’m visualising it and it’s just a matter of making it happen. You know, I actually got my first magazine cover because of Drag Race. It was Qvegas Magazine and the headline was “Mackenzie Claude, RuPaul’s Stallion Soldier”. So in a way, the show has already helped launch my modelling career just from that cameo. Now I am ready to take it to the next level.
Would you apply to do Season 9 of Drag Race?
If I feel that I am ready, then, of course, I would apply for the show. I’m extremely competitive, it’s the military in me. I’ve always been a fighter. I started with nothing and have fought for EVERYTHING that I have today. I’m very passionate about life, so if anyone were to stand in my way between where I am and what I want, I’m not afraid to move them.
Mackenzie’s final thought
Through my journey, I want to encourage and uplift others. I want all the people out there reading this that is going through a difficult time, or trapped in that broken home, or navigating foster care to be empowered. They need to hear that it WILL GET BETTER. When I was in that situation I needed so badly for someone to say that to me and unfortunately, I never heard it. So you know what, I am going to be that voice for somebody else because I know first hand how important it is.
This interview first appeared in Issue 19
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