'Drag Race' Star Miss Vanjie Is More Than A Meme — She's A Reminder Of Our Resilience

by Amy Roberts

It was the sashay away heard across the internet. When Vanessa Vanjie Mateo became the first queen eliminated from RuPaul’s Drag RaceSeason 10, she did not sashay gently into that good night. Instead, Miss Vanjie shimmied ass-backwards towards the exit as though she was performing her entrance in reverse, loudly proclaiming her own name as the bold epithet upon which her rejection would rest. The response to her eccentric ejection from the competition was almost instant — Miss Vanjie went viral and inspired countless memes. She became an instant icon.

Most impressively, Vanjie also remained a dominant presence within the Drag Race workroom and on the main stage throughout Season 10, even though she’d long left the competition. Her tenacious catchphrase remained such an overbearing presence that Asia O’Hara jokingly commented in an episode, “You know who above all should be the main winner of the contest? Vanjie!” And now the infamous queen has been given a second opportunity to become exactly that. Miss Vanjie is returning for Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race for another punt at becoming America’s Next Drag Superstar.

In turning a moment of public defeat into a victorious and unintentional viral moment, Vanjie’s exit captures the spirit of modern fame and celebrity. But the Puerto Rican Barbie of the Mateo dynasty is more than just a meme. By defiantly claiming a second chance at success, the queen embodies what so many women of our generation already know to be true: There’s power to be found in owning your pitfalls and imperfections and even more in ensuring the world doesn’t forget your name in a hurry, particularly when you’ve been refused a seat at the table.

Part of Vanjie's unexpected success and appeal — and that of any woman who doggedly chooses to embrace and glorify their failures rather than shy away from them — can be explained by the art of Camp. Perfectly defined as being "the tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic" by John Waters in The Simpsons, Camp is a sensibility based around the exaggerated and theatrical which often elevates (and salvages) the sad and the terrible into something jubilant or comedic.

In her seminal essay Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag suggests that a hallmark of what Camp achieves “is to find the success in certain passionate failures.” And it does so, she suggests, often without malice or cynicism. “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.” And who says we can’t apply this same basic tenet of camp to our own everyday lives?

To experience missteps and rejections in a manner that can be generous, enjoyable, and without any judgment against ourselves is liberating. It's having the quick wit to roll out a spontaneous dance move as the finishing act to a humiliating tumble down the stairs at a party. It's ordering yourself a Sex on the Beach and applying a gutsy rouge of lipstick while your partner breaks up with you, because you're officially single again. It's throwing yourself a party to celebrate losing your job because on the upside of things, you can now stay in bed all day tomorrow if you want to.

What Vanjie's Season 10 exit represents is having the power to flip the negative into something fabulous and fun. To reclaim a devastating failure or rejection as something vital and auspicious. There's freedom to be found in proudly taking ownership of a mistake or misstep that we might have previously felt desperate to bury and forget about. Whenever we mess up, we should all be so lucky to have the chance to yell our name in stubborn defiance and truly own the moment — no matter how depressed or dejected we may feel about moving on and forward from it.

For millennial women, the act of taking ownership of our worst, most vulnerable, and heartbreaking moments as Vanjie did is something we’ve been practically raised to do by numerous cultural icons. It's Elle Woods turning a humiliating and patronizing breakup with her boyfriend into her deciding to become a lawyer in Legally Blonde (and, in the process, becoming a better lawyer than he is). It's Paris Hilton refusing to be shamed for her sex tape being leaked in 2003, and instead leveraging her notoriety to build her own business empire. It’s Britney Spears surviving her 2007 breakdown and then reaffirming her strength and grit by boldly stating “It’s Britney, b*tch” at the beginning of her provocative comeback single, “Gimme More.”

All have become rooted in Camp iconography, where success, fame, and glamour rise from those most passionate of failures in the same manner that Sontag suggested back in 1964. And all of them remind us to step up and remind the world of who we are and why we won't be shamed for our flaws or failures, even when we're at our lowest.

When she was eliminated from Drag Race, Vanjie professed to Billboard that her overall demeanor was owed to her being “depressed as hell” in the moment. As a result, her infamous exit was unplanned and subsequently meaningless, but perhaps even more memorable for having been so authentic. “I decided to give them my name, and I said ‘F*ck it. Might as well have these b*tches remember me.’ So I just started screaming at the top of my lungs ‘Miss Vanjie’ over and over … there was no f*cking meaning.”

As proved by Urban Dictionary defining Vanjie as being "the gay mating call" and an adjective "used to describe everything," Vanjie's exit and name have subsequently garnered far more meaning than the queen may have ever intended. But for some of us, to Vanjie means one thing and one thing only: Sometimes you have to sashay away ass-backwards screaming your own name in order to move forward and grab another chance at success.

Good luck, and do f*ck it up.