At the start of 2019, Jackie Cox was holding down a job in Midtown, doing cabaret at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, on the drag circuit in Hell’s Kitchen, “and then I got the call from mama Ru.”
Jackie was in quarantine at home in Hell’s Kitchen as her fame spread virally around the world. At the height of the pandemic, she was locked down in her apartment. ”It felt almost like pretend,” she says. “I just thought, ‘How am I suddenly extremely famous, but just sitting on my couch?’.”
Jackie got picked for RuPaul’s Drag Race (season 12): “It was my first audition, and I wanted just to see what would happen. Since then, it’s been an amazing ride.
“We filmed Drag Race last summer on the west coast. That’s a long time ago. For the first 10 or 12 weeks of quarantine, we were live on TV every Friday night. Then my week revolved around engaging with fans on social media. So I was just really spending a lot of time on my couch!”
Her journey to fame has deep local roots. “My first drag experience was in 2010 at New World Stages.” She told us: “I took part in Paige Turner’s show So You Think You Can Drag’.”
In 2013, Jackie moved to the neighborhood, and has been here ever since, “in the same little Hell’s Kitchen walk up” with her partner, make-up artist Kasey Spickard.
“Hell’s Kitchen is a home for queer artists and queer people living in the city. It’s a safe space, which I think is something that sadly you still can’t find everywhere.”
“After seven years, I feel that I know the real Hell’s Kitchen — which is just full of so many amazing, interesting people. I wave hello to my friends from nightlife or from the theater world on 9th Ave. It’s an amazing neighborhood feeling. It really has all different types of people, but certainly is a home for queer artists and queer people living in the city. It’s a safe space, which I think is something that sadly you still can’t find everywhere.”
We first met Jackie when she was performing with the Hell’s Kitchenettes. Mabel Syrup is full of fun, waitress sarcasm, and sexiness. She’s keen to go back: “All performances are on hold at the moment, but when things start back up, I’d love to put a Hell’s Kitchenettes show back together.”
Back to RuPaul’s Drag Race fame — and the pandemic. Usually Drag Race girls are flying all over the country, if not the world. “Pride would have been a time where I would have had no time to talk to anyone.” Jackie reflects, “Corporate sponsors want a drag queen front and center, either on their float or in their campaign.”
“In some ways it made it a better Pride, because we were actually going back to the roots of what Pride is. It’s not really about day drinking and margaritas.”
That didn’t happen this year, but Jackie can find a positive in everything. “It’s sad that this year, that wasn’t the case, but I took that time to join the protests. I joined the Queer Liberation March on Sunday. It was powerful to see our entire queer community standing up for Black lives and especially for Black trans lives.These are really underserved communities who are also part of Hell’s Kitchen, who are part of our nightlife, and part of the people working here in this community.
“In some ways it made it a better Pride, because we were actually going back to the roots of what Pride is. It’s not really about day drinking and margaritas. It should be about showing the world that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going anywhere, whether that’s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City or the world.”
Now that Jackie’s leaving the apartment, she’s getting more of the celebrity treatment. “Every time I leave the house, even with a mask on, sometimes even with a hat on, people will say, ‘Wait, are you Jackie Cox?’ And I’ll end up doing a selfie with them. Sometimes, though, they won’t even say hi to me, they’ll just tweet about it: ‘I just saw Jackie Cox at the Amish Market!’”
And celebrities along the way? “Ariana Grande tagged me in a story, so I went to her Instagram account and it said: “Follow Back.” Who am I not to follow Ariana Grande? Take away my gay card right now!”
She also made a reality show hit. Jackie did an impersonation of Lisa Rinna from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for the Snatch game and Lisa loved it.
One of Jackie’s turning points in the show was getting feedback from Whoopi Goldberg. ”She gave me amazing advice. This is stuff I will remember forever.” Jackie learned form the advice: “You are enough entertainment as you are.”
“The thing about drag as an art form is that whatever your passion is, the storytelling or the aesthetic, you can focus in on that part. What’s exciting about Drag Race as a competition is that it pushes you into other arenas of drag that you weren’t always as comfortable with.”
Jackie recalls how she found out so much about herself through the experience. “For example, I don’t consider myself an amazing dancer, but we definitely had to dance on television. We had to really push ourselves in every possible direction. We had to do makeovers with young superfans who were very excited to meet us.”
Back home, Jackie is worried about Hell’s Kitchen. “Since the season’s ended, and as New York has moved into phase two and now phase three, I’ve definitely gone out a bit more — still keeping a safe social distance, but definitely wanting to support my local businesses. I am worried about the neighborhood coming out of the pandemic. I hope that it can bounce back, but it’s definitely a precarious time.
“We’re all learning how to function in this society with a pandemic still raging on. I hope that Hell’s Kitchen can muscle through.”
She also shares our concerns about Broadway: “It’s been on hiatus for so long. It was such a big part of our community, whether it’s the performers, technicians, or the stagehands who live in the neighborhood, or all the amazing income that our neighborhood businesses generate from the pre and post dinner theater crowds. Those are definitely things that are hot on my list of worries for our little neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. But New York is very resilient. It’s a city that’s made it through a lot and I know it’ll come back, but I am worried for some of my favorite places.”
Jackie’s been supporting local businesses. “My birthday was April 10, right at the height of the pandemic, but Kasey and I got a takeaway from Añejo. We had one friend who was still living in the neighborhood and we waved across the street to each other. And that was my birthday, but at least I was happy to support a local business.
“I’ve had some margaritas from Arriba Ariba and ‘Ritas. I try not to be too precious. So when I’m with friends, we’ll try a new place that’s opened up. Everyone’s been making delicious new takes on the frozen margarita. So I have to let myself be a bit of a connoisseur of all of them.” Watch out for a future Top 10 margaritas of Hell’s Kitchen!
Jackie takes her fame and privilege seriously. “It’s not something I take lightly. Now with this huge platform on social media, I do feel it’s a responsibility. If I have 200,000 people looking at a silly TikTok video, I can balance some of that content with actually informative stuff about what’s happening in the world … certainly what’s happening in New York City.
“I’ve been really focusing my energy the last few months on #BlackLivesMatter as well as getting young people and queer people registered to vote. They are two huge things I’ve been working on.”
“Drag has become mainstream but it’s important for me to keep anchoring it back to a queer message. Back when I started, there were a lot of things about drag that I didn’t even know were possible. I didn’t know that I could be as political as I am now or actually change people. Both for me as a performer and the audience, it can be really powerful. Drag can open hearts and minds.”
So what’s next for this amazingly talented queen? “Let me tell you at this point I can’t say no to anything. Since the show’s wrap-up, I’ve done my own cabaret in quarantine (and worked with Jan from the season — she’s another Hell’s Kitchen queen). I also got cast in two different readings of plays. One was a drag role, one was a non drag role. So whoever is casting, I’m available and have a ring light …”