WordsHugo Harris  PhotographyGreg Bailey

"Pearl... like the necklace?" the hotel concierge mutters under his breath, scrolling the computer screen with the trembling concern that the two bearded men in front of him were looking for more of an hourly rated affair than a magazine interview. Meeting drag acts in their hotel rooms, it turns out, raises a few eyebrows. 

 Nonetheless, a few phone calls later and we found ourselves climbing the marbled staircase, faded from grandeur of days gone by, approaching the hotel room that contained the woman herself.

Outside, on the floor, a sorry looking burger, embalmed in solidified cheese, awaited our arrival.  A tiny bite had been taken from the soggy bun.  Sidestepping the canapés, we knocked on the door. “Helllloooo?”  A softly spoken, drawn out voice answered:  “Oh my god.  I’m soooo sorry for the burger.  Who puts cheese on a falafel burger?  Soooooo grosssss.’ It was Pearl. 

Dressed head to toe in black, she looked something otherworldly: The towering platforms, the long black gloves, the golden belt of a WWE warrior, the pearl spiked headphones, the long blonde hair, flawless makeup, all formed to make a severely beautiful creature, juxtaposed sharply against the seedy hotel room.

Realising that the falafel burger was one of the finer things about Pearl’s room, we decided to start shooting on Brighton Beach: Pearl’s first time on a beach abroad! “I grew up poor, so this is the first time I left the States.”  I asked her if she was enjoying her time in the UK, having seen the sights of London the day before.  “There just isn't enough time, I got to see a bit of London but it’s not enough, you know? And I have to get a plane to Glasgow at six am tomorrow morn-”  Mid way through conversation she was cut off: Fans, thrilled to find their pin up casually strolling the beach, had bombarded Pearl with questions of their own.  This turned out to be a mere prelude to what was yet to come, as she performed for a packed out crowd later that evening. At no point did she seem annoyed or exasperated with the popularity and that has come with her season 7 fame. 

Prior to our meeting I watched the show and formed a general opinion that she was abrupt, cutting and a bit “too cool for school.” This, in fact, couldn't be further from the truth; Pearl was actually one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of meeting.  Perhaps I was witnessing the effects of production and editing on viewers’ perspectives.  It made me think twice about one of the most successful “reality’ shows on television.

Rumours had been circling at the time of interview that Pearl had in fact won Drag Race (Violet Chachki later being crowned the actual winner) so I congratulated her.  Pearl laughed, “Thank you so much, but all three of us were filmed winning so your guess is as good as mine.”  Picture the scene:  An audience cheering three times over, Rupaul’s congratulations speech on repeat -insert name- and each of the three finalists feeling the ecstasy of winning and clutching onto the $100,000 cheque, knowing that it could all end bitter-sweet.

Bitter-sweet perhaps sums up Pearl’s experience on the show.  Remember her showdown with Rupaul? His death stare as Pearl, straight faced, asked if he had something on his face?

“You have no idea!” she exclaims when I ask her about it, “Yeah, you didn't see nothing. She laid into me for a good 25 minutes and stood there staring at me – like, anyone with a backbone would have said something back, right?” 

And what about the rumours that Rupaul had actually re-filmed his part of the verbal broil?

“She did, yeah.  She’s a cunt, but…she knows she's a cunt. O yeah, yeah, at the reunion show she came to me and kinda laughed the whole thing off.  I was, like, nervously laughing:  Haha, ummm, can I leave now? Hahaha!   It was painfully awkward, yeah. It was rude and unnecessary and no one agreed with it. The producers didn't agree with it. I just wish it didn't happen at all, you know? Because they made me look like a brat.”  She pauses and I wonder what revelations might follow, but in the next breath she shrugs off the memory with a smile: “It’s all good. It’s in the past.  It’s all good.” 

Pearl is obviously not one to dwell on the negative, preferring to put her energy into life’s pleasures.  “Pleasure,” incidentally, is also the name of her first EDM album.  “It’s named after my first drag show in Chicago,” she tells me, “Its kinda house music – dark and trance – and, yeah, I produced the whole album.” Pearl, in fact, doesn't sing on her album – a rarity, and a first for the Drag Race back catalogue.  Think more David Guetta than Madonna. 

Later, as we are ushered backstage to Pearl’s dressing room, she is given presents from adoring fans: corsets, strings of pearls and messages of love.  Pearl seems humbled by this; the diva I had imagined from watching Drag Race seems ludicrous now.  Ever the hostess, she keeps busy, making sure everyone has a drink and is well looked after. “Drink up, drink up sweeties,” she clucks.  She’s so at home in this environment it’s hard to picture her doing anything else.  I asked her, if she wasn't doing this, what would Matt James be doing? “Well, I was a barber for several years, and before that I grew up Florida.  It was pretty shit!” I had Florida down as Mickey Mouse meets the Golden Girls, but Pearl reveals that that couldn't be further from the truth. “I mean, yeah,” she explains, “Parts are like, for tourists, you know, but it was mostly trailer park trash and crocodiles.  It was…yeah, horrible.”

Staring at Pearl, who is oozing heightened 50’s glamour and fluttering flawlessly made-up lashes (“The make-up is very easy; you just need to know what you're doing. Now it’s like paint by numbers; it takes like 30 minutes.”), it’s hard to imagine her growing up in the American backwaters.  These days, she is a style queen, sporting tight blonde curls and a sheer pink dressing gown tied around a tightly corseted waist.

“My friend made me this,” Pearl explains, twirling her gown. “I wear it around my house, just because, and you kinda get use to the corset; it doesn't hurt anymore. I put on Violet’s trainer throughout the show and I could get down to 18 inches. I had to take it off after, like, 20 minutes. It was pretty intense!”    

Below, impatiently waiting to meet their queen, the crowd have started chanting, “Pearl, Pearl…”

It seems to catch her attention. “Right, is it time to go on?” Without waiting for an answer, she turns and struts down the stairs, pink chiffon billowing behind her.  She really is a treasure.  I can’t help thinking back the hotel concierge from this morning.  Yes, I reflect, Pearl is, very much, like the necklace.