Philly queen Sapphira Cristál talks competing on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ season 16

Sapphira Cristál in the promotional image for RuPaul's Drag Race season 16
Philly queen Sapphira Cristál will compete against 13 other drag performers on the latest season of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ which premieres Friday, Jan. 5 on MTV. (Photo: Courtesy of MTV)

Sapphira Cristál was at a hotel in Asbury Park, N.J. preparing for her performance at Paradise Nightclub. This was when she received a call that she was cast on the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

However, the Philadelphia-based drag performer kept her cool during that initial call.

“I was like, stoked on the inside,” Sapphira said. “But on the outside, you would have thought that someone called me and told me that my order had been delivered from the Panda Garden”

But Sapphira’s attitude about appearing on the reality-competition series shifted when she hung up.

“I got off the phone, I put on some gospel music and I just had like a praise-dance session,” she said. “I was just like ‘Hallelujah! Thank you!’ I screamed, I jumped, I flipped over my bed.”

While there have been two “Drag Race” queens who were born and raised in Philadelphia — Willam from season four and Honey Davenport from season 11 — Sapphira is the first queen to represent the Philly drag scene.

Honey Davenport, who is good friends with Sapphira, said “that we’re gonna see a renaissance in Philly for its drag because a big worldwide eye is being put on Sapphira right now. And she’s a great person to lead the way into the future of Philly drag.”

“I grew up in Philly, and it’s such an incredible hub of really cool talent, and especially queer talent,” Honey Davenport said. “Philly is unique and different. And it hasn’t gotten its platform, like a lot of other major cities have, at least not with this show. So it’s really, really dope, because I think what the Philly drag scene brings is unique and different to any other city. And so I think that having somebody who’s an active part of this Philly drag scene — not just from Philly, like me and Willam — but like an active part of the Philly drag scene on ‘Drag Race’ is going to just bring more eyes and attention to all of the awesome queer art being created there.”

Sapphira holds several pageant crowns, including Miss’d America, an annual drag pageant held in Atlantic City, N.J. and has become well-known for her theatrical lip sync style and six-octave vocal range. The classically trained opera singer and composer initially began performing drag in Rochester, N.Y. in 2009 before eventually moving to Philadelphia and finding a community she said has been “very supportive.” Upon meeting people for the first time, she said that they’ll respond with “Oh you’re Sapphira” due to her reputation for winning competitions.

“They respect you,” Sapphira said. “They know that you’re the queen to know, or to see, or to be, in Philadelphia and so I felt very very supported by the Philly scene.”

Sapphira’s casting on “Drag Race” has been a long time coming. She first auditioned during season five and continued to audition for a total of 11 times

“I never stopped,” Sapphira said.

Each time she was given a “no,” Sapphira said it inspired her to keep improving her craft. Over the years, she has honed her skills in comedy, fashion, improv and numerous other areas.

“Auditioning is a way to catalog your drag and see where you are in that moment, so there was never a reason to not do it,” she said. “And so I just did it. Because it’s, in a way, a little bit like a lottery. It’s like, are you gonna get picked this time? Is it gonna happen? So I just was like, ‘I’m just gonna keep on doing this.’”

Sapphira, who had an upbringing in the church, also said each “no” was God telling her “you ain’t ready yet. You keep working. Keep going.” She said she put out a call to God a few years ago and said, “OK God, I want to get on the show. I know it’s going to happen. I know that all I have to do is make my request and you will make it happen. And it won’t happen in my time. It will happen in your time.”

“[I said] I don’t want to get on when I can go home first,” she said. “I want to get on when I can go all the way, or at least when I can get on there and feel good about what I’m doing. And I felt great about what I was doing. And so when I got on, I was very prepared and very happy to be there.”

Sapphira credits her five years of sobriety and overall mental health as the reasons why she was prepared to be on the show this time.

“I’m in therapy. I’m calm. I’m sober,” Sapphira said. “I was able to just be the me that was here, but there, as opposed to changing a lot of things about myself to be there. I was just me the whole time, and being able to just be present because I’m sober was just amazing.”

While Sapphira could not say too much about the upcoming season (each season of “Drag Race,” with the exception of the finale and the reunion special at the end of each season, is filmed in advance during an undisclosed timeframe), she was able to tease a few details.

“The runways are cute,” she said. “I’m very excited to see them. We don’t really get to see a lot of stuff going on. I don’t get to see myself. I just get to do it. And so I’m very excited to see how it came out.”

Additionally, season 16 will see the return of 90-minute episodes and the after-show, “Rupaul’s Drag Race: Untucked,” which features the contestants talking about the events of that episode behind the scenes.

“We’re back with the 90-minute episodes with an ‘Untucked,’” Sapphira said. “Make sure you watch ‘Untucked.’ That’s the teaser I’ll give you. Make sure you watch ‘Untucked.’”

Previous “Drag Race” contestants have blamed the producers and editors of the series for making them come across differently, often putting them into reality-TV boxes as “villains.” RuPaul even recorded a diss track entitled “Blame It On The Edit” last year to call out these former contestants.

However, when asked if she is concerned about how she will come across on the show upon airing, Sapphira simply says, “Nope.”

“I mean, it can be concerning if you’re not genuine, but I’m a very genuine person,” she said. “I believe that I was very genuine and anything I said, I said.”

Sapphira’s genuine spirit comes across as she points out the message she aims to provide to audiences.

My message that I want to spread to everyone is to truly love and accept yourself,” she said. “RuPaul says, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else.’ There’s loving yourself, but I want you to love and accept exactly who you are, whenever you are, who you are. Because then you’ll be able to get through and go to the next level because you accepted where you are.”

Sapphira paused before continuing.

“And if you don’t love you, I love you.”

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 16 premieres Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. EST on MTV. Sapphira Cristál will also host a viewing party and show with special guests Eric Jaffe, Vinchelle, Onyx Ondyx, Avery Goodname, Iris Spectre and DJ Honey Davenport. The event will be held 8 p.m. on Jan. 5 at Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia, 1009 Canal St. Visit to purchase tickets.

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