A look back at Philly’s Crown Jewel, Sapphira Cristál

Sapphira Cristál performs a lip sync of Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers’ ‘Encourage Yourself’ during a private viewing party of the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ season 16 finale at Edge at Hudson Yards.
Sapphira Cristál performs a lip sync of Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers’ ‘Encourage Yourself’ during a private viewing party of the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ season 16 finale at Edge at Hudson Yards in New York City. (Photo: Jeremy Rodriguez)

Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season 16 finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

A day before the season 16 finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” aired on MTV, contestant Sapphira Cristál spoke during a Philadelphia City Council meeting, where the Philadelphia resident was honored with a resolution declaring April 19 as “Philly’s Crown Jewel Day.” 

“We will find out what happens tomorrow — but I know in my heart of hearts, I’m a winner, baby,” Cristál said. 

Cristál did not take home the top prize during the April 19 season finale but she did win Miss Congeniality — an annual award given to the kindest queen of the season — alongside fellow contestant Xunami Muse in the first-ever tie in “Drag Race” “herstory.”

“Mmm, it pays to be nice!” Cristál said during the televised season 16 finale.

Nymphia Wind — who bested Cristál during a lip sync performance of Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” — was crowned during a private event at Edge at Hudson Yards in New York City on April 19 following a screening of the season 16 finale. The final three contestants — Cristál, Plane Jane and Nymphia Wind — were all in attendance during the event hosted by Jimbo, the winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season eight.

After the screening, the three finalists came on stage to deliver remarks, which you can watch over on Instagram at @phillygaynews.

“Congratulations to my sweet sweet sweet sweet friend Nymphia Wind. I’m so…I’m so stoked that this is finally fucking over,” Cristál joked. “And I’m really stoked that now you’re gonna actually all be able to see what it is to be invited to the Cristál ball. Thank you so much. Now you all know who I am and we are going to turn it out for the rest of our life, honey!”

The crowd cheered in response.

Toward the end of the evening, Cristál performed a lip sync of Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers’ “Encourage Yourself” during the ceremony. She also gave one final statement before stepping off the stage.

“We in this world need a lot more love, kindness and compassion and I think if there’s one thing that I can do, it’s to spread love, kindness and compassion,” Cristál said, to which audience members shouted in approval. “But to do so, you have to have those things for yourself. So everyone please take one hand and wave it at me and take your other hand. Now wave those hands and put them around yourselves and repeat these words: ‘I truly love and accept myself.’”

Audience members obliged to Cristál’s request before she delivered some final words of affirmation.

“Remember, no matter what anyone has to say to you or about you, to always truly love who you are, where you are, how you are, when you are because the person you were yesterday got you to who you are today and the person you are today will take you to your dreams,” she said. “Thank you so very much. Have a nice night.”

Fans can watch the full lip sync and Cristál’s remarks over on Instagram at @phillygaynews.

The Season 16 Finale

After performing her new single “DANCE!” during the televised competition, Cristál answered a few questions from host RuPaul.

“The world needs to know that drag queens are just here to spread love and to entertain and if you’re afraid of drag, then you are afraid of freedom,” Cristál said when prompted about what the world needs to know about drag.

She was also asked what she would say to the four-year-old version of herself.

“You are full of love and it’s something that you need to never lose,” she said. “The evil that’s going to come to you, it’s really just going to be there to teach you a lesson and you have parents who love you, who are going to instill things in you to make you always believe that you are a star.”

The Road to Drag Race

Sapphira Cristál in the promotional image for RuPaul's Drag Race season 16
Sapphira Cristál in a promotional image for ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ season 16. (Photo: Courtesy of MTV)

Cristál was the first queen to represent Philadelphia in the reality-competition series (The show has featured two queens who were born and raised in Philadelphia — Willam from season four and Honey Davenport from season 11 — but Cristál is the first queen to represent the Philly drag scene).

Cristál began performing drag in Rochester, N.Y. in 2009 before eventually moving to Philadelphia and meeting a hub of talent that helped her complete her runway looks for the season. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that nearly a dozen members of Philadelphia’s drag community helped design her attire.

“Sapphira made it very clear to us that she wanted this to be a celebration of artists in Philadelphia,” Iris Spectre — a local drag queen and designer who was tapped to work with Cristál — told the Inquirer.

During her run on “Drag Race,” Cristál achieved numerous accolades. This included making “herstory” when she was the first contestant to win three consecutive maxi challenges in a flagship “Drag Race” season. The wins were for episode 10 (“Power” Rumix challenge), episode 11 (comedy/presentation challenge) and episode 12 (“Bathroom Hunties” design challenge). She also won the challenge during the first episode of the season via the talent show, where she showcased her skills as an opera singer with the piece “O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s 1918 opera “Gianni Schicchi.” A studio version of the song was released alongside the episode.

Cristál also returned home several times throughout the season for events, including a viewing party at Brooklyn Bowl during the season 16 premiere and a sold-out show last month at Theatre of Living Arts alongside fellow contestant Mirage.

The queen’s eventual run on “Drag Race” was a long time coming. Cristál auditioned a total of 11 times since season five. At the beginning of the season, she told PGN about how she kept herself motivated each time she was given a “no” from the show. She said it was God telling her “you ain’t ready yet. You keep working. Keep going.” 

“[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.”

Cristál also credited 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,” Cristál told PGN at the time. “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.”

Philly’s Crown Jewel Day

Sapphira Cristál stands with City Council members and LGBTQ+ community leaders after a ceremony celebrating the drag queen with a resolution to mark a day in her honor.
Sapphira Cristál stands with City Council members and LGBTQ+ community leaders after a ceremony celebrating the drag queen with a resolution to mark a day in her honor. (Photo: Courtesy of Chris Mansfield)

On April 18, Philadelphia City Council declared April 19 as “Philly’s Crown Jewel Day” with a resolution celebrating Cristál as a “walking, talking miracle,” highlighting her many feats and talents.

Councilmember Nicolas O’Rourke noted that Cristál is “already the winner in and of the hearts of Philadelphians,” in his opening remarks.

“Now, I don’t want to dampen the mood here — but I do want to remind all of us that there is a very serious aspect to these festivities and celebrating today. We are also honoring Black queer resistance,” he continued before speaking O’Shae Sibley’s name into the record. Sibley, a Philadanco dancer, was killed in a homophobic attack while voguing with friends at a gas station in New York.

“We’re here to recognize and celebrate LGBTQIA resistance and affirm our neighbors for living out loud, being who they were born to be, and looking pretty damn good at doing it,” O’Rourke continued. “And who does that better than Philly’s Crown Jewel? I can think of no other and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that the nation agrees.”

“Let us continue to support and uplift Black voices and Black LGBTQ people in our community — both on and off the stage,” said Councilmember Rue Landau.

“As the first LGBTQ+ person elected to City Council, it’s been a privilege to be able to help lift up the voices of so many amazing members of Philadelphia’s Black LGBTQ+ community, and I wholeheartedly believe that Sapphira Cristál’s triumphs remind us of the importance of embracing one’s authentic self without reservation,” Landau later told PGN.

“We should celebrate Sapphira tomorrow, throughout the summer, and for 365 days of the year of every year going forward,” said Tyrell Brown, executive director of galaei. “And that also means celebrating not just the performance. It’s not just about celebrating the beauty. It’s also about celebrating the people, who we are, when all of that is stripped away — who we exactly are as community members, neighbors, friends, family.”

Brown addressed Cristál directly during the meeting

“You are the embodiment of authenticity,” they said. “Your heart — what you bring to the stage — isn’t just a performance. It’s who you are in here that inspires so many people.”

Fans stood at the back of the historic gathering space in City Hall holding signs that declared Cristál a queen — snapping and cheering as councilmembers (who wore colorful boas to mark the occasion) and LGBTQ+ city leaders spoke about her accomplishments. They shouted, “Grease the poles!” as Cristál spoke about the upcoming “Drag Race” finale.

She shared about her experiences in other cities and the struggles she endured along her way to Philly — including family stress and homelessness.

“But when I got to Philadelphia, it was the first time I felt like I was back home,” she said.

“When I moved here, it was the queerest place I’ve ever lived in my entire life,” she continued. “It allowed me to be who I am. And I thank you all on this council. It is easy to be you when you just feel comfortable.”

“I lived in P-town — Provincetown, the gayest city in America, but when I got here it was like, ‘Wow — I’ve never seen so much freedom.’ This is the true home of the free,” she emphasized. “We as drag artists are representations of freedom. We get to be whoever we want to be whenever we want to be.”

Cristál closed her speech with a similar message as the one she gave during the crowning ceremony in New York. She put out a call for each person present and those watching the livestream to wrap their arms around themselves in an act of self-love. She asked everyone to say, “I truly love and accept myself.”

“This is my mantra every single day because it is easier to show love, kindness and compassion to the rest of the world when you truly love and accept [yourself],” she said.

Sapphira Cristál fans stand at the back of a City Council meeting
Fans of Sapphira Cristál showed their support for the ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ contestant during a City Council ceremony. (Photo: Courtesy of Chris Mansfield)
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