RuPaul may not know Whitney Manney’s name, but the “Drag Race” host is now acquainted with the Kansas City fashion designer’s work, she said.
The owner of the KC-based WHITNEYMANNEY label had the “wild experience” of designing and constructing the trans-pride, “Troop Beverly Hills”-inspired entrance look for Monica Beverly Hillz for Season 8 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” she shared. The season premiered May 12 on Paramount+.
“It’s just like, ‘Wow, she’s in something I made in front of RuPaul,’” she said. “RuPaul don’t know nothing about me and that’s fine, but seven degrees of separation.”
The collaboration is a dream come true for Manney, who is a long-time fan of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and all the spin-offs.
“I have a genuine love for the show — like a deep reverence, honestly,” she explained. “So this opportunity meant so much to me.”
Manney — who served as a wardrobe assistant for the NFL Network during the recent Draft in Kansas City — said she swings between being incredibly excited about the “Drag Race” experience to trying to remain calm.
“I’m a small part of this incredibly huge thing,” she explained. “I don’t want to talk about it too much because I don’t want to get on people’s nerves. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘It’s Drag Race.’ This is my second TV placement. Last year was ‘Bel Air’ and then to have Drag Race this year, too. It makes sense that this is happening, but also this is not normal. I’m gonna need to pop my shit a little bit. This is kind of cool. … I can be right here in my city and I can make it happen.”
It all started with a phone call in late May last year from Merrique Jenson — who is the director of the regional POC trans advocacy group Transformations, which sponsored the look — about a different pride project they were working on, Manney noted.
“Toward the end of the conversation, she is like, ‘Hey, I have this other project going on,’” Manney recalled. “‘I’m managing a performer and she’s about to go on a show that involves drag and a runway.’ Because she can’t really say, but I, of course, put two and two together.”
“So I’m on the phone, trying to be cool,” she continued. “My assistant was here and I’m writing furiously on a Post-it note, ‘Drag Race costume, Drag Race costume.’”
Manney said she was even more excited to learn that the entrance look would be for Monica Beverly Hillz, who she considers Drag Race royalty and who made history during Season 5 of Drag Race when she announced her truth as a transgender woman.
“I was really honored to be a part of her reintroduction because she stepped away from drag,” she explained. “I think she didn’t start back up until maybe a year or two before All-Stars. So it’s cool to be able to be a part of that story.”
Beverly Hills bedazzled
Monica’s entrance look was inspired by the 1989 cult classic “Troop Beverly Hills,” which isn’t new to the drag runway.
“Other drag queens have done iterations of that and really super exact ones,” Manney added. “So we wanted to do something different. But they’re like, ‘It just needs to be pink and blue’ (colors of the Trans Pride flag).”
The look included a cape and sash that were hand-dyed and painted, a hand-beaded beret with her initials, a purse that looked like a box of cookies, and custom nails made by her cousin, Manney said.
When she saw the finished look on the preview, Manney was a little overcritical, she said. But that all changed once she saw it on premier night.
“I saw it on a bigger screen instead of my phone and it was actually in HD — because the YouTube video was like 1985 quality,” she explained. “But once I could see everything you could see the light hit the hand-beading on the beret and you could see the lining just swooshing, the bag looks cute and the rhinestones on the patches look good.
“Everything was hitting and I’m like, ‘I thought of that.’ That really went from one random phone call to some scribbles to the work room. That’s crazy.”
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Manney also designed and constructed a second look for Monica for the Executive Realness category in the reality show. That look included a red suit with ostrich feathers, a purse with a $200,000 (the show’s prize money) bill with Monica’s face on it, earrings, and hand-painted shoes.
“I’ve never made a suit in my life,” she said. “I was really nervous about it.”
“I had to dye the feathers because, when they got here, they were like Elmo red,” she continued. “And we need it to look a little bit better. But it’s got nice piping and gold buttons and details. Iit turned out really beautifully. So hopefully we’ll see it in some capacity.”
The look also featured a bedazzled throwback brick, flip phone, Manny noted, that she happened to find on Mercari, the Japanese e-commerce marketplace with globe-spanning connections.
“Shout out to that person in San Diego that had a random Motorola to send to me,” she added.
From Manney’s phone call with Jenson right before Memorial Day; to her June 2 meeting with Monica’s image curator, Aaron Gray; to her June 13 fitting at her studio with Monica; to her June 23 ship date, she had about three weeks to complete the two looks. She spent several nights at her studio, taking cat naps on the cutting table, and made it FedEx about 15 minutes before it closed on shipping day, Manney said.
“It was a whirlwind,” she recalled. “I was at my mom and daddy’s house — we had a Juneteenth/Father’s Day cookout — I’m in their basement rhinestoning and coming up for breaks to say hi to everybody and have a rib or two and go back. … I don’t think I have ever rhinestoned as much as I have until this project.”
She also mentioned that she couldn’t have done it all without her team of Cyndi Stanford, Maret Cissner, Jordan Gomez, Michelle Chan, and Sean Sturdivant.
How do I top this?
Manney shared that she has gotten positive feedback from Monica — who she is hoping to collaborate with to make merch and who will be wearing the entrance look again in a pride parade with Transformations this summer in KC.
“It’s great to build a relationship,” she continued. “It’s been on my goal list forever to work with a performer of some sort. I don’t sing or dance or anything like that, but just to be able to see your work in that capacity, I think is just something so interesting to me. And the fact that it’s somebody that I was watching on TV in college, and to work with a person that’s a part of this incredible franchise, it’s like, ‘I can do it. Beyonce next.’”
The post-premiere reviews for the “Troop Beverly Hills” look have also been positive, Manney mentioned.
“Seeing her on the TV screen in it and just knowing that millions and millions of people also saw it,” she added, “and nobody dragged me about it on Twitter. Because that’s what I was really worried about that.”
Manney was especially excited to hear good reviews from her favorite Drag Show-related podcast Sibling Rivalry — with Bob the Drag Queen and Monét X Change — and from the Pit Stop, the official after show hosted by Bianca Del Rio, she said.
“As long as they felt like it looked good because Bianca Del Rio does not hold back,” Manney noted. “So I was like, ‘Cool, I’m in the good.’ Anybody else got something to say, I don’t care. Drag Race queens enjoyed it and loved it.”
“I don’t know how I even top what just happened,” she continued. “But it’ll happen. Everything flows naturally.”
Manney — a Kansas City native and graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute — shared that opportunities like this help to be more confident and fearless and allow her to invest more in her studio and hire more people.
“It’s another notch in the belt, to be honest,” she explained. “I had an instructor a couple of years ago talk about reputation capital and that’s always stuck with me. Reputation, capital can be the strongest currency you have. And I am in such a special place right now, just as an artist and as a business owner.
“Being a part of opportunities that are national — even international to a certain extent — just puts my name out there. As much as I am plugged into the city and am keen on being Kansas City based, it’s important that people outside of the city of Kansas City know who I am.”