The next drag superstar — according to RuPaul — is a West Chester native.
Last month, Aquaria, 21, was crowned the winner of the 10th season of VH1's RuPaul's Drag Race, the crème de la crème of all drag competitions (and the only one on TV). Not only does the winning queen relish the coveted title of Next Drag Superstar, she also cashes in $100,000 in prize money, and receives a year's supply of Anastasia Beverly Hills makeup, a slew of new social media followers, and major dollars made in merchandise sales.
Aquaria, who is known as Giovanni Palandrani off-stage, beat out her competition in front of 723,000 live viewers and introduced fans to her stabilizing force, Gina and David Palandrani. Surrounded by a family that's both small and loving, Palandrani had no shortage of support growing up in quiet West Chester, which unfortunately isn't always the case for young queer kids.
Through most of the season, Aquaria was a front-runner. Her gaudy ensembles, quick-witted nature, and the perfect amount of sass kept Aquaria safe from elimination. Her impersonation of first lady Melania Trump during the show's reoccurring "Snatch Game" challenge was both accurate and fanciful in its styling and mannerisms and is arguably one of the season's highlights. It's also clear that Aquaria had the upper hand with showmanship. Her training in dance and theater shined in the way she approached the catwalk to show off her looks. Aquaria's prowess was meticulous and controlled during challenges, which ultimately led her to victory.
For Giovanni, drag performance was an instinctive progression from the interests he developed as a child. He says he's had an affection for the many different aspects of art, most notably theater and performance art for as long as he could remember.
"I've always been inspired by fashion and makeup and styling, so to put those things together in the most homosexual way possible, drag seemed to be the best platform for that," Palandrani said in a manner that was in jest and reflected a confidence he learned from his parents.
David, who owns Wimpy's Original in Media, and Gina, a payroll manager for a home health-care agency, sensed their son's fondness for performing when he was a toddler. David and Gina describe a younger Giovanni as ambitious and determined, saying he taught himself everything, "from ABC's on up."
David said that, as parents and as a family, they didn't have a choice nor did they concern themselves with interfering in Giovanni's interest and career path. Both parents believe the events that led the family to this point were a natural progression.
"We knew Giovanni was gay from … forever," said David. "That's not to say we didn't have questions about [queer life] or Giovanni's choice to put on makeup. We're just not the kind of people that would force someone to do something that they don't want to do or hold him back."
Gina decided to "let it be."
"We knew that [Giovanni] would be fabulous at anything he tried. If he tried to play the piano, he figured it out and could [eventually] play a Lady Gaga song. With all his talents, we knew he would succeed in whatever he did and for us, for me in particular, [Giovanni] is my son," Gina said. "Whether he's a chef and cooking up a storm or en route to being a lawyer, [drag] is his passion."
Although Giovanni's parents didn't have a thorough knowledge of drag culture, they threw their support behind their son, who had blossomed into the formidable Aquaria.
Gina recalled the first time she saw her son as Aquaria and explained how impressed she was. "You can't deny that it's art and it's beautiful," she said with a mother's tenderness. Giovanni confirms his parents' supportive nature, explaining that they pushed him toward excellence in whatever he applied himself to.
"Drag was no different," Giovanni asserts.
Giovanni is fond of the memories he made coming of age in West Chester. Despite having few friends, Giovanni managed to find fun wherever they could. "I would always love to drive around [in West Chester], I remember driving around with my best friend Asia. We would drive to Target, to the mall, to wherever and listen to ridiculous music and just have a blast."
Eventually, West Chester became too small for the drag-gantic aspirations of Aquaria, and he moved to New York City to attend FIT. While a student, Giovanni carved out space for himself in the New York drag community. Consequently, Aquaria's reputation preceded her: Other contestants on her season of Drag Race were familiar with Aquaria's work and knew they had to step it up if they planned to compete against her.
Giovanni fully understands that other drag-hopefuls may not have the unwavering support that his family provided. Fellow contestant Dusty Ray Bottoms revealed in an early episode that she was rejected by her family after coming out as gay, and was even sent to conversion therapy as a "remedy," while others spoke about keeping their drag personas a secret from their families, despite appearing on TV. Sadly, these types of stories are common in the queer experience, but families like the Palandranis serve as a testament to what can be achieved with bountiful support.
Giovanni hopes to use his platform to inspire other young queens to dig deep and live their most heightened lives. He believes that drag can be the gateway to finding inner strength and courage and is all about "faking it until you make it."