When Naomi Smalls first competed on season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2016, she stepped into the Werk Room long on legs but short on experience.
“I didn’t really know much about drag to be honest,” says Smalls who, at the time, had only been doing drag for three years. “I was almost like these fans at home who watch the show. I pretty much had that knowledge.”
Nonetheless, Smalls (a.k.a. Davis Heppenstall) earned her spot in the top three. Even though she didn’t take home the crown, she had massive exposure and the experience of surviving “the Olympics of drag.”
The question then became, what to do with it all?
“The show is an amazing opportunity for you to get your name out there and travel the world. But at the end of the day, you have to make it happen for yourself. And it took me about two years after Drag Race to snap into that,” Smalls says. “I was pretty much on a constant routine of [Drag Race affiliated gigs] and not having projects I was super passionate about, because it wasn’t coming from me. It was something that was assigned to me.”
In January 2019, Smalls began filming Smalls World, a dreamy docuseries taking viewers behind the curtain of both Naomi and Davis. The show had a short run, with Smalls accepting the offer to compete on season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars a few months later.
But the experience of creating something bespoke gave her a clearer vision for how she wanted to express her story and her drag.
“I finally got to step back and see what me being my authentic self can do for others,” Smalls says. “There’s a huge power behind that.”
Now Smalls is applying that power to The Smalls World Show.
Written, produced, and codirected by Smalls, The Smalls World Show is her first solo production, billed as her “most personal project to date.”
“I’m honestly so proud to have a project that I can say is 100% Naomi Smalls,” she says. “I haven’t really had a chance to do that before.”
Smalls explains how the artifice of Naomi is, in fact, authenticity and why The Smalls World Show speaks to a moment that’s bigger than drag.
“‘Naomi’ is the embodiment of everything that Davis has had to deal with”
As natural of a drag queen as Smalls has proven herself to be, she initially saw a career for herself working behind the scenes in production or art direction.
“I always saw myself being more [on the side of] making it happen,” Smalls says. “Then I got into drag and it shook me completely.”
Drag represented a melding of interests for Smalls: the hair, makeup, fashion, and, of course, performance.
“I used to do musical theater when I was a kid. I always enjoyed like dressing up and getting into the zone of being somebody else and telling a different story,” Smalls says. “There’s such power in making something out of nothing. And you really get to do that with drag.”
It also represented an elevated form of who she always saw herself as.
“I was the kid who was in high school with X tapes on my nipples and six-inch wedges and painted nails. There was something about going to the mall and people sneaking photos of me or someone yelling ‘faggot’ outside of a car that empowered me to give that middle finger to all those people and hone in on what makes me so special and what makes me so different,” Smalls says. “I will definitely say that ‘Naomi’ is the embodiment of everything that Davis has had to deal with, but instead of harping on all that negativity, turning it into something beautiful and something I’m really passionate about.”
It’s a powerful sentiment but one that Smalls is aware may not come across to some who will always see her as just a fashion girl or a look queen—but she’s in no rush to correct them.
“There is a huge stigma with anyone who’s young and confident that they’re a brat or think really highly of themselves. I do think highly of myself, but it’s much more than taking photos. It’s much more than wearing wigs,” Smalls says. “I don’t think that I really ever have had to explain myself to anyone. I almost love it when people underestimate me, because I know they’re going to be proven wrong.”
“Art direction is my passion,” Smalls continues. “Art direction is making something out of nothing. That’s when you see someone’s real talent come into play and their real ability to deliver more than just a lip-sync performance or more than just a pretty girl in a photo shoot.”
“It’s important to be a Black, confident superstar in this time”
In The Smalls World Show, Smalls is essentially taking what would be a typical drag show (a set of lip-synched performances that tells a larger story) and giving it a more cinematic feel. The fact that it’s a pre-recorded and edited show gives Smalls more control in constructing her narrative—and for her, control is key to getting the clearest window in her life.
“I got to work with an amazing team, but I am the one who envisioned everything that’s in the show and plucked everything out. I was part of the editing process, and I designed 85% of everything I’m wearing. I am such a control freak,” Smalls says. “And I think that’s how you’re going to see Naomi Smalls at her best.”
And her most vulnerable.
The Smalls World Show is filled with personal references and homages meant to give her fans a deeper look into her life. For example, her performance in the show to Lady Gaga’s “Dance in the Dark.”
“I have the best parents and they were always so supportive of every nonsensical little thing I was doing. There is a time in high school when I was blasting Lady Gaga in my headphones and I was outside on the tennis court dancing my heart out, thinking I was like completely alone. But of course my mom was watching through the window and rooting me on,” Smalls says. “I had no idea I was going to be a drag queen at that time. She had probably no idea what a drag queen even was. But she fully supported me doing that. It’s super cool to have that fully realized moment in The Smalls World Show.”
From her days strutting around the mall with X-mark tape on her nipples to realizing her passion for art direction, Smalls has always stuck to what’s true for her. And, in a way, she hopes that will translate through The Smalls World Show and reach anyone who needs to hear that message—particularly Black people.
“I wanted to paint the picture of someone who is, hopefully, being an inspiration to other people to be proud of themselves and make something happen,” Smalls says. “In this time it’s really easy to get down on yourself because the world is really going to shit. And scars are being shown that have been hiding for years. It’s important to be a Black, confident superstar in this time right now because the world is pretty much against us. And I’d like to be that inspiration for others.”
It’s only been four years since Smalls first appeared on Drag Race, but in that relatively short time, she’s gone from rookie status to fully stepping into her purpose.
“I feel like if I can get my vision out to the world, it’s an amazing step into my future plans of being more behind the scenes, being more of an art director, being more of the person who’s helping someone else’s vision come to life,” Smalls says. “Drag Race has given me an amazing platform, and I think I’ve definitely made my stamp on the Drag Race world, but there’s a whole other world out there. And I’m not going to let anything stop me from trying to get what I want.”