San Francisco is finally back in the race.
In this case, the competition is not Bay to Breakers but RuPaul’s Drag Race — a televised reality series in which drag queens compete for figurative glory and a very real $100,000 check. Since the show first aired in 2009, it has brought new attention to the art of drag and made veritable superstars out of contestants like Trixie Mattel and Bianca Del Rio.
To the surprise of many, however, the appearance of newcomer Rock M. Sakura on the show’s 12th season will represent only the second time a San Francisco queen has been granted a shot at the Drag Race crown. Despite the rich legacy of drag in San Francisco, the only local competitor prior to Sakura was the wonderful Honey Mahogany, who appeared on the fifth season of the series back in 2013.
Now San Francisco will have another shot thanks to Sakura. Much like her namesake (a play on Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots), Sakura is bright and bold. Much of that stems from her makeup and fashion of choice, which often pays homage to anime as well as the musical genres of K-Pop and J-Pop.
Before she’ll chat about her own career, however, Sakura opens the conversation with words of support for Mahogany, her spiritual successor.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from people in San Francisco,” she says of the response since her role on Drag Race was announced in January. “But I also often get comments like ‘do better than Honey.’ Those comments sadden me a little bit because Drag Race is a reality television show and Honey does so much for our community. She fights for local LGBTQA+ rights, so for anyone to value her based on her Drag Race performance is just silly.”
Speaking with Sakura, her reverence for Bay Area queens like Mahogany (who indeed works tirelessly to support local civic issues close to her heart) as well as WooWoo Monroe and Heklina, is palpable. Before Sakura met either though, she was first inspired to seriously give drag a try after watching the sixth season of Drag Race in 2014.
Before long, she was performing on Wednesday nights at a small club in Mountain View near the NASA Ames Research Center. It was a gig that regularly attracted between two and three people.
“It was not a show to really take seriously,” Sakura says, “which is important when you’re just starting to do drag. It’s even more important when you’re dedicated to an aesthetic that’s not mainstream. I was able to do all my Japanese songs there and do my aesthetic there and get praised for it, even when it was really crunchy.”
The following year, her drag career took its next step forward when WooWoo Monroe agreed to become Sakura’s drag mother. As a result, Sakura began performing at “WooWoo’s CIRQ-US” — Monroe’s monthly show at Renegades in San Jose.
By fostering an atmosphere that encouraged experimentation, Sakura says Monroe provided her with an invaluable freedom to hone her colorful, mesmerizing looks and whip-smart stage banter. Far from pigeonholing drag into any discernible shape or size, Monroe celebrates the unconventional. Thus, at any given “CIRQ-US” show, one might encounter fire-swallowing or a girl going full-on Gallagher by smashing watermelons with a mallet. One evening, Sakura found herself breakdancing in soap.
Though Sakura’s act relies much more on video projections than suds or flames (“I like to pay the people I work with, and I can never afford to pay backup dancers” she quips), she credits every weird, wild moment she’s experienced at Monroe’s shows with building her confidence as well as her profile.
“WooWoo really fosters this good, loving drag scene,” Sakura says. “She just encourages you to really up your performance and to entertain the audience in whatever shape that takes.”
Along Sakura’s path to the Drag Race stage, there have also been major obstacles.
One arrived three years into her drag career, when Sakura split with her partner of a decade. Finding herself standing on the street with only a bag of clothes in her hand, she decided her only option was to leave San Jose for San Francisco in hopes of making it as a drag queen.
“It was basically like ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac,” Sakura says. “I had built so much in my life around this one person, that, the minute it was over, I really had nothing. I took everything I had and decided to move to San Francisco.”
It worked. For the past two years, Sakura has lived in a converted nunnery in the Lower Haight with 23 other artists. She’s also become a regular at “The Monster Show,” the Castro’s longest running drag show. Despite these successes, however, it’s “Mother” — the recently-concluded drag showcase hosted by caustic local legend Heklina — that Sakura believes may have ultimately secured her spot on Drag Race.
Though “Mother” came to an end earlier this month (Heklina is also in the process of selling her stake in the show’s host club, Oasis), Sakura speaks glowingly of the opportunities she’s had to perform at the seminal drag showcase that ran for five years.
“The ‘Mother’ stage is one of the best stages for drag that we have in California — at least in the city, for sure,” Sakura says. “I’m a visual artist. I do illustration and animation. I also do video editing, and ‘Mother’ lets you do projection work. The thing that got me on to Drag Race for sure was the amount of times I’ve been booked for ‘Mother’ and worked with Heklina and so many other San Francisco staples in that world.”
The admiration is apparently mutual.
“Rock is one of the sweetest queens around,” says Sue Casa, who will welcome Sakura to headline “Poptart” — the new successor to “Mother” at Oasis, co-hosted by Casa and D’Arcy Drollinger — on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 10 p.m. “She’s a creative idiot, which is one of the highest compliments I can give. I’m very excited to see her as one of the many weirdos that could represent S.F.”
Having fully paid her dues to the queens that have helped her along the way, Sakura is now poised to take on the task of bringing home a Drag Race crown to the city of San Francisco. She’s also excited by the prospect of introducing fans to a queen who doesn’t just dabble in anime or K-Pop but truly lives it.
“I breathe J-Pop, anime, and K-Pop every day,” Sakura says. “It’s like ingrained in my blood.”
Now, only RuPaul (and an impressive list of guest judges) will decide if her combination of tenacity, taste, and experience working alongside Bay Area drag royalty is worthy of the crown.
Season 12 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” premieres on Friday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.