Sessions: Laganja Estranja's Sashay Into Cannabis Activism

Photo by Isabella Behravan

Laganja Estranja’s bungalow is a ‘70s Hollywood dream. Its walls are lined with dark wooden panels, the kind that might have served as the backdrop for some Faye Dunaway film noir scene. The whole place is meticulously arranged. The gateway to the dining room is a beaded curtain. There are crystals smattered into nooks and crannies, and, as one might expect from drag’s reigning cannabis ambassador, there is a small coffee table in the living room, sparkling with various paraphernalia.

“Here,” Laganja tells me, handing me a Bic, as she gestures toward the more ornate lighter in my hands, “That one is just for decoration.”

With her fluffy dog Dabbers by her side, Laganja has welcomed me with all the hospitality of the Southern Belle she professes to be. It’s Tuesday at noon, and Laganja aka Jay Jackson is not in drag. She is dressed in a pristine baseball cap, house slippers, and matching shorts-and-top set constructed from a cannabis leaf print. She evokes both the glamour of an old-world starlet, and the playful coolness of someone who has 600,000-plus Instagram followers, a popular international dance school, and memorable turns on multiple reality shows under their belt.

The first of those reality shows was, of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Laganja was 24 years old when she appeared on Season 6 of the cultural juggernaut. Since its inception, Drag Race has ballooned into a subculture of its own, spawning an industry of highly popular tours, appearances, and conventions featuring its former contestants, unfiltered.

“I’m rooting my heels further in cannabis and dance, because I know that’s who I am.”

Throughout her season, Laganja made an impact. She was the show’s first and only cannabis-themed queen. She was a formidable dancer, a raw nerve, and an endless well of catchphrases. Still, now, six years after appearing on the show, Laganja says that she reaps minimal benefits from her association with the franchise.

“My bookings have been low,” she tells me, “Because I didn’t go on [Drag Race’s spin-off series] All Stars, I’m not as relevant in some people’s eyes. I’ve seen it as a really great thing, though. Kind of a time to refocus.” Since leaving the show, Jay has worn many hats and wigs.

She choreographed for artists like Miley Cyrus and Brooke Candy. She recently worked with Heidi Klum on Germany’s Next Top Model. “We’ve become close, well, closer,” she says of Klum, adding with a smirk, “You’re never really close with a celebrity.” Laganja regularly gives sold out dance classes in Los Angeles, Chicago, and London, and she’s developed a signature Pride-themed edible with the vegan organic company Fruit Slabs, and she has plans in the works to unveil a line of full-spectrum CBD bath salts. Laganja Estranga portrait “I’m focusing on what I’m about: cannabis and dance,” Laganja tells me, “I’m rooting my heels further in that, because I know that’s who I am. The drag queen thing came on. I love it. It’s a part of me, but that’s not who I am. It’s my job.”

Cannabis is an integral part of Laganja’s life. It helps her with focus and mood stability, and it gets her into the zone necessary to step out onto the club stage as the leggy and unfiltered persona that is Laganja Estranga. “When I have a pair of high heels on and a nasty track, and some weed in my system…yeah,” her face lights up mischievously, “That’s when I feel it.”

Laganja also hopes that a successful cannabis brand will give her the financial security she needs to pursue the many artistic endeavors she’s drawn toward. “I call it ‘playing Twister,’” she says, of the constant maneuvering she does to market herself, develop her drag, and nurture her career as a choreographer. She feels pulled between the raunchy, larger-than-life persona that is Laganja, and the more cerebral and high-brow dance world that formed her and continues to be at the root of her creative expression.

After all, she’s a classically trained dancer who, as a teenager, won the prestigious award of Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She performed her choreography at the Kennedy Center, and met the president at the White House. Recently, she returned to the program as a mentor and artist in residence. “I was respected as an artist,” she says tearfully, of the experience, during which she had the budget to create a three-story immersive dance experience. “It was all about gender,” she says of the piece, which featured a giant tree growing red high heels to represent the fall of women. “I danced in drag, but I just did that because I’m smart. I knew people wanted to see me in drag, but eventually I won’t even be in my pieces at all. I’ll be at my house, stoned off my ass, and watching my art like everyone else.”

“We need to call out our own white privilege… Here we are getting to smoke weed, while brothers and sisters are in jail.”

Jay is an emotive and generous dancer, whose long and lean limbs have an intense fluidity to them. Even in casual conversation, she gestures not just with her hands, but with her whole body, curling into a small ball when something upsets her, or leaning generously across the chair when she’s recalling details of her intensely physical drag act. Her swooping legs and arms give the impression of one who is always stretching—a sensation that informs her professionally as well as physically: Jay “Laganja” Jackson is one person straddling two personas and multiple worlds.

“Until I have that balance of being viewed as an intellect and as an artist and creative, and not just the fabulous, sickening Laganja, it’s hard for me,” she explains, “I guess I feel like ultimately that character is…not stifling, but very pigeon-holed.” Recently, Laganja has been meditating more, a practice that has given her a stronger sense of gratitude for the role drag plays in her life. This past week, she performed every night in Los Angeles, something she hasn’t done in quite a while. Laganja Estranga full body portrait. “Instead of looking at it like, ‘I’m a loser and I have to work these local gigs to make money for chickenshit tips,’ I chose to reframe it, and be like, ‘I’m so grateful that I can reach out and get these gigs. I can’t believe I live in a place where there’s drag on a Tuesday.” Though Laganja works in multiple mediums, one constant for her is the desire to cultivate positivity and a drive toward self-improvement. “I have this message of kindness. Of love. Of cannabis. Of dance.”

“The joy that I get to bring people,” she says, “That’s why I still continue to be Laganja, and go to gay clubs and death drop and risk my knees.” For the uninitiated, a death drop is a dance move drag queens do to raise the stakes in a lip sync. It requires one to fly from standing to a half split on the ground, with one leg extended, and their torso draped backwards over their bent leg. It’s a showstopper for a reason, and Laganja is regarded as the best in the game.

“Drag has helped me be an artist, because I’ve learned makeup and hair and producing. It taught me to be more than just a choreographer,” Laganja tells me. Last year, she put her producing skills to work making a music video for her song “Look At Me.” The video is a buffet of comedy and eye candy. In it, Laganja flaunts her figure in a parade of couture looks, whipping through her choreography as she raps. It also ends with a message about the sobering statistics around racism and the prohibition of cannabis.

“I am white, and I feel—especially with the president we have—it’s my duty. We need to call out our own white privilege… Here we are getting to smoke weed, while brothers and sisters are in jail.” In her view, the world of cannabis still has a long way to go in terms of its inclusion of people of color, women, and queer people. Laganja is proud of her role as an LGBTIQ cannabis activist, especially when she considers the integral role the LGBTIQ community played in fighting for access to medicinal cannabis for AIDS and HIV patients.

“Being a drag queen, we’re known as being at the front of the line, at the front of the parade. We’re known for being those leaders at Stonewall. With me, it’s cannabis. It’s my honor and right and duty.” When she was originally conceiving the character of Laganja, Jay never saw herself becoming a cannabis advocate, per se. “It didn’t originally hit me that that’s what I was building. I chose Laganja because I was always told cannabis was a drug. When I discovered that it was good and it helped my anxiety and helped me eat and sleep, I was like, ‘I gotta tell everyone about it.’ I knew if people asked me what Laganja was, I could talk to them about cannabis and tell them my story.”

For Jay, the ability to inhabit the persona of Laganja affords her the chance to inhabit a sexy side of herself that she doesn’t feel is quite as accessible when she’s read as male-presenting. “That’s why I started drag. I don’t really feel sexy as Jay. I feel cute as a boy, or handsome, but I don’t really feel sexy until I put that leotard on with that thong and bronze my legs and have the hair.”

Gender and its dynamics are ideas that inform quite a bit of her work. “I think heels obviously were created to stifle women, to put them on a pedestal, to make it hard for them to walk. It was horrible, really, but I love that women took it back and made it this thing. They do these death-defying moves in high heels that shouldn’t be done. That’s what a woman is to me. A woman takes a challenge, and not only makes it her own, but then reclaims it. I’m convinced that’s why women are special, and why there are lots of different types of gender spectrums.”

Laganja identifies as non-binary, and believes that there is room in the world of drag for people at any place on that spectrum. “Love everyone and chill out,” she smiles, taking a graceful drag from her bong.

“Drag is an art form. It’s not a gender. Anyone can do it. You’re either fierce or you’re not. That’s why drag is cool. We can all come together and be freaks. Hello!”

Tess is a Los Angeles based writer and nationally touring comedian. She is regularly published in Vice, The Guardian, Vox, MTV News, Jezebel, and LA Weekly.