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Jujubee’s fierce optimism is what we all need right now

2020 was the biggest year yet for the breakout star of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ but it wasn’t easy. Here’s what got her through.

Jujubee prepares for a better year ahead.
Jujubee prepares for a better year ahead.Eric Magnussen for the Boston Globe

Her Christmas tree is still up, and it will be for a while.

At Jujubee’s place in Boston’s Chinatown, the twinkling lights — in front of a wall of cat-themed art — are a commitment to the power of hope.

After a horrible 2020, and at the start of a new year that promises better days, we must hold on to any good vibes we can. That’s something Jujubee knows to be true.

“I’ve just learned to take things as they come, even though they’re not the things that I want to happen right then and there,” explains Airline Inthyrath, the man behind Boston’s breakout drag queen, via Zoom on a recent winter afternoon. “Keeping myself calm, and being accepting of things as they are, really helps me as a human.”

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This outlook has also helped Inthyrath maintain sobriety, in a year of stress and heartbreak that has proven difficult for everyone, but perhaps especially so for people in recovery. “Being sober through this is hard,” he says.

Hope in the face of adversity. Humor. Joy. This is what Jujubee represents to so many of her devoted fans. Inthyrath is someone who works to pull himself through the worst of it, all while staying optimistic and maintaining his ability to laugh. “I have to be like my own angel,” he says, curled up with one of his cats, Mister. (The other is Priss, after Daryl Hannah’s character in Blade Runner.) “And I have to be the person who talks myself out of trouble.”

2020 was a year of confusing dissonance for the local-turned-national performer, best known for appearing on Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2010, and then again on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars in seasons 1 and 5, in 2012 and 2020. Jujubee is the only performer on the reality competition to place in the top three on all of her seasons.

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On television, Jujubee quickly became a fan favorite. Her memorable performances include dramatic drag lip-syncs of Alannah Myles’s “Black Velvet” and Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” She was also known for singing on the show — as opposed to just lip-syncing; fans got to hear her perform her own song “Don’t Wanna Love” on All Stars Season 5.

The fifth season of the popular All Stars reality competition aired on VH-1 in June, a few months into the pandemic. That meant Jujubee was in an animal-print jumpsuit lip-syncing Lizzo’s “Juice” on TV — earning social media accolades from fans stuck at home — while " Inthyrath was also holed up in his Boston apartment, watching along with them. Jujubee’s star shined again on the TLC makeover show Dragnificent!, which aired its first season in April and May with her as a co-host.

“I’ve just learned to take things as they come, even though they’re not the things that I want to happen right then and there,” explains Airline Inthyrath, the man behind Boston’s breakout drag queen, Jujubee.
“I’ve just learned to take things as they come, even though they’re not the things that I want to happen right then and there,” explains Airline Inthyrath, the man behind Jujubee.Eric Magnussen for the Boston Globe

Then there was the music — the part of his career Inthyrath longs to grow. Jujubee released two EPs in 2020, in June and July — original songs co-written and recorded before the start of the pandemic. Inthyrath thought he’d be touring for much of the year, but that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that he stayed home and waited. As Jujubee’s fans saw more of her onscreen, the world has been closed and Inthyrath has been isolated from much of his community. He did a lot of Zooming and learned to accept a slower pace and the upside of technology.

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“You know, my grandma’s in her eighties, so I’m not trying to go over to chill with her right now before we have anything that’s gonna protect us,” he says. He now connects with her over video chats. “My grandma spoke to her sister through FaceTime, and her sister is in Laos. The technology is here for us.”

Inthyrath also began depending on long walks through the city, enjoying Boston on the most basic level, appreciating every corner. “Those walks I take — I don’t always want to do it, but I know that I have to because it allows me that moment to be with myself,” he says. “Those walks specifically are almost little prayers or meditation. I think meditation and praying are the same exact thing. You know, I can do both.”

Inthyrath says that taking a moment, however you can, to allow for a tiny bit of happiness, makes it easier to get by.

He knows because it’s something he’s been doing his whole life.

Airline Inthyrath, the man behind Jujubee, at home with cats Mister and Priss.
Airline Inthyrath at home with cats Mister and Priss.Eric Magnussen for the Boston Globe

Inthyrath, who is 36, was born at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton. He lived in Allston with his family, and then they moved to California for a blip after a family fight. There was often emotional turbulence in his immediate family, he recalls; conflict was the norm.

After they returned to Massachusetts, Inthyrath went to schools in Lowell, including Lowell High School, where he felt at home and accepted as a gay young man. “I guess I was, like, ‘the gay kid,’ but there was more than just me, you know? Because Lowell High is so full of different kinds of people,” he says. “That’s what I thought was so special about it, because even though there were cliques, there was always this sense of community.”

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Inthyrath says he was mostly a straight-A student, despite the turbulence of his teen years. He didn’t miss a day of school until he was 15 and his father died of cancer. Around that same time, Inthyrath’s mother left the family. Inthyrath and his two siblings went to live with different people; Inthyrath stayed with an aunt until he started college. “For me it was just normal,” he says. “And then in college, I stayed with friends until I was able to just work and get my own place and have roommates.”

College, from 2002 to 2006, was theater education at UMass Amherst. After graduation, Inthyrath moved back to Boston. That’s where he found drag, at Axis, a club on Lansdowne in the space that’s now the House of Blues. Axis was also where Inthyrath found his chosen family — and Jujubee.

08/12/2010   BOSTON, MA     Jujubee performs on stage in front of the crowd at Estate in Boston.    (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Jujubee performs on stage at Estate in Boston in 2010.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

“When drag wasn’t so in the forefront of mainstream media . . . it was home,” Inthyrath says. “You go to Axis and you see everybody. Even if you don’t know them personally, they’re family.”

Axis held a drag competition at the end of each month. Inthyrath competed many times, under his given name. Time and again, he didn’t win — until one day, he did, and his drag persona received her name, too.

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“They announced that Jujubee was the winner, and I was like, Well, I don’t remember there being a Jujubee,” Inthyrath recalls. “I was named, the night I won, by my drag mother. Her name is Karisma Geneva Jackson-Tae.” (“That’s a lot of names,” he adds, laughing.)

Jujubee had arrived.

Jujubee bundled up for the long winter.
Jujubee bundled up for the long winter.Eric Magnussen for the Boston Globe

Inthyrath was in his mid-20s when he auditioned for the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and made the cut. The Boston drag scene was small and lesser known back then, but in getting recognized for his talent by World of Wonder, the production company that makes Drag Race, Inthyrath learned what drag really meant to him.

The more he performed as Jujubee, the more he figured out how to be more authentically himself. He was able to travel the world with the show, seeing more communities, meeting new people. “It’s the strangest thing for me to actually verbalize: that I had to put on a mask to see my truest self,” he says.

He also acknowledged that for a long time, he’d been drinking too much. At first, he thought that drag was to blame — the night life and escapism. But he’s learned over the years that the drag piece of it wasn’t the problem, although it did reveal something deeper.

“I think when you’re in drag, it’s armor, and it’s like you’re in your cape and you feel like a superhero . . . . But then that’s when your weaknesses could also show up the most,” Inthyrath says. “A lot of my weaknesses were the fact that I couldn’t stop drinking and I couldn’t stop thinking like an alcoholic. Even if I didn’t have a drink in my hand, I was still an alcoholic-brained person.”

In 2017, he began what he considers a lifelong journey of maintaining sobriety. As he puts it, he “found the willingness to be willing.” That work continues.

Inthyrath now channels his life experiences into original music. The songs on Jujubee’s EPs include “Don’t Wanna Love,” a heartbreak anthem, and “Need Ya,” a peppy confession about how scary it is to have real feelings for someone, and how sometimes it’s easier just to flirt and crush. “I don’t wanna need ya. I don’t wanna need anybody,” Jujubee sings.

The most meaningful song for these times might be one Inthyrath co-wrote after lockdown and recorded for the 2020 holiday season. “Together Alone” is about connecting from afar. The video was filmed in Inthyrath’s Chinatown apartment, featuring him out of drag, in loungewear, and also onstage as Jujubee in all of her glamor.

Ryan Aceto, one of Jujubee’s managers and the head of her record label, says this kind of earnest transparency has always been part of Jujubee, in the world of drag and beyond. Drag is over-the-top, sometimes hilarious performance, but Jujubee also has something to say. “I think she kind of lives in the space of, ‘I’m in on the joke, I get that we’re doing something funny, but also let’s have a heart-to-heart’.”

Drag Queens Bebe Zahara Benet, from left, Alexis Michelle, Jujubee and Thorgy Thor appear at the TLC's "Dragnificent!" during the Discovery Network TCA 2020 Winter Press Tour at the Langham Huntington on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Jujubee (second from right) at a January 2020 press tour for "Dragnificent!," the TLC makeover show she co-hosts.Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Aaron Aiken, one of the co-writers of Jujubee’s music (Inthyrath also works with Tony Ni Evans, whom he credits for getting him into making original music), says when he collaborates with anyone, the first challenge is to get an artist to be transparent about who they are and what they’re willing to share about their real selves. But with Jujubee, there was absolute authenticity from the start.

“Inevitably, being in the drag space it’s a tough world to be in, because while there is this massive fandom, there are still plenty of haters,” says Aiken, who also produced “Together Alone” and both of Jujubee’s EPs. “I think it’s really just so admirable to see that Juju is able to dig into the sad stuff and make it something that people can empathize with. She’s very in tune with her own story and obviously it’s taken many, many years, but I think that’s still such a rare thing to see.”

Now, with COVID vaccines on the way, bringing hope of togetherness once again, Inthyrath, like so many, is thinking about possibilities. He knows what he wants, which is to get back to live performances. “I want to be able to finally sing my [new] songs in front of an audience,” he says. “I want to feel nervous before I go out onstage. That’s what I live for.”

But he has other 2021 goals that are more modest, and more local. They’re about not taking anything here for granted ever again. It might be a surprise to some Jujubee fans, but more than anything, he really wants to go to the Topsfield Fair.

“OK, now I’m gonna manifest this for us,” Inthyrath says with a laugh, willing a better future into view. “I’m gonna manifest us going to the Topsfield Fair and having fried dough and a freakin’ corn dog. I’ve never gone!” When he and his boyfriend went apple picking last fall at Connors Farm in Danvers, “I was like, Isn’t the fair near here?

“Next year we’re going to do it. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. And I just . . . I just,” he stops himself to let out a wistful sigh, “. . . I just want to wait in line.”

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Meredith Goldstein is a Globe staff writer and the advice columnist of the Love Letters column and podcast. She can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@globe.com.