What does life after a transplant look like for RuPauls Drag Race contestant Willow Pill?
Willow Pill is a drag superstar who got her start in Denver, Colorado, before moving to Chicago, Illinois, where she currently resides. As a fan of drag, Willow is currently living the dream as a drag performer herself, and you may recognize her adorable, twisted and quirky drag from season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But here’s something you might not know about Willow: she’s also a transplant recipient. Diagnosed with cystinosis, a rare, genetic disease categorized by abnormal buildup of the amino acid cystine, Willow always knew she would one day need a kidney transplant. Cystinosis can result in a buildup of crystals, which might result in blockages in the eyes, affecting the liver, and causing myopathy and muscular atrophy in the body.
At 13, Willow reached the point of kidney failure. As her family began testing to determine who would be the best match, Willow began hemodialysis. After a year of dialysis, Willow’s brother was determined to be the best match, and she received a kidney transplant from him in March of 2010.
A few years later, Willow began her drag career by performing in a student drag show at the age of 21. Drag is an outlet for the queer and transgender community, and Willow is no exception. However, what she didn’t realize going into drag was how much it would help her express not only her queerness, but her health issues, as well.
“When you’re young, you don’t realize the effect this will all have on you,” Willow said, referencing her lifelong experiences in the medical world. “You don’t realize the medical PTSD that’s there.”
Having battled illness her entire life, Willow came to terms with the fact that her life would never be “normal.”
“You end up grieving yourself,” Willow said when I asked her about how growing up with a genetic illness changed her. “You’re stuck between being alive and being dead.”
Drag helped her come to terms with her illness and transplant status. Even more so than being queer, her drag has been shaped by her experiences of loss and death. In a life marked by so much pain, from illness to transplant surgery, familial death to contending with being queer, drag became essential.
“It tethered me to being alive, to something that had so much joy and life in it,” Willow said.
Just watch a Willow Pill show and you’ll see her ability to turn trauma into something enjoyable to watch. She said she’s always had a gift for finding humor in awful things in order to reclaim her power.
Willow is now thriving as a transplant recipient. Despite bumps in the road, there have been no major complications and Willow and her medical team are hopeful for her future.
I asked Willow what she wanted to share with our community, and she was quick to say that life won’t look like the movies. But means of joy and celebration should, and can, still exist. The old dream of life is gone, but there is confidence and joy living outside of what that dream was. That’s why Willow is such an advocate about living life post-transplant. She wants others to know that thriving with your diagnosis is possible, and that life is meant to be celebrated.
We always knew this queen had a little bit of a sparkle in her eyes. You can find Willow Pill on this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, streaming now on VH1, on instagram @willowpillqueen or on her website willowpill.com.