Open Secrets: Alyssa’s Secret, Christina Rossetti, and the Closet

June 13, 2019

The challenge was to create a commercial for a new brand of perfume. Expectations were high: not only were the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5 expected to concoct, bottle, and name their own perfumes; they were also expected to conceptualize, direct, and star in their own perfume commercials—all in full drag. Results were mixed. Alaska’s tongue-in-cheek ad for Red for Filth had Ru shrieking with laughter. Jinkx Monsoon’s ad for Delusion, less so. Of all the ads filmed that week, by far the standout was the one for Alyssa’s Secret. In it, drag superstar Alyssa Edwards sits on a throne of velvet and gold, flanked by two underwear-clad members of the Pit Crew, and teases the audience by saying, “Every woman has a secret. Mine just happens to be a little bigger.” What exactly is her secret? She refuses to say in the commercial, but later, during a confessional, she leans forward, holds for a long pause, then says, “I’m a man,” and cracks up, as if she’s just played a great trick on us. Of course her secret is her penis. How could we not see that?

Having grown up on Old Hollywood films, in which queerness is almost always hinted at rather than directly stated, the Alyssa’s Secret commercial seemed less like a confused attempt at being clever than a throwback to a time when something as obvious as a drag queen having a penis had to go unsaid, when “friend” was code for “lover” and “roommate” was code for “life-partner.” In the parlance of the closet, the “secret” Alyssa Edwards refers to is her queerness itself, the fact of her manhood hidden by the illusion of drag. She can’t tell you that because doing so would break the code. More importantly, doing so is not strictly necessary. Her secret is something we already know, an open secret that doesn’t need to be spelled out in order to be understood. Even if we, as the audience, weren’t already familiar with Alyssa Edwards, we would be able to infer this secret because of the use of the code itself, which exists only to be decoded. It’s the equivalent of Greta Garbo’s character in Queen Christina calling herself a bachelor. It’s Marlene Dietrich donning a black tuxedo and singing to a woman in Morocco. If you bothered to read between the lines, you would know. Of course, some people don’t bother, and that has resulted in a lot of art.

Take for instance Christina Rossetti’s poem “Winter: My Secret,” which adopts the same rhetorical approach as the Alyssa’s Secret commercial. In the first stanza, the speaker asks, “You want to hear it? well: / Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.” When my girlfriend introduced me to the poem, my immediate response was, “The speaker’s obviously queer.” It was as clear to me as the fact that Alyssa’s secret was her penis or that Jodie Foster is gay. And yet, in all of the scholarship I’ve found about the poem, there’s little mention of this. Academics insist on reading the secret, for instance, as a metaphor for human nature, which is further represented in the poem by unpredictable changes in the winter weather. Or they focus on the word “mask” in the second stanza and construct an argument that comes to the conclusion that the poem is about identity but then fails to take the logical next step and ask why the speaker is hiding her identity. What groups are often forced to hide essential truths about themselves in order to remain safe? Do I really need to spell it out?

There is a coyness to Rossetti’s poem that underscores how ludicrous it is to have to tell a secret like that. How obvious it should be, when she says, “I cannot ope to everyone who taps” in the second stanza, that she will only open up about it to a specific subset of people. As a member of that imagined, queer subset, I read the lines “Suppose there is no secret after all, / but only just my fun” as laughter, not just at the readers who don’t catch on but also at the concept of the open secret itself. Who doesn’t know an open secret? At the end of the poem, the speaker says, “Perhaps my secret I may say, / Or you may guess,” implying that the reader now has all the information they need to crack the code (if they didn’t already before). In the end, the speaker washes her hands of the issue, leaving readers to either understand or not, depending on their own interpretation. This adds layers of meaning to the poem that wouldn’t be present if the speaker outright said “I’m gay” or “I’m in the closet” or if Alyssa Edwards said “I’m a drag queen, and what I’m selling is the illusion of femininity.” These statements are not in themselves art, but obfuscating them can be.

In today’s world, where a show about drag queens has won multiple Emmys, it can seem unnecessary (and even antiquated) to obfuscate one’s queerness. This could be the source of the confusion surrounding Alyssa’s Secret on RuPaul’s Drag Race. While shooting the commercial, people keep asking her, “What’s your secret?” and of course she doesn’t say, because within the logic of the commercial the code cannot be revealed. But in the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a queer space where no one is in the closet long, there’s no need for codes. Queerness is accepted. Truth is embraced. “I’m a drag queen, and what I’m selling is the illusion of femininity” is not a riddle; it’s the premise. Once you accept that fact, you’re free to tell other stories, and that’s why Alaska’s Red for Filth commercial is so much more compelling as an individual work of art: it pushes the boundaries of queer storytelling. What makes the Alyssa’s Secret so memorable is simply Alyssa Edwards herself. Her personality. Her tongue pops. Her perfume commercial has resulted in a spin-off web series titled—you guessed it—Alyssa’s Secret. It does something very different from the commercial, but I highly recommend it as a work of queer art.