What a drag it is being Bianca
Queen bee Bianca Del Rio opens up ahead of her performances in South Africa this weekend
We first got to know you from Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. How much has life changed since you won?
Well my entire life has changed. Television is a very powerful platform. I knew the show was popular among the gays in the US, but I had no idea how many fans the show has all over the world and how many straight people are fans of the show. I’m beyond grateful for the doors it has opened for me. Let’s face it if it wasn’t for Drag Race, you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now.
You’re from Louisiana. How did you end up in New York?
I was living in New Orleans and working, doing five nights a week for 10 years in a bar, and doing costumes and wigs and stuff there for the opera and the ballet. And then the hurricane hit, and we weren’t allowed back into the city at the time. I didn’t experience any trouble, I didn’t lose anything or anything on that level, but we weren’t allowed back. So I visited some friends in Atlanta, and I had a friend in New York who said: “Why don’t you come up here and kill some time and figure things out?” So I came to New York, and I decided if I can get an apartment and get a job then I’ll stay. And within three weeks, I did and that was it. I was ready for a change. I was 30, and I felt that what I was doing in New Orleans was great, but it was like the golden handcuffs. Nothing would have shifted. I would probably have stayed and continued doing it. I was getting paid well and treated well, but I thought, You know what, let me try something else. And the energy just felt right when I got to New York. I thought, Well, shit or get off the pot.
So the city is home now?
I always say New Orleans is my heart. It’s where I’m from. I go back, and I have a huge fondness for it. But New York is where I’m based now. I’ve been here nine years!
How did you become Bianca?
I was in theatre doing shows, and there was a gay wedding happening in New Orleans, and they needed a drag queen to do a number. I had never done it at the time, although I did have the makings of a drag queen—sewing and wigs and all that kind of magic. I was kind of pooh-poohing the idea going: “Nah, I don’t want to do it.” But then they said it was $500 and I said yes. [Laughs] Some people who were at the wedding worked at the local bar and they asked me if I wanted to do a guest spot, and that just kind of snowballed into my life. First it was one night a week, then it was two nights a week and then it became five nights a week. It was this insane process, and this whole time I was always working in costumes during the day and it’s been this balancing act for a long time. And both career choices could go up at any time. You have good moments and bad moments. It’s not like they’re stable gigs, the theatre and drag, so I always did both to kind of round out my life. It’s worked out well.You’re known for your quick tongue. Who is on your level in terms of being prepared with the comebacks?
There’s so many people. But I have to say, for me, one of my favourite moments ever was doing In Bed With Joan Rivers. I had this opportunity with her, and then I killed her. That’s what happens when I get in bed with a woman. She dies! Seventeen minutes was supposed to be the cap on the interview, and we did an hour of us cackling and talking shit about everyone. I remember saying something hateful and watching her laughing and putting her head down, and I’m thinking to myself, That’s magic. Nothing compares to that—no amount of money, no love, no boyfriend. To have Joan Rivers go: “I can’t!”
For decades, drag has been very transgressive. Do you think Drag Race is a bit more sanitised than, say, club performances that are often very raw?
It’s television. The show is like boot camp, we film it back to back, it’s pretty intense. It’s like five weeks of my life that happened in a blur and you don’t realise what’s going on and you’re not privy to information about other contestants. The whole time I was filming I had no idea what was happening. You’re in the moment. It’s pretty raw and insane in that sense.Then you go away for nine months and it starts airing, and then you start to see the narrative and understand what’s going on with everyone else. We were secluded and could only speak to one another on camera, so it can mess with your head, which is why people go crazy. For me, getting to do Not Today Bianca is not as raw and dirty as my stage show but you also have to be true to what you do. So I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and do my standup act, which is crazier than some people would expect. But there’s a time and a place for that.I think it’s great that Drag Race is mainstream. Eighty percent of the show, we’re out of drag, so the audience sees us as human beings and realises it’s not about gender identity. It’s us being people who happen to wear wigs for a living. I think for many people, they think that being in drag means you want to be a girl. Being trans and doing drag is completely different.
Do you miss the small club intimacy?There’s a bar here in New York called the Ritz that hired me and took care of me for many, many years. You’d have four people or you’d have a hundred show up. They were very good to me and paid me no matter what. Once I won Drag Race I came back and told them I owed them. They said they couldn’t afford me, but I told them I owed them a couple of nights. So I went back and did it.Do you get a lot of heat on social media?
Sure. Who doesn’t? But do I care? No. I don’t know these fuckers. It doesn’t matter. I lived before this. I had a phone that you could only use at home. It was connected to the wall. I don’t care what a 13-year-old girl who’s fat and in Arizona has to say about me. You don’t like it, don’t watch it. Go fuck yourself. Try suicide.
You’re an insult comic. Coming from that perspective, what do you think of Donald Trump in terms of his ability to insult?
He’s insulting, but he’s not even clever. I have a problem looking at him. Have you ever taken a can of biscuits and popped it open? That’s his face in a shirt. It’s just horrible and nasty. I hate the sight of him, I hate his face, I hate his teeth veneers, I hate his coke-dry mouth. I hate him on many levels. But it’s fascinating to see America think that he’s genius. He had some good lines during the campaign, but to say it’s brilliant would be silly. I think he talks out of his ass and there’s no filter. I mean, first it was a wall and then a fence and now it’s Maybe, if I have time … It’s like, you’re acting like the Mexicans you’re trying to keep out. You’re not doing your job.
What are the biggest misconceptions about drag queens?
That we all want to be women. That may be the case for some drag queens but not all. Personally, I have no desire to be a woman. I like the costumes, hair, makeup, and theatrical aspects of drag. I think the variety is what’s so great about drag though. It would be boring if we were all the same. The best drag shows are the ones that have a mixture of fishy queens, dancing queens, comedy queens and singing queens.
Bianca Del Rio is performing at Artscape Opera House, Cape Town (Friday 8pm); Monte Casino Teatro, Fourways, Johannesburg (Saturday 8pm). Tickets from R300.