Photo by Magnus Hastings
In the lead-up to the season seven premiere of Rupaul's Drag Race, fans are already speculating about who the queen will be to snatch the crown. Before we all get wrapped up in a cast of new personalities, I thought it made sense to check in with the winner of season 6, the incomparable Bianca Del Rio. I caught up with Bianca when she was in Baltimore this past weekend, trying to figure out travel after her shows there were postponed due to the crazy winter weather. "It's fuckin' nuts!" she said, about her current touring schedule, "I have a 4:00 a.m. train back to New York City to be there for a couple of hours to leave for Australia on Monday."
It's appropriate that Bianca is the only drag queen the late, great Joan Rivers had on her web series In Bed with Joan, because just like Joan, Bianca has an unbreakable work ethic. She is all over the world, participating in multiple tours as well as performing her own 90 minute Rolodex of Hate show, preparing to film her first feature-length film Hurricane Bianca this coming summer, and doing it all while maintaining the extraordinary level of polish she exhibited throughout her season of Drag Race. It's not hard to understand why RuPaul crowned her America's Next Drag Superstar. We chatted about her life before Drag Race, the way audiences have changed over the nearly 20 years Bianca has been doing drag, and what it's like to be constantly touring the world. Season seven girls, listen up -- you're next!
What is the most challenging part of touring so much?
Traveling and sleeping; the two things your body can't get used to. The touring schedule kind of continues while you're on it. Nothing makes sense -- one day you'll be in London, the next day you'll be in Las Vegas, the next you'll be in Ohio, and then Texas, etc. There's no real rhyme or reason to it. It's fascinating when people on social media are like, "You're already here, come to Orlando!" Well, I don't have control over that -- I don't pick where I go. People think I just randomly pick cities and show up and do a show, which is not how it works. The schedule is pretty hectic.
Also, just adjusting to where you are. I have to travel with a lot of stuff -- you've seen my look, I'm not the most natural thing on the face of the Earth. It's schlepping a lot of shit to different places, which can be a little overwhelming. I figure I'm going to sleep when I'm dead at this point, but you get in that nap any chance you can.
What do you do to pass the time when you're traveling?
I love my trash magazines at the airports! I But I'm a list-maker, so the majority of the time it's just making a list of shit that I need to get done when I can. Like tomorrow I have a full list that I have to have happen because I'm home in New York City, which is everything from getting my dogs to doing my laundry to paying my rent, going to the wig store, I'm out of white eyeliner... those are the kinds of things I'm constantly thinking about and doing. And just when you think you have a minute to go off into lala land and relax, you can't. I can never really relax. I don't watch any shows, because they continue and I lose my mind if I can't see it when I need to see it! Books? I don't mind them, but they're heavy! It's all about the having space in my luggage.
Well I'd say magazines count as reading.
Exactly -- I get all the dirt from what everyone was wearing to the Emmys and the Oscars to Bruce Jenner's latest issues. Women drivers, right? Ugh!
You're approaching your 20th year in drag. What's the biggest difference between the audiences you were performing for when you were first starting out and the audiences you perform for now?
Well the audiences I had years ago are all dead. Now, they actually act more dead than the ones that are dead, because everybody is on their phone! Everybody is filming it the entire time, which for me kind of takes the fun out of it. There's nothing worse than going to a show and only watching it through your phone that you're trying to film the whole thing on illegally, or texting or using Grindr because you can't see a fag that's two feet away from you. That I find pretty interesting, but I roll with it. Luckily with the kind of show that I do, I make it a part of the show and call out those people and discuss it. Why would you want to spend money on a ticket to sit there and be distracted by something else? That was always the magic of going to the theater or going to see a show. You didn't have any distractions, and you could get lost in that moment for the amount of time you were there. I think our society today doesn't know how to do that; they don't know how to chill, they're always worried they might be missing something. Especially the gays, the gays have to be on everything. Instagramming their moments and capturing it -- it's like, live in it! Back in the day we all had to live in it. You had to go to the bar to see your friends, you had to go to the theater to get the whole experience of seeing a show, and now there's so much else going on. That's part of the reason that I work so much, you've got to get in your fifteen minutes while you can.
Aw come on, 20 years is a lot more than 15 minutes!
This is true, I'm very lucky. It's also why whenever I come across some of the youngins who don't know anything about where you come from and only know you from Drag Race... I find it quite fascinating. I usually go, "Oh queen, there are things I've forgotten you'll never know." People don't have the energy to look anything up, they think they know everything from watching Drag Race.
How is the drag culture in New Orleans different from the drag culture of New York City?
Well I think the divide is more Southern and Northern. In the South I find we're a little campier, I think there's a little more production value, because we have the space! We have the dressing rooms and larger bars and showcase lounges and cabaret spaces. In New York, while of course there are the amazing performances spaces and theaters, they're usually more expensive and exclusively for bigger shows. So some of the bars I've worked at in New York are very limiting -- there's no dressing room, there's no place for you to change, there's no curtain, no wings. I think that's why there's a little more pageantry in the South than there is in the North. I grew up with that larger than life approach, so when I got to New York it was kind of interesting. Like oh, I only need one outfit? I'm going directly to the bar right before the show?
It's a bit of a bigger production in the South -- it's all about getting your shit to the venue, getting ready there, having a cocktail with your girlfriends, and all in one big dressing room. Being able to tour the South now is really fantastic because it takes me back to that time which I love so much. I love nothing more than getting to a show early and sitting in the dressing room talking to the local girls -- you get all the dirt that way. When you've been around as long as I have, that's when you start hearing stories, and it gets really good. Like, "I remember her! Oh, she's in jail?" That kind of thing.
Up until recently you were holding down a 9-to-5 working in the costume design industry and doing drag on the side. Was your goal always to make drag your career?
Well I'm not really goal oriented in general, which is probably why I've made the choices I have in my life. I didn't really initial plan to do either job. I started doing both in New Orleans, first with costumes, wigs, and makeup, which was always my passion, and then it just kind of snowballed. Sometimes in New York I'd be doing five nights of drag in a week, sometimes three, because parties would change or nights would change. Also, New York has become saturated with a group of bars in one area. There's a bar on every corner in Hell's Kitchen, so things were happening a lot. I kept those jobs basically to pay rent... and I liked nice things so I knew I had to work! But they're both really kind of unstable careers. Sometimes Broadway would dry up here and there and then I'd make more money in drag -- it was kind of just keeping that balance, the ying and yang of New York living.
I was lucky that I didn't have to be a waiter or a hairdresser or something. Both of my jobs were my passions, and they were both different each night, aside from the regular Broadway shows where you would repeat a lot of things, like for Wicked, or Mamma Mia! Those shows would pay your bills, but you do a lot of stuff and a lot of stuff doesn't get seen or the shows don't last, so you never really knew what was next, which was great creatively. It was great to get to use a different part of my brain, and also why I didn't want to get stuck just doing drag. Then of course Drag Race came along, and I'm traveling the world and always on tour, so I don't even get a chance to do design anymore because I'm never in one place long enough.
Why do you think performing as Bianca allows people to laugh at some of your jokes that they might just be offended by if you were saying them as Roy?
Well I've always said that if I didn't wear a wig I'd be called a nasty fag, but when I wear a wig I'm called hysterical. What I think is very funny, getting back to the social media thing, is that people are very brave online. People are very brave on Twitter. The things people write, the things people put out there in the blogs, they would never ever say to your face. I think people are fascinated because I'm willing to say it to their face, or out loud, and I'm willing to take the rap for it. And I'm not some Norma Rae of the drag world, it's because that's just what I've done for a long time. Make fun of myself, make fun of pop culture, and make fun of what's in front of me. I've kind of mastered doing that over a long period of time, so it doesn't throw me or scare me. I don't get bothered by it. I often think, what's the worst thing they can do? They can get up and leave your show, or they can complain. Occasionally you get those people, and it's like 'OK great, you can leave!' When someone says to me at a bar "I find that offensive!" I just go, "Well what the fuck are you doing out on a Monday night at a gay bar at 1:00 a.m. watching a drag queen? Go home! You have options!" I try not to get too caught up in it. I'm not curing cancer, I'm doing a show -- either you get it or you don't, you know?
What is the most upset heckler you've ever had to deal with?
You know I really haven't had any lately -- hecklers are rare now. Now they're a little more scared, there's enough footage for them to look at of how I handle it. One I remember was really early on in San Francisco -- either my season had just launched or was just about to. I was doing my crazy jokes, my usual shtick, and there was a guy in the audience who felt the need to school me -- you know, tell me what I needed to know about the Latino community. I dealt with it the way I always do, not even thinking that anyone was filming it. I went back to my hotel, got unpacked and passed out, then woke up and flew to another city. I got to the next city, I took a nap, and then I turned on my computer, and that's when I saw all the magic. I had no idea! Not only was it shot but it was shot from a bunch of different angles. It was like the Kennedy assassination -- one from the school book depository, one from the grassy knoll... I still haven't watched it, which I could not because I'd have to hear my voice, but just to see the response was interesting. Shockingly, more people were on my side than I expected. Taken out of context, you do have those people who will go "Oh that's disrespectful!" But look, it was a drunk queen who wanted the grab the microphone and try to talk back to me, but I'm the one with the microphone, and I'm not scared! The fact of the matter is, unlike what tried to say, the Latino community doesn't pay my bills, which is exactly what I said to him -- the Latino community should be worrying about paying its own bills, not mine! I mean what an idiot, he didn't even realize where I come from. My mother is from Cuba my dad is from Honduras, you stupid fuck!
I do have to say that watching how it went all viral was really interesting, because for me dealing with someone like that is just a typical night. It had happened many, many times before, but no one cared to film it, no one cared to post it all over. So I was kind of concerned for a minute, but then I thought you know, you do what you do and you take full responsibility for it.
In addition to everything else going on, you have a feature-length comedy called Hurricane Bianca in the works. Do you have any updates on how that's going?
We actually start filming in July! We're filming for three weeks, and of course we're still accepting donations because things are just adding up as they go. All the updated information with be on www.hurricanebianca.com - it's all really exciting. Joslyn Fox just joined the cast, and we also have a few cast members which haven't been announced yet which is super exciting. We had a dream list of people who we wanted to be involved, and a few were very interested in it, but it all comes down to scheduling. So we have a few surprises to announce soon -- in two weeks we announce the newest cast member, and I'm quite excited about it. It's totally the power of television -- here is something my friend and I talked about for five years, and now we are finally getting the chance to do it.
Was your intention with drag always to focus on comedy?
I've done lip-syncing before in my life, I've done stage performances, but it's just not my favorite thing to do. Early on, when I first starting touring as Drag Race was airing, in those early months I was concerned about going my usual route because people didn't know me yet, so I didn't know how that was going to work. I did do a few cities where I had to do numbers, and I just really hated it. It's just not my specialty, so when I see people do it and do it brilliantly like Latrice Royale who is absolutely phenomenal, it makes it even more clear that it's not my thing. I just leave it to those people. That's the great thing about Drag Race, because as it started to air people started to understand where I come from and what I do. With it, I get to do fun audience participation things when I make bar appearances, and I've been able to do my own one and a half hour show, which I'm traveling with now. I was also just on the Battle of the Seasons tour hosting while Michelle Visage was doing Big Brother UK, and it kind of balances out -- we all have our niche. You have Jinx who sings and is going to do her cabaret stuff, Sharon who is going to do her hard-metal stuff, and Adore who sings as well, so I just thought, eh, not my thing. Not my strongest point. Shockingly, a lot of them don't like to talk on the mic, whereas I'm the most comfortable with it.
In an ideal world what will you be doing 20 years from now?
Hopefully not drag! I had originally put the cap on it to end at 40, and I'm turning 40 this June. I was thinking you know, 20 years is enough, I had a good run. But then once I did Drag Race it opened so many doors for me to do far more than I had ever imagined. That's what so great about the world right now -- people are interested in what we're doing. So to say yes to drag or no to drag... it's hard, the sky's the limit. I didn't plan to be on Drag Race, I didn't plan to win Drag Race, and I didn't plan to be sitting and talking to you about this now, but I think I'm just going to keep with my theme. I don't know what I want, but I know what I don't want. You can't really put your finger on it, you know? You can't know what to expect. But that's how I like to live -- living with the unexpected.
Keep up to date with all things Bianca Del Rio at www.thebiancadelrio.com