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Audience With the Queen 

Bianca Del Rio talks COVID-era performance and playing to her strengths as a performer.

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MATT CROCKETT
  • Matt Crockett

Bianca Del Rio became best known as the winner of Season 6 of RuPaul's Drag Race, but that has only been part of a 25-year performing career that has included the U.K. touring cast of the musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie (currently available via Amazon Prime Video) and shows around the world. Bianca spoke to City Weekly in advance of this week's Salt Lake City stop on her Unsanitized tour.

CW: What have the past 18 months have been like for the drag community, and how has it pulled together, especially during the time when live performance wasn't really possible?
BDR: It's been weird. Everybody's lives kind of had this cultural reset, and we had to find every other possible way to make a living. So there was a lot of doing on-line shows, recorded shows. I even did a drive-in drag show. ... It definitely was a struggle, and kind of new to me. I've been doing this since 1996, so it was the first time I had to kind of sit and think about what I wanted to do.

CW: The live audience is such a part of drag performance; how did you find the energy of the alternate formats?
BDR: For me in particular, I prefer a live audience. It was all kind of surreal, but I was just happy to get out of my house. Three months in, I thought, 'I've got to do something.' I knew the producers [of the drive-in tour], and they said, 'Do you want to get out on the road?' There were no meet-and-greets, and it was just easing back into our new life, but at least it was something.

CW: The name of the Unsanitized tour is clearly a nod to the time that we're living through. Has it been challenging finding a way to talk about something that's still very present in a way that's still fun and entertaining?
BDR: I think it's important to find the humor in anything. This is no different from death; we have to find ways to laugh at things. The audiences so far have been great and very supportive. We need laughter, to find our way out of it mentally. I'm on my fifth night of 9,000 performances, and in terms of audience response, so far, so good.

CW: One of the more touching subplots in Everybody's Talking About Jamie involves the character you played on stage giving Jamie [the main character, a teenage aspiring drag queen] a history lesson about blazing trails in an earlier generation, where drag performance was much less accepted. What has it been like to observe drag move into the mainstream?
BDR: Well, it's changed tremendously. There was a time you could only find drag queens in a club, a bar, a cabaret space. It was male actors, using male names, impersonating stars. "Gay" was never mentioned, the gay lifestyle was never mentioned. In the '90s, there were few places to express ourselves. To see it now on TV, and a situation where I could now play Carnegie Hall, it's changed tremendously. But with the good comes the bad, including social media. To me, that's all noise. If you like me, you like me; if you don't like me, you don't like me.

CW: Drag is such a fascinating hybrid of all kinds of performance. Are there parts of that combination that perhaps came most naturally to you, and others that you had to stretch a little more to master?
BDR: I came from a time when you had to have an act. There was the drag queen who lip-synched, there was the comedian, there was the dancer. And I remember thinking that's what made a good show, having something for everyone. Now, if you're pretty in an Instagram photo, "ooh, I'm a drag queen." And that is a talent in itself, finding the right filter. But for me, I was most comfortable hosting shows and talking. It wasn't really being comedian; it was dealing with drunk people while stalling for costume changes. I don't feel obliged or threatened any more to do everything. I do what I do. You gravitate towards what really works for you. [Comedy] became my safest place, where most queens are terrified of talking.

CW: When you play a place like Salt Lake City, that obviously has a reputation for being more straight-laced than a lot of other cities, do you like to have fun with that in your performance?
BDR: Oh God yes, you have to [individualize], especially when you travel internationally. When I'm in the U.K., no one wants to hear about Trump, you talk about Boris [Johnson]. How can you not go to Florida and talk about the insanity there? ... This time, just because of other tour dates, I have a few days off in Salt Lake City, so I'll be able to give you a better report. I can guarantee you I won't be hiking and out in nature.

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