Seattle-based drag queen, burlesque performer and actor BenDeLaCreme isn’t your average Drag Race alumn. After many fans considered her ‘robbed’ on season six when she didn’t make it to the finale, DeLa returned to All Stars 3 four years later, won challenge after challenge and was on the best way of taking the crown. Then, in one of the most dramatic twists the show has ever seen, she eliminated herself when faced with the decision of sending another one of her competitors home. But it didn’t all start there. Way before she became a drag star on national television, BenDeLaCreme was already at the forefront of shaping Seattle’s drag and theatre scene and has continued to do just that on an even bigger scale ever since. Ahead of her upcoming Halloween and Christmas shows, we caught up with the multitalented performer to talk about the theatre world, queer themes in performance and how the mainstream is affecting drag culture…
How did you first get into drag and theatre?
I really started doing drag when I was a kid, before I knew what it was. Anytime I would play pretend with my friends, I was always the female character. My first actual time in drag, like most people, was Halloween when I was like about 14 and dressed up as Marcia from the Brady Bunch. When I went to art school, I was a visual arts major, I started incorporating drag everywhere I could in my work. So when I saw my first drag shows later on it was less like ‘this is what I want to do’ and more like ‘this is what I’m already doing’. I never actually studied theatre formally, but I did theatre in high school and my dad had been in theatre when I was younger, so I was always surrounded by that. We watched a lot of musicals too. It was always in my blood, and naturally progressed into me following my desires rather than going through formal training.
You have a new theatre show coming for Halloween, can you tell us what it’s about?
The show is called Beware Of The Terror Of Gaylord Manor and it’s a show I’ve been thinking about doing for many years. I love Halloween and classic Halloween stuff, old horror music and classic MGM monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. This show really is an homage to classic horror films in the late ’50s early ’60s. That era had this huge surge of creepy house films where strangers find themselves somewhere with a mysterious host for some sort of bizarre reason and hilarity and monstrousness ensues. The show is based on a few favourite films of mine, especially this terrible old William Castle film called 13 Ghosts. It was remade in the ’90s and that remake was even worse. The formula of this film is that there are 13 ghosts and the protagonists keep meeting these ghosts and I thought ‘this is set up like cabaret’ . Haunted houses are too: you walk through them and see all these thematically different scenes. I wondered what would happen if I adapted this into a cabaret format with a narrative story, but all the hauntings are musical and dance numbers.
What are some of the themes the show explores?
I studied a lot of queer theory and feminist theory in horror, so it’s all also very rooted in those ideas. Then it brings in storytelling about the queer experience and how that’s related to the concept of monstrousness and being othered. It has a bunch of deeper themes, like internalised homophobia and the fear of anything that’s different or that represents some of what we’re afraid of about ourselves, but at the same time I like to always tell stories through something that’s very campy, high-comedy, high-glitz and glamour. I think that that’s the sugar that makes the medicine go down. I love that kind of spectacle.
How do you cast the other actors and performers in your productions?
This is something that developed organically, because I’ve been working in Seattle for over a decade now. I moved here at the right time because the city was having this renaissance moment, where the scenes were booming in terms of burlesque, cabaret, contemporary dance, visual arts and drag. I immediately was immersed in a world where I was meeting all these different types of interdisciplinary performers. A lot of these people are people I’ve worked with for years, like Faggedy Randy who plays a werewolf in the show and who I met at my very first cabaret job here in Seattle 13 years ago. A lot of the other people I cast are people I met and collected along the way and who are some of my favourites in the world of burlesque, dance and comedy. When I wrote this show actually, I wrote it with a lot of these people already in mind for some of the roles I was creating.
How do you start putting together a new theatre show?
The ideas flow pretty organically and then from there on it’s just an uphill battle of non-stop fighting with myself. With this show for instance I knew all the themes and imagery I wanted to explore, but the writing process and really sorting through how I wanted to lay all those things out took some time. I am a very visual thinker, and the beginnings of all my shows look like those CSI crime boards with post-it notes and strings and arrows and index cards and drawings.
What inspires you in the world of theatre?
When I was younger, I was a fan of those classic MGM musicals I was mentioning earlier and which my parents raised me on. Those technicolour productions were certainly a big influence for me. Then in the ’90s there was all this character work happening with people like Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman and Cassandra Peterson as Elvira coming into the mainstream. That certainly was an induction into camp for me. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is basically cabaret, it’s this thing that is sewn together by a host. A lot of what I go see now is burlesque, cabaret, contemporary dance and all the theatre that I can absorb. Oddly, even though I am not a dancer by any means, I find that the artistic process of the choreographers I know is a lot more similar to mine than that of the theatre people I know. It’s that idea of the story developing from the themes that come first that is similar.
You’ve been working closely with fellow Drag Race alumni Jinkx Monsoon for years, how did that come about?
Jinkx and I actually worked together years before she went on Drag Race. She was a theatre major and I remember there being all this buzz around town about a young performer and I was really curious. She and her partner Major Scales, who is actually also in the Halloween show, were doing their show The Vaudevillians in town and I saw that show for the first time at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at a Starbucks for free. Years later, the same show went on to have an off-broadway run that got extended for months, but back then it was the two of them, a keyboard and twelve folding chairs. It was so amazing and they were so talented, so I immediately said to myself ‘I need to start casting these people right now because we’re either gonna get on the same team or we’ll be on the opposite teams’. So I cast them in a Christmas show I did for years and ever since then we’ve been developing our voices together as individuals. We have such an intertwined history that we work really naturally together, even though we come from different perspectives.
You and Jinkx actually have a Christmas show coming up end of this year and it’s coming to the UK!
Yes! The show is something we co-write, so we bring our really different approaches to it. Then we get together about four weeks before we go on the road, lock ourselves in a room and figure out what we want to do. This is fun because it reflects both of us. It really winds up being something so fun and different to what each of us would come up on our own.
You’ve said yourself that after Drag Race you didn’t go on to do the typical things people go on to do after the show. Was that a conscious decision?
I didn’t go on Drag Race to change paths, on either season, because I knew who I was as an artist before. I’ve certainly grown a lot, because you always do from any experience, but both times I actually really resisted Drag Race! Jinkx and I spoke about auditioning for season five and I didn’t but she did and won, so then I auditioned for the next season. It wasn’t necessarily ‘I want to go on the Drag Race ride’ for me, it was more about how I could filter more of this into what I was already doing. That’s another thing Jinkx and I talk about a lot, because she is also someone that focusses on live performance rather than video content, which is so much of what the Drag Race fandom is following. I guess it was because I was doing what I was already doing and what I love, but it was always also a very conscious decision to take that momentum and roll with it. On season six, I’m not sure I knew quite how to capture that post Drag Race, but a part of why I went on All Stars was because I was thinking about how I could really harness that energy and take it to where I could.
Drag is really making its way into mainstream culture at the moment, do you see that as a purely positive development or as something that could be potentially harmful to the community in the long run too?
I do think it’s really complicated. One of the things that is happening culturally in general, unrelated to drag, is that through reality TV and social media people are wanting more and more things to be black and white or yes and no. I think it’s a pretty nuanced thing, because obviously queer representation in the public eye is so important and Drag Race represents an exploration of gender that was not seen in the mainstream very much before this. There is also a huge diversity of racial and economic backgrounds that we see represented on Drag Race. The way that queerness in the public eye has translated into people having greater empathy has undeniably lead to a lot of progress in the queer rights movement. It’s also given a lot of amazing artists the opportunity to make a good living out of their craft. Then it’s also so valuable for young queer kids. I was a young queer kid who saw no representation of myself and Drag Race has allowed young people all over the world, who are gendered differently or less the archetype of who they were told to be, to see people like themselves out there and to see other possible futures. All those things are obviously incredible. But then on the other end of it, anytime something enters the mainstream it begins to become more like itself and we see less diversity in the way that drag is represented. The longer Drag Race is on, the more everyone’s make-up will look the same and more people will value the same type of performance. There is a loss of the inherently political aspect of drag. When drag was underground, it was something you had to fight for. If you were a drag queen you had to love drag so much that you did it in spite of the fact that not only straight people disdained drag queens, but many gay people did too. You had to do it even though it was pretty much guaranteed you wouldn’t make good living, you would never be well known and nobody would ever want to date you. Now it’s kind of the opposite and people get into drag for those reasons. That’s the biggest loss to me. When anything becomes popular or cool people start getting into it for different reasons. Also the inherent competition of Drag Race is something that doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t agree with the idea that one person has to come out on top and that a set of arbitrary rules and guidelines would mean that one person is of more value than another person.
How important is it for you to teach people new things about drag, society and gender in your work?
Very much so. I don’t necessarily set out to only speak to a queer audience. I’ve always had a lot of straight audience members. All of the messages I include come from my personal experience. Holiday shows for me are related to the idea that many queer people have complex relationships to family and the concept of home. In times when we are inundated with the message of going home for the holidays and being surrounded by family, that’s not very simple for a lot of people, so in some ways a holiday show is a love letter to the queer community. This Halloween show is very much related to the ideas of what it is to be isolated as a queer person. This is the work that resonates with me, but there is a long tradition of queens doing the balls and pageants, which aren’t about hammering home a message. The message is also inherent to the art of making something out of nothing and that self-creation.
Why should people come and see your upcoming shows even if they might not be familiar with drag or your work?
I find that some of my best audiences have no idea what drag is when they come into it and they don’t need to! I always try to tap into what is true and what is hilarious with my shows and those things are universal. I also create stuff that you can come into and engage with at whatever level you want to engage with it. If you want to come in and learn something, or perceive a message of community and inclusivity or anything like that, you can. If you just want to come in and spend an evening laughing and escaping from the insanity of the world you can do that too.