In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.
A world-class wit who’s also a pretty damn good dressmaker, Bianca Del Rio rose to national prominence following her RuPaul’s Drag Race season six win. The New Orleans native seemed a lock for the top three from the get-go, and in fact did so well on that show that she never actually had to lip sync—a fact she sent up in a wry appearance on the most recent season of Drag Race All-Stars. She’s since gone on to appear in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (both in the upcoming film and on London’s West End), publish a book, and sell out both Carnegie Hall and Wembley Arena. She’s also launched several wildly successful comedy tours, including her latest, Bianca Del Rio: Unsanitized, which kicks off its U.S. leg September 10 in Milwaukee before heading into Canada and Latin America in 2022.
Given Del Rio’s renowned ability for scathing frankness, we thought she’d make an excellent candidate for our 11 Questions. She didn’t disappoint, revealing interesting details about her relationship with Joan Rivers, the history of male-presenting drag performers, and why she’s a “pressed sandwich… full of ham.”
Bianca Del Rio: I remember going to the Shriners Circus, and I fell in love with clowns. If you’ve seen my face, it all makes sense. Clowns and the pageantry and everything that would light up and the spectacle and the smell of shit, which eventually became my life. So it all kind of pre-warned my life, you know. It kind of warned me in advance of what was to come.
The A.V. Club: The showmanship and the touring grind and all of that, too.
BDR: Without a doubt. Smoke, mirrors and the smell of shit. That’s just what show business is.
AVC: How old were you?
BDR: I think I was 8 or 9. At least, that’s the first recollection I have of physically going and being dazzled by all of it.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
BDR: Making the best out of anything, because I travel a lot and do shows as I commute and everything doesn’t always work out. Sound could be a problem. The set-up could be a problem. The venue could be a problem. You could have no air-conditioning. You could have no lights in your dressing room. All of that plays into it and you just have to go, “Let me get through it.” It’s a “show must go on” kind of a thing. So it’s always just making the best of whatever situation you’re in. There’s nothing you can do about it.
AVC: How did that come into play in 2020 when quarantine essentially shut touring down?
BDR: Well, you hoped that was only going to be temporary, which I think we all did. But it’s really just kind of adapting to what is in front of you, so doing Zooms and doing shows online. All of that changed the game. I didn’t know any of that was possible, so I think we all adapted and just did what we had to do to get through it, because I know we needed something to look forward to.
I’ve learned to count my blessings and go, “You know what? It’s not that big of a deal. “
AVC: In your appearance on Courtney Act and Vanity’s podcast Brenda, Call Me, you mentioned that you never thought you’d do one of those drag queen revue tours, but then you got the call, and you just said, “Sure, why not?”
BDR: Yeah, without a doubt. At that point I was bored to tears at home and thinking, “Hey, if I can reach an audience, even if I’m in a parking lot, do it.” I had to get out of the house. Normally, I’m touring on my own, which means I’m responsible for the scenario but on that tour, having a company that was basically willing to do everything properly including COVID restrictions without me being in charge was great. The weight wasn’t on my shoulders. I was just participating, which made it so much easier.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
BDR: Well, I would love nothing more than to say knitting and crocheting and bread-making, but all I did was drink, sit on my couch like every other nasty bitch, and complain. I think I was eating more than I could possibly eat, and drank more than I could possibly drink. So I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be.
I did move into a new house, so it did give me time to get settled. I just assumed I would have a couple of weeks, but I ended up having a year. So that was the thing that kept me busy the most.
AVC: So much that goes with that, too, like “Oh, I guess if I have a new house I need a new broom. Back to Target!” It’s the stuff you don’t think about.
BDR: It was also that at the moment stores weren’t open, so you didn’t have access to stuff that wasn’t always fully stocked. So, buying things online and guessing was a huge challenge. Even with proper measurements and trying to figure things out, you weren’t sure what the color really was going to look like. I had nothing here in this house, no furniture, no anything, so all that I had to buy online. That was quite the challenge.
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
BDR: The sad thing is that I was just in New York and I was quite excited to go to one of my favorite restaurants, which is called Crispo and sadly, they closed during the pandemic, shut down forever. So I need to find a new favorite restaurant. But that was my favorite restaurant in New York. And literally last week I was devastated to find out it no longer exists. I was very upset.
In New Orleans, there’s quite a few, but there’s one called Feelings [It has also closed—Ed.] that I thoroughly enjoy that I always make a point to visit. The food and drinks are spectacular.
AVC: Do you always get the same thing at restaurants that you like?
BDR: God, yeah. They do a filet that’s stuff with blue cheese that’s like the best thing ever. So, yes, and every time I eat it I go, “Yep, this is why I’m here. This is why I did it.”
BDR: I would love a machine that could get me in drag within two minutes. I remember on The Jetsons there was a little thing, like they took this little escalator and would get dressed on a conveyor belt. They’d conveyor belt themselves into a little tunnel and then they’re fully dressed. That would be ideal for a drag queen. It would shave me, paint me, put my wig on, my heels on. Hopefully sometime in the future they’ll have it.
AVC: You’d probably come out feeling a little beat up.
BDR: It’s easier than having to sit there and do it. That’s the problem. I would love to have a machine that actually did it all for me.
BDR: One is this brilliant Broadway actress by the name of Chita Rivera, who is the best of the best of the best. She’s super, uber-talented, but also just the most generous and funny-as-hell woman.
And secondly, it’s very unrelated, but Miley Cyrus who’s the best. We both obviously share much love for Dolly Parton. So, Miley is cool as shit, and truly the best.
AVC: We just did an interview with Kylie Sonique Love where she talks about the fact that Miley is her drag daughter.
BDR: They actually they met when Miley came to my show. They came back to my house, and they were cackling in my apartment and blah, blah, blah. Then they stayed really close. When she was doing this new video and music tour, whatever she had going on—I’m not even sure what she was promoting—but Sonique became a part of it, which is fabulous.
AVC: How did you meet Chita Rivera?
BDR: Through friends in New York when I was 17, and I’ve been close with her ever since. And that was many years ago because I’m 46 now. I knew her makeup artist in New York and we became friends.
It’s just fascinating. Here is this woman who is a goddess of the theater that is super talented and created so many legendary and iconic Broadway roles. She’s the original Velma Kelly. She’s original Anita in West Side Story. She’s the original Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie. And none of this affects who she is when she’s talking to you. She’s the coolest, down to earth, funny as hell person. She’s in her 80s now, and still performing, which I admire very much. The word “legend” gets used so often nowadays, but it’s really does apply to people like her.
BDR: Oh god. There was a time in the ’90s when I was working in New York, selling shoes, and selling shoes was quite the problem, because this is when they created water-resistant shoes. So these were shoes that were water resistant, and if you said “waterproof,” it would always be a problem because they would return them and complain that they weren’t waterproof. So I had what was probably the worst job ever, explaining the difference between waterproof and water resistant.
AVC: Do you still remember what the difference is?
BDR: Waterproof means you can submerge the whole shoe in water and it will be fine, but water resistant would just bead up like it’s wet. It’s like an iPhone. They don’t say iPhones are waterproof, but they might be water resistant if you get them out of water quickly. But people assume water resistant means waterproof. That’s not the case. You’ll have some wet feet.
BDR: I would say it would have to be The Brady Bunch. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be on The Brady Bunch? They had this amazing house with those adjoining bathrooms. It was a multitiered home. I didn’t have any of that growing up. So it was just something that I thought I wanted. I thought, “Wow, that that’s the ticket!” To live with Carol Brady and have a maid and a mom that would cook all the stuff, and everybody looks glamorous all the time. That was definitely not the way I grew up, so I think that was the ideal.
AVC: And then you became Carol Brady for Dragging The Classics this year! What was it like to live that experience?
BDR: I mean, what a great opportunity. And it was very funny because I don’t consider myself a Carol Brady, but she was definitely one of my favorites from the beginning because I didn’t care about the kids. I couldn’t relate to them.
I just love the way Florence Henderson always looks gorgeous. She wears fancy clothes and basically does nothing around the house. It was brilliant. The maid [Alice] did all the work. So I just loved her. I said, “Ooh, that lifestyle is something I could get accustomed to.”
AVC: Were the actual Brady kids nice people? They seem nice to be around.
BDR: Oh, yeah, they were wonderful. They were beyond kind. I mean, you have to understand that for anybody to agree to the to the insanity of doing The Brady Bunch with drag queens… I mean, they were prepped, they were aware, and they still said yes. They’re good people to at least even consider it.
They have done so many different versions of The Brady Bunch, whether it be remodeling the home or reuniting the family or the siblings or the kids or whatever. They did a variety show. I mean, so much has happened. And they said by far [Dragging The Classics] was the craziest version of The Brady Bunch they’ve ever done. So we win.
9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?
BDR: Well, it was a VHS cassette tape that someone had given me. He went by the name of David Cuthbert, and he was our local theatrical writer for a newspaper in New Orleans. We had become friends at the time. I was working in theater doing costumes and wigs and makeup, and I guess I had all the makings to be a drag queen. He shared with me this videotape of a performer by the name of Charles Pierce, a character actor who was on every show possible in the ’70s and ’80s. But he also was a drag performer.
It was a brilliant collection of shows that he did in San Francisco. And I remember seeing where he impersonates Mae West and he impersonates Bette Davis and impersonates Katharine Hepburn and he impersonated all these people. It wasn’t so much that his impersonations were spot-on. It was just the setup to use a series of jokes that worked well for that character.
I thought he was brilliant. I remember just watching that tape over and over and over again. And now all of those clips, thankfully, can be found on YouTube. But it was something that just blew my mind. I thought, “Oh, wow. This is kind of insane. This is definitely what I want to do,” or maybe what I thought was missing from my life. Like I said, I had all the makings to be a drag queen, but I had not really performed.
AVC: It’s interesting how often drag used to be done under the guise of impersonation, versus just doing an original character. It’s kind of a dying art.
BDR: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the times, you know. It’s Charles Pierce, it’s Jim Bailey. These were drag performers that even used male names. That was the way to get in. It was kind of a wink, wink nod to the world going, “Yes, I’m a man, but you’ll like it if I’m impersonating Barbra Streisand.”
Then there’s the wow factor. And this has nothing to do with sexuality or being gay. That’s just how it was presented. You know, you were Charles Pierce who did Bette Davis. He was Charles Pierce who did Mae West. So to some people, it was looked at as, yes, this particular man is capable of creating the illusion of becoming these stars. I think that was impressive to people, but I also think it was a conscious choice. It wasn’t necessarily what we’re dealing with now with being gay and being performers on drag race. It’s very, very different.
AVC: There was a thread on Twitter recently about the 1995 “gay issue” of Entertainment Weekly. One of the editors chimed in and said something to the effect of, “I don’t think people that are out and proud now really realize like how much of gay culture—especially in the mid ’90s and before—existed on the fringes or in wink, wink, nudge, nudge references.”
BDR: Without a doubt. Different times. I don’t think people realize how lucky they are.
I mean, I started in 1996, so when I started there was barely internet. There were no cell phones. So basically the only place you could find drag queens was either in a gay bar or in a small cabaret space. That was kind of it, and those were our world. That was our safe haven. So anybody that entered that world knew what they were getting into. We weren’t welcomed many places. I don’t mean that in a negative way. That’s just how it was.
I mean, even gay men were not interested in drag queens at all. It was frowned upon. If you were a drag queen, you were lesser than because you were too feminine or you were into ladies’ dresses, and that’s not what they thought men were interested in, so to speak. And now it’s hysterical to me because they run out of the bars to come say hello to me because I was on Drag Race. So the times have changed.
AVC: Even thinking about the arc of RuPaul’s career is interesting. She was sort of a novelty to a lot of people for a long time.
BDR: Look at RuPaul! I mean, that was his name. So that even says something. Charles Pierce, Jim Bailey, RuPaul.
Then you get someone in there like Dame Edna, who is also a straight man, and that’s Barry Humphries. So that comes from a whole other thing. He would do a series of characters, and the only character that really resonated with his audience was Edna. So that was his biggest draw, which is wild to think about.
BDR: I would say my friend Lady Bunny is probably the funniest person I know, and the funniest person I did know was obviously Joan Rivers. Those are the two that make me laugh just for the delivery alone. They make me cackle, because I don’t always think it’s the context that matters. It’s just how you deliver it. There’s something about being well-developed characters that can deliver anything and make you laugh. Those two are just genius, but very different, but genius.
AVC: There’s something to the writing, too. It’s not just the personality, but there is a quickness and a fully developed thought process that can come through writing.
BDR: And also applying it when it’s necessary. When you’re on stage and being in the moment and creating magic out of nothing. That, I think, is a huge part of being a comedian, much less a funny take on the world. It has to come from some sense of truth. I find that the only way we can relate to it is being truthful. Also just putting a spin on it that makes it funny and deliberately having the right timing.
AVC: A lot of Lady Bunny’s jokes have been lifted by other queens, which is a tribute in some sense to how funny she is.
BDR: Also, everything has probably been done before.
I do find it interesting with younger culture that they don’t necessarily know the source. It’s kind of lost on them because they don’t really care, which is fascinating to me because everything is at your fingertips right now. You can find out anything, fact check, and Google it. We don’t even have to go to the library, where as in my day, you had to. So I find it funny that all of it is accessible yet they know nothing.
BDR: Considering I’m a ham we’d have to have ham on it. I guess because I’m a little bitter too, it would have to be ham and sour pickle sandwich, kind of similar to a Cuban sandwich. Pressed, with mustard and having some pickles that are dill and sour. Yeah, that would probably be me without a doubt.
AVC: Probably wrapped in that deli-style black and white paper, so it would go with a lot of your outfits.
BDR: That’s definitely my look. But a pressed sandwich, that’s me for sure. For sure. Full of ham.