Seattle star BenDeLaCreme reflects on her 'RuPaul's Drag Race' legacy
She was an instant hit with her cheerful demeanor when she first appeared on the show "RuPaul's Drag Race" in 2014.
"Hi, everybody! It's me, BenDeLaCreme!" she said as she careened into her first appearance, dressed in a form-fitting, lime green dress with gold accents and stiletto heels. "DeLa for short, Del for shorter, and Ms. Creme if you're nasty."
As a queer child, BenDeLaCreme grew up in a rural Connecticut town where gay boys and aspiring drag queens were not welcomed.
The pain of being ostracized nearly drove BenDeLaCreme to take her own life, she tells KUOW's Angela King. So, she took what she calls her terminally friendly ways to Boston, Chicago and, at last, Seattle, where the queen who would later burst onto the "Drag Race" scene — literally, as you can see in the clip below — found her vibe.
Now, DeLa is a worldwide sensation who just wrapped up the U.S. leg of her one-queen show, "BenDeLaCreme is...READY TO BE COMMITTED."
The Seattle queen joins KUOW's Angela King to talk about what's inspired her over the years and what comes next for the tour de force.
BenDeLaCreme: Seattle was the first place, and specifically Capitol Hill, that I just felt like, "Oh, this is where I was accidentally not born," you know? I thought I was going to quit drag completely. And then I moved here, and within a year, I was working full time as a performer. So I was like, "OK, I'm supposed to be here."
Angela King: Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up an only-child. It was just me and my parents. My mom and I were very, very close. She was just very supportive of everything about me. I mean, I was very clearly a queer person from a very young age. You know, my dad tells me that they sort of had that conversation when I was around 7, like, "OK, this is who our kid is." But my mom passed away when I was 13, and that was obviously very difficult. That's a difficult time of life for anyone, but that is when I was really coming to terms with my own queerness.
Losing my mom, losing that support system was tough. It was also very tough for my father, and he really was a good dad and wanted to support me. He was mourning so hard that I was really left to my own devices for most of my teens, and a lot of queer people that age have a lot of suicidal thoughts. That was really something that I struggled with for many years. But something told me that I should stick around and things would actually get better. And, man, I'm glad I did. If I could tell that kid what my life is now, he would not have believed it.
Your mother's name was Deb. Was Deb as delightful as DeLa?
In my memory, yes. My mom instilled a lot of that artistic sensibility in me, but also a sense of kindness and gentleness. She was very sensitive. I mean, that's something that I've always been, which has its ups and downs and made my childhood a little more difficult. But that I'm grateful for gaining from her.
Take us back to your first time in drag.
I firmly feel that I was always sort of doing drag as a very young person. I was writing little plays — I mean, the sort of play that a 7-year-old writes. It was not necessarily narratively strong. I would make my cousins be in these plays with me, and I was always wrapping a bed towel or a bedsheet around myself as a dress. I was, generally, always pretending, play-acting female characters.
When "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" came out, forget about it. I mean, that was like a moment of self-discovery, and Jessica Rabbit — I was always emulating these women. That was something that I didn't even piece together, that wasn't totally normal, until kids at school started to let me know that was not normal.
Even though I was really ostracized for these feminine qualities growing up, I just kind of wound up being like, "Screw it." You know, if people are going to judge me this way, I'm going to wear a full face of makeup to school. Then around Halloween, the first time I went out in drag, I was obsessed with Christine Taylor as Marcia Brady in the "Brady Bunch" movie. I went trick-or-treating as her even though I was far too old to go trick-or-treating, but I didn't really know what drag was.
When I really discovered drag, it was through the documentary that was made about the Wigstock Festival. And I remember thinking, not "Oh, this is what I want to do when I grew up," but thinking, "Oh, there's a container for who I am."
You made a big impression on season six of "RuPaul's Drag Race," eight years ago, but you were also at the center of some of the most controversial eliminations in the show's history — or her-story, let's get it straight. People threatened to boycott the show after you were sent home in your first season.
Then, you returned for "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" season three. You eliminated yourself from the competition because you were winning too much. Now, for those who didn't watch the show, help us make sense of your logic.
I had a difficult time deciding that I wanted to do "All Stars" at all. When "All Stars" season two came out, it was the first time that they had changed the format where they had the queens eliminating each other. In the past, it had always been the judges which, I mean, that's what they're paid for. I was just horrified by it. I just was like, "This is so unnecessary and mean-spirited." I didn't want to be a part of that.
So, when they called me for "All Stars" season three, I said no at least four times. They just kept at it, and I came around to the idea that the good that this could do it outweighs some of this. But I really struggled with it. I went in thinking like, "I'm doing this in spite of something I can't quite reconcile." And that was tough. I didn't know how I was going to do and I wasn't sure what it was going to be like. I certainly never expected to win the first challenge, and I never expected to win the second challenge or the third challenge or the fourth. You know, I kept winning.
I just saw this kind of opening, where I realized, if I eliminate myself instead of one of these other queens, I still get to have that claim to fame. I do not accept your terms. I don't agree with how this game is played. And I am not going to do it anymore. You almost never get to have your cake and eat it too in that way.
I have to say, it opened up so much for me after that. I just realized, "Wow, there's so much power when you realize no one else is in charge of you." They're not in charge of me. At the end of the day, drag has always — for me and I think for many people — been about playing by your own rules. This is the legacy I want.
Now that season seven of "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" is underway — with your good friend, fellow Seattle queen, and occasional co-star Jinkx Monsoon competing with past season winners — the rules have changed again. Now, the queens are sticking around for the entire show. Basically, they're collecting pins, or points, and that will determine who will compete for the ultimate title.
So, let me ask you this: Would you be down for something like that? I mean, would you appear on the show again if you didn't have to eliminate anyone?
I never would have thought that they would change the format in this way. They seemed really like they were hanging onto the premise that the conflict was needed in terms of keeping the audience entertained. I hope that it means they stick with this format. Because absolutely, I would do this again. I would get back in there. I would. I don't know that I'm going to get that offer, mind you.
I think after you tell the producers that you're going to do whatever you want, whether they give you permission or not, I'm not sure that you're on their shortlist of competitors. I'm really happy with where things are, but more so with where they're headed. I feel like I'm still, in many ways, at the beginning of my journey.
Speaking of the beginning of your journey: I know back in the day, you wrote and directed some plays for the ACT Theatre here in Seattle. Now, you're wrapping up your fourth solo show, "BenDeLaCreme is...READY TO BE COMMITTED," which you wrote right before the pandemic hit, right?
I actually premiered it in 2019 in New York, but spring of 2020 is when it was set to hit the road and be my biggest solo tour yet. Of course, that's not what happened. But finally, here we are. The tour has gone very well. It has grown so much. I've been on the road for quite a while, and I'm so glad to have finally gotten this thing out into the world.
The play, or the one-drag-queen show, is about DeLa planning her wedding, but you also talk about some pretty heavy subjects and the struggles people face when they're alone. I mean, talk about timing, because that's what a lot of people faced when the pandemic hit.
Yeah, you know, when I was revisiting the script, I was like, "Okay, what kind of major overhauls are we going to need for this to resonate with an audience after we've all gone through this sort of collective trauma?" It was nice to go through and realize all of these topics about struggling with aloneness, mortality decisions, about what your future may hold, and the commitment that takes — these themes felt pretty universal when I wrote it, and this really emphasized how universal they were.
You know, I read about how one couple that saw your show wrote you to say they were going through some rather difficult times, but after the show, they held each other's hands a little bit tighter.
That was very sweet, and I've gotten some wonderful responses. It's been wonderful to have people write to me and say things like that — that this helped them think through something in their relationship that helped them be in a better place, be more accepting of where they're at.
But I've also gotten that from people who are single who have said, "This helped me feel so grateful, to hear somebody sort of say that this is okay. And I don't need to be striving for something different or feeling like I'm less than for not having that."
DeLa is known for being so nice and congenial. But have you had any struggles with that, given all of what we're dealing with as a nation right now? I mean, can DeLa be upset?
Oh, wow. I mean, obviously, we are in a full-on hellscape. How many times can we possibly all say, "Well, it couldn't get worse," and then be proven wrong? Earlier in the pandemic, one thing I heard from multiple people, including my therapist, was that the people who were struggling hardest with the pandemic were people who have never experienced anything like depression. Those of us who have struggled with depression and anxiety our entire lives, we're actually uniquely equipped to deal with this. DeLa is born out of all of this.
Can she experience sadness? Absolutely. Her journey is always one of needing to realize that, in looking at the darker sides of things — in looking at the complexity of things and getting to the other side of it — the positivity and the joy that one can find is richer and deeper. I don't necessarily believe that things happen for a reason. But I believe that you can make reason out of the things that happen. Sometimes that's just for yourself to help you contextualize your experience and make something good out of it.
As I understand, before DeLa was born, there was another persona with a different name and a different flair, kind of goth and cynical. Tell us about the life before DeLa.
She was kind of a punk riot girl. She came into existence in Chicago, where the emphasis was on traditional, sort of muscular beauty, masculinity — these kinds of things. It was not a home for me and my response was to create this character, who was kind of an embodiment of my anger. She was a great character. I think she brought a lot to the world. I think that people really resonated with her for a long time, and for a long time, she served a great purpose for me. But eventually, I came to a point where I was like, "This is now an echo chamber for me. This is not releasing me from these emotions. It's just repeating them over and over again."
There was a queen locally in Chicago. Her name was Miss Foozie. She's still around. She wore this big sort of goofy wig and these big colorful muumuus, and she would come into these queer spaces, these gay spaces. She would give out these hard candies, and she called everyone "pineapple." She was so kind. I watched these people who had lacked acceptance — maybe mothering but definitely nurturing — melt and become different people and be kinder to each other. I said, "This is it. This is the key to diffusing. This it is not anger as a response. It's leading by example, and it's giving people a sense that they are okay and that they're loved."
Is there anything you miss about the drag days of old and a time before social media?
Absolutely. There are, obviously, great things to drag being in the mainstream, but part of me does miss the days of finding the spaces in this family and and the kind of work that gets born out of that. Now, it's much more about being a fashion model and doing this perfect makeup. I do miss those sort of gritty days where we all had to kind of cling to each other and find our own ways of doing it without social media guidance. I think it made for queens who were really their own people.
I also think that there was something about the fact that, back then, you had to love drag so much that you would do it in spite of the fact that you would never be rich. It was a guarantee you would not be rich and you would not be famous. Really, people were not, at that time, even into dating you. I mean, you were signing on for a lot. It meant that you had to just need to do drag deep within your soul, and now, it is seen as a path to fortune and fame. That changes it, but, you know, I reminisce.
Well, talk about reminiscing: I wish I had met you when I was still in TV, because I could have used some good makeup tips. I've got a face for radio now.
Are you kidding me? I would kill to not have to wear makeup for a living.
No, you wouldn't. You want to wear that makeup.
Well, what I'd like to do is just be able to, like, stick it on reel. I want it to be, like, a 10-second process with a paint roller. That's what I want.
We know you just roll out of bed and put on lip gloss, and you're ready to go.
Yeah, that's the goal.
Well, what's the one moment you wish you could do over as a drag queen?
I think my early days in Seattle were just so much fun. This was pre-"Drag Race." I moved here at this perfect moment. I mean, 2007 was having this incredible performance renaissance in the city, where burlesque, drag, stand-up comedy, modern dance, opera, circus arts — all of these things were happening together in these bizarre, experimental, interesting spaces.
I met the most amazing, diverse community of performers. We were all just making work together. That did everything to influence my sensibility now, where I draw from all of those things on stage. But man, it was just a joyous time, and I would love to get to do that again. You know, there was a beauty to that, before "Drag Race," before we all really got to take off, where it was just a love of art and a love of community driving everyone.
Tonight is the final show in DeLa's "READY TO BE COMMITTED" tour. She is performing at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto.
By the way, if you missed out on the "READY TO BE COMMITTED" tour, there will be more chances to see BenDeLaCreme perform live in Seattle. DeLa joins fellow Seattle drag queen Jinkx Monsoon for their "Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show" at the Moore Theater in Seattle Dec. 21 to 24. Tickets are on sale now.